Sunday, April 15, 2007

commuting wonder

Last week a friend forwarded me a link to a long Washington Post story, "Pearls Before Breakfast", apparently describing one more sign of cultural malaise. Reporter Gene Weingarten persuaded Joshua Bell to play in a DC Metro, dressed in typical street-performer clothes, but playing his $4 million Strad with the kind of virtuosity that has earned him a brilliant career as an international soloist. It was an experiment to test the average DC commuter's appreciation for classical music - or even his willingness to listen for a moment - and, to cut to the results, the average DC commuter pretty much failed miserably.

Lots of people smarter than me have probably analyzed and commented on the experiment, including Bob Garfield on On The Media, but a few things occur to me. It reminded me of one of the Stanley Milgram experiments, revealing some very unpleasant tendency among people who don't realize they are being experimented on. I find this kind of thing distasteful, maybe because I would rather believe in people's better tendencies, and the whole thing strikes me as kind of unfair. These poor people are bombarded every day by advertising, journalism, pleas for their money and attention from all sides - is it really any wonder that they shut down their senses, stop listening completely? At the same time though, it's hard to argue with Weingarten's conclusions: we're too busy, too stuck in our routines and habits, and we blind ourselves to the beauty that exists in the world around us.

It's an important message, but I don't think we really needed Josh Bell on the subway to prove that point! We take beauty for granted every day, not only in strangers but in our friends, and even in our selves. This past weekend we had two concerts of concerto competition winners from our orchestra - 9 musicians, all of whom played brilliantly. I'll just list them here briefly, since - again! - there's not time to adequately praise each of them:

  • Dustin Budish, viola - Lachrymae, Reflections on a song of Dowland for viola and strings by Benjamin Britten
  • Ebonee Thomas, flute - The World of Montuagretta for Flute and Chamber Orchestra by Christian Lindberg
  • Piotr Szewczyk, violin - Polonaise brillante No. 1, Op. 4 by Wieniawski
  • Jason Koi, tuba - Richard Strauss Concerto No. 1 in E-flat major for Horn - transcribed down an octave!
  • Michael Gordon, flute and Lynn Williams, harp - Mozart Concerto in C for Flute, Harp and Orchestra, K. 297c
  • Robert Johnson, horn - Richard Strauss Concerto No. 2 in E-flat major for Horn
  • Sebastian Gingras, cello - Samuel Barber's Cello Concerto, Op. 22
  • Yuna Lee, violin - Poeme for violin and orchestra by Ernest Chausson
  • Ciro Fodere, piano - Rachmaninoff Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
So playing with all these people, I found myself in wonder that I am surrounded by all these great artists - I live with these people, even! I share practice rooms and laundry machines, bicycle racks and the occasional keg party with them, and how rarely have I really stopped to listen and appreciate them! In a way, I'm even more jaded and insensitive than those subway riders. They only passed by one spectacular violinist, but every day I walk past several, and I might watch a movie or play ultimate frisbee with some of them as well.

The appropriate response when you hear a great violinist in the Metro station, the article seems to imply, is to stop, listen, and drop some cash in his case. That's probably a fair generalization, but what's appropriate when the great artists are people you live and work with every day? I'm not going to go around handing $5 bills out in rehearsal, and probably people would get pretty uncomfortable if I started staring into their practice rooms in awe. The fact remains though, we owe something to the beauty that exists in our lives, and all around us - some degree of attention, reverence, wonder - and when we ignore that beauty, we deprive ourselves.

So the lesson I take from the article is to not blind myself - to try to open up my ears and eyes and heart, even when I'm going about seemingly mundane tasks. There is more beauty around than we can ever know completely, even if world-class soloists don't perform for us on our way to work. And still more importantly - there is more beauty inside us than we can ever know completely. If we are to draw on that beauty, use it creatively and expressively, we need those same qualities of patience, attention, reverence, and wonder towards ourselves.

In this past week's The New Yorker magazine there was a fascinating article on commuting, "There and Back Again." He describes how the word commute developed from its original meaning "to make less severe", as when a judge commutes a sentence. Originally the rail lines commuted their fares, reducing them for passengers who agreed to commit to ride daily - so as Nick Paumgarten writes, "In time, the commuted became commuters." Despite the etymology, our daily commutes seems to make us more severe -
Commuting is an exercise in repetition. The will to efficiency varies, but it expresses itself in the hardening of commuters' habits, as they seek to alleviate the dissipation of time and sanity.
So maybe this is where we need art the most - to help us to restructure our time and our sanity, even as we're bombarded by the noise and clutter of modern life. Before art can do that, though, we might need to commute our own habits a little bit - to make ourselves a bit less severe, and more open to surprises!

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