Bell Curve

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?

9 thoughts on “Bell Curve

  1. Colin Holter

    Even if Bell is the best classical musician in America, as Weingarten’s article proposes, the gap in musicianship between him and Violinists nos. 2-50 (or 2-100, for that matter) is probably miniscule. The question isn’t whether commuters in Lafont Plaza recognized a great artist but whether they recognized what passes in classical music for a celebrity.

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  2. kmanlove

    This issue is almost a little too thick or maybe multi-headed to really deal with in my meager little post… There’s really something great about avoiding agents, expensive concerts, annoying logistics, and just honestly trying to give a worthwhile musical experience… just doing what you do in public, unselfconsciously.

    I am in no way implying that this is or is not what happened with Mr. Bell… I don’t know; something about it reeks of stunt. I would love for someone to prove that it wasn’t a stunt.

    Being from Austin, Texas, I have a real love for street performing… a lot of great musicians from austin did just that. Then, you see them on a stage, and they’re just as honest and warm as they were on the street _____ years ago. Hopefully, someone allows me to be less cynical about this situation. In no way is street performing any “unblinking assessment of public taste,” but it is possibly an unblinking assessment to one’s willingness to perform for any audience.

    Just because the frame is large or not painfully obvious, does not mean it is without frame.

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  3. Philedwardelphia

    Hooray for isolation chambers! This is the first I’ve heard of it.

    Art without a frame? Huh? He performed pieces. Thus the frame extends as far as you can hear. I guess I need some clarification as that paragraph seemed unclear to me. Museums/concert halls aren’t frames, right?

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  4. marknowakowski

    Listening is something that must be taught. In our culture, people are taught to accept sounds on a superficial, pre-packaged level. Something like a subtle turn of tone color emerging from the practiced violinists hands is an elusive concept, and beyond the “uninitiated.”

    So what to do? First, I think you need to feel sorry for the folks that are “missing out.” Then, you need to get their kids in the schools, and teach them to listen. Like it or not, our medium (like anything truly worthwhile) comes with a learning curve, and we are our own worst enemies when all we do is complain about it…

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  5. philmusic

    “In fact, the whole thing was a publicity stunt concocted by the folks at the Washington Post.”

    As a publicity stunt this is simply an artificial situation created to create “buzz” so the less said about it the better. If they want publicity from me they can pay me for it just like they paid Mr. Bell. I so dislike being taken advantage of.

    Phil’s Page

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  6. Frank J. Oteri

    Evan James questioned Gene Weingarten’s description of Josh Bell’s metro performance as “art without a frame” claiming that in an open air gig “the frame extends as far as you can hear” and suggested I clarify my agreement with Weingarten’s assessment, so here goes…

    The frame in Weingarten’s read of this scenario, and in my acceptance of his read, is indeed the walls of a concert hall and the protocol of concert hall behavior where an audience knows a priori when a concert begins and when a piece is over, the proscenium, the applause, etc. A busking gig is by its nature without such boundaries and comes with the condition that people hearing you, whether they like you or not, did not actually choose to hear you and furthermore did not put time on their schedules to stop and listen. These folks were afterall trying to get to work during the morning rush hour. I wonder what the mainstream media or even the blogosphere’s snarky responses would have been if most of these folks, undoubtedly government employees of some sort, stopped to listen attentively for a half-hour and were therefore late to work. I imagine various monetary appropriations not being in place in time and highways, schools, you name it being forced to shut down all over the country as a result. (I’m exaggerating a bit here I know, but you get the point.)

    The reason the frame metaphor is so apt is that a performance like this has a very similar effect to an artist showing work in the street with no visual buffer to give it some context. Few people would stop to look. But put the work in a frame or on a pedestral and display it in a gallery or a museum and suddenly it’s art.

    Of course it’s art no matter where it is exhibited just like it can be great music no matter where it’s played, but without the “frame” it is very difficult for most people to pay attention which is what Bell’s adventure proves.

    Speaking of paying attention, am I the only person to have noticed that according to the article, Bell played at the Metro station back in January? That means it has taken three months for this to get written about, which seems like a long time for news like this to travel through the channels of the mainstream media. Seems like once again, the still extremely influential gatekeepers of information ignore this music even more than the general public allegedly does.

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  7. EvanJohnson

    Speaking of paying attention, am I the only person to have noticed that according to the article, Bell played at the Metro station back in January? That means it has taken three months for this to get written about, which seems like a long time for news like this to travel through the channels of the mainstream media. Seems like once again, the still extremely influential gatekeepers of information ignore this music even more than the general public allegedly does.

    Turns out, as Weingarten noted in an online discussion about the article, the timing of the article’s publication was meant, at Bell’s publicist’s request, to accompany the announcement of the Avery Fisher Prize:


    When I decided to do this, the first person I called (this was before Thanksgiving) was Jane Covner, Joshua Bell’s highly capable publicist. Jane listened to the pitch, and then was silent for a moment or two. I expected a genteel rejection, but then, she said:

    “Can you keep a secret?”

    It turns out Josh had just been informed that he was going to win the Avery Fisher Prize — American classical music’s biggest honor — on April 10. Jane wasn’t at all sure that Josh would agree to do this, but she was thinking like a publicist, and said that if we’d be willing to schedule the publication of the piece for April 8, the odds of his agreeing would increase. A double-whammy of publicity always works to a performer’s benefit.

    So, we deliberately held the piece until now. Heh heh. A small price to pay.

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  8. JEHigdon@aol.com

    Thought on Bell’s Performance/Comment
    I immediately thought about the timing of the Avery Fisher prize, because I noticed that Bell made the statement that he knew the answer to lasting recognition, long after he is gone from this planet, would only come if he were a composer, and that he really wants to compose. I wonder if the Subway experiment alerted him to how little a violinist out of context (meaning no paying audience/no publicity machine) means to the general public? It was a gutsy thing to do, playing in that subway…I don’t think it turned out quite like he thought it would. But I say YEA COMPOSERS! You are the history makers!

    Reply

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