Monday, April 09, 2007

Joshua Bell's experiment with "art without a frame"

For an experiment cooked up by the good folks at the Washington Post, Joshua Bell, one of the best violinists in the world, agrees to play some of the most exquisite pieces. Not just on any old violin, but one that was "handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari during the Italian master's "golden period."

And Bell agreed to play for free. Venue? Near the entrance of L'Enfant Plaza, one of the Metro stations in Washington DC.

Read it here.

* * *

Read The Situationist for, well, the situationist angle to this story.


  1. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    You beat me to posting that link :) But I disagree with the analogy with taking "one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly", and removing the frame. The fact is that people appreciate the classics -- Bach, Rembrandt -- and they don't appreciate modern art (what is that Kelly thing supposed to mean?) or music (Schoenberg sounds like noise to most people).

    I'm pretty sure that commuters in Europe, and indeed in New York, would stop to listen to an expert performance of Bach's Chaconne. I have seen appreciative crowds in Paris gather for much less inspired metro-station music. They would also stop to admire a Rembrandt or Monet (though they may assume it's a well-executed copy). This experiment says more about Washington DC than about human psychology.

    In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if, in some European cities, they also gathered to hear an expertly-played Schoenberg.. but the Kelly is a different matter. The picture linked on The Situationist looks like a practical joke, which it probably was, like much modern art.

  2. Anonymous said...

    I am really surprised! The few times I've heard musicians on the NYC subway, a crowd always gathers and there's applause on that tiny platform. Even for (and perhaps especially for) classical music.


  3. Tabula Rasa said...

    somwhat ot -- one of my most treasured moments is stepping out into the village from a friend's apartment at 1 am, streets glistening with freshly fallen rain, and hearing the strains of 'my favorite things' being played by a lone saxophonist way across the street.

    he was playing all by and for himself. we stood at a distance and drank it in.

  4. Abi said...

    Rahul, N!, TR: I'm sure we all love to listen to music that we 'know' to be fabulous -- when we have time.

    Let's face it: some of the things Bell played are 'obscure' (except to connoisseurs of Western classical music). And who would want to sit down and listen to music when one is in a terrific rush?

    While Bell may have attracted a crowd in other cities (NY or Paris), I somehow think it would have been an underwhelming one ...

  5. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    Abi - The Bach Chaconne is not obscure. And even if you don't recognise it, if you hear an expert performance you will undoubtedly be impressed. (I first heard it on a guitar recording by Julian Bream and it was astounding -- but even that doesn't compare with a really good performance on violin, the instrument it was intended for.)

  6. Niket said...

    another take on the WaPo article:
    (via Jason Kottke)

  7. Anonymous said...

    Abi; I don't know. The music just sounded very beautiful - in fact I think "knowing" that its western classical music makes it seems more esoteric than it is.

    But I agree with you in one respect. I'm annoyed that it got so much attention because there's some unspoken assumption that everyone should stop what they are doing and listen to Joshua Bell! On his $3.5 million Stradivarius!! Playing Bach!!! Western Classical Music Must Be Listened To!!!!

    It would have been more interesting if the people who passed by in the Metro had actually recently paid a hundred dollars to watch him perform. I mean, if people don't value Joshua Bell, they just don't. I don't see why they should because he lands up in the Metro.


  8. Rahul Siddharthan said...

    I mean, if people don't value Joshua Bell, they just don't.

    That's what I meant when I said this is a comment on DC. By analogy, would people stop and listen to a top-notch Indian classical performance, by a performer they didn't recognise, in an Indian train/metro station? My guess is -- no in Delhi, yes in Kolkata.

  9. Anonymous said...


    What you forget is that all the children who heard Bell were interested in him. That result seems independent of it being in Washington D.C. It depends rather on the childlike mindset. What is it that the adults have lost/suppressed that makes them not even look up? Sure, adults have adult responsibilities and are preoccupied by them. But that's the whole point: what quality of life have we lost thereby?

  10. M (tread softly upon) said...

    Followed a link given to me by tabula rasa to get here.
    "Let's face it: some of the things Bell played are 'obscure' (except to connoisseurs of Western classical music).
    Well one doesn't need to be a connoisseur of Western classical music to recognize 'genius'. I have no training in Western classical music yet the first time I heard Josh Bell on a CD I was sucked in. The passion he evokes drives me to tears everytime I hear him play. Every single time. It is amazing and I have no idea why. And honestly, when I listen to him play I feel like I am quite ready to accept death if it came knocking at my door that very moment. Completely fulfilled and at peace with myself.

    And who would want to sit down and listen to music when one is in a terrific rush?"
    Which is the point. We rush too much to notice the things that matter :)