A violinist in the subway, and photography

Discussion in 'Street and Documentary' started by c_wyatt, May 26, 2012.

  1. There's been an interesting little moralised story doing the rounds which originated as a social experiment by the Washington Post. I'm not sure who wrote the text below, but I picked up the link off legendary photojournalist Sebastião Salgado.
    For me, there are interesting resulting thoughts on street photography especially, but on all photography really, and on the base importance of noticing.
    Stop and Hear the Music - YouTube
    'A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands` of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.
    Three minutes went by and a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried up to meet his schedule.
    A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping continued to walk.
    A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work. The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.
    In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.
    No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the finest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written,with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars. Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston and the seats average $100.
    This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of an social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people.
    The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?
    One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be:
    If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the finest musicians in the world playing the finest music ever written...................
    How many other things are we missing?'
  2. Josh Bell was playing once and selling his music CDs on Santa Monica Boulevard. Then it was obvious that he was a virtuoso and not a player for cash handouts. Many people listened for longer time.
    Selfe served CD purchasers were leaving money on the little table, and picked one CD. I got one.
    It is a matter of priority. You will certainly miss many things, while running the rat race.
  3. And then what are the findings and what do they mean? I don't really think much of this as a social experiment and it's very difficult to draw any conclusions at all other than it was rush hour at a train station. I'm not sure it the "experiment" rises up to the level of being sermon material.
  4. SCL


    Stop and "smell the roses" and have a better day! I used to periodically stop to listen to (primarily) the jazz musicians who plied their daytime trade on the Madison St. bridge in Chicago, right outside the train stations, on my way to and from work. Lots of poor imitators, but some very talented people. In the 1990s, there was a talented group of musicians from Peru playing for about a week and I stopped each day to listen, finally bought one of their CDs. Fast forward about 5 years and my wife and I were in Paris when one day I heard familiar strains of Peruvian music. I hunted it down, and to my delight it was (mostly) the same group I watched in Chicago. I chatted with one of them, commenting that I had seen them in Chicago, and he laughed and said they had played in 35 countries since I had seen them. I felt so delighted that their music had brightened so many others' days. And yes, although I'm not often in the city these days, I still stop to listen to the blind accordion players, sax, coronet, and clarinet players and occasionally there is a violinist. I'm a sucker for the musical tradition and always feel elevated by what I hear, and yes, I tip tthem for the priviledge.
  5. Appreciating Classical music (or in this case Baroque as J.S. Bach falls under) is often something that one has to make an effort to achieve. This goes for pretty much most of the Humanities - Art, Music, Literature and so on. The environment one grows up in plays a very important role in this. I grew up in an artistic family. Mom and Grandma were painters, mostly still life and landscape, Dad was a photographer and an organist. His darkroom was in a bathroom right next to my room and I can still hear the turning of the motorized processing tubes. So it's no surprise to me that I have always loved the arts both as a participant and a observer. Many of my friends and co-workers however never set foot in a museum and their taste in music is the same as it was in their high school years and early adulthood. There is nothing wrong with this at all. I may feel that they are missing out, but they certainly do not so it's all good. It's one thing to love the arts, but nobody likes an art snob who thinks they are above those who are less inclined. However, had I been one of the passerby in the subway station above, I probably also would have not bothered to stop and listen to him play. I may have recognized the piece as a Bach composition, but like most of the people in that station, my mind would have been on different things, like where I'm heading to or where I have just been and most likely, I would have been in a rush.
    You see, when we go about our daily lives, we orient ourselves to our surroundings and to the tasks at hand. Our brains are bombarded with constant stimuli so it filters out much of whatever it considers unimportant. We all do this. How many times have we eaten a meal without really tasting the food? How many times have we driven to work only to arrive and not have any memory of the trip we just took? We experience these things, but how often are we really living them? It takes a effort to do this, and this is where those of us shooting in the streets have an advantage. After awhile, our eyes are always "on", always seeing potential pictures even though we may not have a camera with us and we are not out shooting at that time. It becomes a part of who we are. We get so used to switching on that part of our brains that normally discards seemingly trivial occurrences and sightings that it is like developing a second sense.
  6. Not sure of the Ultimate Significance of this piece. I'm afraid I would not recognize Josh Bell if he jumped up and bit me. Most people have somewhere to go during rush hour and don't have time to listen, so this is no way surprising. If it was me I would probably have thought something like "he's pretty good" and then walked on. Most rush hour folk need to get to work-obviously.
  7. So, he was earning $43/ hour. Tax free. Not sure what the point is. These people were going to work and did not believe they had the luxury of time to stop and listen. Those that did, good. The others were hurrying to a job that allowed them to pay $100 a seat to see him play for somewhat longer. I don't mean to suggest that we all should be oblivious to the beauty in our everyday surroundings, but the design of the so-called "social experiment by the Washington Post" is flawed. And, any message at all taken from it is flawed squared.
    Put him in a park on a Sunday afternoon and see what happens. That would be a better test. Here in New Orleans on weekends there are many street musicians performing. They are not Josh Bell, nor are they playing on instruments worth 3.5 million (like that should somehow add to the social experiment). They gather crowds, they play well, and many many people make donations
  8. This very topic has been discussed a few times here and other photo sites as well. In fact, there was a guy on Flickr a few years ago posting Henri Cartier Bresson's work to his account and entering it into groups to see what people would say...........his street work was heavily critiqued, mainly by people who had no idea who he was. It was interesting to see a famous photographer known for his street work to be raked over the coals as if he was just some amateur.

    But in the end (for me) all this proves is art (any art) is really subjective. I'm not a big fan of classical music or rap music. so remove the violinist and replace him with Jay-Z or Beyonce and I would walk right past them as well..............then again at rush hour trying to get to work, there isn't much short of natural disaster that would really make me stop.
  9. It has nothing to do with art. If he didn't collect what he'd make per hour from a concert, it might show that busking is an inefficient way of bringing classical music to appreciative audiences...
    ...or more likely (in my opinion) that he was a fine musician but a poor busker. Back when I was a poor student in the late 70s, I used reliably to make 10 GBP/hour (~$16) busking with a borrowed violin worth about 50 GBPin the market towns of eastern England. I did this because I my own violin (then worth 1,500 GBP) had broken and I needed 300 GBP for the repair. I was not a great player, but busking itself is a study in human nature: clothes, location, music (foot-tapping Irish folk in my case), and general demeanour are all important. I had tremendous success at hitch-hiking too, compared with others I knew.
  10. A few impressions:
    • Context is everything. If a Redskins quarterback and wide receiver, in civvies, began practicing in the same rush hour location, I'd probably scurry past too - after snapping a photo.
    • Location, location, location. That was a terrible location for busking.
    • Bell was recognized and greatly appreciated by a delighted onlooker, Stacy Furukawa. That's not nothing. For a classical musician and the vast majority of skilled performers - most of whom are far from a Lady Gaga in recognition - a single moment of such interaction with an audience of one can be pretty special.
  11. I heard a young guy playing on the subways in New York the other day. He ripped through one of Paganini's wildest and most difficult pieces. Incredible performance. Maybe Bell has struck again.

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