Isn’t it a shame that we don’t stop to appreciate music? No. Shut the f**k up.

Posted: August 27, 2012 in Culture, Uncategorized, Writers
Tags: , , , , , ,

A couple times a year, somebody forwards me the text of this e-mail and it always irritates the living crap out of me. Since I’ve got a blog, I might as well address it.

Ordinarily, I find it particularly annoying when viral e-mails convey some kind of sanctimonious message, wrapped up in a story that’s obviously bullshit. This one, however, annoys me because it happens to be TRUE. This is based on an actual column by Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post that ran in 2007 and won him a Pulitzer Prize.

Let me say upfront that I like Gene Weingarten’s “Below the Beltway” column. He’s a fine writer. I don’t begrudge him his Pulitzer.

I just wish he’d won it for a different story. And I wish people would quit forwarding this condensed version with its ultimate message about how we’re too wrapped up in our petty concerns to appreciate some of the most beautiful music ever composed, as performed by one of the world’s greatest musicians. Because I find that conclusion specious. And, frankly, more than a little condescending.

Here’s the text of the e-mail:

“A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

Three minutes went by and a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried up to meet his schedule.

A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping continued to walk.

A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best 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 his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston and the seats average $100.

This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of an social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people. The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?

One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be:

If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?”

Here’s the original story, it you’re interested.

And here’s why the whole thing annoys me.

When I was in college, I knew a guy who was convinced that “Pink Floyd: The Wall” is the greatest album ever. (Hey, I loved it myself when I was 17. It has its moments, though now I find it annoyingly pretentious. But that’s a rant for another day.)

Anyway, this guy liked to show up at dorm room parties. Without asking, he would turn off whatever was playing on the stereo, and throw on his copy of “The Wall.” His reasoning was that this music HE was into was so self-evidently better than anything that anybody else might want to hear, people couldn’t help but take notice. Then, presumably, everyone would clamor around and compliment him on his good taste in music. And … I don’t know … somebody might want to have sex with him or something.

This never happened, of course. After a strident argument with a roomful of people practically begging him to turn off that dreary crap because it was killing the party, he’d go off and sulk about the fact that he was surrounded by Philistines – never even realizing how close he’d come to having his head forcibly held in a wastebasket full of grain-alcohol-spiked Kool Aid until he drowned.

I guess you see where this is going. In this column, Weingarten is kind of like that guy from college. “Wow. Isn’t everybody shallow for not bringing their lives to a screeching halt and appreciating the music that I’M into? How deeply, deeply sad.”

But wait a second. Bach and Schubert wrote some of the most beautiful music in history. And Joshua Bell is one of the world’s greatest violinists. Surely people should have been able to recognize that, right?

Not necessarily, unless they happen to be classical music buffs to begin with. And by “classical music buffs,” I’m not talking about your average classical music listeners who have some Beethoven and Mozart in their music collections, and enjoy it without taking particular note of the musicians or the conductor. I’d wager 90 percent of the latter group — myself included — wouldn’t be able to distinguish between a world-class violinist, and one who’s merely OK.

The truth is, music is an acquired taste. And that applies even to good music.

I still remember the moment at the age of 20 when I first learned to appreciate reggae while someone was playing Bob Marley for me. I was already a music fan. But until that moment, all reggae just sounded like random noise to me, without so much as a coherent melody. I was genuinely incapable of distinguishing between Bob Marley and, say, UB40.

I still cringe with embarrassment when I remember, at the age of 19, hanging out in somebody’s apartment when he threw on some John Coltrane. I asked him if it was Spyro Gyra. At the time, not being familiar with jazz, I couldn’t distinguish between the two.

Similarly, I was hanging out with a friend one time and we were laughing at a recording of a godawful local hair metal cover band. My Dad came by and asked us, in all seriousness, whether it was the Rolling Stones. How could he possibly have mistaken that crap for arguably the world’s greatest rock music? Simple. He wasn’t into rock music. So it all sounded the same to him.

And much as I respect rap in principle, I’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between a mediocre rapper and a good one. There’s nothing wrong with rap music, and nothing wrong with me. It’s just not something I’m into.

So doesn’t that bolster Mr. Weingarten’s point? Couldn’t people learn to appreciate this great music if they’d just taken time out from their busy lives to listen? Maybe. But if they couldn’t immediately identify it as world-class musicianship, why would they stop? Come to think of it, why would they stop during morning rush hour even if they COULD make that distinction?

Picture this. You head down to Louisiana and find the world’s greatest Zydeco accordionist. Somebody acknowledged by his peers as the best of the best. Somebody for whose performances Zydeco fans are willing to pay large sums of money.

Plant him on the street in front of the Washington Post offices. Would Mr. Weingarten, or anybody else in downtown Washington on a busy workday morning, take the time to distinguish this world-class accordionist from any other street musician? Unless they happen to be Zydeco aficionados, I’m guessing the answer is no.

I’m also guessing that would apply EVEN IF THEY KNEW who was playing. “That guy’s the world’s greatest Zydeco accordionist? Good for him. I’m still gonna catch shit if I show up late for work.”

Hell, I doubt Mr. Weingarten’s employers would have accepted that excuse, if it was a matter of missing deadline. As I recall from my newspaper days, a sucking chest wound wasn’t adequate excuse for missing deadline, let alone stopping to hear a really good accordion player on the street.

Appreciation of art in general, and music in particular, is subjective. If you can’t wrap your head around that, you might as well sit alone in your room, listen to “The Wall” again, and sulk.

  1. Carlette says:

    Great article, Tom with very valid points. That experiment was doomed to failure from the beginning. I WORKED in Washington, D.C. and caught the Metro to work so I KNOW firsthand how chaotic it is and you’re right, it could have been Beethoven himself with a baby grand piano and nobody would have stopped. The Post (as usual) stacked the deck in their favor. I would guess the kids stopped and looked because that’s what kids do. They may have been staring at his beard for all they know, his haircut, his funny shoes…there is absolutely no way whatsoever to guess the children stopped for the music unless they were asked. (I didn’t read the original article so if it’s mentioned there, sorry). I have little kids stop and stare at me all the time HAHA.

    There was an older man who played the electric keyboard outside Metro Center on the G Street side every morning (the busiest Metro stop in the city I would think because it’s a transfer point to all other trains). He was an icon to those of us who trudged to work every day from that stop. His music was good but he was no where near being considered a “fine musician”. It was his spirit that attracted us to him. The fact that even in the rain, he would be there playing, smiling, waving or saying hello to us regulars.

    He eventually got written up in the Washington Post too. Maybe Mr. Bell’s “spirit” wasn’t in it and that’s why people didn’t stop.

    The old guy died several years ago and I remember being so sad and the out pour of cards, flowers etc…that were laid in his spot. It was never the same getting off there – of course other musicians swooped down like vultures for the spot; a ready made audience who was already accustomed to music in the morning – but none of the came close to the “spirit” that had been there even if they were “better” musicians.

    I miss that guy. I felt sad when he died. I’ve never forgotten him either. So maybe Bell and Weingarten just got it all wrong.

    • Thanks! And that’s an excellent point you make — there are other street performers out there. If it amounted to a kind of mass cultural failing that people didn’t stop and check out Joshua Bell, why does that not apply to any of the other performers? Because people usually pay large sums of money to see Joshua Bell, so by definition he’s superior to anyone who might ordinarily be out there. That’s clearly the implication, and it points out the underlying blinkered snobbery that I find so galling about the piece.

      • Carlette says:

        Yes. I agree he was very arrogant to participate in that experiment and even more of an arrogant prick to be offended that nobody recognized him or appreciated his music during morning rush hour. Pfft.

  2. As if everyone loves classical music and should stop in their tracks when they hear it. And I can hear the excuses for why people were late for work when they were mesmerized by the violinist:
    “Yes, Mr. Flannery, I realize I’m 45 minutes late for work and I missed the important sales meeting with the million dollar client, but you don’t understand. He was playing Bach! BACH!”

    • Agreed. And understand, I’m not faulting Bell here. Hey, it’s kind of a neat concept, to have this world-class violinist play on the street. But Weingarten doesn’t seem to get it — that people have to work for a living, and not everybody’s into classical music. I worked for newspapers for 20 years and I love them. But much as it pains me to say it, I see the fact that this won a Pulitzer as further evidence that a lot of major metro papers are losing touch with the day-to-day concerns of regular people.

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