Washington, DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approx. 2 thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After 3 minutes a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.
4 minutes later:
The violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.
A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.
A 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.
The musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.
He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.
No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.
This is a true story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities. The questions raised: In a common place environment – at an inappropriate hour -do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?
One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this: If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made…. How many other things are we missing?
This isn't entirely surprising to me. By virtue of the location, matey was playing to a lot of people in a hurry, going about their daily grind. Even if someone does register a pleasant sound or visual, if they have to be somewhere critical to our livelihood or meeting a responsibility then there are additional repercussions in stopping to consider every interesting, beautiful, or simply entertaining distraction one may happen upon.
MP3: Refused - Liberation Frequency
Taken from the seminal album (which you MUST own) 'The Shape of Punk To Come'
What this strikes more in me is the boundaries we place upon the enjoyment of the arts. On the subway occassions I mentioned, the players rarely receive more than a couple of contributions, even if they're great. Most people, sometimes myself included, make more effort to disengage themselves from the unexpected intrusion into their routine by utilising any prop to hand....iPod, book, newspaper etc....anything to avoid becoming a part of the impromptu entertainment foist upon them. Yet many will attend a scheduled performance and pay handsomely for the privilege.
The space in which the performance takes place is crucial to its acceptability and, to a large extent following from that, its enjoyability. Living in New York I've started to see artists plunged into a wide variety of spaces, from traditional venues through to street side events, in stores, and even some playing to empty airport lounges. Some win appreciation and attention, others simply elicit confusion, but without fail anything outside the traditional venue raises an eyebrow and challenges the perception that musical entertainment can only be enjoyed when scheduled at an established performance space.
Given the abundance of new music on the internet and with artists increasingly needing to stand out from their peer pack, unexpected gigs in strange new spaces are likely to become more and more common. What remains to be seen is whether they become the norm and mould people's attitude towards stopping to enjoy such performances accordingly.