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.
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 (worth $3.5 million dollars) 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?
Three minutes went by before something happened. Sixty-three people had already passed when, finally, there was a breakthrough of sorts. A middle-age man altered his gait for a split second, turning his head to notice that there seemed to be some guy playing music. Yes, the man kept walking, but it was something.
A half-minute later, Bell got his first donation. A woman threw in a buck and scooted off. 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 45 minutes that Joshua Bell played:-
- 7 people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute
- 27 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
- 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
- 1 person recognized Joshua Bell
- 1 person, recognized a ‘superb violinist’ playing. He was a fan of Joshua Bell but didn’t recognize him as he hadn’t seen a recent photo
IF A GREAT MUSICIAN PLAYS GREAT MUSIC BUT NO ONE HEARS . . . WAS HE REALLY ANY GOOD?
It’s an old epistemological debate, older, actually, than the koan about the tree in the forest. Plato weighed in on it, and philosophers for two millennia afterward: What is beauty? Is it a measurable fact (Gottfried Leibniz), or merely an opinion (David Hume), or is it a little of each, colored by the immediate state of mind of the observer (Immanuel Kant)?
If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments …..
How many other things are we missing?
Some facts on Joshua Bell:
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.
This is a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.
- Angels & Demons Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, 2009
- Joshua Bell, featured violinist
- Music composed by Hans Zimmer
- Antonio Vivaldi: The Four Seasons, Sony BMG Masterworks, 2008
- The Red Violin Concerto, Sony BMG Masterworks, 2007