miracle underground

Music is an everyday miracle. How else can we explain the ability for sound to transform our emotions or to change a physical space?

Yesterday evening a violinist and a cellist played Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for violin with such power and grace that it completely reconstructed the atmosphere of the G train Metropolitan stop. The time was around midnight, and the subway station was filled with a good mix of working stiffs, students, and socialites, all headed home for the evening. Robust and complex, lively and sweet, the Sonatas gave at least a couple of hipsters a reason to finally use those handkerchiefs tucked in the back pockets of their skinny jeans.

Seriously. Whereas most subway musicians only occasionally give one pause, these two gentlemen were crowd forming. Grateful applause followed performances of each work. A feeling of emotional response to the music seemed to overtake even the most unexpected people. And on more than one occasion I saw a person wipe a tear from their eye after dropping a dollar or some change in the musicians’ case.

I was filled with an incredible sense of awe, and also reassurance because recently I have been wondering whether this generation is losing its sense of beauty. Are our attention spans are too short? Is our sense of aesthetics too socially constructed by what’s popular or how we wish to appear to others? This topic emerged in conversation a couple of times in recent weeks, beginning with my friend Sam, an aspiring poet who was advised by Peter Gizzi, an award-winning poet he looks up to, that to be a poet is the closest thing to invisibility.

These conversations as well as last night’s experience reminded me of an experiment conducted by the Washington Post several years ago in which worldclass violinist Joshua Bell played at a stop in the DC Metro station. Bell – whose playing was once described in a magazine as something that “does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live” – performed for 45 minutes, including one of the most difficult pieces for a violinist to master, and yet most metro commuters didn’t even notice. The results of the experiment shocked the Washington Post staff and musical experts, not to mention a newly humbled Joshua Bell.

In addition to my own emotional reactions to the Sonatas in subway, I was overcome by a feeling of great joy that so many people not only stopped what they were doing to recognize beauty, but that they responded to it so overtly. It was refreshment for the soul. Thank you, and be kind.

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