- 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…