Wednesday, April 11, 2007

What else are we missing?

Okay I know you are a little surprised to see a new post so soon after my last one. In fact the truth be told, I'm a little surprised myself. I mean, I did say that my blog posts would be few and far between. And that wasn't so long back, was it? But then again, I said a lot of other things that I had a hard time to adhere to. Therefore, you cannot hold me to that.

Anyway the reason for this rather hurried post was this article that I read in the Washington Post in the morning (Hat tip: Mohit). The first time I read it, I went through the whole thing at an incredible speed, devouring every word in absolute disbelief. It seemed preposterous that something like this could happen. In the heart of D.C. During rush hour with hundreds of thousands of morning commuters filing past him. I was shocked to say the least.

To quote bits from the article that caught my attention:

It was not until six minutes into the performance that someone actually stood against a wall, and listened. Things never got much better. In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. 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.

"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 awkward times," he calls them. It's what happens right after each piece ends: nothing. The music stops. The same people who hadn't noticed him playing don't notice that he has finished. No applause, no acknowledgment. So Bell just saws out a small, nervous chord -- the embarrassed musician's equivalent of, "Er, okay, moving right along . . ." -- and begins the next piece.

And the interesting bit:

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. Whites, 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.

And the reason?

People just said they were busy, had other things on their mind. Some who were on cellphones spoke louder as they passed Bell, to compete with that infernal racket.

"Couple of years ago, a homeless guy died right there. He just lay down there and died. The police came, an ambulance came, and no one even stopped to see or slowed down to look.
People walk up the escalator, they look straight ahead. Mind your own business, eyes forward. Everyone is stressed. Do you know what I mean?"

The conclusion:

We're busy. Americans have been busy, as a people, since at least 1831, when a young French sociologist named Alexis de Tocqueville visited the States and found himself impressed, bemused and slightly dismayed at the degree to which people were driven, to the exclusion of everything else, by hard work and the accumulation of wealth.


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?

I have since gone back and re-read the article atleast five times. Poring over each word. Checking out the video clips. Watching the way people were reacting. And asking myself the million dollar question. What if I had been there? I have passed the station a hundred times at least when I used to commute to work by the Metro. Would I have stopped in the middle of my mad morning rush when I heard a familiar tune? Would I have recognized my all time favorite artist even if it seemed like the most impossible thing in the world? Would I stand there in awe and disbelief and be able to talk to Joshua Bell? Up close and personal. Seems too good to be true. But it actually happened. And as I write this I am convinced that I would know him. Anywhere. Even in the middle of L' Enfant Plaza Metro station on a weekday morning.

But then again. We will never know, shall we?

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Blogger Mike Todd said...

Interesting story -- thanks for sharing! Maybe next time he should paint himself silver like a robot. That usually helps.

4:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

as someone else said to me, "having ears doesn't imply you are hearing"
it is simply amazing isn't it?

6:06 PM  
Blogger Tabula Rasa said...

do you follow the nanopolitan? abi's recently posted on this joshua bell story as well as on happiness -- the coincidence strikes me.

9:58 PM  
Blogger Sudarshan. A. G. said...

At the mention of the particular piece (Chaconne) the first thing I had to do was download it. As soon as I did that and continued reading the article listening to the impeccable Bach on my phones, I could barely feel the hustle bustle of the office around me.

I had to isolate myself. To make it an individual experience. The most I would've shared it would be with ppl I know who have similar taste.

Is Kant right? Is beauty just a colour applied to the senses according to the mental state of the beholder? A catalyst perhaps to achieve a state when we are receptive.

Would I have stopped? Frankly, knowing that I usually am late for work. Maybe not. But one never knows, does one? :)

1:25 AM  
Blogger Shuv said...

just one question..would it have happenned to britney spears?

2:52 AM  
Blogger Rohini said...

One of the most awesome things about the time I spend with my son is that he makes me slow down and listen and see. I couldn't walk fast with him if I try - we have examine every flower, car and bird that we happen to pass by.

4:35 AM  
Blogger Eroteme said...

I had read this earlier this week and couldn't stop smiling. The world has come to this... They will pay $100 to get a ticket to watch him perform but wouldn't spare $1 or even 10 minutes to hear him on the street!!
I doubt whether I would have recognised him... but I would have most likely stopped anyway. We used to have all kinds of odd musicians (even little kids slapping flat-stones together to the beat of Raja Hindustani) in Bombay. It was always a pleasure listening to some of them (and wishing that most of them would stop). I believe they still have street musicians in various parts of Europe and I read somewhere that a tavern/cafe allowed people to pay with their talent (dancing to the price of a doughnut is interesting!!).
And again we have kids proving that they are more complete!

7:53 AM  
Blogger M (tread softly upon) said...

@ mike yes, that usually helps :) Makes you wonder, huh?
@ mohit amazing yes. As well as outrageous and unbelievable. I'm still in shock.
@ t.r. I didn't, but may be now I will :)
@ a.g.s. glad you liked it. I listened to Josh Bell on my way to work this morning and as always the sheer passion and intensity drove me to tears. How can someone create music that is so phenomenal? Which is why I find it an absolute shame and an utterly disgrace that his performance went unnoticed at the Metro station.
@ shuv LOL with her shaven head and all probably not. Tells you so much about who we are as people.
@ rohini wouldn't it be wonderful to be kids again when we didn't have things to do, places to reach, a million different responsibilities? When we stop and admire and see and listen and feel. How wonderful that must be.
@ eroteme I guess our lives have been reduced to a mad rush. To achieve, to reach goals and get somewhere. In the same vein as my last post, a mad "pursuit" while the finer aspects of life just pass us by.

9:06 AM  
Blogger qsg said...

Wow... I guess, our lives are a little bit out of control. And frankly, there are so many fairly talented people playing at the train stations etc that you totally get immune to them...and even if someone had recognized him, they would have brushed it off as a misunderstanding! :)

9:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read the whole thing. I think it's completely unfair criticism on the receptiveness of us humans. I think musical cues are heavily dependent on familiarity and context. I also fail to see why they keep harping on "accoustics". I don't think it's a control parameter in this set-up at all. I'm sure if even a single line of Moonlight Sonata was played, people would have stopped and paid attention.

Music, however good, if unfamilier, needs time to percolate into your system.

10:21 AM  
Blogger Rohan Kumar said...

Even though the text is one of the best and most thought provoking pieces I have come across and it makes you think didnt it ever make you think whether about the sensationalist connotations of undertaking such an excercise

11:15 AM  
Blogger teardrop said...

I think it is basically summed up in:
"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?"

I am guessing it is a combination of them all. And a lack of time that you think could be wasted.

1:09 PM  
Blogger twip said...

I cant wrap my head around the fact that people.hurried.past.Joshua.Bell.

I mean, its freakin' Joshua Bell for cryin out loud!

*shakes head in disbelief*

4:19 PM  
Blogger APOO said...

I played the harmonium once on local trains in Mumbai and ended up with similiar results and Rs. 43.75.

Hence I conclude my musical skills are no different from those of Joshua Bell.


4:47 AM  
Blogger That Girl said...

My husband chose the job he is in now because he wanted to come home early so we could have some quality time together for more pleasant things.... we have never been money minded and i really thank God for that.
but yes... its really sad that people ( even in India and around the world) have no time for things like this...unless its staring them in the face kinda obvious. and even then... they would rather walk away from it.

8:07 AM  
Blogger M (tread softly upon) said...

@ qsg well that's what I've been asking myself, if I did see him and hear him play would I have believed that Josh Bell could be playing in the Metro station and there wouldn't be a crowd :) May be I'd think I was mistaken and walked on and later be forced to commit suicide for having done that :))
@ anon well the whole point of the exercise would have been defeated if he was playing familiar tunes which alone might have compelled people to stop. It wasn't about playing popular tunes. It was to see if people did hear what was out there for them to hear. If they recognized real good music. Irrespective of whether the artist was Joshua Bell. If they stop and listen, no matter who the person was, and appreciate it for what it is, and that is, pure genius.
And honestly one man's 'Moonlight Sonata' is anothers 'Chaconne'. Depends on what you are familiar with.
"Music, however good, if unfamilier, needs time to percolate into your system."
Not really. If it is good music you fall in love with it right away. And sometimes "unfamilar" bad music will stop people in their tracks. Get Britney Spears as someone mentioned. Or Sanjaya for that matter and I can assure you there would have to use tear gas to break the mob.
So I'm sorry, but there is NO excuse for what happened.
@ rohan agreed about the "sensationalist connotations ". But it was a psychological test and however sensational the connotations, the fact remains it proved everyone wrong. People did not recognize or notice. and even if they did notice they chose to ignore lest there was a demand on their "time and wallet", or both.
@ teardrop you are absolutely right. Thanks for stopping by.
@ megha LOL....yet it happened.
@ apoo or so it would seem :)
@ grafxgurl may be we are forgetting to appreciate the finer elements in life. It is always such a rat race to succeed and prosper and get ahead. The incident about the homeless guy who died and no one bothered to stop makes me shudder. What is the world coming to!

9:00 AM  
Blogger Little Miss Muffet said...

well, i guess i have to search for joshua bell's music online now and listen to i too much of a freak if i say i've never heard of him? ;) i don't think i would stop either to watch him play even if i liked the music..we all have someplace to get to, all the while..sigh! that is sad..

11:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I know you are a little surprised to see a new post so soon after my last one."
Surprised, yes. But very glad too. Hope to see you posting more often.

1:05 PM  
Blogger Prerona said...

read this a few days back - it was really surprising at first but after you think a bit ... its not, isnt it?

2:41 PM  
Blogger karmic said...

A friend of mine sent this article to me and is truly remarkable. You hit upon some very valid points. It is good to see a post from you. :)

10:28 AM  
Blogger Mike Todd said...

M, you might have already seen these, but I just stumbled upon the author's follow-up discussion to this article, and I thought you'd like to see it if you haven't already. Looks like many people had a similar reaction to that piece.

8:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reminds me of this poem Leisure by WH Davies

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty's glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

11:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Josh's family (myself included) found the "experiment" interesting and the discussions it has started are intriguing. Knowing Josh as I do I believe he undertook such a challenge to answer questions of worth which are deeply personal. And I also believe he found much about himself. The fact he was not recognized nor was the music recognized speaks volumes for the state of the art in art education in the US.

10:10 PM  
Blogger M (tread softly upon) said...

@ little miss muffet is sad. But do try and listen to his music. It will blow you away :)
@ anon well thank you :) and I'm keeping my fingers crossed for that too.
@ ricercar I find it sad. Really. And shocking too.
@ sanjay it is an eye opener. And nice seeing you here too.
@ mike hey thanks for posting the follow up link. I read that too. And isn't it funny how most of the responses posted were from people in the DC metro area (MD, DC and Northern VA)? Looks like the "experiment" struck a chord somewhere :)
@ the pilgrim yes that poem was quoted in the article itself in the same breath.
@ anonymous "Knowing Josh as I do " Jeez, who are you? I mean, really! I think I'm going to have a fit if anyone who knows Joshua Bell remotely would stop and read my blog. So please tell me this is a joke :)

9:25 AM  
Blogger lemon said...

whoa..seriously makes u realize how u can take life and everything in it for granted..

1:53 PM  
Blogger GhostOfTomJoad said...

I don't know if one can blame people for not stopping and, at the same time, I'm surprised they didn't...if you know what I mean. There's only a thin line dividing the two. But, really, this post can start a big discussion about at least two or three things I can think of right now :-)

Nice one!

6:33 AM  

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