I have had several people send me a link to the Washington Post story earlier this week about Joshua Bell busking at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington, D.C.
For those who haven’t heard the story, the Washington Post‘s Gene Weingarten (usually thought of as a humor writer) arranged a social science experiment of sorts with Josh Bell as the subject (or was the Metro station crowd the subject?) during a morning rush hour in January. The idea was to see if the great masterworks of classical music could permeate through the din and the chaos of everyday American life to touch and move people. Would people stop and listen? Would they throw a few bucks his way?
In short, the answer was no. A little over a thousand people passed by him that morning, and guess what his tips totaled?
A whopping 35 bucks.
The article in the Post does a great job of analyzing this experiment, with Mr. Weingarten bringing in the likes of Leonard Slatkin (one of the contributors to Drew McManus’ TAFTO essay initiative, along with yours truly). Here’s a brief quote from Mr. Slatkin:
“Let’s assume,” Slatkin said, “that he is not recognized and just taken for granted as a street musician . . . Still, I don’t think that if he’s really good, he’s going to go unnoticed. He’d get a larger audience in Europe . . . but, okay, out of 1,000 people, my guess is there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening.”
So, a crowd would gather?
And how much will he make?
To me, the fact that almost nobody stopped to listen is not surprising in the least. Classical music is an incredibly contextual art form, and taking it out of a concert hall (or outdoor stage, or radio broadcast, or any other context in which people have decided to sit down and listen to this piece of music) and thereby stripping it of its context greatly diminishes its impact.
Vaudeville works great in train stations, street corners, and other area with huge numbers of people moving from point A to point B. The further one gets from vaudeville (and Josh Bell made a conscious decision in his repertoire to not put on a dog and pony show), the harder it is to get Mr. Regular to stop and watch.
Getting U.S. commuters to notice and appreciate great art on the way to work is like climbing a mountain of banana peels–a losing battle and highly unsatisfying. Americans in ‘work mode’ with their newspapers out and their iPod headphones jammed into their ears are not what I would call a receptive audience. In other circumstances? Sure. But not this way. Mr. Weingarten makes note of this, interviewing National Art Gallery curator Mark Leithauser about how visual art would fare under similar circumstances. Here are Mark’s words:
“Let’s say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, past the giant columns, and brought it into a restaurant. It’s a $5 million painting. And it’s one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: ‘Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.'”
I agree 100%.
Just in case you haven’t heard Joshua Bell perform before, here is a recording of him playing some Bloch (sorry, no video):
It is interesting to hear Josh’s reaction to having folks basically not pay attention to him:
“It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah . . .”
The word doesn’t come easily.
“. . . ignoring me.”
Bell is laughing. It’s at himself.
“At a music hall, I’ll get upset if someone coughs or if someone’s cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change.” This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.
The classical music blogosphere has been passing this story around like hotcakes. Here are some notable blog posts from different corners of the classical music world:
….from Alex Ross – The Fiddler of L’Enfant Plaza
….from oboeinsight – Would I Hear? Would I Stop? Would I Listen?
….from Musical Perceptions – Bell’s Hell and from Bell to Lebrecht in 8.2 seconds
….from Jessica Duchen – When Josh went busking…
….from Create Digital Music – Joshua Bell plays the DC subway
Thanks to Matt Murray, Jacque Harper, and Kells Nollenberger for sending me a link to this story.