In a remarkable article in today’s Washington Post, Pearls Before Breakfast, Gene Weingarten examines what happened last Friday when, as an experiment, Joshua Bell busked in a Washington DC subway. What happens, why it happens, and the role that beauty plays in our lives are explored. I’ll let it slip that only 3 people spent any time listening and only one recognized him. A provocative and chilling experiment which explores the spiritual malaise of America more than it touches upon obvious classical/thanatological, arts education, etc. issues.

24 Responses to “Joshua Bell Busking, Beauty, and the American Soul”
  1. […] Ele está falando dessa palhaçada aqui, que foi devidamente avacalhada por Ben H. aqui. […]

  2. […] What with Alex Ross and Norman Lebrecht all over the headlines at the moment, it seems like an article of and for this blogging moment. Taruskin himself can’t help being sucked into things, opening up with his take on that Joshua Bell stunt we were all twittering over back in April; he even approvingly quotes Boring Like a Drill’s Ben.H., even if Ben has since confessed that he wrote that comment “after a night on the turps” (I can’t help but wonder where we’d be should we ever discover the same about Solomon Volkov…?). Hell, Taruskin’s article has a permalink and comments, so it’s practically a blog post itself. […]

  3. Lilianne says:

    I would have fallen at his feet.

  4. michael henry says:

    i think the music was not appropriate to busking.

    if he had used music like the carmen variations or the music like he played on “the pizza tapes” he would have had more people stopping..
    the music he played was too esoteric for the everyday listener in the underground

  5. david toub says:

    Why should this surprise anyone? People walk past the homeless all the time and don’t even bother to look. Hell, people even walk past others getting mugged while in an indifferent haze.

    To be honest, I do take notice of street musicians when they are playing classical music (usually a student, so I feel some sympathy and interest), or when they’re playing anything else really well (jazz, hip-hop, etc). You can generally tell who’s good and who isn’t. We don’t get a lot of these in the Broad Street tunnel in Philadelphia—usually it’s the hyperreligous schizophrenic who belts out religious tunes in the name of Jesus (and who reminds me of Brother Walter in Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain tape/phase piece), or that persistently dreadful trumpet player who used to play every day outside where I used to work at Broad and Walnut. Miserable stuff when you’re trying to listen to Feldman or Brian Eno while working.

  6. Ben.H says:

    Perhaps the Post could do a whole series of articles about philistines ignoring Joshua Bell’s sublime music-making in different locations:
    1. Outside a burning building (not one fireman stopped to listen!)
    2. At a car crash site (one paramedic actually pushed him aside!)
    3. During a graduation exam (shushed by the invigilators!)
    4. At a school play (thrown out by angry parents!)
    5. On an airport runway (passing jet liners seemed oblivious!)

    This could be followed by a series about how busy commuters are too thick to realise when a busker is performing 4’33”, instead of just taking a break.

  7. DJA says:

    Hey Danny,

    I’m relying on my memory of an article that appeared in Q in (I think) the spring of 1993 or something like that, but your link actually confirms the gist of what I recall — hardly anyone recognized Sting (I don’t, actually, consider pulling your hat down over your face a “disguise”) and he didn’t make much more than Josh Bell. And he was singing, you know, Police songs. “Roxanne.”

  8. The little piece about Sting is great. No surprise that people listen differently when they know (or think they know) who/what they’re hearing and when they’re paying attention (or just paying).

    I’m trying to figure out what’s so condescending about Weingarten’s article, though (the title is stupid, but those are usually slapped on by an editor). It seems like a reflexive reaction.

    The Technorati link with the article says there are 934 incoming links to it. Nice to be on the bandwagon, huh?

  9. Bill says:

    Oh, those horrible swine ignoring Joshua Bell! Of course they should stop and throw gold at this millionaire who condescends to play for them. What a world, what a world….

  10. Danny Liss says:

    DJA — I think you’re overstating things a little (unless it’s in the book rather than the article). Still, 40 quid isn’t that much more than the 40 bucks Bell made when you factor in the standard of living (and what the exchange rate was at the time).

    I’ll also second what Glenn wrote — those are the times when I stop and listen to a busker, not when I’m on the way to work. Doesn’t mean that I appreciate classical music in the evening, but not in the morning.

  11. This past September me, Christina Fong and Andrea Fojtu decided to visit Budapest as a mini-vacation before we would record 3 of Alan Hovhaness’s string concertos with the Slovak Philharmonic. Although our friend Andrea was a native of Bratislava, none of us had ever been to Budapest. Christina was there to run the Budapest marathon. The evening we arrived we were walking around after dinner and Christina wandered into a small “open door” violin shop to try out a violin. Within a matter of 5 minutes a crowd of 15-20 people had assembled to hear her play and listened for about 20 minutes as she tried out different instruments. Did they think she was someone famous? Who knows … but I do not think so. Perhaps location is a factor. She also played some Bach and some other standard repertoire for the purpose of testing the sound. Context is important.

  12. DJA says:

    And watching those videos while seeing the people walking by oblivious was chilling to me.

    What’s chilling, exactly? That people rushed by a busking musician in the subway because they actually need to be on time for their jobs? This is surprising? What, you’ve never done that yourself? Josh Bell is not the only talented musician who’s ever played in a subway station, by any means. You’ve never walked by without stopping because, you know, you had somewhere to be?

    Also, being a wage-slave is not the same thing as “being obsessed with making money” — it’s mostly the people who don’t have to worry about money who can afford to put their morning commute on hold for ten minutes so they can hang out in a subway station and listen to a busker.

    About fifteen years ago, Q magazine did the same thing with Sting — he busked in a tube station, doing everyone’s favorite Police tunes. Most people didn’t recognize him, either (because seriously, what the hell would Sting be doing busking in the London Underground)? I don’t recall that article causing a spate of hand-wringing and soul-searching about our inability to find beauty in the world around us.

  13. I look at this as an audacious but naive stunt that led to a clever but naive article that’s so scattershot you can make most anything of it you like. It’s uncritical in some very annoying ways, but on the whole I admire Weingarten and Bell for following through with the scheme, hare-brained as it was. The idea, as I see it, was to test the draw of high-priced Bell and his high-priced fiddle in a highly unfavorable setting, not to find a good place for him to busk and watch the people gather.

    It does seem like a shame to make it a grand symbol of modern malaise or write it off as pure condescension–either alternative gives Weingarten too much credit for knowing what he was doing, among other things. I hope it does focus some attention on real buskers like Andrea and “Saw Lady,” and maybe even start some useful conversations about value and price and context.

  14. Danny Liss says:

    Does anyone really believe that if this exact same experiment had been tried 40 years ago with Isaac Stern, the results would be any different? People who are late for work tend to focus on trying to get to work. I would have walked right by as well, and it doesn’t mean that I don’t love or care about classical music; it means that my boss expects me to not be late, and I generally am not running early in the morning.

  15. Nathan Bibb says:

    Dan – I am sympathetic to your point of view, but you should work on your anger management. And for the record, I think a composition for 29 Tubas, Pipa, Electronics, and Girls Choir in the subway would draw HUGE crowds – someone should get to work on that.

    Jeff – I think I see your point about our work/money obsessed society, but this is really nothing new in America, is it? Has there ever been a time in America when people were more interested in the arts than their jobs or industrial pursuits? I think this is a romantic notion of a mythic past, personally – but please correct me if I’m wrong.

  16. Dan says:

    They should’ve renamed the article: “Thy World Should Halt Whilst Joshua Bell Decides To Perform For Us…Whenever and Wherever That May Be..Lest We Be Declared Philistines!”
    Of course that might not fit too well.
    What a condescending article. This constant looking down the nose at people not as deep and thoughtful as us–and then judging these people as cold and soulless makes me angry. It does not make my soul shudder. It makes me angry at someone for saying such a judgmental thing. As if you are superior to those “faceless” employees of the federal government. Their lives so empty–your life so full because you compose works such as “Multilinear Complexities of the Societal Grid–for 29 Tubas, Pipa, Electronics and Girls Choir”. What self-important pricks.
    Also, if Mr. Bell’s description of the Bach Chaconne is to be believed: an incredibly complex structure that constantly builds upon itself, then WP and Bell must
    be blamed for poor music selection. It takes concentration and focus to listen to any music–let alone the Chaconne. Choose something that can be grasped more easily and listened to for 2-3 minutes.
    Perhaps next time they can dress up Alfred Brendel like a homeless man and have him perform Sorabji’s Opus Clavi. I wonder if people will deep enough to stop and listen?

  17. Roy says:

    There is a great response to the Joshua Bell article by a NYC subway musician in her blog:
    She interprets the situation differently from the Washington Post reporters… I thought you might find it interesting.

  18. Chris Becker says:

    No, Jeff. I am not rationalizing. That is not accurate. I and some of the other folks here seem to be offering a little more perspective (based on our own experiences playing in public) on this “experiment” than the Post writers seem capable of.

    The point of the article seems to hang on the fact that noone recognized and took time to listen to someone playing CLASSICAL (re: white European) music who is single and good looking and famous. Which just strikes me as ridiculous. And insanely patronizing.

    And connecting Abu Ghirab to this stunt that has more to do with Joshua’s PR teams’ goals than anything else is – in my opinion – a bit of a stretch.

  19. andrea says:

    “We’re closed, cold, empty, and decadent, ”

    okay, but, like i said, i’ve busked. many, many people commented on how nice it was hearing classical music in the morning (although, much of the time it was baroque, but it wasn’t a music history test…ha ha). i stopped busking for about two or three weeks after 9/11. when my friend and i started up again, people were so reverent in their gratitude! it was amazing. you have to set both the performer and the audience up for success, even if it’s joshua bell.

    people stop for spectacle; that’s why the guy who dances with the mannequin gets a crowd. he’s got a great schtick (i saw a documentary last summer about busking that featured him — now THAT was heartbreaking. what a hard-working, kind-hearted guy…). but that’s it – you need a schtick if you are in a high-traffic area. if you’re playing up-close-and-personal on a platform, you don’t want a schtick; that’d be annoying. that’s where and when bach partitas shine — chamber music for a chamber music setting (other than the trains, of course): people are still and are happy to have good music occupy their ears. i’ve had people remove their earphones for little old me. moms and dads would bring their kids over and talk about the flute and the cello (even though it was really a bass), and make their kids put the money in the can. these things do happen, mr. harrington, and i bet they would in DC, too, but it’s got to be set up for everybody to succeed.

  20. All rationalizations, IMO, guys… I believe this experiment says something significant about where we are now. We’re closed, cold, empty, and decadent, obsessed with making money at the expense of our souls. And watching those videos while seeing the people walking by oblivious was chilling to me. We live in a nightmarishly empty world now; bleakly dull and it all made me think of Abu Ghirab, Iraq, etc. and how we got here.

    FWIW, the comments under the article in many ways replicate what you guys are saying and add some interesting observations to boot.

  21. Seth Gordon says:

    Gotta say… I didn’t find it “chilling” at all. Not a very well-thought-out experiment – I mean, the morning rush? Please! It was set up to fail. Hell, I doubt I’d stop for a reincarnated Miles Davis at that time of day. The only thing I’m capable of thinking of during the morning subway rush is “don’t… spill… coffee…” – or, if I’ve already finished it, “fuck… I’m… late…”

    It could very well be that half the people who walked by Bell did take notice. But we’ll never know… because they didn’t have time to stop and chat about it. Because getting to work on time is, simply, more important. And the other half… had headphones on. Who knows?

    It would be far more telling to see what happened were he placed in, say, the Union Square or Times Square station on a Saturday, a place where nearly everyone passing through is on spare time. No one’s ever really in a rush to get to the Virgin Megastore.

  22. andrea says:

    i was an active busker in boston and then new york for about six years. you have to play where people are standing around waiting; you don’t want ‘high traffic areas’ because people are busy moving from point a to point b. morning rush on park slope platforms always yielded the best pay because a) the people are waiting, b) the people like music, including classical, c) the people have money, especially change in their pockets after buying coffee, the paper, whatever. i used to get boston subway tokens in brooklyn and new york subway tokens in boston. i also got cards from people who just wanted to read through flute duets. i switched to a new hair-stylist, and he recognized me from the 7th ave Q stop; i subsequently gave him lessons for a year.

    my big gripe is that new york subway cops don’t actually know the rules for playing on subway platforms. in addition, the rules are difficult to find and are worded ambiguously, so it’s actually hard to tell if it’s illegal to play on the platforms or not (supposedly, if you are not using amplification, not selling merchandise, not obstructing the platform, and are 25 feet away from the booth, you are actually allowed to play and leave a hat/case/bucket for donations). consequently, i’ve had cops put money in my can, i’ve had cops kick me out, i’ve had mta workers take photos of me for their own interests even though taking photos in the subway was actually banned for several years after 9/11. the cops who kick me out usually suggest ‘music under new york,’ but they don’t really know how it works (auditions are once per year and you can only sign up to play in those damned ‘high traffic areas.’ not conducive to solo flute or flute and bass…). boston’s reaction to 9/11 security was to simply require buskers to register as such and wear a large photo i.d. — which i’m sure buskers pay a pretty penny for, but it’s still a better system than the unofficial, passive-aggressive version we have in nyc. i’d probably still be busking, but there’s only so many times i can be kicked out of the same stop and pretend that i don’t know what the rules are. i’m not very interested in arguing with cops.

    the sad part of the article for me is not that people don’t stop for josh, but that josh can’t set up shop in a place that makes sense for josh to earn a few bucks, that the shoe-shine lady will sick the cops on him, that the only reason he could get away with playing in that spot is because the washington post had his back.

  23. Chris Becker says:

    How is the title of the article “Pearls Before Breakfast” (a variation on “pearls before swine”) going to endear ANYONE to Joshua Bell and classical music in general?

    And I see PLENTY of people in New York and in New Orleans hanging out to listen to street and subway musicians. And as someone who mixed my own music live for a dance performance at the Winter Garden in the World Financial Center during the lunch hour, I can tell you people do stop and listen. It was a bit of a zoo at times (it felt like an outdoor rock concert), but that was part of the fun and challenge of performing in a public space.

    I am not hating on Joshua Bell or classical concert performance. But maybe Joshua isn’t used to playing in a train station? Is it conceivable that he just needs a little more experience playing on the street which is very different than playing a concert hall?

  24. DJA says:

    I dunno, Jeff, to me it just explored the shocking truth that people taking the subway in the morning are often preoccupied with making it to work on time.