Tuesday, April 10, 2007

That Joshua Bell Incident

Every musician I know has been riveted by the subway experiment in Washington, D.C., as reported in the Washington Post. The amazing violinist Joshua Bell, who otherwise commands $1000 a minute in performance, donned a baseball cap, stood at the entrance to the subway, threw open his case so people could toss money in, and proceeded to play some of the hardest and most dazzling of all the violin repertoire from Bach's Partitas. The report includes videos, and it is admittedly shocking to see hundreds of commuters completely ignore his playing in this acoustically friendly environment. Incredibly, only one person seemed to realize what was happening. In 43 minutes of playing, he made $32.17.

People are asking: what does this say about us as a culture? Are we civilized at all or do we just pretend to be? Musicians are emailing the article to each other and debating its meaning, with many people drawing the usual guild-like conclusion that they are victimized by an unappreciative public. They are all like Joshua Bell in the subway entrance, playing for fools who don't get it.

Musicians like to imagine that the whole value of music and its performance is embedded within the music itself, and only philistines demand fancy concert halls, performance notes, champaign cocktails, and the like. In this view, it shouldn't matter whether it is the Lincoln Center or the subway, whether it is rush hour or an 8:00pm concert, the music should be valued and appreciated and paid for at the same rate. Only this perfect equilibrium proves that the music is truly appreciated.

The article, however, provides enough analysis to forestall this conclusion. It raises the questions and draws attention to the issue of context. There are probably schools of thought on this question, and they probably have formal names, but I guess I would have to argue the contextualist position on this. Music has associations and the value of that music is most strongly influenced by that. This is why people love soundtracks of movies they have seen: they "see" the movie in their minds as they listen. People who listen to opera at home have most likely attended it, so the association is part of their subjective understanding of it.

So it is with the great debate over commercial-pop versus sacred music. There is great pop music, no question. But within the rhythm and style and approach is embedded a certain cultural context that we associate with secular life. It is because of those associations, in part, that it is not appropriate in any sacred venue. The value of the music does not transfer from one setting to another. It is also for this reason that the music of Palestrina doesn't always make for a happy fit in the concert hall: I always feel uncomfortable clapping after hearing a Renaissance motet with sacred words as sung in a concert setting.

In the same way, certain contexts call forth certain musical associations. We don't want to hear Josquin played on the Merry-Go-Round. Not even I believe that medieval organum should play on the speakers at the bowling alley. We don't think of Joshua Bell and Bach as subway music. And in the same way, Church and liturgy cry out for certain approaches to music that depart from the earthiness of popular music and enter into an eternal sense. The music itself is not the whole of the value; it is the music in the right context that the human mind and heart seeks.

A grave problem that exists within Catholic culture right now concerns that generation that came of age after the Council when liturgical practice was in upheaval. They were in college. The music of the Mass was pseudo-folk, pop music. They associate that music with a new-found freedom: from parents, from strictures, from rubrics, from social rules of all sorts. They believed that they were reinventing the faith, and oh what bliss it was to be alive. They are now in their late 50s. They have a strong attachment to the heady days of their youth. They want to relive it again and again until they die. What this generation needs to understand is that their associations are not shared by people who are older, people who are younger, and certainly not by any Catholics in any other period of history. It is a passing fad, and it is mighty selfish to insist that everyone else must bow to it so long as they walk this earth.

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