Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Has anyone seen beauty around here? I think we lost it....

      What is the state of classical music today?   Well Joshua Bell is arguably the greatest violin player alive today, but if you’ve heard of him it’s probably either through the work he did in the amazingly beautiful movie “The Red Violin,” or for the experiment that he was a part of in Washington DC as he went undercover as a busking street musician in the Metro Line.   This was a rather genius experiment that came from (no ordinary) staff writer Gene Weingarten at the Washington Post, and had a pretty simple premise; will anyone notice a virtuoso musician playing some of the most beautiful music ever written on one of the greatest instruments ever made (1713 Stradivarius worth over $3 Million)?  Or as Weingarten elegantly states it, “In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”  

          I’m not sure if this YouTube video is considered “viral,” but millions of people have seen it.   I watched it and immediately made fleeting and superficial judgments of all the people that walked by and ignored Bell.  Obviously, doing what I do, I  have a vested interest in the outcome and harsh visceral criticism of all the people too busy to notice something so beautiful.  My artistic high-horse is groomed and saddled, and we can do impressive tricks as we ride around this land together.   But what I didn’t expect was to find beauty somewhere completely different; Weingarten’s original piece that was published in the Post that went along with the video.  It didn’t so much shed “new light” on the experience but completely turn it on its head, shake the change out of its pockets, and walk to the push-button enlightenment vending machine (right next to the Coke one) and purchase a tiny slice. 

     If a picture is worth a thousand words then what’s a video worth? A thousand and one?  But Weingarten’s piece clobbers both of them!  Instead of taking the easy way out and keeping the attention on all the people who didn't stop and hear the music Weingarten focused on the question of “What is beauty?” and it’s fraternal twin, “How do we recognize it?”   Any great philosopher has considered it, and most have opinions on it, but Weingarten settles with Kant because he’s “obviously right.”  Weingarten writes:

    "In his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, Kant argued that one's ability to appreciate beauty is related to one's ability to make moral judgments. But there was a caveat. Paul Guyer of the University of Pennsylvania, one of America's most prominent Kantian scholars, says the 18th-century German philosopher felt that to properly appreciate beauty, the viewing conditions must be optimal.
"Optimal," Guyer said, "doesn't mean heading to work, focusing on your report to the boss, maybe your shoes don't fit right."
So, if Kant had been at the Metro watching as Joshua Bell play to a thousand unimpressed passersby?
'He would have inferred about them,' Guyer said, 'absolutely nothing.'"

     Wow, that sound you just heard was me, hitting the ground after I fell off that high-horse.  

     Well, the true beauty of the experiment is Weingarten, and his passion for writing, thinking, and searching for the truth.   His article, which won a Pulitzer, is extraordinary and shows the need for great journalism to survive this perfect storm of free content, tweeters, and the reign of Rupurt Murdoch and Faux News. 

   Writing is a beautiful art and I think Weingarten matched Bell word-for-note.  

    One of the aspects of the article that caught me by surprised was Bell stating that when he began playing he was a little nervous.   Here is one of the most accomplished musicians alive today (and we’ll set aside the fact that the average person on the street has never heard of him, that’s our loss, not his).  He has soloed with the greatest orchestras all over the world and composers even claim, “He plays like a god!”   But as he was setting up in the DC metro station he experienced a feeling that doesn’t happen often; he was nervous! “It wasn’t exactly stage fright, but there were butterflies.  I was stressing a little,” he says.   A man who is paid as much as $1000 a minute started to appreciate people even looking up to acknowledge him, and specifically remembers when someone threw in a whole dollar and not just change.  I believe every musician in the world understands this feeling. (he made $32.17 in 45 mins)  Is the human need for recognition and appreciation so permanent, as if it’s coded into our genes, that one of the greatest musicians alive today will be genuinely thankful for a glance up, or a dollar in the case, or for someone who actually stops to listen?  I find some comfort in knowing that Joshua Bell and I occasionally feel the same thing as we play music, and I would never have known this if Gene Weingarten didn’t also ask the question, “What is beauty?”

Here is one of my favorite songs and this is how I personally discovered Joshua Bell, by the record he made with Sam Bush, Mike Marshall, and Edgar Meyer called "Short Trip Home."  One of my favorite stories about how music ultimately transcends classification comes from this album.  Bell told all of his friends that he was "making a bluegrass album with Sam Bush," and Bush told all of his friends he was "making a classical album with Joshua Bell."  What I love about that story is that they were both right.   


  1. If we recognize beauty around us, our troubles do not seem so overwhelming. If we choose not to see that beauty, self-loathing becomes much easier.

  2. Love the clip that you included at the bottom of the post. Thanks for sharing.