Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Life Out of Balance?


Nobody stopped to hear him
Though he played so sweet and high
They knew he had never
Been on their t.v.
So they passed his music by
I meant to go over and ask for a song
Maybe put on a harmony...
I heard his refrain
As the signal changed
He was playing real good, for free.

- Joni Mitchell


If one of the world's foremost musicians went out onto the street and played for free, would anybody notice? That was the question that led to this experiment written up in the April 8 Washington Post. In the spirit of inquiry, Joshua Bell, an internationally acclaimed violin virtuoso, took his instrument and played outside the L'Enfant metro station in Washington D.C. for three quarters of an hour on the morning of January 12. Seven people stopped to listen for at least a minute; their reactions were subsequently gathered in interviews and included in the article. Twenty-seven tossed money into the violin case, mostly without stopping. More than 1000 others simply ignored him.

What does that mean? What conclusions can we draw from that? Here's an excerpt from the end of the article:

What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.


-- from "Leisure," by W.H. Davies

Let's say Kant is right. Let's accept that we can't look at what happened on January 12 and make any judgment whatever about people's sophistication or their ability to appreciate beauty. But what about their ability to appreciate life?

We're busy. Americans have been busy, as a people, since at least 1831, when a young French sociologist named Alexis de Tocqueville visited the States and found himself impressed, bemused and slightly dismayed at the degree to which people were driven, to the exclusion of everything else, by hard work and the accumulation of wealth.

Not much has changed. Pop in a DVD of "Koyaanisqatsi," the wordless, darkly brilliant, avant-garde 1982 film about the frenetic speed of modern life. Backed by the minimalist music of Philip Glass, director Godfrey Reggio takes film clips of Americans going about their daily business, but speeds them up until they resemble assembly-line machines, robots marching lockstep to nowhere. Now look at the video from L'Enfant Plaza, in fast-forward. The Philip Glass soundtrack fits it perfectly.

"Koyaanisqatsi" is a Hopi word. It means "life out of balance."

In his 2003 book, Timeless Beauty: In the Arts and Everyday Life, British author John Lane writes about the loss of the appreciation for beauty in the modern world. The experiment at L'Enfant Plaza may be symptomatic of that, he said -- not because people didn't have the capacity to understand beauty, but because it was irrelevant to them.

"This is about having the wrong priorities," Lane said. "If we can't take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that -- then what else are we missing?"

That's what the Welsh poet W.H. Davies meant in 1911 when he published those two lines that begin this section. They made him famous. The thought was simple, even primitive, but somehow no one had put it quite that way before.

Of course, Davies had an advantage -- an advantage of perception. He wasn't a tradesman or a laborer or a bureaucrat or a consultant or a policy analyst or a labor lawyer or a program manager. He was a hobo.

1 comment:

Mark Hanington said...

From another place in another time:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

William Wordsworth 1798