Accidental Audience

Accidental Audience

Busking, by sierraromeo on Flickr

A thoughtful blog post by composer Daniel Wolf addressing the concept of “public” spaces (which, as he points out, are not actually as accessible as one might suppose) has got my brain churning about musical performance in unrestricted places. By that, I mean the sort of place where unsuspecting folks would happen upon a musical performance (or whatever sort of performance) and pause to check it out, or run away screaming, or… well something.

To me it seems as if encountering a performance in an unexpected way automatically embeds it in one’s consciousness a bit more firmly than a prearranged concert. Of course regular concerts can be mind-blowing as well, but the surprise element of, as Wolf says, “discovering someone making a well-intended noise in a corner I hadn’t noticed before” somehow has the capacity to impact a listener in a very direct and substantial way. For instance, out of all the many performances I attended during my studies at the California Institute of the Arts, what do I most remember? Showing up at school late one night and happening upon a group of actors practicing sword fighting in the hallways, accompanied (purely by chance) by a fantastic jazz trio practicing in another nearby hallway. Similarly, when I lived in Barcelona I was always thrilled to hear the amazing gypsy clarinetist making his daily subway rounds, not to mention the occasional outbursts of flamenco percussion on Las Ramblas during weekend afternoons. I never knew when or where a musical happening would appear, but when it did, it never failed to make an impression.

As much as I enjoy attending concerts in the sorts of venues where one would expect to hear music, the delight that buskers and street performances can provide makes me hope that even more composers will take advantage of the possibilities of music making in communal spaces. Although it is not a new idea, it hasn’t been widely implemented, despite the successes of works that have fared well in such a context. Recent examples include Lisa Bielawa‘s Chance Encounter, which has been presented in multiple locations, John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit which has enjoyed both indoor and outdoor performances, and composer James Holt’s recent presentation of Thruline, in which cellists performed the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G major on every Coney Island bound F-train subway platform. Also, let us not forget the Asphalt Orchestra!

What better way to turn unsuspecting listeners on to new music? While most people probably wouldn’t purchase a ticket to a concert for music they know very little or nothing about, might they stop on a street corner or subway platform to listen to something unfamiliar? What if the answer is yes?

As James Holt writes in a blog post documenting the process of producing Thruline, “I want people to slowly realize, after stepping onto the train and making several stops, that something out of the ordinary is happening and that it is a kind of gift from us to them.”

Or, one could take a more Henry Threadgill approach:

Art can have a reverse effect. It could turn you off and it would still be affecting. It’s making you think about something or do something in a different way than you had been doing things. I move you away from what I’m doing, but I made you look at something else more seriously that you haven’t been paying enough attention to in the first place. People always think that because like art turns people away that that’s the end of it. No, that’s not the end of it.

Although these methods might not be effective everywhere (dammit, Washington, D.C.!), the outside world of unrestricted spaces is a concert setting worth considering.

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4 thoughts on “Accidental Audience

  1. Theresa

    One of the best things I remember from my New York trip in 2004 was the singing group in Grand Central Station. I had never been to NYC before, was a bit frazzled at trying to keep out of everyone else’s way, and the music was an extra sort of bonus for being there :). I hung around and listened as much as I could as I waited on and tried to find my friend who was coming to get me.

    Unfortunately, all street buskers and performers are pretty much banned in my small town and those surrounding. Several years ago, there was a gentleman who played guitar late many nights outside a large book/music store close to the University, and I would make a point to stop there after my Choral Society class on Monday nights. I’d visit the different stores on that strip, including the book/music store, and usually bought something, at least partly to hear him play. Then he was gone. I heard later that specific store had raised such a stink about him playing and threatened to have him arrested.

    I thought then, and now, that such actions were stupid. He wasn’t hurting anyone, and wasn’t selling anything. He did put his hat out, and it usually had several bills and change when I went by to go home. He couldn’t have lived on what he made.

    He enjoyed what he was doing, and others did as well. I wish my local area was as accepting as NYC and other “musical performance in unrestricted places.”

    1. Alexandra Gardner Post author

      Hi Theresa – thank you for your comment! I completely agree that many more locations could be a LOT more accepting of street performers. It is possible for businesses to coordinate with the cities and local arts organizations to “curate” and schedule performances if they want to have some control over what is being played on their street corner. In some places artists even schedule and curate amongst themselves! In the end, the presence of street performers can actually HELP a business.

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  3. Michelle

    I, too, don’t understand why so many cities have statutes prohibiting buskers. Buskers make streets safer and more attractive to tourists, which in turn brings more people to an area where businesses (shops, restaurants) can then benefit from the influx of people.
    NYC is so lucky! Where else would you hear a musical saw concert, and if you saw one advertised, would you know that you would love it? This is the ‘Saw Lady’ in the NYC subway – watch the expression on people’s faces as she plays. Priceless.


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