Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Box: Part 2, The Frame

Thanks to a post at Raph's blog, I found an article/story at the Washington Post that can be summarized pretty quickly for you:
Paper hires world-famous violinist to play great classical works incommunicado at rush-hour in public on famous violin for 45 minutes. Most people pass paying no attention. A very, very, very few stop their business and actually listen. Paper waxes on about American busyness, lack of appreciation for beauty, inability to stop and smell the flowers, etc. References to Kant.

Or you can read the whole thing if you like.

The whole tone of the article is pretty smarmy. Go figure, it's the Post. Start with the title of the piece, "Pearls Before Breakfast." Nice.

I know for a fact that I would have been one of the people who hurried by in that metro station. Unless I was in DC on vacation, and hanging out at the Au Bon Pain they mention, having a coffee, waiting for someone, maybe reading a book. I've stopped, in the past, and spent 30 minutes listening to street musicians.

  • When I've had time.

  • When I've been in a situation that allowed.

  • When there's been a place to sit.

  • When the music wasn't too loud or obnoxious

  • When I've felt safe

  • When I had a couple bucks on me I could spare, and

  • When the music was in a language I spoke

All of these things make up the frame for an event like this, the last being the most important, I think. We call it "frame-of-reference" sometimes, but you don't even need to go that far. "Framing" is enough. The Post article uses the term, and does some good work making the point that, out of context, lots of art loses some of its value to us; we just aren't "ready" to appreciate great paintings in a Subway, or great classical violin work in the metro.

I enjoy some classical. I own about 15 classical music albums. I love almost all Mozart, some Beethoven, Holst's "The Planets," and a few of Debussy's more well-known works. I also have some neat Yo-Yo Ma, where he blends classical with American Folk. Don't know if that counts. Don't care. I have been to... maybe... a dozen classical music concerts in my life, not counting times I've gone to see something because it included a performer I personally knew. I will listen to a classical music station on the radio if the choice is that, Country & Western, Talk Radio, or some of the more extreme varieties of Heavy Metal, Hip Hop, etc. etc.

I'm explaining this because I'm trying to establish *my* frame. To put a face on all those people -- and the Post does this, too -- who walked right by the famous violinist. But none of those people were asked, I think, the right question. Which would be...

Do you speak classical music?

Of the three people that did stop, and did take the time to listen, two were trained in classical music. The one that the Post describes as "the cultural hero of the day," says of the musician, "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."

And the Post says further of the man, "[He] knows classical music. He is a fan of Joshua Bell but didn't recognize him... But he knew this was not a run-of-the-mill guy out there, performing... When [he] was growing up in New York, he studied violin seriously, intending to be a concert musician."

Right. This is a guy who speaks the language.

But here's the thing... I'm not sure most of the people in that story -- nor I, and I think I probably am above-average in terms of classical appreciation -- would have understood the performance in situations even 1 or 2 orders-of-magnitude more appropriately "framed." I think it's a flawed experiment, because "classical music" is a language that is almost as unspoken as Latin as far as most people are concerned today.

Let's take it up a notch. Suppose you went to all those people that passed by this guy in the subway. And you said to them, "Hey... there's a guy, really good violinist but unknown, playing at lunch today at my kid's school. He's fantastic. It's just $5 for 30 minutes, but I hear he's great."

More context, yes? More framing? Sure. I still bet you'd get very few takers.

Let's kick it almost all the way up. Stop all those people. Tell them who Joshua Bell is. How famous he is. And that he's playing a Strad. And tell them that you've got tickets to see him for $25 instead of the usual $100 - $150. But you've got to go see him tonight.

Again, I bet the Post, and Mr. Bell, would be surprised at how few takers they'd get. But I wouldn't.

And not because I believe that all those fast-walking, too-busy commuters -- and me! -- are the "swine" that the title of the story implies. But because our frame doesn't include an easy knowledge of how to appreciate what Joshua does so well. Our box and his box don't overlap in that area.

Our box contains more pop music. Yo-Yo Ma ha seen this, and has done some interesting things, career-wise, to do some gigs with pop performers. This helps get him into our box. The "Three Tenors" have done the same. The Boston Pops have done more, I think, for widening an appreciation of classical music than any other modern organization.

The person the Post article describes as "the cultural hero" of the experiment clearly does "speak" classical music. His frame includes that language. He says, "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."

And the Post tells us of this listener, "[He] knows classical music. He is a fan of Joshua Bell but didn't recognize him... But he knew this was not a run-of-the-mill guy out there, performing... When [he] was growing up in New York, he studied violin seriously, intending to be a concert musician."

Right. This is a guy who understands the music, even outside all kinds of normal framing elements. Because he is a native speaker. He is fluent. Most of us aren't.

If you are working in a creative field, or want to be more creative... yes, it is a great idea to learn new "languages." To pick up new frames. To become familiar with different boxes. When I left 10+ years in retail marketing, I did so specifically to get into not just a new industry, but a new category -- B2B; professional services marketing. I wanted to stretch; to learn a new "marketing language."

When I started my "TaleWeaver" project, I gave myself the task of writing 100, short, rhyming, tightly-metered poems. Why? Because most of my poetry previous to that was unrhymed, fairly loose verse. It was important, I thought, to at least be comfortable in another "poetic language." My poetry since then has incorporated much more meter and rhyme... when I choose to.

What are some ways you might (fairly painlessly) learn something about different languages? Here's some thoughts...

  • If you predominantly read one kind of fiction (sci-fi, mystery, etc.), pick another kind and read at least 5 books in that genre. C'mon... life is short. Live differently, vicariously, a little.

  • If you read predominantly fiction, read some biography or history or pop-science for the next 5 books. If it's the other way, reverse it.

  • Read all of a poet's work, chronologically, over the course of a month or two. Power it down. It's hard, I know. Poetry is thick. But to get into a poet's voice, you really have to live it it for awhile. Figure out how many pages it is, divide by 30 (or 60) and set yourself a goal. Poetry really is, for most modern people, a foreign country. Try it though (along with a reference work on the poet, if you like), and you'll find yourself viewing the entire world very differently for that month or two.

  • Find a film that you really, really like. Figure out who was the cinematographer. For example, I love Terry Gilliam's "Brazil." Roger Pratt shot it. Go watch other, more obscure films by that cinematographer. You will find, I think, that there are things you'll like, even if you don't really love the story or actors. Watch the movie as a series of images; as if you were the friend of the guy behind the camera. It changes how you see things.

  • Pick a craft you know nothing about and have no interest in maintaining, and try to complete 3 simple, stand-alone projects in it over the course of a month. Many people pick hobbies based on, "Do I want to do this for the rest of my life?" That's fine... for a hobby you want to do for the rest of your life. But there are many fine skills you can pick up from "a bit o' this, a bit o' that" type learning. And you may also find that there are crafts you want to have as a part-time hobby. Check out the list of all Dummy titles related to hobbies.

  • Pick a country you know nothing about, research it for a week, and then (as much as is reasonable), "speak it" for a week. Eat food from there, listen to its music, read its authors and poets, keep up on the news, etc. This is all much easier because of teh Intertubes, of course. This is "horizontal" learning.

  • Do the same thing as the last bullet, but with a time-period as well as a country.

I'm all for learning "new languages." And I think, as a nation/culture, we are vastly undereducated in music and the arts. My kid's school only gives him one hour of music a week, and art has been cut back to one hour every other week, so that he can start in on "computers" on the off weeks. All this to make more time for "No Child Left Untested." Bad, bad, bad. Yes, please, Washington Post... more art/music education in our public schools.

But there is a place for learning new languages of thought. A place for breaking of barriers and getting out of one's box. And it is not in the middle of rush hour, in a subway, with a 20-second snippet of a dead language that is rarely heard and almost never spoken by the passers by.

I appreciate that the Post gave me the nugget for this post. But they can take their pearls and kiss my bourgeois pork. Today, at 9:17 am, on my way to the grind, we have the naming of parts.

-- Facilius est multa facere quam diu.

-- Estne volumen in toga, an solum tibi libet me videre?

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