Bell's Hell

Today’s Washington Post story about Joshua Bell posing as a street musician was so thought-provoking that it has been on my mind all day. Joshua’s magnificent playing apparently aroused so little attention that he himself was alarmed and the reporter certainly bemused.

Should we be so shocked? Does it really mean the end of civilization as we know it? Does it mean that no-one has time any more for great art and great artists? It’s certainly tempting to see it that way. Yet as my husband and I realized, context is everything.

Firstly, street musicians (or buskers as we Brits call them) are often seen as little more than beggars and are certainly commonly perceived as a nuisance. Any stranger asking for money is someone to be avoided. They have a low status in society. I’m not saying this is right. It’s just how things are.

Secondly, this was the subway during rush-hour. Even if the world’s greatest music-lover had been passing, they might not have had time to stop and listen.

Great art deserves our full attention. Placing an artist in a scheduled recital in a purpose-built hall allows the listener to come to a place inside themselves where they are receptive to the experience. They have to choose to be there. They have to make the time and take the journey, both inwardly and outwardly. The venue has an appropriate acoustic and facilities. The artist may wear special clothing and use dramatic lighting. It’s possible to choose to dispense with this ritual. However it can then be more challenging to still have a rewarding experience.

Still, kudos to Joshua for being a willing subject for this experience, and many thanks to Gene Weingarten for a fabulous article. And thanks, Jessica, once again for pointing out news such as this.

5 Responses to “Bell's Hell”

  1. Thanks for stopping by, Lara. Yes, I think SawLady makes some great points also, although I have seen some buskers who have taken to wildly exaggerating their playing to get people to stop!

  2. I have performed in a wide variety of settings, and I’m well aware how context — or as I would say, the battle conditions — can greatly affect a performance.

    Still, one of my favourite activities, when I lived in Europe, was to “busk.” I loved playing my violin on the street, and bringing that sound into an otherwise soul-less zone. In Europe (my experiences were in Germany and Ireland), the reaction of passersby was remarkably favourable.

    I’ve only busked a few times in the United States, and the experience has totally sucked every time. Sadly, I never busk now. I really miss it, but, except for tiny pockets in select places (such as New York and Boston), Americans have little to no appreciation for spontaneous art happenings. We, as a people, tend to view such things as an inconvenience.

    Every time I have busked here in the US, someone called the police, so the music didn’t last very long. In every case, I was in a public place, I had a right to be there, and I should have had the freedom to play my violin.

    I find it ironic that the Scots, who gave the world such a fabulous culture and fantastically intriguing music, should have also given the world Presbyterians, who are largely responsible for the narrow-minded views still held by many in our “great” nation.



  3. Yes, Drew, I think it’s sad that street musicians (particularly ones like you!) seem to be so little appreciated over here. Thanks for your contribution– I always love hearing from you.

    The debate continues over on the Washington Post, as the author of the piece chats with enthusiastic and reactive readers:

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