Saturday, April 28, 2007


April 29, 2007
At Home Again in the Unknown

I READ on the Internet that I was doing a hip-hop album with Timbaland,” Bjork said, and giggled. Timbaland, the producer whose splintered beats have propelled some of the best current hip-hop, collaborated with Bjork for three songs on “Volta” (Elektra), her first album of more-or-less pop songs since “Medulla” in 2004. But Bjork being Bjork, “Volta” is no hip-hop album.

Bjork, 41, describes “Volta” as “techno voodoo,” “pagan,” “tribal” and “extroverted.” Those words barely sum up an album that mingles programmed beats, free-jazz drumming, somber brass ensembles, African music, a Chinese lute and Bjork’s ever-volatile voice. It’s a 21st-century assemblage of the computerized and the handmade, the personal and the global. “This relentless restlessness liberates me,” Bjork sings in “Wanderlust,” which she calls the album’s manifesto. “I feel at home whenever the unknown surrounds me.”

She was on more familiar ground a few weeks ago, giving an interview in the recording studio at her house in Rockland County, N.Y. It’s an odd-angled room with fuzzy pink walls and a view of trees leading to a glimpse of the Hudson River far below. Dressed all in red, with her hair up in puffs on each side of her head, she looked like an Icelandic cartoon elf. She was adding some final mixing touches and sound-effects transitions to the album, and there was a song left to finish. The next day she would visit a New York City studio to record some French horns, seeking a sound for “Pneumonia” that would be “creamy with a blue emotion.”

The music on “Volta” is earthier than “Medulla,” her almost entirely vocal album, and “Vespertine,” her 2001 album full of ethereal harps and string sections. It’s bound together by the brass instruments she deployed in her 2005 score for “Drawing Restraint 9,” a film by her husband, the multimedia artist Matthew Barney; she said she heard more possibilities than she could use in the film. “Volta” also rejoins her, in some songs, with a big beat. “It’s like I’ve got my body back, all the muscles and all the blood and all the bones,” she said. “It is definitely in your face, but I feel it overall as being quite happy.”
Audio Bjork on Her Previous Albums (mp3)

“Volta” doesn’t aim for any known format. While some songs touch down with drumbeats and synthesizer hooks, others are rhapsodic and strange. Bjork sings about travel, passion, nature, self-reliance, motherhood, religion and a suicide bomber. For this album, she said, she was determined to be “impulsive.”

“I didn’t start off with a musical rule,” she said. “It was more emotion.” She said she asked herself: “Are you playing it safe here? Are you actually being impulsive or are you totally subconsciously planning every moment? Are you really allowing enough space for accidents to happen?”

In her native Iceland, Bjork sang everything from children’s songs to punk before reaching an international audience as a member of the Sugarcubes in the late 1980s. She knew early on what she wanted to do with her voice. “I was quite conscious that I wanted permission to be able to be sad and funny, and human and crazy and silly, and childish and wise,” she said, “because I think everybody is like that.”

Like much of Bjork’s music since she started her solo career with “Debut” in 1993, “Volta” harnesses technology to sheer willfulness. No other songwriter can sound so naïve and so instinctual while building such elaborate structures. And few musicians have managed to sustain her unlikely combination of avant-gardism and pop visibility.

Even those who ignore her music can’t forget her fashion statements, like the swan-shaped dress she wore to the 2001 Academy Awards. She also set down ostrich eggs along the red carpet. “People didn’t find it very funny,” she said. “They wrote about it like I was trying to wear a black Armani and got it wrong, like I was trying to fit in. Of course I wasn’t trying to fit in!”

Bjork has three New York City shows scheduled: Wednesday at Radio City Music Hall, Saturday at the United Palace Theater and next Tuesday at the Apollo Theater. She will probably be the only headliner ever to perform at those places backed by a 10-woman Icelandic brass band along with laptop, keyboards and a rhythm section.

Bjork is suspicious of the word pop, and doesn’t sell her songs to advertisers or accept sponsors for her tours. “I don’t want to be the conqueror of the world or be the most famous person on earth,” she said. “I’ve got no ambitions in that direction. Otherwise I would have done things very differently, I think.”

But she appreciates reaching a large audience. “It would be too easy to walk away and say, ‘Oh, I’m just going to do these ornate objects that only a few people, blah blah blah,’ ” she said. “That’s just pretentious and snobbish.

“I believe in that place where you plug into the zeitgeist, the collective consciousness or whatever,” she continued. “It’s very folk. Soulful. Not materialistic. I believe in being a fighter for that soulful place.”

Bjork made “Medulla” and “Vespertine” largely at home while nurturing her daughter, Isadora, now 4. “I had a baby, and I was breast-feeding and organizing my work around that,” she said. “Even though I had a lot of collaborators, they would come for one afternoon for a cup of tea and leave. They would be visiting my universe, my world. When I started doing this album, I had a bit of a cabin fever of being too much in the protection of my own world, so it was time to be brave and get out.”

Bjork recorded “Volta” at studios in the three places she lives — New York, London and Reykjavik — and traveled to San Francisco, Jamaica, Malta, Mali and Tunisia. Now she was willing to show a visitor some of the inner workings of her songs.

A computer sat open on her recording console. It showed a screen for the recording and editing program Pro Tools — a familiar sight to musicians — with the multitrack mix of “Earth Intruders,” the first song on “Volta.” “Is music getting too visual?” she asked. “We could open a bottle of wine and talk about that for five hours.”

Stripes of color, each one a sound or an instrument, crossed the screen, starting and stopping. “It’s like doing embroidery, like when I used to knit a lot as a teenager,” she said. “You just sit and noodle all day and have a cup of tea and make pretty patterns.”

She hit the play button, and the tramp of marching feet began, soon topped by percussion, swooping synthesizers and Bjork’s voice, wailing, “Turmoil! Carnage!” New blocks of color announced new instruments: in this song, the sound of Konono No. 1, a Congolese group that plays electrified thumb pianos amplified (and distorted) through car-horn speakers. (She recorded with the members of the band in Belgium, and they will be joining her on some tour dates.)

The beat came from Timbaland, a longtime fan who had sampled Bjork’s song “Joga” and finally got around to collaborating with her last year. “I walked into the studio with Timbaland with no preparations,” she said. “Usually I would have already written the song and there would just be a small little space for the visitor. But now I just wanted some challenge. We improvised for one day, and I just sang on top of whatever he did.

“You just walk in the room and it’s just” — she made an explosive sound — “pfff!, and I just went pfff!, and we did seven tracks, just p-p-p-p-p-p. You get really smitten by his energy. It’s like, why doubt? Who needs the luxury of doubt?”

Timbaland’s beats made their way into “Earth Intruders,” “Hope” and the song that sounds closest to other Timbaland tracks, “Innocence,” which has sucker-punch syncopations from, among other things, a sample of a grunting man. After their recording session, Timbaland got wrapped up in producing albums and touring with Justin Timberlake and Nelly Furtado, leaving Bjork to edit and augment the tracks.

“I was a bit confused first, because I got a lot of stuff of his and was maybe expecting him to arrange his noises,” Bjork said. “It ended up being quite a good thing for me, because apparently he never gives other people stuff and lets them complete it for him. So he actually trusted me to do that.”

For “Hope,” a song that ponders the story of a pregnant suicide bomber, Bjork went to Mali to meet Toumani Diabate, a djeli (or griot) who plays the harplike kora. They could have exchanged musical ideas electronically. But “I wanted to sing it with him at the same moment, because it’s always different when you do that,” Bjork said.

“She wanted everything to work naturally,” Mr. Diabate said backstage after a recent concert with his Symmetric Orchestra at Zankel Hall. In Mali, he played and she sang, trying lyrics she had brought until the syllables fit and they had a few songs. She chose “Hope” and handed another one to him. “She said, ‘Take this and use it any way you like,’ ” Mr. Diabate said. “I couldn’t imagine a superstar doing that.”

“Hope” ended up using a Timbaland beat and multiple, overlapping, tangled tracks of kora, traditionally a solo instrument. Mr. Diabate tweaked the results until he was satisfied. “She opened a new door for the kora,” he said.

Other new songs have their own convoluted stories. Bjork visited Jamaica with Antony Hegarty, the brooding-voiced lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons, to record a lovers’ duet with lyrics from a poem by Fyodor Tyutchev, “The Dull Flame of Desire.” They sang together, improvising back and forth, for a full day; then Bjork edited their duet into a smoldering seven-minute drama, worked up a brass arrangement and decided to set the whole thing to an electronic beat.
Audio Bjork on "The Dull Flame of Desire" (With Music Excerpt) (mp3)

It didn’t work. Eventually she brought in Brian Chippendale, the drummer from the rock duo Lightning Bolt. She told him: “I’ve tried so many beats on this song, but I think it should start with silence, and I think it should build up and then you should sort of take over. And it should be a beat that’s not a normal drumbeat but more like a heartbeat or something that you feel.” He improvised it in one take.

Some of the lyrics on “Volta” obliquely address topics like politics, feminism and religion. “Declare Independence” uses a stomping, distorted, ravelike ’80s beat from her longtime collaborator Mark Bell while she exhorts: “Start your own currency! Make your own stamp! Protect your language!” She was thinking, she said, about Greenland and the Faeroe Islands, which are still part of Denmark, as Iceland was until 1944. “But also I just thought it was kind of hilarious to say it to a person,” she said. “It’s just so extreme!”

Other songs, she acknowledged, are messages to herself. The elegiac “Pneumonia” uses only French horns, building up slow-motion chords behind Bjork’s voice, as she reflects on a bout of pneumonia she had in January and on whether she had made herself too isolated: “All the moments you should have embraced/All the moments you should have not locked up.”

She also sings to her two children: her daughter and her son, Sindri, who is 20. In “My Juvenile,” a ballad accompanied by sparse clusters on a clavichord, she chides herself for the way she treated Sindri — “Perhaps I set you too free too fast too young” — while Antony sings “The intentions were pure” by way of reassurance. “You sort of let go too much when they’re 14,” Bjork said. “And then suddenly when they’re 16, you behave again like they’re 8. And then when they’re 18, you think they can fly across the world on their own. And then when they’re 20, you tell them off because they’re wearing a dirty jacket. It’s clumsy.”

“I See Who You Are” speaks gently to her daughter, imagining her entire life span and beyond, “when you and I have become corpses.” It’s set to lightly plinking electronic tones, the Icelandic brass ensemble and the fluttering, surging notes of a Chinese lute called a pipa. The song is simultaneously a lullaby and an international concoction, an improbable mix and a cozy sonic fabric.

While making the album, Bjork said, she read Leonard Shlain’s book “The Alphabet Versus the Goddess,” which propounds a theory of history shifting between dominant brain hemispheres: right and left, image and word, intuition and logic, natural and manmade. “It doesn’t have to be right; it’s just an interesting speculation,” she said. As the embroidery of her songs moved across the computer screen, and as her voice sang the lyrics of “Wanderlust” — “Peel off the layers until you get to the core” — it sounded as if the alphabet and the goddess were, for the moment, in harmony.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Op-ed: Don't Blame Hip-Hop

April 25, 2007
Don’t Blame Hip-Hop

Hip-hop has been making enemies for as long as it has been winning fans. It has been dismissed as noise, blamed for concert riots, accused of glorifying crime and sexism and greed and Ebonics. From Run-D.M.C. to Sister Souljah to Tupac Shakur to Young Jeezy, the story of hip-hop is partly the story of those who have been irritated, even horrified, by it.

Even so, the anti-hip-hop fervor of the last few weeks has been extraordinary, if not quite unprecedented. Somehow Don Imus’s ill-considered characterization of the Rutgers women’s basketball team — “some nappy-headed hos” — led not only to his firing but also to a discussion of the crude language some rappers use. Mr. Imus and the Rev. Al Sharpton traded words on Mr. Sharpton’s radio show and on “Today,” and soon the hip-hop industry had been pulled into the fray.

Unlike previous hip-hop controversies, this one doesn’t have a villain, or even a villainous song. The current state of hip-hop seems almost irrelevant to the current discussion. The genre has already acquired (and it’s fair to say earned) a reputation for bad language and bad behavior. Soon after Mr. Imus’s firing, The Daily News had Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, splashed on its cover alongside the hip-hop producer Timbaland, whose oeuvre includes some Imusian language. He had helped arrange a fund-raiser for her and apparently was now a liability. Oprah Winfrey organized a two-show “town meeting” on what’s wrong with hip-hop — starting with the ubiquity of the word “ho” and its slipperier cousin, “bitch” — and how to fix it. The hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons, who appeared on the show, promised to take action, but last Thursday a planned press conference with hip-hop record label executives was canceled at the last minute, with scant explanation.

On Monday, Mr. Simmons and Ben Chavis, leaders of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, released a statement that said, in part, “We recommend that the recording and broadcast industries voluntarily remove/bleep/delete the misogynistic words ‘bitch’ and ‘ho’ ” and a third term, a common racial epithet. (That already happens on the radio; it seemed the two were suggesting that all albums be censored too.) Mr. Simmons helped create the hip-hop industry, and he has always spoken as a rap insider. Monday’s statement was remarkable partly because he was speaking as a hip-hop outsider, unable (so far) to persuade the executives to go along with him.

A different sort of criticism was voiced in this Sunday’s episode of “60 Minutes”: Anderson Cooper was the host of a segment arguing that hip-hop culture had popularized an anti-snitching ethos that was undermining the police and allowing criminals to operate with relative impunity. The rapper Cam’ron, who was shot in 2005, cheerfully told Mr. Cooper that cooperating with police would hurt his professional reputation and run counter to “the way I was raised.” Asked what he would do if he were living next door to a serial killer, Cam’ron merely shrugged and said he would move. The segment said remarkably little about the fear and anger that might help create such an anti-police culture. Even if Cam’ron is just doing what sells, the question remains: Why is this what sells?

None of these complaints are new exactly. Few rappers have used the words “ho” and “bitch” as enthusiastically — or as effectively — as Snoop Dogg, who has spent 15 years transforming himself into cuddly pop star from a menacing rapper, while remaining as foul-mouthed as ever. And rappers’ hostility toward the police has been a flashpoint since the late 1980s, when the members of N.W.A. stated their position more pithily than this newspaper will allow.

Nowadays, as all but the most intemperate foes of hip-hop readily admit, this is not a debate about freedom of speech; most people agree that rappers have the right to say just about anything. This is, rather, a debate about hip-hop’s vexed position in the American mainstream. On “Oprah,” Diane Weathers, the former editor in chief of Essence magazine, said, “I think Snoop should lose his contract — I don’t think he should be on the Jay Leno show.”

On “60 Minutes,” Mr. Cooper kept reminding viewers that hip-hop was “promoted by major corporations,” and he mentioned anti-snitching imagery on album covers. What he showed, though, was a picture taken from a mixtape, not a major label release.

That’s a small quibble, perhaps, but a telling one. In the wake of Mr. Imus’s firing, some commentators talked about a double standard in the media, though “double” seemed like an understatement. Like MySpace users and politicians and reality-television stars and, yes, talk-radio hosts, rappers are trying to negotiate a culture in which the boundaries of public and private space keep changing, along with the multiplying standards that govern them. This means that mainstream culture is becoming less prim (or more crude, if you prefer), and it’s getting harder to keep the sordid stuff on the margins.

This also means that just about nothing flies under the radar: a tossed-off comment on the radio can get you fired, just as a fairly obscure mixtape can find its way onto “60 Minutes” as an exemplar of mainstream hip-hop culture.

You can scoff at Mr. Simmons’s modest proposal, but at the very least, he deserves credit for advancing a workable one, and for endorsing the kind of soft censorship that many of hip-hop’s detractors are too squeamish to mention. Consumers have learned to live with all sorts of semi-voluntary censorship, including the film rating system, the F.C.C.’s regulation of broadcast media and the self-regulation of basic cable networks. Hip-hop fans, in particular, have come to expect that many of their favorite songs will reach radio in expurgated form with curses, epithets, drug references and mentions of violence deleted. Those major corporations that Mr. Cooper mentioned aren’t very good at promoting so-called positivity or wholesome community-mindedness. But give them some words to snip and they’ll diligently (if grudgingly) snip away.

It’s not hard to figure out why some people are upset about the way Mr. Simmons’s three least-favorite words have edged into the mainstream. One of hip-hop’s many antecedents is the venerable African-American oral tradition known as toasting; those toasts are full of those three words. Hip-hop took those rhymes from the street corner to the radio, and those old-fashioned dirty jokes are surely meant to shock people like Ms. Winfrey. Once upon a time, such lyrics (if they had been disseminated) might have been denounced for their moral turpitude, but now they’re more likely to be denounced for their sexism. Both verdicts are probably correct, and each says something about mainstream society’s shifting priorities and taboos. Maybe dirty jokes never change, only the soap does.

Mr. Imus has one thing in common with rappers, after all. Like him, many rappers have negotiated an uneasy relationship with the mainstream: they are corporate entertainers who portray themselves as outspoken mavericks; they are paid to say private things (sometimes offensive things) in public. It’s an inherently volatile arrangement, bound to create blow-ups small and big. Mr. Simmons’s proposal could buy some rappers a few years’ reprieve. But it wouldn’t be surprising if the big record companies eventually decided that brash — and brilliant — rappers like Cam’ron were more trouble than they were worth. (Cam’ron’s last two albums haven’t sold well.) Why not spend that extra money on a clean-cut R&B singer, or a kid-friendly pop group?

The strangest thing about the last few weeks was the fact that hardly any current hip-hop artists were discussed. (All these years later, we’re still talking about Snoop Dogg?) Maybe that’s because hip-hop isn’t in an especially filthy mood right now. It sounds more light-hearted and clean-cut than it has in years. Hip-hop radio is full of cheerful dance tracks like Huey’s “Pop, Lock & Drop It,” Crime Mob’s “Rock Yo Hips,” Mims’s “This Is Why I’m Hot” and Swizz Beatz’s “It’s Me, Snitches.” (The title and song were censored to exclude one of the three inflammatory words — proof that this snipping business can be tricky.)

On BET’s “106 & Park,” one of hip-hop’s definitive television shows, you can watch a fresh-faced audience applaud these songs, cheered on by relentlessly positive hosts. For all the panicky talk about hip-hop lyrics, the current situation suggests a scarier possibility, both for hip-hop’s fans and its detractors. What if hip-hop’s lyrics shifted from tough talk and crude jokes to playful club exhortations — and it didn’t much matter? What if the controversial lyrics quieted down, but the problems didn’t? What if hip-hop didn’t matter that much, after all?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Hip hop's Simmons: Restrict offensive words
Hip hop's Simmons: Restrict offensive words

NEW YORK, New York (AP) -- Hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons said Monday that the recording and broadcast industries should consistently ban racial and sexist epithets from all so-called clean versions of rap songs and the airwaves.

Currently such epithets are prohibited in most clean versions, but record companies sometimes "arbitrarily" decide which offensive words to exclude and there's no uniform standard for deleting such words, Simmons said.

The recommendations drew mixed reaction and come two weeks after some began carping anew about rap lyrics after radio personality Don Imus was fired by CBS Radio and NBC for referring to the players on the Rutgers university women's basketball team as "nappy-headed hos."

Expressing concern about the "growing public outrage" over the use of such words in rap lyrics, Simmons said the words "bitch," "ho" and "nigger" should be considered "extreme curse words."

"We recommend (they're) always out," Simmons, the pioneering entrepreneur who made millions of dollars as he helped shape hip-hop culture, said in an interview Monday. "This is a first step. It's a clear message and a consistency that we want the industry to accept for more corporate social responsibility."

Last week, Simmons called a private meeting of influential music industry executives to discuss the issue. However, no music executives were associated with Monday's announcement by Simmons' Hip-Hop Summit Action Network.

Calls to Sony Music, Universal Music Group and Atlantic Records were not returned. The Recording Industry Association of America and Warner Music Group declined to comment.
Mixed reaction to Simmons

Bakari Kitwana, who has written about rap in books such as "Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop," said it was a step in the right direction. Kitwana said there needed to be uniformity in removing obscenities from music.

He pointed out that in some songs curse words are replaced with clean words while, in others, epithets and curse words are merely covered up by silence, allowing listeners to still infer from context the edited words.

"It shows that people in the industry are realizing that the pendulum is swinging and that there's a national conversation that they don't want to be on the wrong side of," Kitwana said of the recommendations.

"This is further along than we could have expected them to go 10 years ago. But there has to be more. I think they can do more around the question of content."

Writer Joan Morgan said the announcement amounted to "absolutely nothing." She called the recommendations "short-sighted at best and disingenuous at worst." It was, she said, an "anemic, insufficient response" that failed to address homophobia and other issues in certain strains of hip-hop culture and rap music.

Morgan, author of "When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down," said calling for the removal of the three epithets assumes "all of the violence, misogyny and sexism in hip-hop is only expressed in" those words.

"It's says let's take the responsibility away from people creating the content and put it back on the corporations," said Morgan.

The recommendations also included forums to foster dialogue among entertainers, hip-hop fans and executives and the creation of a mentoring program for entertainers.

Another recommendation called for the establishment of a coalition of music, radio and television executives to advise those industries on "lyrical and visual standards."

The announcement cautioned against violating free-speech rights but said that freedom of expression comes with responsibility.

"Our discussions are about the corporate social responsibility of the industry to voluntarily show respect to African-Americans and other people of color, African-American women and to all women in lyrics and images," read a joint statement from Simmons and Benjamin Chavis, the network's executive director.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

NYT interview with Terry Eagleton

April 22, 2007
Questions for Terry Eagleton
The Believer

Q: As a professor of cultural theory at the University of Manchester in England, you reach some surprisingly sentimental conclusions in your new book, “The Meaning of Life.” Tell us, What does life mean? Perhaps the two strongest candidates for the answer to the question are happiness and love. But one of the terrible things about the word “happiness” is that it is so utterly feeble. It evokes the idea of people cavorting around with manic grins on their faces.

Is there a word you prefer to “happiness”? Aristotle, of course, uses a term which is better translated as “well-being.” The term I like is “fulfillment.”

And where do you advise us to look for fulfillment? There’s a famous phrase from Karl Marx, in which he says that he wants a society in which the full development of each is the condition of the full development of all. What would it be like to find our fulfillment through each other rather than against each other?

In the book, you define love in egalitarian terms as well. But that doesn’t ring very true. What if someone falls in love with, for instance, a voice heard on the phone? You can talk about having affection or love for all kinds of things. You can love your handbag or bedroom slippers. That isn’t the full model of love, where each realizes himself or herself through the other doing the same.

Does love for a pet dog constitute true love, by your definition? No. Because it’s a biologically different species, it doesn’t realize itself, doesn’t flower into its own being, through that.

Do you find that having children adds meaning to life? I find that for a left-winger like me, the problem is that either your children out-left you or they become fascists.

Unlike most left-wingers, you have been a champion of religion. I did attack Richard Dawkins’s book on God because I think he is theologically illiterate. I value my Catholic background very much. It taught me not to be afraid of rigorous thought, for one thing.

Where do you think all these neo-atheists like Dawkins are coming from? I suppose it is a reaction to various ugly types of fundamentalism. I’m entirely with Dawkins in condemning redneck fascists from Texas to the Taliban. But the trouble with Dawkins is that he thinks that’s what religion is.

You are generally described as England’s best-known literary critic. Where does that leave Clive James, whose essay collection, “Cultural Amnesia,” was just published amid great fanfare in New York? I don’t really think he is a literary critic, although he is very clever.

Do you disapprove of the way he treats high culture and pop culture with equal seriousness? Not at all. My chair is in cultural studies. But that’s not the same as running off on chat shows.

What’s interesting is that neither you nor he seems to write much about actual books. I think what’s happened is that the literary critic has turned increasingly into a cultural critic because there are so many crises in our culture.

Have you read anything good lately? I don’t actually read other peoples’ books. If I want to read a book, I write one myself. I have written more than 40 books.

How scandalous. Someone should stop you. I have tried to stop writing. In fact, I am looking for a “contrascriptive” — a tablet you can take that stops you from writing. There’s this organization called Writers Anonymous. They try to get you down from a full-length volume to a poem.

Very funny. Do you plan to go on book tour in the U.S.? No. As I get older, I find my visits to the States get shorter because I can’t take the general culture very much. I know I am back in the States because at the hotel breakfasts they are all talking about money.

Prince Charles once called you “that dreadful Terry Eagleton.” What about you is so offensive to him? I think just existing is probably enough.

South Park Version of Tupac's California Love

This won't stay up long (Viacom). Using Dawn of the Dead as a literal metaphor for a homeless invasion, the boys save the day with a version of Tupac Shakur's "California Love." Having lived on the Westside of LA, I love the shout out to the wealthy Westside neighborhoods.

Sing Out, Sister: The Health Benefits of Singing

From the Los Angeles Times
A simple tune can boost mood, memory and the immune system -- and ease stress.
By Susan Brink
Times Staff Writer

April 23, 2007

IT'S George's fault that I never sang. Freckle-faced, hair-licked, musical-fingered George. Starting in first grade, I sat behind him in the alto row in music class, and that remained my place for eight years of grammar school. He was Mr. Perfect Pitch, the kid who could play "Flight of the Bumblebee" on the piano. I'd open my mouth to sing, and he'd turn around and snap, "You're flat. You're flat."

"I've been workin' on the railroad…." I'd begin.

"You're flat," I'd hear from the seat in front of me.

Pretty early on, I learned to lip-sync.

There are others like me, people who sing in the car, but only alone with the windows up — maybe quietly in church if there are several hundred other voices to hide behind. Never with any volume, mortified at the thought of being heard.

They should all get over it. Belting one out, it turns out, is good for us.

Where to belt, and with whom, can be a problem. Sure, every city has singing teachers, but what about people who aren't as much interested in learning vocal techniques as they are in inclusive, nonjudgmental group singing? The pickings are slim — an occasional workshop at Esalen Institute in Big Sur, a church choir that doesn't require auditions, a local karaoke bar.

In the catalog of one of my favorite spots, Breitenbush Hot Springs in Oregon, I found a spring workshop, "How to Sing in the Shower." Billed as a kind of retreat for amateur singers, as well as a haven for non-singers who wanted to sing, it filled the bill not just for me but for a somewhat tentative group of seven other people who came together to do nothing but sing. We were guided by a teacher who had breathing suggestions, volume tips and lots of encouragement.

It makes intuitive sense that singing is psychologically good, that it can elevate one's mood or provide an outlet for sadness. But a growing body of science shows that not only is singing mentally healthful, it's also physically good for you. It can improve the body's immune response. In elderly people, it can reduce the use of prescription drugs, doctor visits and emergency room care. The conscious breathing from the diaphragm involved in singing can itself reduce stress.

"Stress affects the immune system," says Robert Beck, a UC Irvine professor who has studied singing's effects. "If you feel good about what you're doing, the immune system recovers and gets a boost."

It was with high hopes, and nary a goal of Broadway stardom, a role with the Met or a Grammy award, that I headed up to Oregon. It's too late to sing for my own babies, now that they're out of college and married. But it's not too late to sing to my children's children.

That's a fairly a typical motivator, says Cathleen Wilder, our workshop teacher. "A lot of people, right around their 50th birthday, decide they want to sing," she says. "They tell me they want to sing to their grandchildren."

The seven others possessed a variety of talents and fears. The setting, a fend-for-yourself rustic retreat in the rain forest on the west slope of Mt. Jefferson, was enough to call the vocal muse.

Our classroom, named the Forest Shelter, was a hand-hewn yurt whose skylight opened up to towering Douglas firs and whose rear windows looked down a wooded hill to the white water of the Breitenbush River. Tucked in the woods off the beaten path between guest cabins and the lodge that housed the dining room, the eight of us had plenty of privacy.

Wilder, from Seattle, had the voice of an angel, the training of an opera singer and the will to convince people that singing is their birthright. "I don't care about the research," she said. "I know it makes you feel good. It's about the joy."

Mumbling mantras such as "what have you got to lose" and "how bad could it be," my turn came to sing a note, solo. I laughed nervously, offered a apology for the sound that soon would escape. Wilder hit a key, and I tried to match it. "Close," she said. "Try again." She hit the note again while raising her conducting hand a bit higher. I raised my voice a bit higher. "Good," she said. "You got it."

Two tries, and I got the note right, guided only by the keyboard and her hand. No one declared me flat. Nor did any one tell fellow student Helen Rueda, as her friends once did when she sang Christmas carols, to shut up. We sang corny old songs, like "Buffalo Gals, won't you come out tonight, come out tonight, come out tonight…." and classics we all knew, like "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…."

To my ears, we got better with every song. Not everyone had the shy history I did. Karen Keltz, Poni Scofield, Leslie Schweitzer and Linda Posell were confident amateur singers, most of them having experience with church choirs or other choral singing. But Rueda, who only sings while riding her bike alone in isolated areas, was glad to have a soul mate like me. Neal Lemery plays the piano, but he says, "I find it really hard to sing with other people." And Sean Harvey plays the guitar and wanted more confidence to sing while he plays.

Many people think they can't match a note. But, like me, they are likely better than they think they are. With all due humility, when I sang alone, I sounded quiet but sweet to my own ears, following Wilder's bouncing hand with my voice. And when I sang with others, I had their voices to follow as well.

It's true, perfect pitch is a rare gift. (I'll grant you that, George, wherever you are.) Scientists now call it absolute pitch, and those who have it might be heard to casually say "E flat" when they hear a horn blare.

But about 40% of people have pitch memory, meaning they can accurately match the pitch of their favorite songs just by recalling it, according to research published in 1994 in the journal Perception and Psychophysics by Daniel J. Levitin, neuroscientist and author of "Your Brain on Music." Another 44% of the 46 people tested could come darn close, within two semitones. A semitone is the sound difference between two keys on a piano.

For my purposes, a semitone is close enough. As we sang through the weekend, the four more confident singers began to arrange themselves between the more hesitant four. Standing next to good singers helped me sing in tune, most of the time, and together, all of our voices got stronger and more sure.

That kind of staggering of good singers and inexperienced voices is likely what people throughout the world have been doing for millenniums. Everyone in the tribe, or village — maybe even the cave — sang, and children would be strategically placed in front of, behind, or next to an accomplished singer so they could take their cues from people who knew how to carry a tune, says Wilder.

Unfortunately, in the industrialized West, community singing rarely happens any more. "We're in an era now which is very artificial when you consider our evolution as a species," says Levitin. "For the last few hundred years, Western culture has created a division between performer and audience."

A few people sing. Most people listen.


Natural remedy

Singing feels good, in part, because it's primal. "You're tapping into something that has an ancient, evolutionary origin," says Levitin. "We're thinking with brains that have had music in them for tens of thousands of years."

Equal parts neuroscience and rock 'n' roll, Levitin played guitar in his youth with Van Morrison. He worked with Stevie Wonder in compiling his greatest hits and was a producer and sound engineer for the Grateful Dead and Santana. His fascination with sound eventually led him to Stanford University and a second career in research. His laboratory at McGill University in Montreal is equipped with pianos and guitars as well as functional magnetic resonance imaging equipment.

"There's evidence from my lab and others that listening to music produces endorphins and the neurotransmitter dopamine, the so called feel-good hormone," he says. In one experiment, he put 13 non-musicians in the fMRI and had them listen to classical music. In results published in the July 2005 online journal NeuroImage, he reported that regions of the brain that modulate dopamine, including the nucleus accumbens and ventral tegmental, grew active. True, the volunteers were listening, not singing. But it's only a short step to apply the results to vocalizing. "You can't sing without hearing music," Levitin says.

Some researchers, including Walter J. Freeman, a neurobiologist at UC Berkeley, think that when people sing, oxytocin is released. A handful of small studies provide evidence to support the theory. Oxytocin is the hormone that surges through new mothers after they give birth and when they breast feed, through both men and women when they have sex and through couples when they gaze romantically into each others' eyes. It increases bonding and it helps imprint memory. Oxytocin peaks during adolescence — probably one reason that the songs we hear and sing during teen years are the ones we always remember.

The hormone's release is likely part of the reason that group singing forms bonds. "When we sing and dance together, our emotions are synchronized," says David Huron, a musicologist at both Ohio State University's school of music and center for cognitive science. "Everyone is on the same emotional page." The military undoubtedly understands that, readying troops to act in unison in part through rhythmic marching songs.

It's not just that singing fosters fuzzy feelings. It can boost the body's immune response. Researchers at UC Irvine had local chorale members chew on dental cotton, then measured levels of an immunoglobulin, IgA, which is present in saliva and helps the body fight infections. About 30 singers from the Pacific Chorale were tested before and after rehearsals and a performance. Results were published in the fall 2000 journal Music Perception. Levels of IgA in the singers increased an average of 150% after rehearsals and 240% after a public performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. "We can't say it's going to fight off colds," says UC Irvine's Beck, lead author of the paper. . "But under proper conditions, singing does arouse the immune system."

Prompted by such biological studies, Gene Cohen, director of the center on aging, health and humanities at George Washington University and author of "The Creative Age" and "The Mature Mind," led a study to test whether untrained elderly people showed any signs of practical benefit from singing. In one of the most specific studies on singing and health, researchers compared two groups of socially active adults age 65 and older. One group sang weekly, led by a professional conductor. The other group remained active in their usual ways but weren't part of the choir. The National Endowment for the Arts-funded study, "Creativity and Aging," released in April 2006, reported that after a year the singers rated their health higher than did the non-singers. They had fewer doctor visits, used less medication and fell less often.

The singers' grown children noticed the improvement in their parents. "After every concert, I'd be mobbed by adult children, saying, 'Please. This must never stop,' " Cohen says. "Two years after the study ended, the chorale is still going, and the group is twice its original size."

At least one cognitive scientist, Steven Pinker, is skeptical of a primal human need for music. Instead, he sees music and singing as a kind of linguistic dessert — delicious but not necessary. In his 1997 book, "How the Mind Works," he wrote, "I suspect music is auditory cheesecake."

But a raft of other research findings point to better mood among elders, college students and homeless men who sing in choirs; to breathing improvements in emphysema patients after singing lessons; and to better posture among amateur singers.

Watching all this research, with an eye on combining the arts and learning, is John Frohnmayer, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts and now a professor at Oregon State University. "Music is the right brain; language is the left," he says. "And those pathways are very robust. I can remember the words to almost every song I've ever sung. It's absolutely critical for children to be exposed to singing, and to sing. I think the studies are showing that the learning of art trains neural pathways that are significant for other areas of learning. That may be the silver bullet that those of us who have been arts activists have been looking for."

Just think about how you learned your ABCs for an example of robust memory pathways.


Feeling good

But back in the Oregon woods, I wasn't thinking about left brain, right brain. In fact, I'd bet that no one in my little group of forest singers was thinking about which neurons were firing, how much IgA was in our saliva or whether the oxytocin was surging. We had found our voices and we practiced, all day and into a couple of moonlit evenings.

I learned a couple of things that will stick in my mind as I sing more — in my car, in the shower, to my grandchildren. Breathing is natural, and so is breathing for singing. Instead of "inhale," "exhale," think "inhale," "phonate." Singing is just inhaling and then making sound with the exhale — nothing more complicated than that. And volume is largely in the mind. Think "louder" and your voice will be louder.

Most important, I learned that I've got a voice, like everyone does, that blends with others.

At the end of our weekend workshop, we gathered outside the forest shelter, in the misty Oregon rain, for one final round.

Oh, how lovely is the evening,

is the evening,

When the bells are sweetly


sweetly ringing.

Ding dong. Ding dong. Ding


Claiming our birthright, we sang. And it felt good.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Wynton Marsalis and Hip-hop

Village Voice
Hip-Hop Is Dead to Him
Hypocrisy and lack of flow defeat Marsalis's attack on "safari seekers" and "thug-life coons"
by Francis Davis
April 16th, 2007 2:11 PM

Amid rancorous critical infighting over free jazz in the early '60s, A.B. Spellman lobbed the following rhetorical hand grenade: "What is anti-jazz, and who are these ofays who've appointed themselves guardians of last year's blues?" Along with free's legitimacy as a new form of jazz, at issue was the contention by advocates like Spellman and Amiri Baraka that its screaming saxophones gave vent to growing black impatience with the goal of racial integration as an end in itself. Spellman, the author of Four Lives in the Bebop Business, a polemical oral history that's become a standard college text, was really asking what gave his white colleagues—onlookers to both the struggle for black liberation and the actual making of jazz—the right to decide. The taunt lingers four decades later, only today's self-appointed tradition-keepers aren't ofays. And in lieu of a regular byline, today's most influential jazz critic—the one whose word most shapes public perception of jazz—boasts a trumpet, his own stage at Lincoln Center, and the ear of Ken Burns.

Criticism means calling into crisis—that's been Wynton Marsalis's modus operandi since the early '80s, when he first decreed that the avant-garde's excesses and fusion's commercial accommodations were leading jazz astray. Plenty of veteran musicians shared that opinion and had been saying so for years. But their grumbling could be dismissed as an older generation's opposition to change, and it was quoted mostly in the jazz press, then as now a short step away from speaking in private. What granted Marsalis a megaphone was the shock value of hearing the complaint from a brash newcomer. He's held onto it all these years because he's talented, personable, and articulate—but also because working the media is no different from working a crowd, and like the Right since Reagan (by pointing out which I don't mean to tar him with the same brush), Marsalis goes on hammering home his talking points with an outsider's righteous indignation despite having long ago acquired an insider's power. He and his confidant Stanley Crouch may be disciples of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray in matters of music and race, but their pronouncements on both are closer in tenor to vintage Baraka and Spellman—the language of black exceptionalism, this time in support of an essentially conservative aesthetic.

By virtue of being so closely identified with jazz—which most kids think of as a safe haven for burned-out swells in suits and ties—the one area in which Marsalis truly remains an outsider is contemporary popular culture. On From the Plantation to the Penitentiary, he branches into social criticism. That's the hype, anyway, though in proselytizing for jazz, when has he ever held back from taking swipes at the infantization of pop and black self-stereotyping in the name of keeping it real? He's just more specific here, making his debut as a lyricist and rapper (the latter thankfully only on the closing "Where Y'All At?") to call out "thug-life coons" and their white "safari seekers," "raggly public schools," rampant materialism, the burgeoning prison industry, '60s radicals who "started like Eldridge and [wound up] like Beaver," and hip-hop's "modern-day minstrels and their songless tunes."

I side with Marsalis on most of these issues, and he occasionally evinces a knack for wordplay. But the clunkers far outnumber the stinging rhymes and alliterations, and Penitentiary's worst offense may be wasting the considerable talents of Jennifer Sanon, a young discovery of Marsalis's whose dreamy, behind-the-beat, Peggy Lee-like phrasing deserves lyrics more singable than "I see women dragging/Souls of their womb vanquished dreams/Never to be" and "All you con men can hang up your schemes/Pimps and hustlers/Put up the Vaseline." The latter is from "Love and Broken Hearts," a ballad from the point of view of a woman insistent on being courted and cherished, not just played—in this context, a conceit that might have been better served if Marsalis had interrupted his haranguing and let Sanon show her stuff on "Let's Fall in Love" or another of the great standards she was born to sing. She's simply miscast on the title track, a sodden chant not even Abbey Lincoln or the Sun Ra Arkestra's June Tyson could've raised.

Instrumentally, though, it moves along nicely as it segues from 6/4 to 6/8 for solos by Marsalis, saxophonist Walter Blanding, and pianist Don Nimmer, with Carlos Henriquez's nimble bass ostinato supplying the common thread. Sanon aside, the saving grace throughout is Marsalis's gift for melody and orchestration. "Doin' (Y)our Thing" is instrumental from start to finish, its corker of a trumpet solo reminding us what sparks Marsalis can light when he's not out to make a point.

The whole thing becomes embarrassing only on "Where Y'All At?," when ego escalates into hubris and Marsalis tries to beat "big baggy-pants wearers with the long white T-shirts" at their own game. "They're rapping straight in the time," he criticizes the hip-hop his teenage sons listen to in a recent JazzTimes Q&A. "I told them, 'I'm gonna come up with a rap that goes all across the time.' " When I interviewed him years ago, around the time he was still being accused of copying '60s Miles, Marsalis replied it might sound that way to someone who didn't listen to much jazz, the same way all string quartets might sound alike to someone who hadn't heard very many. I take it from "Where Y'All At?" that Marsalis hasn't heard much recent hip-hop. Neither have I, but I've heard enough to know it's become a producer's medium—the polyrhythmic tension comes from the way the rhymes move in and out of the samples and the abrasive string arrangements. A New Orleans shuffle and a chorus refrain worthy of a junior high school assembly sing-along prove to be no substitutes, Marsalis comes off sounding like a cranky grandpa, and the entire exercise reeks of misguided noblesse oblige—an attempt to "improve" hip-hop by means of better musicianship and high-minded ideals.

Even before reading Marsalis say in JazzTimes that "Supercapitalism" was inspired by ATM fees and hidden charges on his credit card bill, I found myself thinking someone featured in Movado watches was on shaky ground dissing anybody else for wanting to live large. But Penitentiary's drawback as social criticism isn't just its hypocrisy in omitting Marsalis's own penthouse from the alliterative equation. This is a protest album staunch Republicans could get behind, inasmuch as it preaches the gospel of personal responsibility as the only foolproof way out of poverty and degradation: "Don't turn up your nose/It's us that's stinkin'," Marsalis rants on "Where Y'All At?," "And it all can't be blamed on the party of Lincoln." "No Vietcong ever called me nigger," Muhammad Ali famously proclaimed while resisting military induction in the '60s. Marsalis's message to black youth often seems to be "No white man ever called me nigga," and while it's a message not without merit, it's simply not enough. I'm not saying go back to blaming Whitey, but don't let him wiggle off the hook, either.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Ornette Coleman Wins 2007 Pulitzer

For his recording "Sound Grammar."

Mr. Coleman, the 77-year-old jazz saxophonist and composer, won for “Sound Grammar,” a live album by his most recent quartet, recorded in 2005.

Elastic and bracing, with two acoustic basses and much collective improvisation, the music harks back to the 1960s records that made him famous. “I’m tearing and I’m surprised and happy — and I’m glad I’m an American,” he said. “And I’m glad to be a human being who’s a part of making American qualities more eternal.”

OTHER FINALISTS: “Grendel” by Elliot Goldenthal; “Astral Canticle” by Augusta Read Thomas.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Theory of Popular Art: Is Justin Timberlake a Product of Cumulative Advantage?

April 15, 2007
Idea Lab
Is Justin Timberlake a Product of Cumulative Advantage?

As anyone who follows the business of culture is aware, the profits of cultural industries depend disproportionately on the occasional outsize success — a blockbuster movie, a best-selling book or a superstar artist — to offset the many investments that fail dismally. What may be less clear to casual observers is why professional editors, studio executives and talent managers, many of whom have a lifetime of experience in their businesses, are so bad at predicting which of their many potential projects will make it big. How could it be that industry executives rejected, passed over or even disparaged smash hits like “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter” and the Beatles, even as many of their most confident bets turned out to be flops? It may be true, in other words, that “nobody knows anything,” as the screenwriter William Goldman once said about Hollywood. But why? Of course, the experts may simply not be as smart as they would like us to believe. Recent research, however, suggests that reliable hit prediction is impossible no matter how much you know — a result that has implications not only for our understanding of best-seller lists but for business and politics as well.

Conventional marketing wisdom holds that predicting success in cultural markets is mostly a matter of anticipating the preferences of the millions of individual people who participate in them. From this common-sense observation, it follows that if the experts could only figure out what it was about, say, the music, songwriting and packaging of Norah Jones that appealed to so many fans, they ought to be able to replicate it at will. And indeed that’s pretty much what they try to do. That they fail so frequently implies either that they aren’t studying their own successes carefully enough or that they are not paying sufficiently close attention to the changing preferences of their audience.

The common-sense view, however, makes a big assumption: that when people make decisions about what they like, they do so independently of one another. But people almost never make decisions independently — in part because the world abounds with so many choices that we have little hope of ever finding what we want on our own; in part because we are never really sure what we want anyway; and in part because what we often want is not so much to experience the “best” of everything as it is to experience the same things as other people and thereby also experience the benefits of sharing.

There’s nothing wrong with these tendencies. Ultimately, we’re all social beings, and without one another to rely on, life would be not only intolerable but meaningless. Yet our mutual dependence has unexpected consequences, one of which is that if people do not make decisions independently — if even in part they like things because other people like them — then predicting hits is not only difficult but actually impossible, no matter how much you know about individual tastes.

The reason is that when people tend to like what other people like, differences in popularity are subject to what is called “cumulative advantage,” or the “rich get richer” effect. This means that if one object happens to be slightly more popular than another at just the right point, it will tend to become more popular still. As a result, even tiny, random fluctuations can blow up, generating potentially enormous long-run differences among even indistinguishable competitors — a phenomenon that is similar in some ways to the famous “butterfly effect” from chaos theory. Thus, if history were to be somehow rerun many times, seemingly identical universes with the same set of competitors and the same overall market tastes would quickly generate different winners: Madonna would have been popular in this world, but in some other version of history, she would be a nobody, and someone we have never heard of would be in her place.

Because it’s not possible in the real world to test theories about events that never happened, most of what we know about cumulative advantage has been worked out using mathematical models and computer simulations — an approach that is often criticized for glossing over the richness of real human behavior. Fortunately, the explosive growth of the Internet has made it possible to study human activity in a controlled manner for thousands or even millions of people at the same time. Recently, my collaborators, Matthew Salganik and Peter Dodds, and I conducted just such a Web-based experiment. In our study, published last year in Science, more than 14,000 participants registered at our Web site, Music Lab (, and were asked to listen to, rate and, if they chose, download songs by bands they had never heard of. Some of the participants saw only the names of the songs and bands, while others also saw how many times the songs had been downloaded by previous participants. This second group — in what we called the “social influence” condition — was further split into eight parallel “worlds” such that participants could see the prior downloads of people only in their own world. We didn’t manipulate any of these rankings — all the artists in all the worlds started out identically, with zero downloads — but because the different worlds were kept separate, they subsequently evolved independently of one another.

This setup let us test the possibility of prediction in two very direct ways. First, if people know what they like regardless of what they think other people like, the most successful songs should draw about the same amount of the total market share in both the independent and social-influence conditions — that is, hits shouldn’t be any bigger just because the people downloading them know what other people downloaded. And second, the very same songs — the “best” ones — should become hits in all social-influence worlds.

What we found, however, was exactly the opposite. In all the social-influence worlds, the most popular songs were much more popular (and the least popular songs were less popular) than in the independent condition. At the same time, however, the particular songs that became hits were different in different worlds, just as cumulative-advantage theory would predict. Introducing social influence into human decision making, in other words, didn’t just make the hits bigger; it also made them more unpredictable.

So does a listener’s own independent reaction to a song count for anything? In fact, intrinsic “quality,” which we measured in terms of a song’s popularity in the independent condition, did help to explain success in the social-influence condition. When we added up downloads across all eight social-influence worlds, “good” songs had higher market share, on average, than “bad” ones. But the impact of a listener’s own reactions is easily overwhelmed by his or her reactions to others. The song “Lockdown,” by 52metro, for example, ranked 26th out of 48 in quality; yet it was the No. 1 song in one social-influence world, and 40th in another. Overall, a song in the Top 5 in terms of quality had only a 50 percent chance of finishing in the Top 5 of success.

In our artificial market, therefore, social influence played as large a role in determining the market share of successful songs as differences in quality. It’s a simple result to state, but it has a surprisingly deep consequence. Because the long-run success of a song depends so sensitively on the decisions of a few early-arriving individuals, whose choices are subsequently amplified and eventually locked in by the cumulative-advantage process, and because the particular individuals who play this important role are chosen randomly and may make different decisions from one moment to the next, the resulting unpredictably is inherent to the nature of the market. It cannot be eliminated either by accumulating more information — about people or songs — or by developing fancier prediction algorithms, any more than you can repeatedly roll sixes no matter how carefully you try to throw the die.

This, obviously, presents challenges for producers and publishers — but it also has a more general significance for our understanding of how cultural markets work. Even if you think most people are tasteless or ignorant, it’s natural to believe that successful songs, movies, books and artists are somehow “better,” at least in the democratic sense of a competitive market, than their unsuccessful counterparts, that Norah Jones and Madonna deserve to be as successful as they are if only because “that’s what the market wanted.” What our results suggest, however, is that because what people like depends on what they think other people like, what the market “wants” at any point in time can depend very sensitively on its own history: there is no sense in which it simply “reveals” what people wanted all along. In such a world, in fact, the question “Why did X succeed?” may not have any better answer than the one given by the publisher of Lynne Truss’s surprise best seller, “Eats, Shoots & Leaves,” who, when asked to explain its success, replied that “it sold well because lots of people bought it.”

This lesson is not limited to cultural products either. Economists like Brian Arthur and Paul David have long argued that similar mechanisms affect the competition between technologies (like operating systems or fax machines) that display what are called “network effects,” meaning that the attractiveness of a technology increases with the number of people using it. But even in markets that don’t exhibit obvious network effects (like markets for low-carb or organically produced food, fuel-efficient vehicles or alternative energy technologies), sudden shifts in consumer demand can still arise, persist and then shift again. These shifts often come as surprises but are soon explained away as mere reflections of changing public sentiments. Yet while in some sense these markets do reflect what people want, that is true only of what they want right now. If markets not only reveal our preferences but also modify them, then the relation between what we want now and what we wanted before — or what we will want in the future — becomes deeply ambiguous.

Our desire to believe in an orderly universe leads us to interpret the uncertainty we feel about the future as nothing but a consequence of our current state of ignorance, to be dispelled by greater knowledge or better analysis. But even a modest amount of randomness can play havoc with our intuitions. Because it is always possible, after the fact, to come up with a story about why things worked out the way they did — that the first “Harry Potter” really was a brilliant book, even if the eight publishers who rejected it didn’t know that at the time — our belief in determinism is rarely shaken, no matter how often we are surprised. But just because we now know that something happened doesn’t imply that we could have known it was going to happen at the time, even in principle, because at the time, it wasn’t necessarily going to happen at all.

That doesn’t mean we should stop trying to anticipate the future, any more than we should stop trying to make sense of the past. But it does mean that we should treat both the predictions and the explanations we are served — whether about the next hit single, the next great company or even the next war — with the skepticism they deserve.

Duncan J. Watts is a professor of sociology at Columbia University and the author of “Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age.”

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

A country-western Muslim

Christian Science Monitor
Backstory: A country-western Muslim
With Egyptian roots and a southern drawl, Kareem Salama sings at a very American crossroad.
By Tom A. Peter | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Cambridge, Mass.

Kareem Salama – the main act on this evening's Muslim Student Association program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – nervously sips a bottle of water backstage as his guitarist/producer tunes a 12-string guitar.

The crowd buzz softens to a deferential hush as a bearded student takes the stage to start the evening with readings from the Koran in an Arabic melody that sounds like a medieval hymn.

It's Koranic recitations like these that inspired Mr. Salama, the son of Eygptian immigrants, to become a musician. But it's the peculiarly American circumstances of his life that drove this devout Muslim with a Southern drawl to his musical passion – country.

And so on this evening Koranic verse dissolves into the main act: the upbeat twang of what is perhaps the first Muslim country singer. In a down-home sound that seems at total odds with his look – an elegantly built man with a goatee style popular with young Arabs in his parents' Middle Eastern homeland – Salama croons to the enthusiastic audience. "Baby, I'm a soldier and I hear those trumpets calling again ... It's time for this simple man to be one of the few good men," go his original lyrics to a war ballad about the shared humanity of two soldiers on opposing sides.

As any musician emerging at the grassroots level, Salama performs mostly at smaller, niche events like this one. But he clearly has a growing following. Mariam Kandil, an MIT brain and cognitive sciences major who first heard him at another Muslim conference, says that Salama "got me to like country music."

But further, adds Ms. Kandil, a Muslim who wears hijab, the traditional Muslim head scarf, "What really caught my attention was his voice. But also the lyrics of the songs ... cater not only to the Muslim population but to a more universal group of people because of their meaning."


Salama's attempt to break into country music may seem bizarre to many outsiders. Even his guitarist/producer Aristotle Mihalopoulos – himself the son of Greek immigrants – admits it's a little odd: "He's doing country influenced music as a Muslim and has one of the thickest Southern accents I've ever heard."

"It doesn't feel strange to me," says Salama. "But it certainly is a novelty for other people to see someone who's Muslim and whose family didn't grow up here getting into something like this."

It's also fairly normal from his family's perspective, he says. Though his parents grew up in Egypt, they spent most of their adult lives in the US and raised Kareem and his two brothers and a sister in Oklahoma and Texas. Most of them enjoy country music. But, he adds, "that I'm choosing to put together a CD and go around performing the music ... might be a step outside the norm."

Though most country music fans would tell you nothing is more American, the genre has a reputation for being ultra patriotic, often to the point of bigotry.

Salama, however, is proving that country music might be America's real melting pot.

Especially since the September 11 attacks, some country songs tread the line between music and jingoistic calls to arms. In the controversial "Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue," Toby Keith describes the "American way" as giving the boot to anyone who messes with America. In Darryl Worley's "Have You Forgotten?" he surmises that America is rightly looking for a fight and encourages replaying the 9/11 footage daily.

For a pious Muslim with traditional Arab tendencies, country music is a natural choice.

"The last bastion of ethical tunes," as Salama terms country, tends to focus on a deeper meaning. Listening to a Southern tune, Salama likes to imagine an old man sitting by the fireside telling "a story that means something to him."

Traditional Arab music follows a similar pattern.

Given Islam's strict moral guidelines, few songs have quite the illicit content you'd hear in some American pop songs. Instead, Arab music, like country, tends to focus on issues like unadulterated love, family, and religion. According to Salama, these common themes attract a number of Muslims.

The connection has allowed Salama to freely mix Islamic ideas into his music, while ensuring that it maintains broad appeal.

"Even my hard-core right, Christian buddies are like, 'This is great! This is excellent!'" says Mr. Mihalopoulis, who has bridged his own musical tastes – his main gig is a heavy metal band, the stylistic opposite of country music – to team with Salama.

In a song about the virtues of tolerance, for example, Salama quotes the noted Islamic scholar and poet Imam Shafi'ee's version of the turn-the-other-check proverb: "I am like incense; the more you burn me the more I'm fragrant." Like most of Salama's music, the song emphasizes dealing peacefully with people in an evenhanded manner.

"I don't like to be preachy," he says. "My ideas and thoughts change all the time. So for me to preach something very adamantly and try to force a view down someone's throat implies that I'm very confident. I change my views all the time, especially being a young man."

The attitude has won Salama praise in a variety of circles. He was invited to perform in London at the "Radical Middle Ground" annual conference, sponsored by the British government.


Salama's laid-back and open attitude reflects life in his family home. In Ponca City, Okla., the Salama family was often the only Muslim family in town. Christians seeking converts visited them nearly every weekend.

"Frankly, I always used to enjoy visits from Jehovah's Witnesses, the Mormons, and other denominations," says Salama's father, Mamdouh, an engineer in the petroleum industry. He often invited them in for friendly religious debates. "You know, a lot of people actually hate it when they come, but I always enjoyed having them."

Despite stereotypes of the South as a region struggling with race issues, the Salama family experienced limited discrimination. Salama remembers only a few incidents when people shouted ethnic slurs and believes they were isolated occurrences. His mother, who wears hijab, once joined a women's painting group and initially experienced friction from suspicious members. However, once they got to know her, they became close friends.

"The South embodies so many Islamic values," says Salama. As an example, he cites the prophet Muhammad's command that good Muslims must greet their neighbors, also a common Southern practice, he says.

So far Salama and Mihalopoulis have performed almost exclusively at Islamic gatherings, largely with rave reviews.

"This is certainly one market, but we want to expose our music to a larger audience," says Salama.

While Salama's Muslim background may attract a very particular audience, both he and Mihalopoulis hope that it also might provide them with a hook capable of snagging the attention of more diverse listeners.

In the meantime, the two keep their day jobs – Salama studies law at the University of Iowa, and Mihalopoulis is a substitute teacher.

"I don't have a definite goal right now as to what I want to do with [my music]," says Salama.

But, he optimistically jokes, "If the Dixie Chicks would need someone to open for them, I'd be happy to."

Cuban Rapper: Fight the Injustice

Cuban Rapper: Fight the Injustice

By Morgan Neill

HAVANA, Cuba (CNN) -- Working on an old computer with a burned-out monitor, Cuban rapper Aldo Rodriguez painstakingly lays the tracks for his next song.

Sitting shirtless on the edge of his bed, tattoos up and down both arms, the 23-year-old says he's not afraid to speak his mind in the communist country run by Fidel Castro for decades. His lyrics are punchy and edgy, tackling issues that the state would prefer not to be aired.

"I've pointed out the things that seem wrong to me, and the people like it," he says. "They like to hear it because they identify with what they hear in the songs.

"It's not anything bad. It's just the truth, and the people aren't used to hearing it." (Watch a Cuban rapper speak his mindVideo)

His group -- Los Aldeanos, or "The Villagers" -- is one of Cuba's best-known underground hip-hop acts. It's earned credibility with lyrics that condemn racism, police harassment, prostitution and inequality -- criticisms often heard in Cuba's streets, but controlled by the state in the media.

For example, in their song "Ya Nos Cansamos," roughly translated "We're Fed Up," you'll hear these lines:

"They're always saying we're all equal
But you tell me if the doorways are crumbling in the generals' houses.
Of course all the hospitals in Cuba are free
But who do they treat better, the officers, or me?"

Rap has a small but devoted following in Cuba. But driving through Alamar, the neighborhood outside Havana thought of as the birthplace of Cuban rap, it's reggaeton, not rap, that's blaring from the dilapidated apartments these days.

Reggaeton is a danceable mix of rap and reggae. Its thumping, bass-heavy rhythms and often sexually explicit lyrics prove an irresistible combination in Cuba, where dancing sometimes seems the national pastime.

But among young men in particular, rap's aggressive stance has a unique appeal: No other form of music takes on the country's problems so directly. (Watch a Cuban rapper bust a funky beat at a concertVideo)

In an effort to exert its influence over rap, the Cuban government created the Cuban Rap Agency in 2002. The agency promotes about a dozen rappers and produces their albums, but you won't find government critics like Rodriguez on their roster. These underground rappers say they won't be silenced or co-opted by the government.

So, they work out of their homes and distribute their music by hand on homemade CD's copied over and over again.
Rap organizer: State shouldn't meddle with rap

Last year, the nation's Rap Festival was canceled amid uncertainty surrounding Castro's health. The Cuban Rap Agency began co-sponsoring the event in 2002 to the angst of many.

Rodolfo Rensoli organized the rap festival before the state stepped in. He says government limitations have made groups and their fans more rebellious.

"Since the state took over managing the festival, brothers are coming out carrying signs calling for 'social justice' and other demands," he says.

He says it would be a major mistake to try to set limits on the rappers: "Censor them or cut them out, intimidate them or limit the expression of these kids -- that would be horrible."

CNN asked to speak with the director of the Cuban Rap Agency, but was told there is no director of the agency currently. (In fact, it's difficult to get anyone in the government to comment about rap.)

As for Rodriguez, he says he just wants to rap for himself. "I'm one of those who thinks that once you're part of a business -- not just in Cuba, but anywhere in the world -- they make you a slave."

Speaking from the house he shares with his mother and siblings, he assures us he's not opposed to the government, but he won't keep quiet about injustices he sees.

"I'm not against the commandant, or Raul [Castro, in charge since his brother's illness], or any of those people," he says, "I'm young and I've got a right to express myself. Like all the young people in the world, I see something wrong, and I point it out."

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Mexican Drug Cartels Leave a Bloody Trail on YouTube

Washinton Post
Mexican Drug Cartels Leave a Bloody Trail on YouTube

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 9, 2007; A01

MEXICO CITY -- Bloody bodies -- slumped at steering wheels, stacked in pickup trucks, crumpled on sidewalks -- clog nearly every frame of the music video that shook Mexico's criminal underworld.

Posted on YouTube and countless Mexican Web sites last year, the video opens with blaring horns and accordions. Valentín Elizalde, a singer known as the "Golden Rooster," croons over images of an open-mouthed shooting victim. "I'm singing this song to all my enemies," he belts out.

Elizalde's narcocorrido, or drug trafficker's ballad, sparked what is believed to be an unprecedented cyberspace drug war. Chat rooms filled with accusations that he was promoting the Sinaloa cartel and mocking its rival, the Gulf cartel. Drug lords flooded the Internet with images of beheadings, execution-style shootings and torture.

Within months, Elizalde was dead, shot 20 times after a November concert. His enemies exacted their final revenge by posting a video of his autopsy, the camera panning from Elizalde's personalized cowboy boots to his bloodied naked body.

Elizalde's narco-ballad video and its aftermath highlight a new surge of Internet activity by Mexican drug cartels, whose mastery of technology gives them a huge advantage over law enforcement agencies. Following the model of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda, the cartels have discovered the Web as a powerful means of transmitting threats, recruiting members and glorifying the narco-trafficker lifestyle of big money, big guns and big thrills.

"It's out of control," Victor Clark, a Tijuana-based drug expert, said in an interview.

Drug raids in Mexico now routinely net cameras, computers and intricate computerized surveillance systems along with the usual piles of cash, cocaine and weapons. Hit men are just as likely to pack video cameras as "goat's horns" -- the Mexican drug world's nickname for AK-47 assault rifles.

Mexican police have been slow to recognize the Internet as a font of clues, critics say, a mistake that has increased the ability of the cartels to work in the open.

"Imagine, if you're a policeman, you can find gold here on these Web sites," said Alejandro Páez Varela, an editor at the Mexican magazine Dia Siete who tracks drug gangs' use of the Internet. "It's a shame. Everything's here: names, places. They even say who they are going to kill."

The videos, almost unheard-of a year ago, now show up with disturbing regularity. Last Monday, Mexican newspaper Web sites published portions of a video of a supposed Gulf cartel hit man being questioned by an off-screen interrogator about the February murders of five police officers in Acapulco.

The man wears nothing but underwear. A large "Z" is scrawled in thick ink on his chest, along with the words "Welcome, killers of women and children." The Z is a symbol of the Zetas, the Gulf cartel's notorious hit squad, which was started by former Mexican army special forces officers.

The full version of the video shows assassins decapitating the man by slowing twisting a wire through his neck. It ends with a written threat: "Lazcano, you're next" -- an apparent reference to Heriberto Lazcano, alleged chief of the Zetas.

Viewer comments on the video sites provide some of the possible clues police could be investigating, Clark said. On one recent evening, viewers had posted what appeared to be death threats on a YouTube page showing a bloody narcocorrido video.

"You have few days left, Miguel Treviño," wrote a user named "kslnrv."

"The Internet has turned into a toy for Mexican organized crime," Clark said. "It's a toy, a toy to have fun with, a toy to scare people."

While terrorists have turned to the Internet to communicate with other terrorists, the Mexican cartels appear to be using cyberspace mostly to taunt and threaten enemies. The videos can be explicit or cryptic. Inserting code words is part of the game for drug dealers who delight in leaving riddles to be unscrambled by their rivals and police officers.

Mexican researchers are beginning to examine these Internet postings to monitor who is up and who is down in the drug wars. Páez Varela is tracking an increase in videos posted by the Sinaloa cartel, many of which tout the supposed virtues of its leader, Joaquín "Chapo" Guzmán.

Guzmán, who escaped from a high-security Mexican prison in 2001, and his backers appear to be posting more videos of his hit men carrying out executions in parts of Mexico once thought to be under control of the Gulf cartel.

"What Chapo Guzmán is saying is that his militant arm is strong, not just in Sinaloa, but in Veracruz, the state of Tamaulipas and the state of Tabasco," Páez Varela said. "It's like an advertisement."

But the other side is advertising, too, even though its leader, Osiel Cárdenas, was recently extradited to the United States. A video homage to Cárdenas has proliferated on the Web, boasting that he is still powerful.

"With an order from the boss, more heads will roll," an unknown performer sings. As the singer wails, the screen fills with an image of a blood-smeared floor and four heads severed from their bodies. It ends with a pistol shot into the forehead of a supposed gang member and a gushing wound.

"Mexican law enforcement is ill-equipped to deal with this," Andrew Teekell, an analyst at Stratfor, a private intelligence firm based in Texas, said in an interview. "In the U.S., posting videos like that would be plain crazy -- U.S. law enforcement has guys who do nothing but surf the Internet. But in Mexico, they can get away with it. It shows these cartels are untouchable."

Mexico's federal police agency has a cybercrimes unit, but it has produced few important drug busts. In the meantime, most local police forces pay little attention to the Internet, Clark said. A federal police spokesman declined to discuss ongoing investigations, but said a concerted effort is now being made to track drug gangs on the Internet.

"The police are not taking what narcos post on the Internet seriously," Clark said. "It's a mistake. In terms of investigations, you have to take advantage of all available information."

YouTube, which appears to be the most popular destination for the cartels' videos, removes those flagged by users as objectionable. But the violent clips frequently reappear on the site shortly after being removed. Online comment sections attached to videos disappear, but fill up again when the videos return. The online discussions, in Spanish, are often filled with threats, overt and veiled, as well as streams of profanities.

Mexican drug dealers have for years commissioned composers to write songs in their honor. Now, the Internet is suddenly turning some of them into superstars. None is bigger than Valentín Elizalde.

When he was alive, he never had a best-selling album. But less than four months after his murder and half a year after "To My Enemies" became an Internet hit, Elizalde made it big. On March 3, when Billboard came out with its list of best-selling Latin albums in the United States, Elizalde occupied the top two spots.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Pilgrim With an Oboe, Citizen of the World

April 8, 2007
Pilgrim With an Oboe, Citizen of the World

DRESSED in black, his oval face adorned with sideburns and an upturned lock of hair, the slender oboist looked like a New Wave Tintin as he took his seat on stage for an orchestra rehearsal.

He turned and chatted with the bassoonist behind him, waved shyly to a violinist across the stage and exchanged words with the neighboring principal flutist, who threw his head back in laughter.

The man in black, Liang Wang, all of 26, was only a few months into his first season as principal oboist of the New York Philharmonic. It is an enormous job: giver of the tuning pitch A, de facto leader of the woodwinds, a major solo voice. Around him were some of the toughest, most expert orchestra players in the world, several of whom had joined the orchestra long before Mr. Wang was born.

By all accounts the players — most important, the woodwind section — have embraced him. For his part Mr. Wang said in an interview, he feels at home.

“People are just so supportive of me, and allow me to express myself as an artist,” said Mr. Wang, who conveys a mix of self-assurance, unfeigned humility and amazement at where he has arrived. “They really welcome people who are trying to make something musical.”

Although he does not want to sound cocky, Mr. Wang said, he has an inner security about his abilities. “If you don’t have the goods,” he added, “people aren’t going to put up with you.”

It is an extraordinary place to be for a young man who just a little more than a decade ago was playing his oboe in a practice room in Beijing. But Mr. Wang’s hiring was also a clarion example of the strides musicians from China have made in the realm of Western classical music. They have become a powerful presence as soloists, orchestra members and conservatory students.

Immigrants — Russians, Japanese and Koreans — have long filled out orchestral string sections and excelled as pianists. But Chinese musicians have to a large extent broken out of those areas, lending their talents to woodwinds, brass and percussion instruments as well, despite the generally lower quality of teaching of those instruments in China.

Two of the finest students now in the Juilliard School’s precollege division, teachers there say, are a Chinese clarinetist and a Chinese marimba player.

Mr. Wang’s rise has been meteoric.

Orchestra auditions are grueling competitions to win coveted lifetime jobs. Hundreds of musicians often vie for a position. Winning a first chair in a major orchestra is like winning tenure at an Ivy League university.

Mr. Wang’s touch on the audition circuit was golden from the start, so successful that he won jobs faster than he could take them, although it is also true that he came up at a time when an unusually large number of top jobs were open.

He was appointed principal oboist at the Richmond Symphony in Virginia in 2003 but never showed up, having won an audition for the principal position at the San Francisco Ballet. Then came an appointment to the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra as associate principal oboist. He lasted two weeks before grabbing the principal job at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

While there he was a finalist at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Cleveland Orchestra. He won an audition for the Grant Park Orchestra in Chicago, a summer job, which was rendered moot by an appointment at the Santa Fe Opera.

“There’s an incredible combination of talent and personality,” said Paavo Jarvi, the music director of the Cincinnati Symphony. “Liang is a good example of what’s right with musical education here at the highest level.” The veterans of the Cincinnati woodwind section, some old enough to be Mr. Wang’s grandparents, immediately accepted him as a colleague, Mr. Jarvi said.

After a season in Cincinnati, Mr. Wang won the equivalent of full professorships at Harvard and Yale, simultaneously. He received offers as principal oboist from both the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera orchestra.

He used the Met offer to negotiate a better package from the Philharmonic, where he could play for a favorite conductor, the music director Lorin Maazel. The job would also be less grueling than the Met’s and more high-profile, offering a heavy weekly dose of oboe solos.

“I enjoy being put on the spot,” Mr. Wang said. “I like the pressure.”

He took some ribbing from his new colleagues for his flighty job history. “I became the ‘two-weeks guy,’ ” he said.

Despite his extraordinary ability and success, Mr. Wang, like many Asian-born musicians, has had to confront preconceptions about his ability to connect with Western classical music. At the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where he studied with Richard Woodhams of the Philadelphia Orchestra, a German conductor said he would be happy to show Mr. Wang how to play Brahms, since it was not in his culture, he recounted.

“You don’t have to be German to play Brahms,” Mr. Wang said. “I was very hurt. People think that way? It never occurred to me.”

Mr. Woodhams counseled him to work extra hard because some critics would blame stylistic failings on his nationality, Mr. Wang said. “I had to go the extra mile,” he added. “It may seem like I won a lot of auditions. But I worked harder.”

Sometimes, Mr. Wang said, he gets naïve questions like, “Did you listen to classical music when you were growing up?”

“There are things called CD players,” he said with some sarcasm. He pointed out that he probably grew up listening to far more classical music than most American youngsters. “The thing I don’t understand is why it should make a difference,” he said. “I am a Chinese guy when I look in the mirror, but I’m a world citizen of music.”

At the Philharmonic players in the woodwind section praise Mr. Wang as having a tone easy to blend with, rock-solid intonation and great sensitivity and musicality.

“He’s a very mature player, beyond his years,” said Judith LeClair, the principal bassoonist. “He’s a wonderful colleague. It’s just all music. He’s just very humble and wants to do his job.” Mr. Wang said he feels that acceptance when he senses the other members of the wind section following his lead when he makes subtle changes of character or color.

Michael Tilson Thomas, the music director of the San Francisco Symphony, said he was frustrated that Mr. Wang did not take the job there after an extensive search but did not begrudge him the choice. Mr. Wang impressed him, he said, during a tryout concert performance that included Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto. The oboe part is notoriously extensive and difficult.

“It was remarkable how quickly he grasped it,” Mr. Thomas said. “It became real music very, very quickly.”

Mr. Wang auditioned for the New York Philharmonic in May 2005, having practiced for a month in his closet, where the dead acoustic laid bare the tiniest flaws. (“Trust me,” he said, “it doesn’t sound good at all.”) He played for two trial periods, including a concert with no rehearsals. Mr. Maazel wanted to see if he could handle the pressure, it seemed to Mr. Wang. “I like excitement like that,” he said.

For the Met audition, he learned 34 excerpts from 18 operas, then listened through the operas to understand the contexts of the excerpts.

He was offered the Philharmonic job last June and now occupies the Alice Tully Chair as principal oboist. “The hard work paid off,” he said.

MR. WANG is from Tsingtao, which is in the province of Shandong, the home of Lao-tzu and Confucius. As a former German and Japanese colony, Tsingtao is the cradle of many fine Chinese musicians. His mother was a singer but could not pursue a career because of the Cultural Revolution; his father was a government official overseeing business interests. His family is well off now, but Mr. Wang said he grew up middle class, living in a one-bedroom apartment and sleeping on the living-room couch for seven years.

He was introduced to the oboe at 7 by his uncle, an oboist with the Tsingtao orchestra and now a woodwind instrument dealer in Beijing. “I heard him play ‘Swan Lake,’ the oboe solo,” Mr. Wang said. “I fell in love with the sound of the oboe.” He was drawn, he added, by the instrument’s personal, vocal timbre. He began studying with his uncle.

At 13 he won a rare oboe scholarship at the Central Conservatory in Beijing and left home for good, moving there to share a dormitory room with six other young musicians. He also shared practice room No. 256 with Lang Lang, now a superstar pianist.

Two years later Mr. Wang was visiting an exhibit put on by Lorée, the French oboe maker. A man there heard him play and invited him to his hotel — the Olympic, Mr. Wang still remembers — for an audition. “He said, ‘Do you want to come to the United States?’ ” Mr. Wang recounted. “For a Chinese kid this is impossible. It was too good to be true.”

The man turned out to be a Taiwanese Lorée dealer with ties to the Idyllwild Arts Academy in California, a high school program. Within months Mr. Wang was there. “It was a Cinderella story, really,” he said.

By 2003 he had graduated from Curtis in Philadelphia, where he said he attended every Philadelphia Orchestra program for four years. Mr. Woodhams was a major influence. “He taught us how to be musicians rather than audition takers,” Mr. Wang said.

After three years of constant moving Mr. Wang now lives in a sparsely furnished one-bedroom apartment on West End Avenue and 63rd Street, where, like most other oboists, he spends endless hours painstakingly carving reeds from cane. He has bonded with other young members of the Philharmonic, including the Spanish Pascual Martinez Forteza, the second-clarinetist since 2001, and the German Markus Rhoten, the principal timpanist, who also joined the orchestra this season.

Mr. Wang has a proud streak. While at Curtis, he applied for an audition to the Los Angeles Philharmonic but was turned down because he was too inexperienced. He pressed, was given permission and won through to the finals but did not get the job — again, he was told, because he was not ready.

When the orchestra reconsidered and asked him back for a tryout last year, he declined. Esa-Pekka Salonen, the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, said he could not recall the matter. “Auditioning for an orchestra and hiring is not an exact science,” he said. “It really is as much about the kind of fit.”

In February, Mr. Salonen appeared as guest conductor with the New York Philharmonic in a program that included Ravel’s “Tombeau de Couperin,” which has a prominent and difficult oboe part.

Mr. Wang said he felt awkward greeting Mr. Salonen but felt a measure of satisfaction as well. And as the audience applauded after the performance, Mr. Salonen gave him a solo bow.

Thomas Stacy, the veteran English horn player, also noticed. He sent Mr. Wang a bottle of sparkling wine afterward and a note praising the “myriad colorings and spontaneous subtlety” of his performance, closing with, “Damn, what a talent!”

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Virtuoso Violinist Joshua Bell Plays in the Metro Station as Experiment

Pearls Before Breakfast
Can one of the nation's great musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour? Let's find out.

By Gene Weingarten
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 8, 2007;

HE EMERGED FROM THE METRO AT THE L'ENFANT PLAZA STATION AND POSITIONED HIMSELF AGAINST A WALL BESIDE A TRASH BASKET. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.

It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by. Almost all of them were on the way to work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job. L'Enfant Plaza is at the nucleus of federal Washington, and these were mostly mid-level bureaucrats with those indeterminate, oddly fungible titles: policy analyst, project manager, budget officer, specialist, facilitator, consultant.

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?

On that Friday in January, those private questions would be answered in an unusually public way. 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.

So, what do you think happened?


Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, was asked the same question. What did he think would occur, hypothetically, if one of the world's great violinists had performed incognito before a traveling rush-hour audience of 1,000-odd people?

"Let's assume," Slatkin said, "that he is not recognized and just taken for granted as a street musician . . . Still, I don't think that if he's really good, he's going to go unnoticed. He'd get a larger audience in Europe . . . but, okay, out of 1,000 people, my guess is there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening."

So, a crowd would gather?

"Oh, yes."

And how much will he make?

"About $150."

Thanks, Maestro. As it happens, this is not hypothetical. It really happened.

"How'd I do?"

We'll tell you in a minute.

"Well, who was the musician?"

Joshua Bell.


A onetime child prodigy, at 39 Joshua Bell has arrived as an internationally acclaimed virtuoso. Three days before he appeared at the Metro station, Bell had filled the house at Boston's stately Symphony Hall, where merely pretty good seats went for $100. Two weeks later, at the Music Center at Strathmore, in North Bethesda, he would play to a standing-room-only audience so respectful of his artistry that they stifled their coughs until the silence between movements. But on that Friday in January, Joshua Bell was just another mendicant, competing for the attention of busy people on their way to work.

Bell was first pitched this idea shortly before Christmas, over coffee at a sandwich shop on Capitol Hill. A New Yorker, he was in town to perform at the Library of Congress and to visit the library's vaults to examine an unusual treasure: an 18th-century violin that once belonged to the great Austrian-born virtuoso and composer Fritz Kreisler. The curators invited Bell to play it; good sound, still.

"Here's what I'm thinking," Bell confided, as he sipped his coffee. "I'm thinking that I could do a tour where I'd play Kreisler's music . . ."

He smiled.

". . . on Kreisler's violin."

It was a snazzy, sequined idea -- part inspiration and part gimmick -- and it was typical of Bell, who has unapologetically embraced showmanship even as his concert career has become more and more august. He's soloed with the finest orchestras here and abroad, but he's also appeared on "Sesame Street," done late-night talk TV and performed in feature films. That was Bell playing the soundtrack on the 1998 movie "The Red Violin." (He body-doubled, too, playing to a naked Greta Scacchi.) As composer John Corigliano accepted the Oscar for Best Original Dramatic Score, he credited Bell, who, he said, "plays like a god."

When Bell was asked if he'd be willing to don street clothes and perform at rush hour, he said:

"Uh, a stunt?"

Well, yes. A stunt. Would he think it . . . unseemly?

Bell drained his cup.

"Sounds like fun," he said.

Bell's a heartthrob. Tall and handsome, he's got a Donny Osmond-like dose of the cutes, and, onstage, cute elides into hott. When he performs, he is usually the only man under the lights who is not in white tie and tails -- he walks out to a standing O, looking like Zorro, in black pants and an untucked black dress shirt, shirttail dangling. That cute Beatles-style mop top is also a strategic asset: Because his technique is full of body -- athletic and passionate -- he's almost dancing with the instrument, and his hair flies.

He's single and straight, a fact not lost on some of his fans. In Boston, as he performed Max Bruch's dour Violin Concerto in G Minor, the very few young women in the audience nearly disappeared in the deep sea of silver heads. But seemingly every single one of them -- a distillate of the young and pretty -- coalesced at the stage door after the performance, seeking an autograph. It's like that always, with Bell.

Bell's been accepting over-the-top accolades since puberty: Interview magazine once said his playing "does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live." He's learned to field these things graciously, with a bashful duck of the head and a modified "pshaw."

For this incognito performance, Bell had only one condition for participating. The event had been described to him as a test of whether, in an incongruous context, ordinary people would recognize genius. His condition: "I'm not comfortable if you call this genius." "Genius" is an overused word, he said: It can be applied to some of the composers whose work he plays, but not to him. His skills are largely interpretive, he said, and to imply otherwise would be unseemly and inaccurate.

It was an interesting request, and under the circumstances, one that will be honored. The word will not again appear in this article.

It would be breaking no rules, however, to note that the term in question, particularly as applied in the field of music, refers to a congenital brilliance -- an elite, innate, preternatural ability that manifests itself early, and often in dramatic fashion.

One biographically intriguing fact about Bell is that he got his first music lessons when he was a 4-year-old in Bloomington, Ind. His parents, both psychologists, decided formal training might be a good idea after they saw that their son had strung rubber bands across his dresser drawers and was replicating classical tunes by ear, moving drawers in and out to vary the pitch.

TO GET TO THE METRO FROM HIS HOTEL, a distance of three blocks, Bell took a taxi. He's neither lame nor lazy: He did it for his violin.

Bell always performs on the same instrument, and he ruled out using another for this gig. Called the Gibson ex Huberman, it was handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari during the Italian master's "golden period," toward the end of his career, when he had access to the finest spruce, maple and willow, and when his technique had been refined to perfection.

"Our knowledge of acoustics is still incomplete," Bell said, "but he, he just . . . knew."

Bell doesn't mention Stradivari by name. Just "he." When the violinist shows his Strad to people, he holds the instrument gingerly by its neck, resting it on a knee. "He made this to perfect thickness at all parts," Bell says, pivoting it. "If you shaved off a millimeter of wood at any point, it would totally imbalance the sound." No violins sound as wonderful as Strads from the 1710s, still.

The front of Bell's violin is in nearly perfect condition, with a deep, rich grain and luster. The back is a mess, its dark reddish finish bleeding away into a flatter, lighter shade and finally, in one section, to bare wood.

"This has never been refinished," Bell said. "That's his original varnish. People attribute aspects of the sound to the varnish. Each maker had his own secret formula." Stradivari is thought to have made his from an ingeniously balanced cocktail of honey, egg whites and gum arabic from sub-Saharan trees.

Like the instrument in "The Red Violin," this one has a past filled with mystery and malice. Twice, it was stolen from its illustrious prior owner, the Polish virtuoso Bronislaw Huberman. The first time, in 1919, it disappeared from Huberman's hotel room in Vienna but was quickly returned. The second time, nearly 20 years later, it was pinched from his dressing room in Carnegie Hall. He never got it back. It was not until 1985 that the thief -- a minor New York violinist -- made a deathbed confession to his wife, and produced the instrument.

Bell bought it a few years ago. He had to sell his own Strad and borrow much of the rest. The price tag was reported to be about $3.5 million.

All of which is a long explanation for why, in the early morning chill of a day in January, Josh Bell took a three-block cab ride to the Orange Line, and rode one stop to L'Enfant.

AS METRO STATIONS GO, L'ENFANT PLAZA IS MORE PLEBEIAN THAN MOST. Even before you arrive, it gets no respect. Metro conductors never seem to get it right: "Leh-fahn." "Layfont." "El'phant."

At the top of the escalators are a shoeshine stand and a busy kiosk that sells newspapers, lottery tickets and a wallfull of magazines with titles such as Mammazons and Girls of Barely Legal. The skin mags move, but it's that lottery ticket dispenser that stays the busiest, with customers queuing up for Daily 6 lotto and Powerball and the ultimate suckers' bait, those pamphlets that sell random number combinations purporting to be "hot." They sell briskly. There's also a quick-check machine to slide in your lotto ticket, post-drawing, to see if you've won. Beneath it is a forlorn pile of crumpled slips.

On Friday, January 12, the people waiting in the lottery line looking for a long shot would get a lucky break -- a free, close-up ticket to a concert by one of the world's most famous musicians -- but only if they were of a mind to take note.

Bell decided to begin with "Chaconne" from Johann Sebastian Bach's Partita No. 2 in D Minor. Bell calls it "not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It's a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect. Plus, it was written for a solo violin, so I won't be cheating with some half-assed version."

Bell didn't say it, but Bach's "Chaconne" is also considered one of the most difficult violin pieces to master. Many try; few succeed. It's exhaustingly long -- 14 minutes -- and consists entirely of a single, succinct musical progression repeated in dozens of variations to create a dauntingly complex architecture of sound. Composed around 1720, on the eve of the European Enlightenment, it is said to be a celebration of the breadth of human possibility.

If Bell's encomium to "Chaconne" seems overly effusive, consider this from the 19th-century composer Johannes Brahms, in a letter to Clara Schumann: "On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind."

So, that's the piece Bell started with.

He'd clearly meant it when he promised not to cheap out this performance: He played with acrobatic enthusiasm, his body leaning into the music and arching on tiptoes at the high notes. The sound was nearly symphonic, carrying to all parts of the homely arcade as the pedestrian traffic filed past.

Three minutes went by before something happened. Sixty-three people had already passed when, finally, there was a breakthrough of sorts. A middle-age man altered his gait for a split second, turning his head to notice that there seemed to be some guy playing music. Yes, the man kept walking, but it was something.

A half-minute later, Bell got his first donation. A woman threw in a buck and scooted off. It was not until six minutes into the performance that someone actually stood against a wall, and listened.

Things never got much better. In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

No, Mr. Slatkin, there was never a crowd, not even for a second.

It was all videotaped by a hidden camera. You can play the recording once or 15 times, and it never gets any easier to watch. Try speeding it up, and it becomes one of those herky-jerky World War I-era silent newsreels. The people scurry by in comical little hops and starts, cups of coffee in their hands, cellphones at their ears, ID tags slapping at their bellies, a grim danse macabre to indifference, inertia and the dingy, gray rush of modernity.

Even at this accelerated pace, though, the fiddler's movements remain fluid and graceful; he seems so apart from his audience -- unseen, unheard, otherworldly -- that you find yourself thinking that he's not really there. A ghost.

Only then do you see it: He is the one who is real. They are the ghosts.


It's an old epistemological debate, older, actually, than the koan about the tree in the forest. Plato weighed in on it, and philosophers for two millennia afterward: What is beauty? Is it a measurable fact (Gottfried Leibniz), or merely an opinion (David Hume), or is it a little of each, colored by the immediate state of mind of the observer (Immanuel Kant)?

We'll go with Kant, because he's obviously right, and because he brings us pretty directly to Joshua Bell, sitting there in a hotel restaurant, picking at his breakfast, wryly trying to figure out what the hell had just happened back there at the Metro.

"At the beginning," Bell says, "I was just concentrating on playing the music. I wasn't really watching what was happening around me . . ."

Playing the violin looks all-consuming, mentally and physically, but Bell says that for him the mechanics of it are partly second nature, cemented by practice and muscle memory: It's like a juggler, he says, who can keep those balls in play while interacting with a crowd. What he's mostly thinking about as he plays, Bell says, is capturing emotion as a narrative: "When you play a violin piece, you are a storyteller, and you're telling a story."

With "Chaconne," the opening is filled with a building sense of awe. That kept him busy for a while. Eventually, though, he began to steal a sidelong glance.

"It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah . . ."

The word doesn't come easily.

". . . ignoring me."

Bell is laughing. It's at himself.

"At a music hall, I'll get upset if someone coughs or if someone's cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change." This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.

Before he began, Bell hadn't known what to expect. What he does know is that, for some reason, he was nervous.

"It wasn't exactly stage fright, but there were butterflies," he says. "I was stressing a little."

Bell has played, literally, before crowned heads of Europe. Why the anxiety at the Washington Metro?

"When you play for ticket-holders," Bell explains, "you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I'm already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don't like me? What if they resent my presence . . ."

He was, in short, art without a frame. Which, it turns out, may have a lot to do with what happened -- or, more precisely, what didn't happen -- on January 12.

MARK LEITHAUSER HAS HELD IN HIS HANDS MORE GREAT WORKS OF ART THAN ANY KING OR POPE OR MEDICI EVER DID. A senior curator at the National Gallery, he oversees the framing of the paintings. Leithauser thinks he has some idea of what happened at that Metro station.

"Let's say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, past the giant columns, and brought it into a restaurant. It's a $5 million painting. And it's one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: 'Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.'"

Leithauser's point is that we shouldn't be too ready to label the Metro passersby unsophisticated boobs. Context matters.

Kant said the same thing. He took beauty seriously: In his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, Kant argued that one's ability to appreciate beauty is related to one's ability to make moral judgments. But there was a caveat. Paul Guyer of the University of Pennsylvania, one of America's most prominent Kantian scholars, says the 18th-century German philosopher felt that to properly appreciate beauty, the viewing conditions must be optimal.

"Optimal," Guyer said, "doesn't mean heading to work, focusing on your report to the boss, maybe your shoes don't fit right."

So, if Kant had been at the Metro watching as Joshua Bell play to a thousand unimpressed passersby?

"He would have inferred about them," Guyer said, "absolutely nothing."

And that's that.

Except it isn't. To really understand what happened, you have to rewind that video and play it back from the beginning, from the moment Bell's bow first touched the strings.

White guy, khakis, leather jacket, briefcase. Early 30s. John David Mortensen is on the final leg of his daily bus-to-Metro commute from Reston. He's heading up the escalator. It's a long ride -- 1 minute and 15 seconds if you don't walk. So, like most everyone who passes Bell this day, Mortensen gets a good earful of music before he has his first look at the musician. Like most of them, he notes that it sounds pretty good. But like very few of them, when he gets to the top, he doesn't race past as though Bell were some nuisance to be avoided. Mortensen is that first person to stop, that guy at the six-minute mark.

It's not that he has nothing else to do. He's a project manager for an international program at the Department of Energy; on this day, Mortensen has to participate in a monthly budget exercise, not the most exciting part of his job: "You review the past month's expenditures," he says, "forecast spending for the next month, if you have X dollars, where will it go, that sort of thing."

On the video, you can see Mortensen get off the escalator and look around. He locates the violinist, stops, walks away but then is drawn back. He checks the time on his cellphone -- he's three minutes early for work -- then settles against a wall to listen.

Mortensen doesn't know classical music at all; classic rock is as close as he comes. But there's something about what he's hearing that he really likes.

As it happens, he's arrived at the moment that Bell slides into the second section of "Chaconne." ("It's the point," Bell says, "where it moves from a darker, minor key into a major key. There's a religious, exalted feeling to it.") The violinist's bow begins to dance; the music becomes upbeat, playful, theatrical, big.

Mortensen doesn't know about major or minor keys: "Whatever it was," he says, "it made me feel at peace."

So, for the first time in his life, Mortensen lingers to listen to a street musician. He stays his allotted three minutes as 94 more people pass briskly by. When he leaves to help plan contingency budgets for the Department of Energy, there's another first. For the first time in his life, not quite knowing what had just happened but sensing it was special, John David Mortensen gives a street musician money.

THERE ARE SIX MOMENTS IN THE VIDEO THAT BELL FINDS PARTICULARLY PAINFUL TO RELIVE: "The awkward times," he calls them. It's what happens right after each piece ends: nothing. The music stops. The same people who hadn't noticed him playing don't notice that he has finished. No applause, no acknowledgment. So Bell just saws out a small, nervous chord -- the embarrassed musician's equivalent of, "Er, okay, moving right along . . ." -- and begins the next piece.

After "Chaconne," it is Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria," which surprised some music critics when it debuted in 1825: Schubert seldom showed religious feeling in his compositions, yet "Ave Maria" is a breathtaking work of adoration of the Virgin Mary. What was with the sudden piety? Schubert dryly answered: "I think this is due to the fact that I never forced devotion in myself and never compose hymns or prayers of that kind unless it overcomes me unawares; but then it is usually the right and true devotion." This musical prayer became among the most familiar and enduring religious pieces in history.

A couple of minutes into it, something revealing happens. A woman and her preschooler emerge from the escalator. The woman is walking briskly and, therefore, so is the child. She's got his hand.

"I had a time crunch," recalls Sheron Parker, an IT director for a federal agency. "I had an 8:30 training class, and first I had to rush Evvie off to his teacher, then rush back to work, then to the training facility in the basement."

Evvie is her son, Evan. Evan is 3.

You can see Evan clearly on the video. He's the cute black kid in the parka who keeps twisting around to look at Joshua Bell, as he is being propelled toward the door.

"There was a musician," Parker says, "and my son was intrigued. He wanted to pull over and listen, but I was rushed for time."

So Parker does what she has to do. She deftly moves her body between Evan's and Bell's, cutting off her son's line of sight. As they exit the arcade, Evan can still be seen craning to look. When Parker is told what she walked out on, she laughs.

"Evan is very smart!"

The poet Billy Collins once laughingly observed that all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother's heart is in iambic meter. Then, Collins said, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us. It may be true with music, too.

There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.

IF THERE WAS ONE PERSON ON THAT DAY WHO WAS TOO BUSY TO PAY ATTENTION TO THE VIOLINIST, it was George Tindley. Tindley wasn't hurrying to get to work. He was at work.

The glass doors through which most people exit the L'Enfant station lead into an indoor shopping mall, from which there are exits to the street and elevators to office buildings. The first store in the mall is an Au Bon Pain, the croissant and coffee shop where Tindley, in his 40s, works in a white uniform busing the tables, restocking the salt and pepper packets, taking out the garbage. Tindley labors under the watchful eye of his bosses, and he's supposed to be hopping, and he was.

But every minute or so, as though drawn by something not entirely within his control, Tindley would walk to the very edge of the Au Bon Pain property, keeping his toes inside the line, still on the job. Then he'd lean forward, as far out into the hallway as he could, watching the fiddler on the other side of the glass doors. The foot traffic was steady, so the doors were usually open. The sound came through pretty well.

"You could tell in one second that this guy was good, that he was clearly a professional," Tindley says. He plays the guitar, loves the sound of strings, and has no respect for a certain kind of musician.

"Most people, they play music; they don't feel it," Tindley says. "Well, that man was feeling it. That man was moving. Moving into the sound."

A hundred feet away, across the arcade, was the lottery line, sometimes five or six people long. They had a much better view of Bell than Tindley did, if they had just turned around. But no one did. Not in the entire 43 minutes. They just shuffled forward toward that machine spitting out numbers. Eyes on the prize.

J.T. Tillman was in that line. A computer specialist for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, he remembers every single number he played that day -- 10 of them, $2 apiece, for a total of $20. He doesn't recall what the violinist was playing, though. He says it sounded like generic classical music, the kind the ship's band was playing in "Titanic," before the iceberg.

"I didn't think nothing of it," Tillman says, "just a guy trying to make a couple of bucks." Tillman would have given him one or two, he said, but he spent all his cash on lotto.

When he is told that he stiffed one of the best musicians in the world, he laughs.

"Is he ever going to play around here again?"

"Yeah, but you're going to have to pay a lot to hear him."


Tillman didn't win the lottery, either.

BELL ENDS "AVE MARIA" TO ANOTHER THUNDEROUS SILENCE, plays Manuel Ponce's sentimental "Estrellita," then a piece by Jules Massenet, and then begins a Bach gavotte, a joyful, frolicsome, lyrical dance. It's got an Old World delicacy to it; you can imagine it entertaining bewigged dancers at a Versailles ball, or -- in a lute, fiddle and fife version -- the boot-kicking peasants of a Pieter Bruegel painting.

Watching the video weeks later, Bell finds himself mystified by one thing only. He understands why he's not drawing a crowd, in the rush of a morning workday. But: "I'm surprised at the number of people who don't pay attention at all, as if I'm invisible. Because, you know what? I'm makin' a lot of noise!"

He is. You don't need to know music at all to appreciate the simple fact that there's a guy there, playing a violin that's throwing out a whole bucket of sound; at times, Bell's bowing is so intricate that you seem to be hearing two instruments playing in harmony. So those head-forward, quick-stepping passersby are a remarkable phenomenon.

Bell wonders whether their inattention may be deliberate: If you don't take visible note of the musician, you don't have to feel guilty about not forking over money; you're not complicit in a rip-off.

It may be true, but no one gave that explanation. People just said they were busy, had other things on their mind. Some who were on cellphones spoke louder as they passed Bell, to compete with that infernal racket.

And then there was Calvin Myint. Myint works for the General Services Administration. He got to the top of the escalator, turned right and headed out a door to the street. A few hours later, he had no memory that there had been a musician anywhere in sight.

"Where was he, in relation to me?"

"About four feet away."


There's nothing wrong with Myint's hearing. He had buds in his ear. He was listening to his iPod.

For many of us, the explosion in technology has perversely limited, not expanded, our exposure to new experiences. Increasingly, we get our news from sources that think as we already do. And with iPods, we hear what we already know; we program our own playlists.

The song that Calvin Myint was listening to was "Just Like Heaven," by the British rock band The Cure. It's a terrific song, actually. The meaning is a little opaque, and the Web is filled with earnest efforts to deconstruct it. Many are far-fetched, but some are right on point: It's about a tragic emotional disconnect. A man has found the woman of his dreams but can't express the depth of his feeling for her until she's gone. It's about failing to see the beauty of what's plainly in front of your eyes.

"YES, I SAW THE VIOLINIST," Jackie Hessian says, "but nothing about him struck me as much of anything."

You couldn't tell that by watching her. Hessian was one of those people who gave Bell a long, hard look before walking on. It turns out that she wasn't noticing the music at all.

"I really didn't hear that much," she said. "I was just trying to figure out what he was doing there, how does this work for him, can he make much money, would it be better to start with some money in the case, or for it to be empty, so people feel sorry for you? I was analyzing it financially."

What do you do, Jackie?

"I'm a lawyer in labor relations with the United States Postal Service. I just negotiated a national contract."

THE BEST SEATS IN THE HOUSE WERE UPHOLSTERED. In the balcony, more or less. On that day, for $5, you'd get a lot more than just a nice shine on your shoes.

Only one person occupied one of those seats when Bell played. Terence Holmes is a consultant for the Department of Transportation, and he liked the music just fine, but it was really about a shoeshine: "My father told me never to wear a suit with your shoes not cleaned and shined."

Holmes wears suits often, so he is up in that perch a lot, and he's got a good relationship with the shoeshine lady. Holmes is a good tipper and a good talker, which is a skill that came in handy that day. The shoeshine lady was upset about something, and the music got her more upset. She complained, Holmes said, that the music was too loud, and he tried to calm her down.

Edna Souza is from Brazil. She's been shining shoes at L'Enfant Plaza for six years, and she's had her fill of street musicians there; when they play, she can't hear her customers, and that's bad for business. So she fights.

Souza points to the dividing line between the Metro property, at the top of the escalator, and the arcade, which is under control of the management company that runs the mall. Sometimes, Souza says, a musician will stand on the Metro side, sometimes on the mall side. Either way, she's got him. On her speed dial, she has phone numbers for both the mall cops and the Metro cops. The musicians seldom last long.

What about Joshua Bell?

He was too loud, too, Souza says. Then she looks down at her rag, sniffs. She hates to say anything positive about these damned musicians, but: "He was pretty good, that guy. It was the first time I didn't call the police."

Souza was surprised to learn he was a famous musician, but not that people rushed blindly by him. That, she said, was predictable. "If something like this happened in Brazil, everyone would stand around to see. Not here."

Souza nods sourly toward a spot near the top of the escalator: "Couple of years ago, a homeless guy died right there. He just lay down there and died. The police came, an ambulance came, and no one even stopped to see or slowed down to look.

"People walk up the escalator, they look straight ahead. Mind your own business, eyes forward. Everyone is stressed. Do you know what I mean?"

What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

-- from "Leisure," by W.H. Davies

Let's say Kant is right. Let's accept that we can't look at what happened on January 12 and make any judgment whatever about people's sophistication or their ability to appreciate beauty. But what about their ability to appreciate life?

We're busy. Americans have been busy, as a people, since at least 1831, when a young French sociologist named Alexis de Tocqueville visited the States and found himself impressed, bemused and slightly dismayed at the degree to which people were driven, to the exclusion of everything else, by hard work and the accumulation of wealth.

Not much has changed. Pop in a DVD of "Koyaanisqatsi," the wordless, darkly brilliant, avant-garde 1982 film about the frenetic speed of modern life. Backed by the minimalist music of Philip Glass, director Godfrey Reggio takes film clips of Americans going about their daily business, but speeds them up until they resemble assembly-line machines, robots marching lockstep to nowhere. Now look at the video from L'Enfant Plaza, in fast-forward. The Philip Glass soundtrack fits it perfectly.

"Koyaanisqatsi" is a Hopi word. It means "life out of balance."

In his 2003 book, Timeless Beauty: In the Arts and Everyday Life, British author John Lane writes about the loss of the appreciation for beauty in the modern world. The experiment at L'Enfant Plaza may be symptomatic of that, he said -- not because people didn't have the capacity to understand beauty, but because it was irrelevant to them.

"This is about having the wrong priorities," Lane said.

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?

That's what the Welsh poet W.H. Davies meant in 1911 when he published those two lines that begin this section. They made him famous. The thought was simple, even primitive, but somehow no one had put it quite that way before.

Of course, Davies had an advantage -- an advantage of perception. He wasn't a tradesman or a laborer or a bureaucrat or a consultant or a policy analyst or a labor lawyer or a program manager. He was a hobo.

THE CULTURAL HERO OF THE DAY ARRIVED AT L'ENFANT PLAZA PRETTY LATE, in the unprepossessing figure of one John Picarello, a smallish man with a baldish head.

Picarello hit the top of the escalator just after Bell began his final piece, a reprise of "Chaconne." In the video, you see Picarello stop dead in his tracks, locate the source of the music, and then retreat to the other end of the arcade. He takes up a position past the shoeshine stand, across from that lottery line, and he will not budge for the next nine minutes.

Like all the passersby interviewed for this article, Picarello was stopped by a reporter after he left the building, and was asked for his phone number. Like everyone, he was told only that this was to be an article about commuting. When he was called later in the day, like everyone else, he was first asked if anything unusual had happened to him on his trip into work. Of the more than 40 people contacted, Picarello was the only one who immediately mentioned the violinist.

"There was a musician playing at the top of the escalator at L'Enfant Plaza."

Haven't you seen musicians there before?

"Not like this one."

What do you mean?

"This was a superb violinist. I've never heard anyone of that caliber. He was technically proficient, with very good phrasing. He had a good fiddle, too, with a big, lush sound. I walked a distance away, to hear him. I didn't want to be intrusive on his space."


"Really. It was that kind of experience. It was a treat, just a brilliant, incredible way to start the day."

Picarello knows classical music. He is a fan of Joshua Bell but didn't recognize him; he hadn't seen a recent photo, and besides, for most of the time Picarello was pretty far away. But he knew this was not a run-of-the-mill guy out there, performing. On the video, you can see Picarello look around him now and then, almost bewildered.

"Yeah, other people just were not getting it. It just wasn't registering. That was baffling to me."

When Picarello was growing up in New York, he studied violin seriously, intending to be a concert musician. But he gave it up at 18, when he decided he'd never be good enough to make it pay. Life does that to you sometimes. Sometimes, you have to do the prudent thing. So he went into another line of work. He's a supervisor at the U.S. Postal Service. Doesn't play the violin much, anymore.

When he left, Picarello says, "I humbly threw in $5." It was humble: You can actually see that on the video. Picarello walks up, barely looking at Bell, and tosses in the money. Then, as if embarrassed, he quickly walks away from the man he once wanted to be.

Does he have regrets about how things worked out?

The postal supervisor considers this.

"No. If you love something but choose not to do it professionally, it's not a waste. Because, you know, you still have it. You have it forever."

BELL THINKS HE DID HIS BEST WORK OF THE DAY IN THOSE FINAL FEW MINUTES, in the second "Chaconne." And that also was the first time more than one person at a time was listening. As Picarello stood in the back, Janice Olu arrived and took up a position a few feet away from Bell. Olu, a public trust officer with HUD, also played the violin as a kid. She didn't know the name of the piece she was hearing, but she knew the man playing it has a gift.

Olu was on a coffee break and stayed as long as she dared. As she turned to go, she whispered to the stranger next to her, "I really don't want to leave." The stranger standing next to her happened to be working for The Washington Post.

In preparing for this event, editors at The Post Magazine 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.

As it happens, exactly one person recognized Bell, and she didn't arrive until near the very end. For Stacy Furukawa, a demographer at the Commerce Department, there was no doubt. She doesn't know much about classical music, but she had been in the audience three weeks earlier, at Bell's free concert at the Library of Congress. And here he was, the international virtuoso, sawing away, begging for money. She had no idea what the heck was going on, but whatever it was, she wasn't about to miss it.

Furukawa positioned herself 10 feet away from Bell, front row, center. She had a huge grin on her face. The grin, and Furukawa, remained planted in that spot until the end.

"It was the most astonishing thing I've ever seen in Washington," Furukawa says. "Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I wouldn't do that to anybody. I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?"

When it was over, Furukawa introduced herself to Bell, and tossed in a twenty. Not counting that -- it was tainted by recognition -- the final haul for his 43 minutes of playing was $32.17. Yes, some people gave pennies.

"Actually," Bell said with a laugh, "that's not so bad, considering. That's 40 bucks an hour. I could make an okay living doing this, and I wouldn't have to pay an agent."

These days, at L'Enfant Plaza, lotto ticket sales remain brisk. Musicians still show up from time to time, and they still tick off Edna Souza. Joshua Bell's latest album, "The Voice of the Violin," has received the usual critical acclaim. ("Delicate urgency." "Masterful intimacy." "Unfailingly exquisite." "A musical summit." ". . . will make your heart thump and weep at the same time.")

Bell headed off on a concert tour of European capitals. But he is back in the States this week. He has to be. On Tuesday, he will be accepting the Avery Fisher prize, recognizing the Flop of L'Enfant Plaza as the best classical musician in America.

Emily Shroder, Rachel Manteuffel, John W. Poole and Magazine Editor Tom Shroder contributed to this report. Gene Weingarten, a Magazine staff writer, can be reached at He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m.

M&C note: see original article for video clips.