This is not a hypothetical question, by the way. It happened recently in a Metro station in Washington, D.C. during morning rush hour. The experiment went like this: Would people stop and pay attention to a guy, dressed in jeans, T-shirt and a baseball cap, playing nondescript classics flawlessly on the violin? Would they stop and listen? If his case were open, with a few dollars already tossed inside, how many people would toss in a buck or two?
Here's the kicker: The violinist was the onetime child prodigy Joshua Bell, who's used to wearing all black for his gigs, which can command up to $100 a seat in the nosebleed section. So how many people stopped to listen? Did anyone recognize him in street clothes? And did he even earn as much money in that 43 minutes as someone would pay for a single seat to one of his normal shows?
The people who walked through the station on that January morning faced many other questions as well:
Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he's really bad? What if he's really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn't you? What's the moral mathematics of the moment?For the answers to these and other questions, read the whole story here. There's some great philosophical stuff in there, as well as some more questions:
- If a great musician plays music but no one hears...was he really any good?
- Why would a guy who's played before royalty get somewhat nervous about playing for passersby in a subway station? ("When you play for ticket-holders," Bell explains, "you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I'm already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don't like me? What if they resent my presence . . .")
- And here's the big one: Does context matter? In other words, to properly appreciate beauty, must the viewing conditions be optimal?
IN THE COMMENTS: A reader points to a blog post by a lady who plays musical saw (really!) in the New York subway system; she has a different take on the Bell story.
The Apple has fallen far from the tree, many times over: Congrats to Apple (maker of the wonderful device on which I'm typing this post), for selling its 100 millionth iPod.
If this is true, I must be Imelda Marcos: In a column from last week, James Lileks floats the idea that music collections are a guy's version of a woman's shoe closet.