Saturday, April 28, 2007

One person's pearls are another person's dirty rocks

" 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,'
- that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
-John Keats

The other day I read an article by Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post. It is called "Pearls Before Breakfast," and I want you to take the time and go read it, because we should have a discussion about it. There's a video you can watch too, which I highly recommend. Now -- once you read it, come back here and we'll talk.

Okay? Done? Very good. It is an interesting read, isn't it? And for those of you who I know didn't go over and read it, the gist of it is that Gene Weingarten decided to do a little sociology experiment. He wondered if you took the greatest musician on the planet and stuck him or her in the middle of a subway station, would people stop and pay heed.

He wondered, are we all so busy that we cannot see something amazing and beautiful, because we've lost that sense of amazement in truth and in beauty.

So he enlisted Joshua Bell to join him in the task, and set up shop in a Washington DC metro station.

Who is Joshua Bell? If you are like me and have no idea who he is, well, he is the equivalent of The Rolling Stones in classical music. He is a rock star of the symphony. His concerts sell out all over the globe. People into classical music drop their teeth when they hear him play. On top of that, he is drop dead gorgeous, young, and this gives him a dimension that few other classical musicians have. I immediately think grizzled old white haired conductor... but then Keith Lockhart of the Boston Symphony throws that image right under the bus. Joshua Bell is the Keith Lockhart of the violin.

Before this article landed in front of my eyes, I had no idea who he was. I'm not into classical music. But listening to him on his webpage yeah, he sounds good. Better than good, he sounds great. I don't know that I'd pay 400 dollars to see him at Avery Fisher Hall in Manhattan, but I think I might stop and stare if I heard that kind of music in a subway station. Played by one nice slice of hottie pie.

The writer, Bell, and Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, all thought that a huge crowd would gather to watch Bell play. They were afraid of the stir he would create. Turns out, they were sorely disappointed and shocked. A thousand people passed him, and about a dozen slowed down, while about six people stopped for a measurable length of time. This was found to be somewhat distressing to the writer of the article, and to the musician himself.

Bell is used to people weeping when they hear him play. He is accustomed to being lauded and cheered, applause at the completion of a song. He was largely ignored in this setting, and found it to be rather shocking and disconcerting.

For the people who did stop, each had interesting reasons. One had about three minutes to spare before he'd be late for work, consulted his watch and stayed for just the time he had. Another was getting his shoes shined and was held captive almost, and enjoyed the sounds but would have probably felt the same way if any other decent and talented musician was playing. A woman stopped because she recognized Bell and had seen him perform earlier this year and almost had a heart attack when she realized who she was listening to. She was shocked at the fact no one stopped, and discovered at that moment what the term pearls before swine really means.

For those who didn't stop, they were interviewed later. Many of them were either late for work, or were in a rush to get to a meeting on time. One woman positioned herself between her toddler and the music, because the boy desperately wanted to stop and listen to the musician play but she was pressed for time. The child had the sense of wonder and desire to hear, and in his own mind was not held by schedule or lateness or times or deadlines. He probably would have sat all day to listen to this man, probably would have danced. His mother probably works incredibly hard to distill that feeling in him, teach him of the finer things, but herself has become enslaved to schedules, meetings, deadlines and punching of the clock.

Many people were tuned into their own little music spaces, iPods and mp3 players, cell phones and the like. They had created their own playlists and didn't care to stop and listen to something that they weren't interested in at all. The writer interviews a man who had his mp3 player cranked up to a song by The Cure, which in and of itself is a beautiful piece. We've all picked out and have chosen our soundtracks to our lives, and any daily noise, interference or different sounds no longer are welcome into our ears, as long as we have our pre-programmed choices.

The fact that Joshua Bell is no doubt a talented man begs the question to me -- how many people even care about classical music in the first place? On the whole, it isn't a well liked, appreciated, enjoyed form of entertainment.

Personally, I clearly believe I would have stopped because the video shows he puts on a hell of a performance, but I don't care for classical. I really do not like the violin unless it is a "fiddle..." if you know what I mean. I would have stopped to hear, but I would have stayed to listen if it were Bluegrass... because that's just where I am as a listener. Classical does nothing for me.

One person's pearls are another person's nothing.

Bell plays a Ferrari of an instrument -- 1713 Gibson ex Huberman Stradivarius -- worth over 3 million dollars. But to me... would I even know the difference between that and the fiddle Sara Watkins of Nickel Creek plays?

Again, one person's pearls...

Something else that struck me hard about the article was how many of the people interviewed worked for the federal government. Postal Service employees, federal this, government that... they all were bureaucrats to the core.

If he played in Manhattan in the subway near Times Square, where there were more tourists and 'regular' businessy kinds of people, would the result have been different? If he played in the subway at Downtown Crossing in Boston, near where the shoppers go and the Emerson students, and the people going into Chinatown... would there have been a crowd?

If they did this in April instead of a cold, crappy, blah day in January, would people's hearts be more open and willing to hear?

I think that the individuals who walked past were all very different than the person I think I am. But is that true? If I were commuting into the city, and the silver line was late, and I was screwed trying to get over to my office building and bemoaning the fact that it was freezing out and in theory I could walk faster than deal with public transportation.... would he reach me? Similarly, if I were on vacation in the city, taking the subway around to get from interesting point A to interesting point B with no time constraints until it came to dinner and where I'd like to go to eat, would this really give me pause to stop and enjoy and breathe it all in?

Finally, for me -- if instead of Joshua Bell playing his Strad, they stuck someone from American Idol down there with a pre-recorded karaoke track, I think more people would have stopped. Hell, if they stuck that no talent assed clown Sanjaya down there ... a crowd would no doubt gather, linger, and ... enjoy?

Say it ain't so!

People would be late to work and they'd say, "I'm late because that Sanjaya kid was in the subway singing like a wet cat. You wouldn't have believed it."

No one, I bet, would have taken a bullet for being late to stop and listen to Joshua Bell and go back to the office to say "I heard the most amazing musician in the subway this morning, I don't know who he is but ... wow."

And this is what makes me cry.

I know the rest of our nation seems to have gone there, and lost beauty and truth in ways that boggle my mind. I would like to think I'm different, above and beyond that. But I'm afraid, honestly, of being the latter. I'm afraid of life consuming everything that I could possibly witness as being beautiful and a treasure, and replacing it with the tedium of bureaucracy. And this frightens me to the core.

When Doug and I were in New York last October, we were waiting for a subway.

We walked past a group of musicians playing some sort of West African tribal mix of aboriginal music and jazz and rap. They were dressed in a peculiar mix of traditional clothing and hip-hop style. They were screaming into the microphones, and the drums were loud and fast.

Normally, I'm game for any kind of music. I'll stop, look, pay attention for a little bit. If I don't care for it, I'll usher myself along. If I like it a lot, I'll stick around. But this, oh my God. This was horrendous. Loud, over amplified, screeching, ridiculous. And it was inescapable. We were held hostage by this auditory massacre. I wanted to over to them with twenty dollars and say, "Look, I'll pay you to knock it off for the next 15 minutes. Please, for the love of all that is good and pure, stop playing."

They were killing me. Not softly, but hard and fast and horribly. I was incredibly disturbed by their display. The trains were horribly delayed and we were just stuck there. Trapped like rats, unable to go anywhere. It is an experience I won't soon forget.

I wish it had been Joshua Bell. But we've established, one person's pearls...

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