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09 April 2007

Listen to the found music

“They teach you there's a boundary line to music. But man, there's no boundary line to art.” – Charlie Parker

Newspaper_in_a_stackOh, my. Oh, my.

Sometimes reading the Sunday newspapers is a pedestrian affair, except – of course - for that occasional heart-stopping moment when you think you actually know the answer to 8-Down in the Times crossword puzzle, only to be thwarted. I’ll get you, Will Shortz and your college degree in Enigmatology. One day when you least expect it, I’ll get you. 8-Down will be mine.

Our dining room table always quickly covers on Sunday with sales circulars from Best Buy, ubiquitous Target ads for things that don’t even approximate “need,” coupons for toxic global warming inducing cleaning products that will expire the day before I try to redeem them, and obituaries that I always read for three reasons: 1) to see if anyone I know has died, 2) to see if people’s ages when they died still seem a long way off or are getting too close for comfort, and 3) to clip those really memorable obituaries, like the one about the inventor of Snap, Crackle, Pop. That was a particularly good one, along with Lavern Lorenz’s and the one subtitled “Safecracker.”

Today, the first paper we tackled was the local one, the one recently redesigned to move any hint of national and world news to the nether regions of the "B" section. Mr Brilliant, incensed by the editorial changes (and evidently indulging some inner need about which we dare not speculate), spent most of his bagel counting the number of words in the “A” section: a mere 4,250 words in eight pages. “That’s just 250 words more than the 2-page spread of obituaries in the same section!” he reports with disbelief, peering over his Glasses For Mature Eyes. “Of those 4,250 words, less than 1% had four syllables or more, particularly if you exclude the word ‘commissioner,’ state names, and the names of churches!” I turned slowly to look at him. “The only six syllable word was ‘meteorologist!’ and the world news IN THE "B" SECTION added up to only 660 words, total! TOTAL!” he fairly well screamed. Tess stopped playing with my her talking Johnny Depp doll. Emma subtly pushed her earphones deeper into her left ear canal, then her right. I pretended I was choking.

Newspapers_2And so, newspaper reading at our house on Sundays is serious business—no less than the Asheville Citizen-Times, the New York Times, the Charlotte Observer, the Atlanta Constitution, and the Washington Post will do. The only thing missing is the wonderful L.A. Times which appears beyond the scope of possibility in this mountain burg, what with it evidently being outside the global marketplace and all. Too often these Sunday morning news fests are tinged with a dearth of compelling reading. Oh, sure, Sunday mornings are usually redeemed by the Times Book Review, but today. Ah, today. Today those wacky folks at the Washington Post outdid themselves:

“He emerged from the Metro at the L’Enfant Plaza station and positioned himself against a wall beside a trash basket. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.

It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by…

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?

On that Friday in January, those private questions would be answered in an unusually public way. No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities -- as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

Now that the season premiere of The Sopranos is over and I have recovered from my deep and unrelenting disappointment over it, I can focus on how struck I was by questions of context, perception, priorities – and recognitions.

Joshua_bell_by_chris_lee_504_2It was none other than acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell playing for almost 45 minutes at that Metro stop, one of the most revered musicians of our time.

“Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.”

They didn’t even break stride.

How do I know if a book is good, or a movie is worth seeing or recommending? How do I know if Joshua Bell is a drug addict with a fiddle at the top of the Metro escalator or the recipient of the Avery Fisher award as the best classical musician in America (and why should that matter)? We are like a former boss of mine who didn't know the speeches his staff wrote for him were funny until he delivered them and the audience laughed.

Oprah’s book club (hell, everything Oprah touches) is shorthand for the ways in which we look to others to tell us “this is good.” Sometimes even our own self-worth is dependent on the assessment of others, isn’t it? They like my work, they really do, we say to ourselves. What about standing up and liking our own work, I wonder sometimes. Why isn’t that enough? We are creatures of reputation, aren’t we? 

Joshua_bell3_2I don’t think this is a story about recognizing Joshua Bell. I don’t even think it’s a story about appreciating classical music, or not. I think, like the writer of the article, that it is a question of context, perception, and priorities. It’s about paying attention. To see the art that’s happening all around me, all the time, I’d have to pay attention. That’s what I’d have to do, first. I’d have to really pay attention. I would need to be mindful in a way that vacuuming Cheerios out of the carpet—or rushing to a Metro train—doesn’t seem to support. In relying on others to set context, tell us what’s good, inform our perceptions, are we abdicating our own responsibility to listen, to read, to see? Are we giving up our own creative power for others to deny or support?

Context and Perception

Circumstance is context, in a way. To divorce the thing itself – the piece of art, the novel, the symphony – from what people expect of it is nearly impossible. I go to the symphony hall and I expect to be reverential. Not so in the L’Enfant Metro Stop. The same rules of civilization don’t apply there. I go to see the Mona Lisa, but not a more skillful painting hanging next to it. What have we given up to reputation, I wonder.

I have rules inside my head that tell me (most days) what to do and not do, what to expect and not expect, what to see and not see. They keep me from running madly through the streets, as if there were real danger of that, but they also program me in ways that make me walk past Joshua Bell, homeless people, and perfectly good shampoo, reaching for the brand that Oprah chooses instead.

Is it the art (or the person) itself we respond to? Or is it merely the packaging, the sales job, the acclaim that may or may not jive with our owned lived experience? We abdicate our own judgment. We look around for others to validate our lived experience.

We are herd animals.

On whom are we depending for our news of what is valuable, dangerous, artistic?


Break_strideThere is a piece of me that knows my place in the Joshua Bell D.C. Metro experiment video. I would hope that I would stop, but I know deep down that I might not have. Having lived and commuted by Metro in D.C. for over 20 years, like those in the videos rushing pass this virtuoso playing a $3.5 million 1713 "Gibson ex Huberman" Stradivarius. I likely would have passed him by, late for a Very Important Meeting to Discuss the Epistemological Devolutionary Nature of Blah Blah Blah. I know that, so I can hardly watch the videos accompanying the story on the Post website. There, there I am, I’m that woman rushing past, irritated by the racket so early in the morning. I’m the frazzled one dragging the toddler to the Metro stairs. (Or maybe not. Perhaps I wouldn’t have recognized him, but would have recognized Art. I hope so. I so hope. I want to be the woman near the end who stands still and listens, people flowing by her to the escalators; she becomes a buoy in a river of people, steadfast, smiling, alone, holding on her solitary shoulders the communal experience of that artistic moment.)

"A onetime child prodigy, at 39 Joshua Bell has arrived as an internationally acclaimed virtuoso. Three days before he appeared at the Metro station, Bell had filled the house at Boston's stately Symphony Hall, where merely pretty good seats went for $100. Two weeks later, at the Music Center at  Strathmore, in North Bethesda, he would play to a standing-room-only audience so respectful of his artistry that they stifled their coughs until the silence between movements. But on that  Friday in January, Joshua Bell was just another mendicant, competing for the attention of busy people on their way to work.

Bell's been accepting over-the-top accolades since puberty: Interview magazine once said his playing ‘does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live.’

In his 2003 book, Timeless Beauty: In the Arts and Everyday Life, British author John Lane writes about the loss of the appreciation for beauty in the modern world.

The experiment at L'Enfant Plaza may be symptomatic of that, he said -- not because people didn't have the capacity to understand beauty, but because it was irrelevant to them.

"This is about having the wrong priorities," Lane said.

If we can't take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that -- then what else are we missing?"

There is art all around us, it seems to me. Art that hasn’t been validated, critiqued, reviewed, summarized, or condensed for our conspicuous consumption, but big real living art. Art in which we can hear our very heartbeat. Hear it, see it, stop for it. Don’t wait to sit in $100 seats to appreciate it. Engage. 

Read the article. You’ll find one of my favorite people quoted in it.

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

Jbell2We've have lost touch with our art, or put it in some separate place. We need to reengage with it.

Matisse has written that “There are flowers everywhere, for those who bother to look.” Joshua Bell may not be playing at your local Metro stop, but the chances are that someone is. We have to make room in our lives for found music, not the music that was planned and we were told is good, but the notes on the street, the art that emerges from children or an artfully set table. Slow it way down.

“There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. White, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups.

But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.”

Be pulled by a small child. Allow yourself to be surprised. Take out your iPod earbuds. Follow the lead of children who strained to see Joshua Bell play, pulling against their busy parents. Stand still. Listen. Listen to your own heartbeat, not that of critics or the expected. Be late for that happy budget meeting, just this once. Be prepared to be delighted. Expect to be awed. Even in rush hour.

[What I was thinking about last year this time: Blow bubbles and Eat slowly and thank the chef]


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Whew! your post here has sparked some good discussion in our household--since one member--(my partner, Larry)--is a folk musician, and he has done his share of busking over the years.
One thing I have learned living with a musician is that one ALWAYS stops and listens to any music being played on the street (or the subway) and Larry certainly would have recognized the sound of the extraordinary violen and violenist. I have a theory about perception and awareness---I have noticed that some musicians --being more auditory oriented--- tend to ignore the visuals in their houses or surroundings. For instance, I am more of a visually oriented person than auditory-so that is what I always notice first, then sounds--Larry is the opposite--he notices sounds first. He would have stopped (and probably asked to see the violen and what make it was)---I might have stopped--but I would have certainly stopped and looked at an artist painting a painting in the subway. Yes, this is a question of awareness...and appreciation for beauty...and our tendency to just walk past the extraordinary. I think our culture has trained us to tune out most of the time---our culture is so noisy and even visually in your face so much of the time--we just tune out to protect ourselves from the onslought. Once I went to stay in a friend's cabin in a small remote island town in Southeast Alaska. I deliberately did not take any radio, or tape player or any way of electronically playing music or spoken word, (the cabin had no electricity). The second morning there, I was enjoying the early morning bird calls and forest sounds, when I kept hearing this buzzing sound--thinking it was an outboard motor on a skiff--I went and looked to see who was coming to visit-but no one was there. However, after a while---I figured out the buzzing was coming from my own head! It took just over 48 hours for this buzzing to go away--so the all I heard was the birds and wind in the trees--and the natural sounds of the wilderness that surrounded the cabin. I just figured that I had somehow acculmated enough of "civilized" noise pollution, that I had to spend a few days without human generated noise---to get all that noise out of my head, and be able to just hear nature. How many people in our culture have the experience of just hearing nature in the wilderness? of natural silence? no wonder they tune out...

I came across this article too and was was filled with many thoughts. In a general sense it reminds me that there is magic everywhere around us each and every moment.
We do just need to stop and smell the roses, listen to the music, put our feet up, and be kind to one another.

Will Shortz is my hero. I miss listening to him on Weekend Edition.

Will Shortz is my hero. I miss listening to him on Weekend Edition.

Too often I've found myself waiting to see what the general consensus is before forming my opinion, but living longer teaches me to decide for myself, to risk liking something first. I had a long conversation with a girlfriend today about trusting our own voices, seeing the value of our art. It makes me more aware of the beauty that surrounds us every day.

WOW. I just finished reading the article and watching the videos. (I was wondering how they were going to work Johnny Depp into the story...oh, THAT favorite person...) ;) This hits so close to home on so many levels. The inevitable question J. gets when people learn he's been a professional musician since childhood..."Who do you play with? Anyone I would know?" As if his musicianship (which is top-notch) can only be validated by rubbing elbows with marquee names who command certain ticket prices (whether or not they're even very talented). I lean both ways on this issue. Because it's so hard to make living as a musician in our society, I often stop to listen and give money. But if I'm in a 'I don't have time for this' mood, I will easily walk right by with no eye contact and sniff silently that they can't be very good or they wouldn't be busking. In those moments I AM those people I find so annoying when they're quizzing my mate. On the most personal level, I felt the sting of familiarity when I realized reading your post how often I pooh-pooh praise that comes my way...I judge myself so harshly because I don't measure up by other people's standards...yet I've spent my life fleeing from the constraints of them. I am the innocent AND the guilty in this story. Much food for thought here.

Mr. Brilliant needs a hobby so that he doesn't spend time counting words in a newspaper.

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