Koyaanisqatsi on the morning commute

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There's a fantastic article over at The Washington Post from a couple of weeks back I've been meaning to post about because it's amazing. In a brash, brilliant public experiment, the editors of the newspaper arranged for a violinist to play as a busker in the L'Enfant Plaza Station of the Washington Metro at morning rush hour on Friday, Jan. 12. For 43 minutes, the violinist played some of the classical world's most extraordinary music.

No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities -- as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?

Beauty, it turns out, would not transcend except for a very, very few passers-by that day. The musician was in fact Joshua Bell, probably one of the most accomplished violinists in the world. He was playing on a $3.5 million Stradivarius. A videotape of the performance shows that 1,097 people walked by the baseball-capped, jeans-wearing musician on their way to work. Only a handful could be bothered to pause on their way into the office, and exactly one person recognized him.

In preparing for this event, editors at The Post discussed how to deal with likely outcomes. The most widely held assumption was that there could well be a problem with crowd control: In a demographic as sophisticated as Washington, the thinking went, several people would surely recognize Bell. Nervous "what-if" scenarios abounded. As people gathered, what if others stopped just to see what the attraction was? Word would spread through the crowd. Cameras would flash. More people flock to the scene; rush-hour pedestrian traffic backs up; tempers flare; the National Guard is called; tear gas, rubber bullets, etc.

Bell commands $1,000 per minute or so in the concert hall. His take at the end of his 43-minute busk: $32.17. (Yep, some people gave pennies.) A couple of the Post's videos have speeded-up segments, so you can get an idea of just how oblivious the bulk of the commuters were to what was happening in front of them. It calls to mind Godfrey Reggio's timeless 1982 film Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance, with its famous score by Spoleto 2007 entrant Philip Glass.

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?

-PS

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