For Whom Bell Plays

Jonathan Bellman

Apologies for my absence and substandard contributions; I’m in the middle of a faculty search which I’m chairing (a fascinating experience, but incredibly time-intensive, and if I told you anything about it I’d have to kill you), and I leave for Stanford in a week to deliver a paper, play some music, and discuss matters of mutual interest with fellow members of a symposium. Predictably, all these things hitting at once has left me a complete mess, hence my current status as Jon Bellman Unblogged. I’ll try to get it together in the near future (i.e. late this month at the earliest). Fortunately we have Phil’s broad shoulders to assume the burden, false burden though it be.

(Sorry. Musicology joke. Never mind.)

I am enjoying the various afterbeats to the Joshua-Bell-in-the-Metro story from the Washington Post, linked in a recent blog by Phil. I likewise recommend for everyone’s attention the Post-Bell Discussion, including further explanation of the set-up and circumstances by Gene Weingarten, the article’s author. There has also been a lot of interesting discussion on the AMS-L (the American Musicological Society’s discussion listserv), so the event itself—equal parts experiment and publicity stunt—seems to have touched a variety of nerves.

Though I usually am second to none in my willingness to excoriate my fellow creatures, I think the general rending of garments about how unwilling we are to perceive beauty is a bit misplaced. Sure, Bell was bemused at the lack of interest, but let’s be honest; what he is accustomed to is adulation. His virtuoso career in the stratosphere, and according to the article both straight and hot. This is a recipe for high expectations out of life, indeed out of merely walking into a room, and when circumstances deal such a person not loathing but indifference, sure, the person is going to be taken aback.

I do not know Bell’s playing well, but I think I would have stopped, because the Bach Chaconne is one of my three or so favorite pieces on earth. I don’t know, though; what if I were late? Got a questionable performance review last time? Should the well-being of my wife and son be hostage to my sudden desire to listen to even sublimely beautiful music…right now? And as far as not noticing it, what if I were blowing by an incredible statue, or painting, that I didn’t notice because I was just too tunnel-visioned at that point? Would that make me bad, or aesthetically bankrupt, or is it, rather, just one of those things?

Something that makes me a bit uncomfortable about the story is the unrecognized-celebrity trope. Again: no offense to Mr. Bell, about whom I know little. But people get careers for a variety of reasons, and I wonder if there aren’t a variety of violinists of that caliber who could have done the same gig. I heard Laura Park (now Laura Park Chen, the internet tells me) premiere the Ligeti violin concerto in New York in 1998, and was just beside myself, jabbering, incoherent (and I was not the only one, thank you). She’s successfully playing in Chicago, now. But where is her Washington Post experiement, her adulation, all the sackcloth and ashes that no one recognizes her, or Ligeti, or—similarly—the same for so many other wonderful violinists playing today? Are we upset that the hurriers-by didn’t notice Bach (and again, the choice: is Bach “glorious music” or “Famous Name That Would Have Been Recognized In, You Know, Europe”), or that they didn’t notice Bell, the celebrated Bell, himself?

Finally, what if the musician had been the peak of the Jazz violin world, or the King of the Gypsy Fiddlers, of the veritable Messiah of Klezmer Fiddlers? I suspect more people would have stopped. Is that good or bad? Since when has art music been a majority interest? Is vernacular beauty less beautiful?

To me, this entire story feels all too predictable, especially all the culture-vulture hand-wringing. I am left feeling profoundly neutral.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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2 Responses to For Whom Bell Plays

  1. Phil Ford says:

    The thing I haven’t seen anyone comment on yet (and it’s surprising the kind of legs this story has had) is whether Bell was actually a good busker. Obviously, he’s a good violinist. But being a busker is actually a specialized musical job, and requires particular skills. One skill in particular is knowing where to park yourself, and when. As Jonathan and others have pointed out, morning rush is maybe not a great time to demand much of people’s attention. But also there’s a certain kind of showmanship that goes with being a busker, and also a certain tenaciousness — people appreciate a busker they see all the time, who has become part of the soundprint of a certain place, and for whom they have had a chance to develop a warm feeling of familiarity. Being a good busker means playing your music in a way that works within the environment you choose. Parachuting Josh Bell into a metro station for an hour is just kind of random. The metro station doesn’t become a concert venue just because a concert artist shows up and plays there. Much has been made of the $32 Bell earned for his hour, but I’ve known buskers who have been able to make more than ten times that amount in an hour. The difference has to do with the fact that those buskers know what they’re doing — are approaching busking as an autonomous craft.
    Nice to have you back, Jonathan.

  2. I recently read a post by a professional subway busker ( )which basically said the same thing as Phil – that in ADDITION to being a good musician, to be a successful busker, one must know how to adapt to ANY audience.
    Bell has the luxury to gig in from of adoring fans who have already paid to hear him perform. Busking is not unlike waiting tables – “Let’s see how good you are, kid – and if I’m pleased, I’ll give you a few bucks. Maybe.”

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