Friday, April 30, 2010

With Your Morning Coffee

When was the last time you stopped to smell the roses? Or to admire the etchings of a street urchin? Or to listen to the complex melody of a street busker's violin? Do you take time out of your day to appreciate what beauty and goodness there is in the world?

Recently, a very talented violinist stationed himself in a Metro Station in Washington, D.C. during morning rush hour and played nearly an hour of Bach, just to see who might stop to listen. In the first few minutes, one man stopped for a few seconds and then hurried on. A minute later a woman tossed a dollar into his case without stopping to look or to listen. After six minutes, a younger man stopped long enough to lean against the wall... but then he looked at his watch and thought it best to carry on. Around ten minutes into his playing, this busker courted the audience of a three year old boy, who was the first of many children to take a keen interest and try to stop. None of these children were allowed to benefit from this rare glimpse of unexpected beauty however, as their parents hurriedly pushed them along to whichever destination was more important. Not one parent, not one, saw importance in letting their children be carried away by their obvious appreciation of what is truly important in this world. Not to mention an experience they will most likely never again have the opportunity to enjoy.

I say this about the once in a lifetime experience, because this man's baseball cap belied the fact that his violin was a Stradivari violin, worth about $3.5 million... and that he was, in fact, Joshua Bell, whose Concert Hall performance in Boston three days earlier had sold out with the starting price for decent tickets at $100 per seat. He is one of the finest and highly respected musicians in the world. Interview magazine once said his playing "does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live." He spent an hour of his time playing some of the most complex and beautiful pieces of music ever written... to deaf ears. As part of a social experiment organized by the Washington Post, Joshua ended his performance of continual playing for 45 minutes $32 richer. About twenty people gave money, but didn't stop to appreciate what they were paying for. In total, out of the 1097 people who passed by (the Post counted) only six stopped. Only six. When he concluded his piece, there was silence. Not one person applauded. Nobody noticed that he had even stopped playing.

The experiment was done to question if we perceive beauty in an unconventional space, time or context. I was sent this this morning from my mother, and got online to see what I could find about it. What I found, was comments from readers of other posts who wrote in to say that they were not surprised at the outcome and, in fact, would have found the man in the metro annoying. That buskers should be more respectful of other people's space, or schedule... that they should get a job... or worse. I have always seen buskers as a bonus to life in the city. How wonderful is it that while waiting for the light to change on the corner (I walk everywhere) I can be treated to a bit from that young girl who is intelligent enough to make pocket money while doing her mandatory violin practice, a sax solo from the rasta with dreads down to his knees that should be playing in some smokey members only club in Manhattan, the old guy who knows a few magic tricks and is trying like crazy to supplement his ridiculously low pension by bringing joy to a few faces?

I was talking to my brother once on the main drag and a friend of his came up to us to share a piece from a poetry book he had just started reading. While he was reading, a police officer came up to him and told him that if he was going to do that he would need to pay for a busker's license or he would be fined. Fined! For reading poetry! When my parents first moved to this wonderful small town they decided to take my four year old son down to the park to see some gathered musicians that they had passed while on their way over. When they got back to the park, the police were just finishing rounding them up, fining them and evicting them for causing a disturbance in a public space. What???

Yes, I have a few questions of my own.

"If we can't take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that -- then what else are we missing?"


KillerB said...

I heard about this too!

Pauline Matterson said...

Just the other day, I was explaining the bevy of street entertainers in Vancouver and how, as residents, we have familiar faces and faves that we discuss, boast or complain about. My personal fave was the roaming opera singer - I'd leave my 2nd floor apt living room window open to hear this older man wander past singing & his voice would carry above the sounds of the traffic *lovely* I do know how frustrating it can be to be pestered repeatedly when you're in a rush however I think there is nothing bothersome about an artist sharing their talent. It's what I love best about cities like Vancouver & Victoria. On another note, similar to your brothers story - I was hitch hiking across the country with a friend and we had huge backpacks and crazy hair. I approached a guy on the street to ask the time (we were meeting up with friends) and his response was 'I don't have any change'. He was horrified when he realized I hadn't asked him for any!

Samantha Levang said...

This is so sad. I'd like to think that I'm the type of person who would stop and listen, but I, along with many, many others, treat my own agenda as a matter of life and death.

Thanks for this post. It's quite the wakeup call!

Hope Ava said...

Very thought provoking post...I totally agree with you that this is so sad. And to have missed such a performance by such a performer! It almost reminds me of the idea of people "entertaining angles unaware"...not knowing that their lives had been touched by a moment of greatness, and that their character had been exposed by the way they responded in that unknowing moment. Thanks for the food for thought!

Anonymous said...

we take ideas, art, and beauty so seriously when its presented to us in a formal setting (gallery, concert hall, runway).. what am i missing day to day?

Thanks for the thoughtful post

Michelle said...

What an interesting post! Thanks for making me stop for a moment to read your thoughts, it gave me pause and made me wonder what my three year old is missing out on that I'm not noticing.

Three Owls said...

oh the opera singer... love him... and there used to be a man who had made an instrument out of found objects and played it with a bow... it was astounding... I have bought lots of little cards and whatnots from various vendors... but I have also hurried by all sorts of things.. sigh. I also skimmed this earlier and then came back to read... good thing it was still here :)

Suzy Q said...

This struck a note with me. I wonder how this experiment would work in different cities, provinces, or countries. Toronto, Ottawa and Kingston are full of buskers, and they make the streets a better place. Kingston has one of the best buskers festival in the world, and they come from all over the world to prove it. I've busked in Ottawa, just 2 girls and guitars. My friend was just learning, and we weren't great, but well received and did attract a small crowd, even though there were AMAZING performers on every other corner (also with crowds).
On the other hand, I've busked in Vancouver on several occasions. I was regularly offered food and advise on shelters and soup kitchens.
People are bombarded with traffic, construction, electronics etc every day with out notice, but find buskers offensive. Hilarious!

kimberj said...

This is heartbreaking. We have become so jaded that we view street artists as vagrants and criminals because they don't financially contribute to society. No wonder the arts in public schools are underfunded and dying. As the arts die, so do our souls.