Poet's Choice

Sunday, April 22, 2007

In a recent, much-discussed article, The Washington Post Magazine invited eminent violinist Joshua Bell to participate in an experiment. The brilliant and charismatic musician, wearing a T-shirt and baseball cap, took his Stradivarius to the L'Enfant Plaza Metro station one weekday morning. He removed the priceless instrument from its case, seeded the open case with some coins and bills, and, standing near a trash barrel, he began playing the "Chaconne" from Johann Sebastian Bach's Partita No. 2 in D Minor.

Bell's incognito performance of six pieces drew little attention. People hurried by, with a few significant exceptions. The virtuoso, described as sometimes earning "a thousand dollars a minute," garnered $32.17, not counting a 20-dollar bill put into the case by a woman who recognized him.

Plausible explanations for the general -- though not absolute -- indifference include an insensitive population, a culture out of balance, the overwhelming power of context, and the elusive nature of beauty. A more optimistic possibility would be that people on their way to work automatically resist, and perhaps unconsciously recognize, the anarchic and disruptive power of beauty.

William Butler Yeats's "The Fiddler of Dooney" suggests that idea:


When I play on my fiddle in Dooney,

Folk dance like a wave of the sea;

My cousin is priest in Kilvarnet,

My brother in Mocharabuiee.

I passed my brother and cousin:

They read in their books of prayer;

I read in my book of songs

I bought at the Sligo fair.

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