On a Monday morning a few weeks ago, on one of the first beautiful spring days this year, I went out for a walk. I was passing by the rather empty mall when I saw a car being loaded onto a trailer down the street. Something was obviously wrong with the car, because its alarm kept triggering at odd moments. It would sound a few times, then it would stop for a moment; then it would start again. Normally, something like this would hardly catch my attention. The thing is, this car alarm was unusual. It wasn’t that annoying HONK of jarring, dissonant notes that is fairly standard. Nor was it like the one by my apartment that varies, cycling through its many alarms. The changes make it somehow more annoying, when it goes from BEEP BEEP BEEP to HONK HONK to WHOOOOP WHOOOOP WHOOOOP to EEOOEEEOOEEOO and then loops back to BEEP BEEP BEEP until the owner finds his remote and finally silences the silly thing. No, this alarm honked, in steady, moderate rhythm, a chord: a major seventh, to be exact. For a car alarm, it was quite pleasant, almost, dare I say, musical. As it started going off, yet again, while I was walking away, the thought struck me how nice it is to find music in places you wouldn’t expect.
Yes, there are the times when you hear intentional music at an unexpected moment, like when you’re lying in the sun and you just barely catch strains of music floating gently on the breeze — from a passing ice cream truck, or perhaps your neighbor’s house. When you’re in the library, focused on your book, and someone’s cell phone starts playing vaguely familiar music. Suddenly recognizing the song playing in the car next to you as you wait at a red light.
However, there are also the times when I hear musical elements where there were none intended. Sure, the car alarm probably was designed to be tolerable rather than the borderline painful sound that so many are, but the combination of rhythm and tone sounded like some sort of jazz music to me, a passer-by, where it was probably just noise, very annoying noise, to the two guys trying to load the car onto the back of the tow truck.
To me, mechanical tapping, if it is constant, starts to sound like the backdrop rhythm drumbeat of a song, so I start tapping along on whatever I have at hand. I hear the hum of a computer or a fan and I find the nearest note to it and I sing along. In middle school, when we got a new school building, we had bells! It was completely foreign. Well, it took about two bells for me to ask myself, “I wonder what note that is.” Two band classes later, armed with my flute at the start of class, I discovered that it played a G5. From then on, I and a couple of my fellow flautists would race to play along with the opening bell to signal the start of band class. Or take fire alarms as another example. So many I have heard use a “beep-beep-beep-pause” pattern. Ever since we had that first fire drill in the new school building, I started jamming out to it. Granted it is difficult to jam out to something that warns of impending doom while simultaneously making your ears bleed, but I still did. Years of music, and maybe some quirk of my brain, compels me to discover the music in whatever sounds I hear.
Once, in a college music class, the conversation turned to determining what makes something “art”. Is birdsong “music”, or is it noise? Why do we commonly call a real flower “natural”, but a painting of a flower is “artwork”? What is the defining characteristic that makes something art?
The conversation went around and around for half an hour. Is this art? Is that art? Why? Bob, the teacher, played devil’s advocate, turning our definitions on their heads and inciting us to debate with each other. Finally, when us students had run out of ideas and stopped talking from confusion, Bob gave us a way to answer, “Is it art?” that has satisfied me most.
Art requires an artist.
Birdsong is music if, and only if, one considers the bird the artist of the song. A flower is art if you consider nature, or God, or whomever, as the artist. Without an artist, an object of beauty is just an everyday object, because beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The reverse is also true — what looks like a random happening becomes art when it was created by an artist. As much as some may say, “That looks like I spilled my coffee,” or “It’s a lightbulb, so what?” or “How is that music if he’s not playing anything?” that is the qualification. The artist created it to be art, so it is art.
Art is intentional. And so it is with music.
Find something beautiful, put a frame around it, and you have made art. By recognizing existing beauty and declaring it art, you have taken that thing from being a chance occurrence to being a masterpiece. By taking an ordinary set of sounds and listening with the right ears, you can change noise into music.
Music and Perception was about recognizing the intentional art that has been taken out of context, out of the gilded frame, and put into an unexpected place. This time, I want you to see the not-music around you that becomes music when put into the right context, when seen in the right Frame of Mind.
The silhouettes created by sunlight filtering through the trees.
The contrast of having a cigarette can next to a pot of flowers.
The changing notes of the attic fan as it powers up.
The call-and-response of the birds outside.
The shape of words on a page.
The repetitive clanks of your car when it is dying.
The subtly different pitches of the floor as it squeaks with each step.
The music of the everyday is all around you.
Keep an ear open for it.
As this blog is for all things related to music, some things will relate a little less than others; at times, you will get my digressions on tangentially related topics. This is one of those times.
I keep stumbling across this story, and I suspect that many of you will be familiar with it. It is from 2007, so yes, I am a bit behind the times with this post. (Behind the times is pretty much how I function, actually.)
The original article, courtesy of the Washington Post, tells the story more elegantly than I. The short form, however, is this:
The Washington Post set up an experiment. They had a musician play the violin in a busy subway area during the morning rush. No fanfare, no fancy outfits, just a guy in a baseball cap, busking on a violin for a bunch of commuters. This was not just any guy, however: he was Joshua Bell, world-renowned violinist. Not just any music, either: he performed some of the most complex and beautiful pieces in the concert music catalog. Oh, and the violin was actually Bell’s own genuine Stradivarius. Not that the commuters in the subway knew any of this. Would they recognize this as the unusual event that it was? Would they take the time to appreciate the skill of the performer, the beauty of the music, the chance to experience wonder and awe in an unexpected and inconvenient setting?
Nope, not really.
Sixty-three people walked by before one man even turned his head to glance at the performer. Very few people stopped to listen, and even fewer tossed money into the open case. He made $32.17 in tips in forty-three minutes. Twenty dollars more came from the one woman who recognized him.
Bell, being a seasoned performer, noticed quite quickly that people were ignoring him. As more and more of the harried masses passed, he found himself grateful for any acknowledgement at all. The man whose performance can be worth $1000 per minute found himself pleased when someone threw a dollar into his case instead of change. (A note on how one’s self-worth can be drastically influenced by environment, but that is another discussion.) When Bell finished a piece to a resounding absence of applause, he sawed on the strings awkwardly, the musician’s equivalent of, “Er, ok, that was a flop, moving on…”
Some have criticized the experiment for various reasons. True, it was not scientifically rigorous nor particularly repeatable. Yes, those passing through were mostly on their way to work, perhaps pressed for time, already mentally preparing for the day ahead. The mothers must keep their curious children moving; the businessmen cannot miss the morning meeting. Yes, the music was not pop songs of the day — the commuters just did not like classical-style music, perhaps, or do not care for the sound of the violin. I offer that these objections miss the point.
Context matters when it comes to art. Excepting antique hunters, most of us do not recognize great works of art without the right presentation. A great painting, stripped of its gilded frame, taken from its gallery to become a background piece in a cheap restaurant, will seem less beautiful, less valuable to us. A five-star meal lacking its fine presentation is merely tasty instead of exquisite. One of the world’s finest musicians, heard in the subway instead of the concert hall, becomes just another street performer.
Exactly one person recognized Bell. When she realized who was playing in the subway, she stood ten feet away, dead center, grinning, until he finished his last piece of the day. She had heard him perform three weeks earlier, at a free concert at the Library of Congress. She knew something was up, that something special was happening. She knew, because she had already heard him. She had seen the art in its frame, in the gallery, recently enough for it to be fresh in memory. Would she have recognized a different performer in the same context? Was it awareness of great artistry, or only familiarity with fame?
One thing to note is that every time a child walked past, that child turned to listen. Each time, a parent hurried them along. Do we forget to look outside ourselves as we age? What do our children see that we miss?
Can we blame those people for failing to recognize a master and a work of art trapped in the everyday? No. But there is still a lesson here. It was not that people could not understand the beauty before them — the problem was that it was irrelevant to them. We become so focused on getting from A to B, focused on pursuing money, laser-focused on the bottom line to the point that everything else becomes irrelevant.
Beauty in life should never be irrelevant.
If we do not have a moment to recognize something so remarkable when it presents itself… what else are we missing?
Open your eyes to the extraordinary.
Cell phones — those wonderful little devices that let everyone call us at the most inopportune times. At every movie, concert, and performance I have attended since those handy-yet-intrusive tools have become commonplace, a stern request has been issued: “Please silence all electronic devices.” Not everyone does this. Some forget they have the phone, some forget that it is not actually on silent, some do not know about alarms, and some are just inconsiderate.
For example, the poor man whose iPhone alarm went off in the middle of a New York Philharmonic performance. Though such incidents are common, the conductor considered this particular incident so horrible that it had to be addressed and stopped the concert until the phone was silenced. The culprit had apparently gotten a new phone and did not know that the alarms would go off even when the ringer was silenced. When he later realized that it was his phone that was the problem, he was reportedly mortified and called up the conductor to apologize. The internet shredded the culprit to pieces for discourtesy, idiocy, and a host of other nasty insults. Is such vitriol justified? Perhaps rightfully, perhaps not. I would imagine that having the conductor of the New York Philharmonic halt a performance to reprimand me would be beyond humiliating and punishment enough.
Some have said that these offenders should be publicly shamed, and that doing so would deter future would-be offenders.
I, however, like this performer’s approach.
Lukáš Kmit is in the middle of a performance on the viola when, just at a quiet point in the song, someone’s cell phone goes off. Lukáš stops, looking sternly in the direction of the culprit. Oh no, here comes the lecture, the public shaming for ruining the performer’s concentration, the audience’s experience, the sacred atmosphere of the music. The phone rings again, louder, and is suddenly silenced.
And then, the magic.
Lukáš plays the theme on his instrument, improvising a little ditty to go along with it. The audience applauds when he starts, and gives even more applause when he finishes. He grins, shrugs a couple times, and bows. He readjusts his viola, the audience quiets, and the concert continues.
Of all the reactions to have had, this is by far my favorite. The point gets across, the musician showcases his skill, the culprit probably feels less embarrassed, and everyone has a laugh. It takes a special kind of performer and a great deal of skill to be able to pull this off, and it makes me smile every time I see this video.
An unexpected interruption will bring out the worst, but only the greatest can turn that interruption into good.