calimac: (Haydn)
[personal profile] calimac
I finally had the chance to read the original WPost article about great violinist Joshua Bell busking at a D.C. Metro station and hardly anybody stopping to listen.

It's a really frustrating article, because it portrays the passersby unfairly as philistines.

A lot of them undoubtably were "philistines", if that means people with no interest in music or at least that sort of music.

That's no news. Just because, as the article repeatedly notes, many people will pay top dollar to hear Bell in concert doesn't mean that vast numbers more of them wouldn't, even if they had top dollar to pay.

But the main reason few people stopped is because it was morning rush hour. They had to get to work.

The article mentions this, then it says "Koyaanisqatsi", blah blah blah, our lives are out of balance, blah blah blah, great music is more important than getting to work. Well, sure, in the long run it is - certainly to me - but not right then. Hasen't the Post ever heard of the Maslovian hierarchy? Urgent needs must be satisfied now, even if they're trivial. (There are times when the restroom takes priority over all else in life.) Other things will have to wait. If you're late to work, you're not going to get much slack from explaining that you stopped to listen to a busker. On some other occasion, if you have time, you'll stop.

The article just doesn't get this. The writer actually interviews a philosopher who cites Kant to explain that you really need optimal conditions to appreciate art, and that it's not surprising or damning at all that few people took the time to stop.

And then the article claims to refute this by citing a commuter who did stop. Implication: here's one man who found music more important than his job.

But he didn't. He balanced his priorities to a nicety. He checked the time, found he had three minutes to spare, and stopped and listened for exactly three minutes.

The article also mentions that passing children did try to stop and listen, but were dragged away by their accompanying adults. Implication: children have more appreciation of the importance of music. No: children have less appreciation of the importance of time.

Leonard Slatkin is interviewed. Without being told what happened, he thinks a fair crowd will gather. But Leonard Slatkin is the music director of the National Symphony. If he needs to be somewhere, they'll wait for him.

I've seen crowds gathered around buskers. I've stopped to listen to them myself. (Never for very long, even if they're very good - and some are very good. Kant was right: conditions aren't optimal.) But I stop only if I have time. If not, I just enjoy the few seconds I hear as I pass by. And I leave my music listening to when I do have time.

Date: 2007-04-21 02:29 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Buskers who want to maximize their earnings work during afternoon rush hour, when people have some slack. I've stopped and listened to concert-quality musicians in Grand Central Station, many parts of which have fabulous acoustics, and I've always had company. Granted, I haven't been in NYC for years, but I don't think it's changed.

I missed that it was morning rather than evening rush hour, and cruelly figured the big difference was DC commuters.

Date: 2007-04-21 02:31 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
And in Seattle, I used to know the regular buskers at Pike Place Market by face and repertoire. I don't go downtown so often now, but I still recognize some of them when I do. There's a group of formerly homeless men singing fifties doo-wop who are really amazing, and they're still singing outside after more than fifteen years.


Date: 2007-04-21 02:58 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I've seen crowds gathered around buskers.

I've seen crowds around street musicians, but I didn't realize they were busking! Is that legal?

The point of the exercise (and the article) is not that people don't like good music, but that street music is a different animal than concert performance. Compare Art Paul Schlosser, who hangs out in the streets of Madison, near the U, trying to make a living. Art Paul's recordings are, as I've noted, an acquired taste. You would find them awful. Yet he knows how to work a crowd. Joshua Bell is undoubtedly the better musician by a lot, but doesn't have -- or need -- the same skills as Art Paul.

Music is situational. Bell needed some Beatles tunes to attract a crowd or maybe a break dancer for visual effect.

Date: 2007-04-22 06:27 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
The OED says that to busk is "to play music or entertain in the streets, etc." I don't know what you thought he was doing, but he was busking.

No Beatles. The idea was to see if the music alone could attract attention. And clearly, if the circumstances had been more favorable, it would have.

Date: 2007-04-21 03:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
It's attitudes like that that make me wish the writers had actually had to put in time at a clock-and-boss job. It would do them a world of good.

Date: 2007-04-21 05:16 pm (UTC)
ext_73044: Tinkerbell (Default)
From: [identity profile]
When I lived up in the City, I would pass street musicians all the time. If they were good, if it was morning and I was rushing to work, about all they would get is a smile as I hurried a long.
But in the AFTERNOON, I would stop and enjoy and reach in the pocket for change or a dollar. Before I rushed off to pick up Jennie and head back to the house... At least it was a pleasant pause.
Thank you SF Street Musicians.

Date: 2007-04-21 09:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I made this same point in comments to people when they originally posted this article. When I'm commuting, even if I recognize that a street musician is way above average, that doesn't mean that I have the time to stop to listen/donate.

Date: 2007-04-21 10:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I agree with pretty much everything you've said here.

Date: 2007-04-22 04:17 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yeah. It's what I thought when I read the article and watched the video. "If I'm on my way to work, I've already put everything off until I have no more slack." These guys don't know what it is to punch a time clock.

Date: 2007-04-21 11:06 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
The real purpose of this exercise was to publicize Joshua Bell the Heartthrob and Classical Music Performer for the People, on the occasion of his getting an award from the New York classical music insiders' establishment. It has all the dirty fingerprints of a Sony "Classical" PR stunt, since that label has once again fallen back on such nonsense. (Viz. Charlotte Church's "Rear of the Year" award a few years ago, which to me only showed that her voice wasn't the only thing that was flat on the bottom.)

Mr. Bell waxes eloquent about the greatness of the Chaconne (and by extension the rest of Bach's Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin), and I imagine he plays them quite well, but what I'm wondering is, will he ever actually record them? Not a chance; next up for Sony will doubtless be more arrangements of pop classics, movie themes, or world music. Sadly, we've already lost Yo-Yo Ma to this sort of thing; Hilary Hahn has long since decamped to Deutsche Grammophon, and Midori has apparently stopped making recordings altogether.

But back to Josh. Too bad he didn't have the, ahem, bells to attempt a more legitimate test, for example by playing for hats in New York's Central Park on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Without the pressure of competing with the urge to get-to-work-on-time, it would have been possible to see whether his musicianship would be recognized by the public.

Oh, and before I let this go, I'd like to refer you to Alexander C. Kafka's column "Critical Mass" entitled "Classical Music, Now and Then," in the 13 April 2007 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education:
A young woman was [playing] the Adagio from Bach's Sonata for Solo Violin No. 1 in G minor at a New York subway stop Kramer happened on, and she drew a crowd. The playing and the context, Kramer believes, managed to "reorient its listeners from the unexceptional to the exceptional. In so doing it invited them to think freshly about the values of both."
So what may we conclude from this? She's prettier than Bell? New Yorkers have more time to spare than DC residents? Stunts such as Bell's are worthless?

Date: 2007-04-22 01:41 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I regret to say your first speculation is correct. Subsequent commentary in the Post indicated that publication of the article was delayed a couple months so that it would coincide with the award.

Enough interviewed passersby did register the unusually high quality of this busker that I'm satisfied that, under more optimal conditions, he would have had an audience. (And I've heard people applaud buskers, too.)

But this was midtown, 8 AM, in January. Brrr. Nobody, but nobody, is going to be around except to go to work.

Your brother is amused

Date: 2007-04-22 01:09 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I believe you have presented an irrefutable (and amusing) critique of the article.
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