Real Good for Free
Violinist Joshua Bell‘s virtuosity is so renowned that Interview magazine once said that his playing “does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live.” A few months ago, Bell walked into a D.C. subway station, flipped open his violin case, and played his heart out for spare change — on a $3.5 million 1713 Stradivarius.
The goal of the Washington Post experiment was to find out whether people would stop and listen to him play, or trudge right past like they would any street musician, nose to the ground, mind on the day’s tasks to come. You can guess at the outcome:
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.
Bell: “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.
Wittgenstein, somewhere in the Philosophical Investigations, relates an anecdote about a man out hunting who raises his rifle when a leaf blows across the road, apparently because his mind is prepared for the movement of small brown things. Likewise, some wine aficionados can apparently be hornswaggled into thinking wines taste better or worse than their pedigrees would indicate, just by swapping the label on the bottle, or by adding food coloring to the wine. Tweaking inputs to the other senses, or messing with expectations set by the “language game” (Wittgenstein’s term for the linguistic context of a subculture, such as the ones belonging to music or wine lovers) can concretely affect actual perceptions.So we can only really hear what we’re prepared to hear, and we’re permanently ready to miss the greatness that swirls around us. Without context cues prompting you to like or dislike something, genius may slip right under your nose.
Paying $200 for a ticket to hear Joshua Bell perform may well be an act of tuning your mind to a receptive frequency.How do your presets about musical genres affect your readiness to hear things “as they really are?” (whatever that means). Speaking for myself, I can say that spending the late 70s in high school wearing a “Disco Sucks” pin on a vintage store jackets absolutely ruined my ability to appreciate the greatness of Donna Summer and Rufus. Only in retrospect did I realize how much greatness had slipped through my fingers because I was so busy believing I “hated” disco.
(OK, maybe I wasn’t totally wrong about disco).
If you’ve got no space on your mental shelf for heavy metal, have you deafened yourself to the majesty of “War Pigs”?
If you love “any kind of music, as long as it’s not country,” will you ever know how much you’ve missed for never having been swept downstream by “Cool Water?”
Myself? I’ve got a mental block bigger than a barn, suffering from the delusion that The Minutemen were the last great rock and roll band.
I pretty much turned off the new music circuit in the mid-80s, got into jazz and weird shit, started mining history rather than the present, and switched off the new music receiver in my brain. God knows how many great notes I’ve missed on the way to becoming stuck. I’m working on that now.
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? –Gene Weingarten, Washington Post
Joni Mitchell, Real Good for Free:
Nobody stopped to hear him,
though he played so sweet and high.
They knew he had never been on their TV
so they passed his good music by.
I meant to go over and ask for a song,
maybe put on a harmony.
I heard his refrain as that signal changed,
he was still playing real good for free.