Saturday, 27 April 2013

Another Piece of Cod Philosophy

In 2007 a brave experiment was conducted by the Washington Post Newspaper. It placed a world famous classical musician on the concourse of a busy commuter railway station in Washington DC to see what happened. The object of this piece of social research was directed towards perception, taste and priorities. The questions posed were:- Do we perceive and appreciate beauty in a commonplace environment at an unexpected hour? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

Joshua Bell, a violinist of prodigious talent, played for 45 minutes on a station concourse and was “rewarded” with tips of $32.17 in coinage chucked into his open violin case by passers-by. Bell played pieces composed by Bach, Schubert, Ponce and Massenet on his 1731 Stradivarius, a violin fabulous in sound quality and equally fabulous in value.

A thousand people passed by without so much as a nod in his direction. Only six individuals showed any sign of recognition of something unusual.

The experiment was written up by the newspaper to great acclaim and was awarded the 2008 Pulitzer Prize. The entire episode was also videoed.

And there it might have rested had it not also become a social media meme that crops up every so often for 36 hours of glory before disappearing into the fug below the “press for older posts” where it rattles around with soppy entreaties to “like” if you love your Mom/ Dad/ Daughter/ Son; or “share” if you know someone with a life threatening disease, or “comment” on a silly photo to see what happens 6 seconds later.

The social media post is a turgid description of this experiment that draws a possible but frankly improbable conclusion that If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?” Needless to say this is picked up, shaken and stirred, shared and mooned over by chattering facebookers, gets gallons of “likes” and disappears  for another 6 months.

There are a couple of things that intrigue me about this extraordinary affair; this happening, and its consequences.

Primarily is the fact that far from being a happening, very little of note did happened. A world famous violinist played on a railway station for 45 minutes and very few people noticed. This is worse in a way than absolutely nothing happening. An event damned by a faint spark of a little bit of happening.

Secondly I am not in the least surprised that very little happened - but the Washington Post published a prize winning article about it, and the “event” has become a part-time internet viral meme. So I decided to read the article to try and understand what I was missing.

Initially I started with a sense of awe at the task that the journalist had set himself - the jaw dropping job of scaling the Everest heights of nothingness to create something. 7,300 valiant words later nothing of any real substance emerged.

The article reports that one of the few who noticed the violinist was a 3 year old boy being dragged along by his flustered mother who hurried the reluctant child away from his fascination with the violinist. He was one of a number of similarly captivated children. Another was a man who when interviewed said he recognised the nuances of a classical musician’s style as distinct from a busking fiddler because he had trained as a violinist as a child. A third was the only person who actually recognised Joshua Bell because she happened to have been at a concert given by him three weeks earlier. There is just one person who actually dallied a while to listen to the music.
Classical fingering - from a violinist's view
Fiddler fingering - as seen by a busker

There is a mild philosophical discussion in the article invoking Immanuel Kant, place and context; and the first two lines of one of my favourite poems is quoted: -

What is this life if full of care
We have no time to stand and stare
              From “Leisure”, by W.H. Davies
There is mild lip service in parts of the article to the sadness that modern life leaves little room for the acknowledgement and wonderment of beauty, and the article concludes – with no conclusion.

I don’t really know what the Washington Post was setting out to do. Did they honestly think that they would elicit any meaningful response from this exercise?

The fact that a child was drawn to the musician is hardly unusual. Children are naturally attracted to anything out of the ordinary and stimulating, it’s in their nature. An ex-instrumentalist will notice another musician playing a familiar instrument. To spot someone recently seen on the stage in a more mundane situation (albeit in this instance performing out of context) happens all the time in a large city. Buskers are common in every cosmopolitan urban thoroughfare.

I can see no useful conclusion being drawn from this rather daft exercise. However once it hits the firmament of social networks all sense flies out of the window. Suddenly this experiment takes on the heavy and unsupportable mantle of a creed to the waste of modern life and the fact that we can somehow no longer see or hear beauty of such exquisite delicacy when it is staring us in the face, because we have no time to stand and stare. This, in the sphere of social media becomes a mantra that we can be self righteous about and mentally flagellate ourselves for a couple of hours, and then forget about it.

The fact is that a famous violinist who is unlikely to be recognized outside the concert hall, played a piece of music the complexity of which would only be understood by a fraction of the population, on a fabulously valuable instrument the subtle tones of which are unlikely to be recognized in a concert hall let alone an acoustically challenged railway station.  This happened in a context so far removed from the normal milieu of such a performance that the very meaning, ambience, and environment removes any artistic subtlety and renders it mundane.

A violin, that isn't a Stradivarius, and a
Rhino that is actually carved out of rock, but
neither the worse for that and both splendid!

For some reason failing to recognize the combination of fame, high value, and Bach coming together on an echoic railway station concourse is a sign of our inability to perceive and appreciate beauty. This is utter rubbish and a daft piece of cod philosophy which actually says more about the social media chatterers who are responsible for perpetuating this balderdash than it does about perceptions and appreciation of beauty in commonplace circumstances.

I can think of far better tests of perceptions and appreciation of art and beauty and vouchsafe that they would elicit a surprisingly positive set of results. And I wonder what other ideas people have for such experiments.

Cross cultural harmony - Chopin and Tibetan singing bowls.
The Prelude is in D Major & the largest bowl is within
a whisker of D.
A not-quite Strad rests comfortably with Asian harmonic
bowls among African metal sculpture in a bed of herbs.
What potential magic! 


As a post script - this experiment was also carried out in 1930. A famous violinist played incognito on a railway station. In fact he played two of the pieces that were played by Joshua Bell in similar circumstances in 2007. The results of the experiment were strikingly similar, which is to say very little happened.  But the real story is that the 1930 violinist, Jacques Gordon, played a Stradivarius violin that was later to be owned by Joshua Bell and sold on in order to buy the instrument on which he performed on the station concourse in 2007.

Now that’s a story, but it’s neither cute enough nor banal enough to become a social media meme – I hope!

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