Saturday, October 22, 2011

La Bell Vie

It’s been far too long since I shared some of our Alaskan experiences via this tiny blog. As many of you know, it’s been a busy couple of months, but I realize that is a feeble excuse. At any rate, I won’t spend any longer boring you with apologies for my negligence. Instead let’s just get the ball rolling…although I’ll shake off the dust and wade slowly into the shallow end. Here’s a short piece about perception & beauty (which relies heavily on an article from the Washington Post and More stories about life in Alaska to come...

Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten conceived of an experiment to test how people perceived quality. As I read the story, I found it also spoke to how people perceive beauty. I know I’ve written about beauty and how important it is to me to be open to beauty of many forms and in unexpected places – but it bears repeating. While my previous post about beauty mentioned having new eyes, this one is to remind us to have new ears; to listen. Listening is hard in our fast-paced world, where marketing messages find their way into our phones; where our lives our saddle-bagged by devices – newer, faster – designed to improve our connectivity to the world. Yet somehow, while we’re so busy ‘connecting’ to the world, we miss out on the beauty that’s right in front of us. We’re so busy looking at the latest viral image that we don’t look out the window on the train and see the sunset – a sunset that will never, ever be recreated. We’re so busy listening to our voicemail that we don’t hear the song that a precocious three year old just invented about a dinosaur – a song that no one’s ever heard before.

So after you’re finished reading this, take some time to invest & unplug; to look and to listen. You may be pleasantly surprised.

(The following story is taken from

Many a marketing survey has been conducted to gauge how presentation affects consumer perceptions of quality, and quite a few such surveys have found that people will frequently designate one of two identical items as being distinctly better than the other simply because it is packaged or presented more attractively. Might this same concept apply to fields outside of consumer products, such as the arts? Would, for example, people distinguish between a world-class instrumental virtuoso and an ordinary street musician if the only difference between them were the setting? These were questions tackled by Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten in 2007 when he enlisted renowned violinist Joshua Bell, a winner of the Avery Fisher Prize for outstanding achievement in classical music who regularly undertakes over 200 international engagements a year, to spend part of a morning playing incognito at the entrance to a Washington Metro station during a morning rush hour. Weingarten set up the event “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?”

So, on 12 January 2007, morning commuters passing through the L’Enfant Plaza Station of the subway line in Washington, D.C. were, without publicity, treated to a free mini-concert performed by violin virtuoso Joshua Bell, who played for approximately 45 minutes, performing six classical pieces during that span on his handcrafted 1713 Stradivarius violin (for which Bell reportedly paid $3.5 million). As Weingarten described the crux of the experiment:

Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment?

Three days earlier, Bell had played to a full house at Boston’s Symphony Hall, where fairly good seats went for $100. But on this day he collected just $32.17 for his efforts, contributed by a mere 27 of 1,097 passing travelers. Only seven people stopped to listen, and just one of them recognized the performer.

The Washington Post won a Pulitzer in the feature writing category for Gene Weingarten’s April 2007 story about this experiment.


Having been fortunate enough to hear Joshua Bell perform live at a concert outdoors in 2003, I can , without reservation, say that his playing is extraordinary. His playing is so beautiful that it is almost heartbreaking. (Interestingly, I was listening to an interview on NPR the other day about how music most frequently triggers strong emotional responses that are similar to sadness. I’m curious to find out more about this.) If you’ve never seen The Red Violin (which features Bell’s playing), or heard any of his other albums, I highly recommend taking a listen.

In the meantime, will someone please look for the elderly man who plays the flute on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s been my pleasure to listen to him for years, (and yes I look for him whenever I visit), and it’s been far too long since I’ve been there.

[Postscript: This is the interview I listened to on NPR.]