I left the previous post at the top for an extra day just to see if more people would read and comment on it. (Oh yeah, and I was busy yesterday as well.)
Anyway, I had meant to add my own take on the situation, since I've certainly been in situations where I've played what I refer to as "wallpaper" music--at wedding receptions, awards ceremonies at the school, private parties, and the like. I'll admit that the first time I ever played for a group that didn't clap when we finished a tune (and sometimes didn't even acknowledge our presence at all), I was a bit taken aback, but after a while, you get used to it. And I'm certainly not saying that I'm as accomplished as Josh Bell or anything, but our performances did have one thing in common with his subway station sojourn: People aren't sure how to respond to something artistic when it's stripped of its usual context.
For that matter, it's not always appreciated when it is in context; most of the "jazz clubs" in Dallas are actually restaurants, so there will always be some people who are there to hear the music and others who are--sometimes rather loudly--doing business deals on their cell phones while someone is in the middle of a masterful solo. This can't be avoided all the time, but the most attentive hosts will at least try to seat the nonlisteners away from the band if at all possible. Still, it amazes me that something that my friends and I would pay big bucks to see in a concert hall is serving as someone else's wallpaper; that's some pretty exquisite wallpaper there, buddy. (I've discussed the concept of the wallpaper gig in a previous post.)
Also weighing in on the Bell story is James Lileks, in this morning's Bleat. He has a cool little gizmo on his page where he can embed a musical selection, so in line with the Bell post, he has a snippet of the coda of Paganini's first violin concerto (not played by Bell, but used to illustrate the passage's difficulty). As you listen, do what Lileks suggests and ponder all of the little minutiae of an impending workday; would you stop and listen if you heard this being played live on the way to work?
UPDATE: LIleks' Friday Daily Quirk column for the Star-Tribune is entitled If Josh Bell read this aloud in the skyways, would anyone listen? It's a clever piece as well, as Lileks imagines the classical-music version of the Def Jam: Icon game.
This idea really stinks: The city of Ogden, Utah is considering setting up a panel to discover and remove bad odors in the city.