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Pearls Before Breakfast

My friend Jeff pointed me to this article in the Washington Post. I think it’s a great read, but it’s long, and the videos are worth watching – it will take you 10 or 15 minutes to get through.

As a stunt, they put a world-class violinist in a Washington DC subway station to see if anyone noticed. The reporters interviewed dozens of people for a “commuting story,” and the whole thing was filmed. The question is whether or not he distinguishes himself. The classical music critics say that he is great. Is that validated by the subway crowd? Does his greatness come through? Can he create a crowd, just by being there and being very good?

The short answer is essentially no: pretty much nobody notices or cares. But there are exceptions, and they are interesting. Kids are fascinated. A couple people know they are getting something special, even if they don’t know what it is. Looking at the video I strongly suspect I’d be one of the people blowing past without a thought. I’m certain I wouldn’t be paying $100 to see him in person, either. But still, if you told me I who I was walking past, I would stop and listen. I’d be affected by the “name” more than the music.

There is some interesting commentary in the article about how great art is defined. The whole experiment made me think about New Orleans Jazz Fest. I go to the fest headliners because they’re headliners, and sometimes they’re great and sometimes they’re iffy. I also wander around and stop for a song or two from a few dozen artists. Sometimes those snippets reel me in. I have entire sections of my music library that I found stumbling around the New Orleans Fairgrounds. Of course, it’s still a question of context – it’s a jazzfest afterall, not the subway, and I’m ready to listen. But still, the headline didn’t matter. The music did.


Comment from Jeff
Time: April 24, 2007, 9:16 am

This article affected me greatly, which is why I pointed it out to Dan and others. I almost wanted to cry when I read it. I read a followup chat with the author who mentioned that he was overwhelmed with email responses to it, many of whom mentioned wanting to cry after reading the article as well, and he wanted to know why? I think the reason is that it was a gut-punch reminder of how often we hurry through life to get to the next thing and miss what’s already in front of us — both me personally, and humanity in general. I normally don’t reflect on that, or really give a damn about it, so when something in the specific area of music highlights that for me, it can be particularly effective.