Thursday, August 30, 2007


The ex-reviewer sent across an interesting article about Joshua Bell's anonymous busking experiment with the Washington Post. Set up at a metro station in Washington D.C during rush hour, the point was to answer one fundamental question: "In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?"

Bell is regarded as one of America's, and perhaps amongst the world's, foremost classical violinists. He uses one of the most well-known violins ever made, one that he paid an unbelievable, staggering near 4 million USD for. I came across this incident a couple of months ago while randomly reading about busking. To be honest, I didn't pay it much attention but once you're done with the article, you can't help but see some of the significance of this experiment.

"Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he's really bad? What if he's really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn't you? What's the moral mathematics of the moment?"

In the article, the music director of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin, when hypothetically asked about the outcome of such an experiment, said it would be a hit in Europe, that a crowd would gather around. I can't help but wonder what sort of reaction Bell, or indeed anyone creating any manner of beauty, would have gotten in India where street performers aren't exactly in abundant supply. Especially not street performers doing Bach and Schubert — not really a part of the average national cultural experience. Does the experience of beauty transcend nation and culture? I wonder what it would have been like for him in Bombay, perhaps at the super busy Churchgate or Andheri stations at rush hour?

The full article is here and at the very end is a Q&A with the author, which is as interesting as the main article. Though the article contains streaming video, you might, like me, not be able to view it.


Parth said...

In some way, the bhajan mandalis in trains provide a busking experience, don't they? I think you need some degree of silence to even pursue this. But yes, in the US, I have seen varied levels of success with regards to the reactions of people to this excercise.

Extempore said...

@Parth: In some way, the mandalis are buskers but I am not sure that they do it for profit. Personally, I think it is really interesting that there aren't those many busking - like the sort of street performances in US and Europe - acts in India. I've usually come across street plays in Bombay, most of which aren't for profit but for public communication.

It seems obvious when you think about the reasons why not but busking would be an interesting addition to the street life of this city at least. It would be nice to stand and stare. :-)

Nocturne said...

such difficult questions - there are times one is glad to be tone deaf. :)

Anoc said...

The book that made me see buskers differently is Nick Hornby's A Long Way Down in which a failed musician becomes a pizza delivery guy when his band falls apart, which depresses him so much that he makes an abortive attempt at suicide, and then becomes a busker to stay true to his art. It was then I started to wonder about the stories behind this accidental sidewalk fixtures. Who are these stony faced people strumming upon battered guitars? i don't claim to understand or appreciate their music... but they do not usually play Bach.

Extempore said...

@Nocturne: Pish tosh and away with you, love!

@Anoc: Sounds lovely. I've never read any Hornby, only read small excerpts and quotes from his book. Sounds utterly lovely though!