By now, you must have been in an isolation chamber if you haven’t heard about an incognito Joshua Bell playing music by Bach and other greats on a Stradivarius to almost completely oblivious passers-by outside the L’Enfant Plaza metro station in D.C. during the morning rush hour. It has been in newspapers all over the country and it even made it onto NY1 TV news this morning.
Apart from the usual dopiness of the mainstream media who seem to have an uncanny ability only to report about culture when it’s bad news, there’s been quite a bit of brouhaha throughout the blogosphere and in various emails forwarded to me pondering whether this story is tragic, humorous, or a little bit of both. In fact, the whole thing was a publicity stunt concocted by the folks at the Washington Post. According to the original Post article by humorist Gene Weingarten, Bell’s foray into the world of busking was “an experiment in context, perception and priorities.”
The other explicitly stated goal of this project was to be “an unblinking assessment of public taste,” and that seems to be what most folks have been dwelling on. Yet, as Galen Brown and several of the responders to his thread on the Sequenza21 Composers Forum have astutely pointed out, it is impossible to assess the general public’s receptivity to “good music” from such an enterprise. In fact, all you can assess is the basic human need for filters and frames to guide perception.
This latest chapter in the misadventures of classical music reminds me of an exhibition the Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted nearly twelve years ago called Rembrandt / Not Rembrandt in which works by “the great Dutch master” were paired with works once thought to be by him which were later revealed to be forgeries. I remember being disconcerted by the whole tone of that show. Basically, its message was that the Rembrandt works were timeless masterpieces and that the others were clearly not and that was ultimately why they were not Rembrandts. Of course, to an earlier less-enlightened generation, some of those “not Rembrandts” were believed to be bona-fide Rembrandts and were therefore afforded timeless masterpiece status.
In the Post article, Josh Bell, much to his credit, observed that “[w]hen you play for ticket-holders you are already validated.” Taking Bell’s performance out of context, gave it no context, or as Gene Weingarten stated more poetically: Bell was “art without a frame.” But perhaps Bell was ultimately something far worse: he was a “not Rembrandt.” He experienced the same indifference that many musicians of very high caliber face every single day. This is what almost every living composer—none of whom made it onto Bell’s subway gig—has had to contend with, too.
John Cage tried to get audiences to pay attention to all the sounds around them in his still provocative 4’33”. Even in the confines of a concert hall, such a sonic offering was a hard sell. But great sounds are around us all the time everywhere we go; how many of us are listening to them?