Music Awareness

June 3, 2010

I just learned of this 2007 experiment by the Washington Post (post courtesy of The Bold Life), which can be summarized as follows:

  • The Post arranged to have a man play the violin for 45 minutes in the middle of a busy DC-Metro station. The material consisted of six different works by J.S. Bach.
  • Reactions from onlookers and passersby were documented, peaking at mild, short-lived interest. (Oddly enough, some of the strongest reactions seemed to come from children, whose parents were quick to scurry them along regardless…)
  • In total, only six people stopped to listen and twenty gave money (grand total: $32)
  • Upon completion there was no applause or acknowledgement.

The violinist was world-renowned virtuoso Joshua Bell, playing a $3.5 million Stradivarius violin (more on Bell and his extravagant instrument here). Two days prior, Bell performed a sold-out show in Boston where seats averaged $100 each.

A litany of questions and conclusions followed (“In a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?…”). But for me, it brought to mind a comment from jazz pianist Bill Evans in his biography Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings, where he laments the fact that jazz music is all too often relegated to being background music for the din of conversation in a club. Bill estimated that only a very small percentage of his listeners during a performance actually picked up on the nuances and excitement of what he and his trio were playing.

The DC experiment demonstrates the importance of the listener participation. Listening to music is not a passive act, where the notes and chords wash over your ears and into your head effortlessly. To get the most out of a piece of music, and thus putting it on par with a great novel in terms of complexity and storytelling magic, the listener needs to take an active role in the process. Literature transcends entertainment as soon as you learn to read, and music can do the same when you learn to listen.

Hearing and listening are not the same thing, as the DC Metro experiment makes clear…


The Tao of Music

November 11, 2009


I was flipping through the book Everyday Tao and came across the entry for Music:

There was once a zither student whose master, frustrated by his pupil’s lack of musical progress for so many years, pronounced him unsuitable for learning. To understand how devastating this was to the young man, one must remember that playing the zither was considered a very high and demanding art, practiced only by refined and learned people. In addition, one’s master was like a parent. He or she was usually as dedicated to teaching as a parent is to rearing a child. So to be rejected by his teacher was a great shock to the student.

The master abandoned the young man on the shores of an island, leaving the student only a zither. Left to his own resources, the disappointed pupil provided first for his survival. The island, although uninhabited, had enough wild fruit and vegetables to sustain him. In the time that followed, he listened to the singing of birds, the chorus of the waves, the melodies of the wind. He spent long periods of time in meditation and musical practice. By the time he was rescued, several years later, he had become a virtuoso player and composer, far greater than his master: he had entered into Tao.

And so it is with us. We need teaching. But there is a point beyond which teaching cannot provide for us. Only direct experience can give us the final dimensions we need. That means learning from nature, and learning from ourselves. As long as we remember that, there can be no mistake.

So start playing.

Dreams as Art as Business

October 4, 2009


“Everyone must begin to trust their dreams because out of that trust is born the artist, and the artist is the role model for the entrepreneur we now need.”

– Ernest Hall (entrepreneur and musician) from The Creative Economy: How People Make Money From Ideas

Soundtrack for a Book

June 12, 2009


The website for the band Concave Scream (I have never heard of them before either…) is astounding. Crank up your speakers, click the link, and get lost in it all. It’s pure inspiration: Soundtrack for a Book

Tip: Play with the levels in the upper-righthand corner!

(Post courtesy of Daily Exhaust)

Motorcycle as Music

April 30, 2009


But with the throttle screwed on there is only the barest margin, and no room at all for mistakes. It has to be done right… and that’s when the strange music starts, when you stretch your luck so far that fear becomes exhilaration and vibrates along your arms. You can barely see at a hundred; the tears blow back so fast that they vaporize before they get to your ears. The only sounds are wind and a dull roar floating back from the mufflers.

Hunter S. Thompson, Hell’s Angels

Art as Bond

April 26, 2009
Art Kane, "Jazz Portrait: Harlem, 1958"

Art Kane, "Jazz Portrait: Harlem, 1958"

The work of art is a copula: a bond, a band, a link by which the several are knit into one. Men and women who dedicate their lives to the realization of their gifts tend the office of that communion by which we are joined to one another, to our times, to our generation, and to the race.”

– Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World

The Human Condition

April 10, 2009


“It’s part of the human condition. People like to see things grow.”

This was a line spoken at a presentation I attended recently, and it struck me as the truest thing you could say about human nature.

People like to see things grow.

Musicians want a larger fanbase. Business owners want to grow their business for eventual sale/IPO. Readers like to grow their book collection. Gamers like to get high scores. Gardeners like seeing their plants grow. Parents are proud of seeing their kids grow.

Growing is a sign of health and superiority. If something is growing, then it is usually agreed to be doing well for itself. Growth is a sign of success but, more importantly, seeing things grow is a pleasurable experience. How else can you explain the success of the Tamagotchi, The Sims, The Million Dollar Homepage, or body building? Even more, why do you think mankind’s collective unconscious is obsessed with the Tree of Life?

Consider this: creative entrepreneurs (artists, dancers, actors, writers…) and traditional business owners alike often achieve success, a comfortable living, money to support a family and hobbies, and enough socked away in savings or retirement, yet they still have the desire to grow further. Why grow for the sake of growth? Why continue to press for bigger-and-better when your present achievements are fulfilling, stress-free, and comfortable? Why grow a company to 200 employees when it is currently experiencing profound success with 50? Why buy a 3-bedroom house when your current two-bedroom is more than enough?

Because people like to see things grow.

Though this is human instinct at work, I try not to fall prey to this mindset too often. And I’m not the only one. For further reading, check out the great book by Bo Burlingham, Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big.