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April 09, 2007

It's The Tiniest Violin In The World, Playing Just For You, High Culture

The Washington Post article placing a world class violinist at the entrance to a Metro station and seeing if anyone noticed certainly sounds annoying, but also totally brilliant. That there's some darn fine gimmick writing. After all, if you want to write a crotchety essay on how the world moves too damn fast and music is too damn loud and nobody listens to classical anymore and cell phones are ugly, you've got, to paraphrase Lionel Trilling, an irritable mental gesture masquerading as an article idea. If you want to place a famed violinist at a subway stop and see if anyone notices, however, you've got a scene, color, a gimmick. And, since you've already stacked the deck by putting your civilized human bait at a Metro stop, where we've all been conditioned to ignore the music and have to get wherever we're going anyway, your essay can write itself. So annoying as the piece sounds, my hat's off to the writer. The force is strong in that one.

Update: From the article's description of Joshua Bell, the violinist:

Bell's a heartthrob. Tall and handsome, he's got a Donny Osmond-like dose of the cutes, and, onstage, cute elides into hott.

"Hott?" I thought that was an intentional online misspelling meant to seem funny. Will the Washington Post start referring to "the internets," or information on the interweb, now?

Update the Second: This, however, is some really annoying writing:

In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven 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.[...]

It was all videotaped by a hidden camera. You can play the recording once or 15 times, and it never gets any easier to watch. Try speeding it up, and it becomes one of those herky-jerky World War I-era silent newsreels...Even at this accelerated pace, though, the fiddler's movements remain fluid and graceful; he seems so apart from his audience -- unseen, unheard, otherworldly -- that you find yourself thinking that he's not really there. A ghost.

Only then do you see it: He is the one who is real. They are the ghosts.

Oh, shut up.

April 9, 2007 | Permalink


Joshua Bell is reasonably attractive, but that description is certainly doing him no favors.

Posted by: weboy | Apr 9, 2007 2:42:24 PM

"Hott?" I thought that was an intentional online misspelling meant to seem funny"

It could've been worse. They could have referred to him as being so hawt that he ought to be in pr0n movies, and talked about him pwning other violinists.

Posted by: Petey | Apr 9, 2007 2:48:18 PM

All your violinists are belong to us.

Posted by: Petey | Apr 9, 2007 2:53:57 PM

So, folks at a Metro station were more interested in getting to work than stopping to listen to music?

It's time tp up the stakes a bit: I think "mime in an ER waiting room" would be a nice follow-up.

Posted by: Craigo | Apr 9, 2007 2:56:52 PM

Petey, Petey: It's pr0n, with a zero. Don't bring that here unless you're going FTW.

Posted by: Craigo | Apr 9, 2007 2:58:20 PM

You can count on one hand the number of classical musicians who are famous enough to be recognized on the street. And Bell, as good as he is, is not one of them.

Posted by: fiat lux | Apr 9, 2007 2:59:15 PM

I've been busking for a long time. This is just the reality of it. Most people ignore you, some stick around for a few minutes, a few will make a donation, and only rarely does anyone approach you to tell you they appreciate what you're doing.

It's really an issue of their time, not your music.

Posted by: benny | Apr 9, 2007 3:01:16 PM

"Will the Washington Post start referring to "the internets," or information on the interweb, now?"

im in ur metro station, playing music 4 ur d00ds

Posted by: NonyNony | Apr 9, 2007 3:13:22 PM

I wonder what they had him play. I suspect that if he started playing A Little Night Music or Pachelbel's Canon he would end up getting a pretty good reaction. If they had him play random concerti that only concert buffs would recognize, then of course no one paid attention.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Apr 9, 2007 3:13:34 PM

"I wonder what they had him play."

Oddly enough, they had him play Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody over and over again.

Posted by: Petey | Apr 9, 2007 3:18:22 PM

Tourist: Excuse me, how do you get to the Metro station?
Local: Practice.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Apr 9, 2007 3:25:52 PM

Tom Hilton wins.

Posted by: nolo | Apr 9, 2007 3:31:45 PM

Bipolar much?

Will the second update judgement be a pan of the article and writer?

Some mangles of Am. English are a good idea. Hott makes it clear that the person isn't above temperature or overdone on the capsaicinoids, but instead are yummy or something. For all the richness of English, in some areas we have a dearth of degree expressions. Example: friend.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Apr 9, 2007 3:39:33 PM

Oddly, the author never considers the possibility that perhaps Bell isn't that much better than the standard subway busker.

Posted by: collin | Apr 9, 2007 3:41:05 PM

Bell played the Chaconne in D for Unaccompanied Violin, by J. S. Bach.

It's nice, so go pirate yourself a copy buy it somewhere if you want to hear it

Posted by: Julian Elson | Apr 9, 2007 3:44:35 PM

More than annoying. That kind of contrived, muted spleen is just an invitation to the reader to join the author in a posture of presumed superiority. What next? Famous painters at work expressway medians while the blind, spiritually dead cattle hurtle past?

Posted by: W.B. Reeves | Apr 9, 2007 3:48:35 PM

"Hott?" I thought that was an intentional online misspelling meant to seem funny. Will the Washington Post start referring to "the internets," or information on the interweb, now?

You reap what you sow, Ezra. The internet has peed in the swimming pool of language; it can't complain that the water smells funny now.

As an aside, I prefer the "Ezra Klein is middlebrow and damn proud of it!" posts that revolve around romantic comedies and lame sitcoms.

Posted by: Christmas | Apr 9, 2007 3:56:10 PM

Annoying, snobbish articles and laughable field studies aside, there are some pretty important political-philosophical writings on the loss of high culture and its effects on contemporary culture/politics.
see Adorno's The Culture Industry or Jameson's The Cultural Turn.

But posting that may be a bit snobbish in itself.

Posted by: alexb | Apr 9, 2007 3:56:44 PM

Oddly, the author never considers the possibility that perhaps Bell isn't that much better than the standard subway busker.

Word, just like Miles Davis wasn't really any better than your average pizza-parlor Dixieland trumpeter, and Kobe Bryant probably isn't any better than your average playground hoops hustler.

Kevin Drum's comment section is chock full of ill-informed philistinism, but you beat them all with this comment.

Posted by: kth | Apr 9, 2007 4:00:26 PM

Oddly, the author never considers the possibility that perhaps Bell isn't that much better than the standard subway busker.

That's because he clearly is.

Let's accept that we can't look at what happened on January 12 and make any judgment whatever about people's sophistication or their ability to appreciate beauty. But what about their ability to appreciate life?

This seems the be the point, one well worth considering.

Posted by: Sanpete | Apr 9, 2007 4:06:19 PM

I did the math. This cat was making better than $42 an hour ($32 and change/45 min.) playing the fiddle in a subway.

I'm thinking the D.C. commuters were paying him a decent wage. That's respect.

Posted by: mask | Apr 9, 2007 4:11:06 PM

You guys are missing out - Weingarten, the author of the piece, is a skilled, skilled writer with a real sense of humor. He wrote a great profile awhile back about a children's birthday party clown who was addicted to high-stakes gambling. His writing's all over the map. He's not a music snob, the article is not his "irritable mental gesture." that's not the point of it at all.

If your reaction is "of course commuters ignored him, they had to get to work," that misses the point, which was: they'd never heard music like this before in the Metro station. Were any of them attuned to notice? Would you have noticed?

As Benny the busker said: "It's really an issue of their time, not your music." This article shows that's usually true even when the music is genius-caliber. So what does that say about how most of us choose to spend our time?

Another angle: to hear this guy in concert, you've got to fork over at least $100 a seat. Is his performance just as valuable if he delivers it near an escalator? If not, why not?

Posted by: jf | Apr 9, 2007 4:12:30 PM

Wow, kth, I had no idea that Bell is the greatest violinist of all time, anywhere, ever, a man whose name is a synonym for genius, and whose improvisational and interpretational skills are a continuing inspiration to other, lesser lights. I stand corrected.

I also had no idea that you and sanpete would have such poles up your asses about Bell.

Posted by: collin | Apr 9, 2007 4:21:09 PM

Yes, I thought this was a great piece. Though it was really long and I sort of skimmed it.

Posted by: Korha | Apr 9, 2007 4:21:09 PM

Personally, I would have taken the metroliner down from New York to hear Joshua Bell play the Bach Chaconne. Why didn't they advertise?

Posted by: Paul Gottlieb | Apr 9, 2007 4:26:01 PM

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