Readers Respond to "Bell Plays the Subway"   (November 14, 2008)

My hopes for some incisive reader feedback on yesterday's entry Crowds Ignore World Renowned Violinist: What Does This Say? have been fulfilled. Read on for a wide variety of discerning comments.

Just for context, here are my concluding statements from the entry:

Popular "experts" get it wrong so often it's amazing we don't just blindfold ourselves and throw darts to choose "what's good."

If the average middle-class American can pass blithely by greatness and beauty without even the slightest shred of recognition--7 out of 1,070 is essentially statistical noise, i.e. zero--then what hope does any creator have for appreciation, recognition or (gasp) sales? I think the answer is clear: zero, unless the gods of popular taste/marketing deem it so, ubiquitously and relentlessly.

Joshua Bell at $100 a ticket: good. Joshua Bell for free: worthless.

And here are the readers' commentaries: (in order received)

Pat H.

"As a writer, (by all available critical and popular evidence, a thoroughly mediocre one)"

come on charles, don't deprecate yourself, you're a true 'voice of fresh air' in the vast depths of the internet wasteland.

I would like to see a repeat of Johua's street performance but this time playing some very upbeat more modern musical pieces (foot stompin music). I listened to his entire performance and found it to a little sombre, ok a lot. The world really needs a strong 'slap in the face' to turn around in all things (we're getting one now).

I do find the whole episode to be rather sad though, showing the pretty sorry state of mankind, at a very basic level (sound/music). We're so dumbed down by the media (myself included) I feel we've all lost touch with what's really in there.

oh well, a very interesting, though provoking piece! Made me download some Joshua Bell music (sorry, free) and I'm truly enthralled by the beauty of the music and his playing. thanks for waking me out of my lethargy a bit this am.

Chris S.

I loved the essay this morning. I have to admit watching the video before reading the additional link to the WP story, but I did notice the woman with the shopping bag who stayed to listen. It was interesting to see the crowd just stream around her to one side. It still sounded good even a poor quality youtube video.

My family and I went to a tribal event for veterans this week. My kids loved listening to the drums and singing. We should always try to take the time for such things.

It didn't surprise me that JB was from Bloomington, IN. It has always been a very special place.

Steve T.

Chumming the waters

...enjoyed your blog today ... yea, most people are too "busy" to perceive what's going on around them ... a funny thought - something that would have made people notice would have been planting a small audience - nothing attacts a crowd like a crowd - "wow, this guy must be good!" - ha!

John S.

Do I sense a slight despair even disappointment in your latest article? While I agree with many of your points, I think there is still a hope for our current culture.

The fact that Joshua Bell is a renowned violinist is a proof that beauty/art can transcend the current system ruled by critics. He was able to get through all the road blocks and is recognized for his talent. Your website is another great example of hope in today's culture/society. Despite not being able to spend money on advertising and buying critics, you are one of the more popular blogs with probably highest number of royal readers and supporters. Your ability to express your thoughts in a concise, easy to understand manner on all subject of complex matter is a gift that is easily recognizable by average reader like me. Despite the fact that your website is free, I find your articles most insightful and entertaining.

So here is a question that begs to be asked. When (notice not if) you become highly successful (monetary and popularity) and critics hail you as the next Hemingway of our society, are you then a product of "one dimensional men" society? Or will you be hailed as the man that shattered the "one dimensional man" theory?

Harun I.

What is fine music? Music that pleases your ear.

What is fine wine? Wine that pleases your palette.

What is fine art? Whatever pleases your eye.

What is the correct way to trade? In whatever way that is profitable and allows you to sleep at night.

Vernon Howard said, "there is no pleasing the fear that you may displease someone."


Your essay this morning is simply magnificent. You are tapping into the subject that divides us as a culture, those who are destination-oriented and those who are journey-oriented. It is my suspicion that the destination-oriented are the same body who will never read the Tao, never know real love or enlightenment or beauty.

At this time in our history, we are subject to the contracted dictates of public relations making their livings off the destination-oriented exactly the way subprime mortgages were stacked with legalese nobody apparently took the time to read or understand because their critical facilities were elsewhere, perhaps on drapes or a sub zero fridge.

Nothing happens without direction from the public statement industry as in Crisis Management Consulting for Joe the Plumber or Utah mining corporations. You remember the sad young mother-to-be who was murdered in Ohio by her policeman consort? When her family came under the spotlights, they all had prepared statements.

These statements actually tell us nothing and, worse, they carry implicit threats. They are devised to conceal and distort, because if they don't, somebody's else's management consultants will retaliate and somebody, somewhere will be outcasted. This means nobody can verbalize what they are actually experiencing without devastating peer attack and financial ruin.

You know, its perceived to be wonderful that meth-addicted single mommies can have a meeting of the minds with courtroom killers because it says so in the Purpose Driven Life. There are people who are sure this state will change into a positive as people evolve and realize they've been cheated, but I can't be so sure. The way it works lately is only more of the same dressed in different clothes. One minute you could almost believe that the journey has new landscaping, only to discover , oops, Obama is Clinton in Black-face. We should applaud the old blonde who stammered Obama was an Arab because we got to hear McCain set opinion for the destination-oriented that Arabs are not decent people. And Blondie bought it. Good grief.

People who are not living in the now are not fully living. They have all their destination dreams snatched away and they are still oblivious, thinking they are somehow going to arrive at the same old place in their same old destination fantasy anyway.

By the way, hundreds of years ago, I was on my way to a night class uptown at Columbia when a young hoodlum entered my subway car and bent me over backwards in a screen scene romantic kiss. Then the doors opened and he darted away. The doors closed and I managed to look around at everyone staring at me and doing absolutely nothing, saying nothing, not a murmur. It stayed just like that for the next twenty minutes until I got off.

Not too long after that interesting learning experience, I was on a bus going uptown. The bus jerked away from the stop at 60th Street and Central Park West because the driver ran over a person waiting to get on. Nothing happened. The bus just kept on going. I watched the crowd from the rear window and never heard of any follow up. This same route was also the one where a huge woman slapped the living daylights out of her toddler and got off at 125th street without ANY passenger or driver interference.

I am using the bus here as metaphor for the destination-driven, but these things really happened and they continue unimpeded into the present. It shows us the power of the perception-shaping is always backed up with the threat of being isolated from the herd . Damaged, wounded or sick animals are a danger to the larger herd who always have sentries among them to take the proper measures. We know this fact because we saw it on televised African animal documentaries even though we didn't actually visit the Serengeti. I could be very wrong, but it appears that our herd being so damaged by inattention to the present circumstance will become increasingly disoriented as we become increasingly crowded and confused by contracted portrayals of reality.

It very easily could be that our herd is the most damaged herd of all living species and the destination-obsessed won't see it because perception-shaping has them in lock down already. Its possible we've already arrived at the destination and this is what it looks like from the inside.

Good work this morning, Charles. Thank you so much for doing what you do.

Michael S.

Overall I thought today's creation was very interesting;

One observation I'd make is this:

Over the past two years I've changed my mind on assertions like this:

"My point is simply this: the level of musicianship and pure power/emotional expression created by someone of Bell's abilities will sink deep into any human being's limbic core, regardless of the music or instrument, unless their defenses have been hardened to an impenetrable state. "

That's because, after playing piano for a little over 2 years now, I only recently became addicted to and appreciative of classical music.

In fact, this journey has been so profound that I ultimately put together a presentation about it for a math teacher's conference:

So, based on this experience, I'd argue that Bell sounds beautiful to your ears because you appreciate his ability to create something you love and, even though you call yourself an amateur, it takes a good craftsman to spot noteable works of others!

To justify this claim, I'd suggest putting a top Chinese poet in front of a group of Americans and see how they react; most likely, nobody would appreciate a single word and simply walk away confused or, at the most, unimpressed.

Anyway, that's my metaphor about how your relationship with music quite literally formed your linguistical foundations and allowed you to appreciate what Bell has to say through his music.

Of course many Americans don't understand music, as a language-- or even the english language for that matter, so music sounds like a foreign language to them.

Michael Goodfellow

I think you are off on the wrong track with that whole argument. You are on your "horrible zombie middle class consumers" rant again.

First, the whole economy is geared to price as a signal of quality. You could go out and search for underrated cars or other products, but you are unlikely to find a Yugo that's as good as a top-line Mercedes. So why bother? Someone performs on the street because they aren't good enough to get regular gigs somewhere else. So why pay attention to them?

Second, it's not just a function of middle class dullness. I'm sure you would have had the same results if he had been performing on street corners in the richest parts of the country. You could have picked your audience from educated people (who did not know him as a musician) and probably have gotten the same result.

Third, most purchases are made not because people are slaves to advertising or experts, but because they are slaves to status. Whatever is "in" is purchased and worn or listened to, however crappy it is. How else to explain 70's fashion? You might think that "in fashion" is whatever is most heavily advertised, but advertisers only wish that just spending a lot of money and getting your message out guaranteed sales. As we know, there's frequently nothing you can do to move a product, no matter how much you spend.

Lastly, have you ever actually ridden the D.C. metro? It's a process of rushing around hoping to get a seat, hoping the escalators aren't broken, hoping you aren't going to run into some delay. There is a bit of waiting around while changing trains, but generally, people just want to get going. Especially at that hour of the morning. You might hear the music, but we are so used to music over loudspeakers everywhere, that I think people really do tune it all out.

One more thing about that free music performance -- it was classical music. I'd be surprised if even one person in 20 in that crowd of subway riders listens to classical music for pleasure. That cuts down his audience quite a bit. Not only that, but classical is actively disliked by a large portion of the country. They avoid it the way I would avoid rap music.

You claim that you'll give anything a try, and are interested in unfamiliar music. That's not the case for most people. I'm always surprised at how narrow the tastes of most people are. It's not just that they only listen to pop music -- they only listen to a handful of bands in a narrow little subrange of pop music. I remember back when I first got a CD player in the 80's, I went to a record store and bought something like 30 disks I liked. The clerk was amazed that anyone could like all of those. And it was just a very mild mix of rock and roll!

From what I can see, a lot of teens wouldn't be caught dead listening to classical, and even the 20-somethings would just grimace and put up with it. Especially true for a violin performance -- no beat, no lyrics, no refrain. Bits of melody go by that you might like, but they don't repeat so you can't learn them. Worst of all, it's not participatory. You aren't supposed to sway to the music, clap or hum along. And you can't even begin to play it yourself. Pop music you can at least sing out the lyrics or hum the melody. Classical is elite music, played by elite musicians. The audience is supposed to just shut up and listen, not get involved.

To prove people can't recognize quality, you'd have to do the same experiment with someone playing things people did recognize and like.

Did I send you this? mystery video. I'm sure it would draw a crowd in the subway.

Don E.

chas., have been thinking about bell in the subway. i understand your contention that we need experts to give us aesthetic feedback, and that on the surface this seems a pathetic thing. i have wondered about this response in myself, e.g. i find i enjoy a book or film more after an expert explains its nuances and beauties to me than i had in a previous look. am i just this reviewer's dupe? i would have to wonder; what sort of easily-led idiot have i become?

that isn't really this issue, i think. if we were a tribe of wood-chopper, hunter, gatherers each of us would have a particular expertise: the suitability of a tree for harvesting, a knowledege of berrys, how to hunt deer, how to tan the hides. we probably wouldn't look down on the hunter as ignorant if we were suppliers of fuel, and vice versa.

brains are individually wired to handle some types of information better than others. i enjoy music, vilolin concerti in particular, but i know i would have been stretching my perceptions to pick mr. bell out from numerous other players only half as good as him. now, give me a written line and i will have a go at being the expert; i am wired for it.

certainly we can be misled by 'experts'; that is what advertising is all about. spin doctors everywhere want to convince us that crap is gold, and honesty stupid. we do not have great defenses against this sort of advice. that is why we consistently elect idiots to office and buy things we don't need. i think that is also to some extent why mr. bell gets ignored. being an expert is a career choice that in many cases has replaced the charlatan and snake-oil vendor.

we are so spread out, culturally globalized, that we haven't the skills to see beauty and define how it is different from mediocrity. we rush from experience to experience and cannot take in all that is going on; we have neither the capacity nor the tools to differentiate. i don't really see this as some horrible failure of our civilization; it is just the way we are built. we have gone beyond reasonable limitations in what we can actually know and retrieve for later analysis. it may be too much to expect one of us to see what another knows is right in front of him.

Thank you, readers, for such thought-provoking commentaries. There is more to this topic than meets the ear....

My apologies for the late post. I was swinging a hammer all afternoon and then rushed to take my Mom to the symphony: Hayden, Barber and Beethoven... good stuff and a nice contrast with 16d nails and 2X10s.

"This guy is THE leading visionary on reality. He routinely discusses things which no one else has talked about, yet, turn out to be quite relevant months later."
--An anonymous comment about CHS posted on another blog.

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