When we visited Edinburgh last week, the air was filled with the sounds of bagpipes. Literally. There were bagpipers on the street, every 50 yards or so.
Here in Europe, it’s a common sight. Someone playing a musical instrument in the streets, parks, plazas, or railway/underground stations. You find people playing guitars, violins, cellos, accordions, keyboards, et al. In London, I once heard a tenor in the Covent Gardens, in an open courtyard outside a pub. Some of the music is pretty darn good. And the audience is usually appreciative. The profession is called busking.
Apparently, it exists in US as well. And so, Washington post decided to do a thought experiment. What would happen if one of the world’s great violinists had performed incognito before a traveling rush-hour audience of 1,000-odd people, using a 1713 Stradivarius?
The violinist they chose: Joshua Bell.
Interview magazine once said that his playing “does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live.” His performances command upwards of $1000 per minute. He has played before crowned heads of Europe, and to packed halls worldwide. He has even won a Grammy! (just to prove he isn’t some obscure classical music genius)
So, what do you think happened?
Bell played for 45 minutes at the Metro station L’Enfant Plaza in Washington, D.C. on January 12, 2007. Among 1,097 people who passed by, only one recognized him and seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave a total of $32.17 (not counting $20 given by the person who recognised Bell).
There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.
The question raised: What is beauty? Is it a measurable fact, or merely an opinion, or is it a little of each, colored by the immediate state of mind of the observer?
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?
I don’t know…but this one sure made me think!
Do read the full piece here.