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April 10, 2007

Filed under: music»performance»busking

Violins in the Media

Have you seen this ridiculously pretentious article from the Washington Post Magazine? The writer got an award-winning classical violinist to play in a downtown Metro station here in DC, then put a camera on it to see how many people stopped to listen. Not surprisingly, no-one did, a fact that the author milks for all kinds of "why has beauty died?" angst.

It's possible to respond to this rationally: to mention, for example, that the people walking through L'Enfant Plaza station are probably going to work at the Department of Transportation, the FAA, the Department of Energy, or any of other government agencies located nearby, and if they're late they could be fired. They don't necessarily have time to listen to music, no matter how good it is. That would even be true if they're riding an efficient, reliable underground system, which (as any visitor to the city can attest) the DC metro is emphatically not.

You could also point out, to the author's snotty suggestion that every child stopped while every parent urged their wayward offspring on, that children also enjoy stopping to talk to crazy homeless people and eat candy that they find on the ground. Children are not flawless barometers of musical enchantment. When I was a kid I listened to Wee Sing and watched Ernest movies, but I don't see anyone suggesting that we should install the corpse of Jim Varney with a recording of folk songs in Metro stations. Kids in that part of town mean that the parents have to drop them off at daycare before work, which no doubt makes the family schedule less flexible.

Don't forget to take note of the "high culture" snobbishness of the article. How dare those lowlife office workers not recognize the genius of this world-class violinist, playing the greatest music ever made? Except of course that beyond a certain level of competency, hardly anyone ever notices the subtleties of musicianship. Most people are not musicians. They don't care that someone added a fine semi-tone quaver to a phrase, or that you did something tricky in the dorian mode there (good job, by the way!). Even many music buffs do not really notice the intricacies of a given tone or instrument. Especially, I want to stress, in a Metro station.

And is this the greatest music ever made? That's a little Eurocentric, isn't it? Why didn't the Post put a great tabla--or gamelan, or mbira--player into the Metro station? Perhaps because that music would be something a little more out of the ordinary. People might have actually stopped for that--still not many, during a morning rush hour, but a few. And then no-one gets to write a condescending article about it.

But I think the best response to the article that I've seen is from composer Richard Einhorn, a.k.a. Tristero at Hullaballoo. He writes that we should do this more often:

Let's get other great musicians play in public spaces anonymously and unannounced. It's what the Beatles did in Liverpool. It's what Bach did every Sunday, and at the coffee-house Collegium in Leipzig. Branford Marsalis, Zakir Husain, Rory Block, Leila Josefowicz, my God, there are so many great ones! Let's get this music-making in front of people, so it becomes part of their lives. The problem isn't with people's ability to understand anything but the most insipid music around. The problem is that great music is too hard to find, too hard to learn about, too hard to hear live.

Exactly. And perhaps more importantly, let's stop putting those great musicians on pedestals in expensive auditoriums, where only the rich can pay to see them, and the price tag grants them a gleam of exclusivity far in advance of their talents. I'm not denigrating great musicians. I'm not saying that Joshua Bell's playing isn't a thing of great value. But instead, consider how terrible it is that most people will never really listen to this kind of music because it is presented poorly and to only a privileged few--or moreover, how discouraging it is for most people that good musicians are seen as untouchable (and unattainable) for the common man.

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