It occurs, reading Jessica Duchen’s London reprise of the Joshua Bell experiment, that there is a further aspect mentioned, but not yet considered, in the Independent‘s and Washington Post‘s versions of the story. Both lament the fact that so many people walk past, listening to their iPods, and barely even notice the music making that is happening live, before their eyes. Of course, those people ignoring Little and Bell may, just possibly have one or the other – or even Menuhin – in their ears at that moment; the point is, they’re already listening to music – should we expect them to stop, in order to, er, listen to music?
What makes that question not as apparently tautological as it sounds is that it conceals a large number of value judgements about the relative merits of enjoying a public performance of great classical music by a great performer, and enjoying the private experience of music of your own choosing. If we completely level the playing field, clearly watching Tasmin Little, live, playing Bach is better than listening to her on your iPod. Leaving aside issues of recording fidelity, and the crappy 128KBps compression iTunes will have put your music through, live performance is generally a richer experience than recordings.
But we’re not on a level playing field. We’re comparing hearing a snippet of Bach performed in somewhat compromised conditions with complete pieces of music that travel with you as you go home. I would suggest that for at least some of those iPodders, even if they entirely failed to register Ms Little, hearing their music, uninterrupted, is of some value to them. Busking is, essentially, muzak – music is heard as fragments of a stream that is considered to be more or less continuous. It is of an entirely different form to music heard in the concert hall, which has a beginning, a middle and an end. That form is taken to be inherent in the music itself. It’s not a consequence of the concert hall institution, rather, concert halls have evolved into what are considered the best venue for listening to music from beginning to end.
Tied up with this are a set of judgments about the value of great art, a canon of great works, and a series of Dead White masters. A theory of artistic masterpieces only makes sense if you are able to consider them, in isolation, as unified aesthetic objects. All of which, it seems to me, is anathema to busking, which is a transitory, ephemeral, performer-based art. Bach’s great masterpieces have precious little to do with it: they are considered masterpieces because in an ostensible competition between all other musical works, they come out on top. This makes (a sort of sense) in the sanitised conditions of the concert hall; but in the street Bach is not competing with Brahms or Franck, he’s competing with train times, noise, appointments, and people’s different, immediate music choices. The value systems that work for him in the concert hall collapse out here. Is beauty beautiful everywhere? And is beauty all that matters?