A year ago, around the time the great framing debate first started raging on ScienceBlogs (with some ripples reaching even these distant shores), famed violin virtuoso Joshua Bell was conducting a different experiment in framing:
As described in the resulting Washington Post piece by Gene Weingarten:
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?
The musician did not play popular tunes whose familiarity alone might have drawn interest. That was not the test. These were masterpieces that have endured for centuries on their brilliance alone, soaring music befitting the grandeur of cathedrals and concert halls.
The acoustics proved surprisingly kind. Though the arcade is of utilitarian design, a buffer between the Metro escalator and the outdoors, it somehow caught the sound and bounced it back round and resonant. The violin is an instrument that is said to be much like the human voice, and in this musician’s masterly hands, it sobbed and laughed and sang — ecstatic, sorrowful, importuning, adoring, flirtatious, castigating, playful, romancing, merry, triumphal, sumptuous.
And the outcome of the experiment? Very few of the hundreds of commuters streaming past realized what a treat they were getting in the public square, let alone recognize the artist! As Bora and others pointed out, this seemed to demonstrate poor framing – put a famous concert violinist almost incognito and out of context, and no one will recognize or appreciate the genius!
Meanwhile, within the tunnels of another subway system in another city, another virtuoso was probably making his living doing this:
Who is this energetic drummer with his ersatz plastic bucket drum kit? Prem Panicker of Smoke Signals has this story:
One day, I paused in the midst of a headlong rush, captivated by music emerging from some corner of the 42nd Street subway. Ignoring the train pulling in, I went looking for the source—and saw this muscular black guy producing compelling percussive patterns out of a ‘drum kit’ made up entirely of plastic paint cans. I play the drums [or at least, I used to, back in my thoroughly misspent youth], hence it was doubly engaging to watch the drummer produce, on his ersatz kit, patterns I would have struggled to reproduce on high end equipment.
I’ve seen such drummers elsewhere, in the bowels of New York’s subway system, and it was always a stop-you-in-your-tracks sight—rippling muscles limned in sweat, total absorption in the throbbing beat, sounds that bounce endlessly off the cavernous insides of subway stations, occasionally counterpointed by the roar of a train pulling in…
That day, that guy, was different from the other dozens of his ilk, though—because the more I looked at him, the more I had the feeling that I had seen him somewhere before. Trains came and went; I lingered on, listening to him, marking time with palm on thigh, and trying to work out why he seemed familiar. After a while, he caught my eye and grinned; a little later, he took a break—and when I went up to say hello, he asked me if I was trying to work out where I had seen him before. ‘Think movies, my man’, he said—and then the penny dropped. In Green Card, Peter Weir’s 1990 film starring Gerard Depardieu and Andie McDowell, the opening credits run against the backdrop of a small boy sitting on a New York sidewalk, banging out an impressive drum solo on plastic paint cans. That boy had grown up into this man—Larry Wright—and graduated from the sidewalks to this semi-permanent spot in the 42nd Street subway.
A year has passed since that unheeded subway violin concert, and Weingarten has just won the Pulitzer prize for his beautiful report on Joshua Bell’s performance / social commentary / experiment. Meanwhile framing continues to inflame the scienceblogs family in the wake of another, much shoddier public performance attempt, and somewhere in the bowels of the Big Apple, no doubt, Larry Wright is probably banging away on those plastic buckets producing that astonishing sound!