Thursday, October 28, 2010

Top Five Thursday: Busking Pitches

The Fiddler in the Subway: The Story of the World-Class Violinist Who Played for Handouts. . . And Other Virtuoso Performances by America's Foremost Feature WriterI just finished "The Fiddler in the Subway," a collection of feature stories by Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten. It's one of the best books I've read in years: hilarious, heartbreaking, and human.

But the title story -- the Pulitzer Prize-winning one about renowned violinist Joshua Bell performing in a D.C. subway station and the commuters who paid him absolutely no mind -- is the one that moved me the most.

It often surprises coworkers or acquaintances to hear that I used to be a busker, singing in streets and subways, but it’s actually a fundamental part of who I am. It’s a role I identify with more than any other – the free-spirited minstrel – and for good reason: street performance is where music, travel, friendliness and generosity all intersect.

“They are the ghosts.”
I can tell you from experience that Weingarten’s story hit on many truths, both beautiful and discouraging. Nearby merchants understandably care more about your volume than whether you’re any good. The large majority of passers-by will ignore you, or listen discreetly without giving themselves away. Many are too busy to notice -- “they are the ghosts,” Weingarten says with haunting insight – but others simply don’t care for your style of music, and that’s ok.

But children do always stop to listen, and it’s not just an attention span thing. They become entranced. I like to sit on the ground when I play, which puts me at their level.

And there is always someone like John Picarello out there, the man who stopped to listen to Bell, saying, “It was a treat, just a brilliant, incredible way to start the day."

Like any artist, or teacher, or anyone who cares about something, you do it for those people; for the few but deep connections that you make.

Many of the most meaningful experiences of my life have happened while, or because of, busking. A woman bent down to give me a 10-pound note on the Central Line platform at Tottenham Court Road, sobbing, because the REM song I was playing affected her so deeply. At the same station (Northern Line platform), a Japanese girl was moved to tears as I played “The Boxer,” and described how she had arrived in London just that day and had already been robbed. I still get chills remembering these moments, in awe that I could have had such an immediate and intense impact on a complete stranger.

I’ve had hundreds of deep conversations and made real friendships out of nowhere thanks to busking. I was plucked from the Notting Hill tube station to have dinner at a French woman's flat -- she insisted. I have sung impromptu harmonies with drunken revelers, and have befriended homeless men. Once I was asked to serenade a clerk at a Bond Street clothing shop who had just gotten engaged. Appreciative patrons have bought me beers and, in lieu of any change, offered me everything from drugs to jewelry to women’s undergarments.

There is a young guy with a husky, soulful voice who has increasingly been playing outside our office in the late afternoon, and I give him a dollar every time I see him. I always give at least some change to a street performer – knowing that even throwing in a couple of dimes helps, if only to break the ice so other onlookers might get the hint – but rarely a buck. But this kid is so good; leaving my rather corporate job, I’m jealous of him, and happy for him, too.

Quite honestly, in many ways I prefer singing in the streets to performing a real show. No one expects anything of you -- they haven't paid a $10 cover -- so you can't really disappoint. You meet new people and, hopefully, add something surprising and beautiful to an otherwise dull part of their day. There are no microphones or amplifiers to contend with, so the mix is completely organic and easy to adjust. And when people change their plans to stay and listen, you know you've really earned their appreciation.

From Faneuil Hall to Covent Garden, Grafton Street to Las Ramblas, I’ve played on plenty of street corners and subway platforms – “pitches,” in busker parlance. Here are my five favorites to date.

Top 5 Busking Pitches

5. Downtown Crossing, Orange Line platform (Boston, Mass.)
I owe all these experiences to my dad, who gave me both the idea and the confidence to try playing in the subway 15 years ago. Downtown Crossing was the first place I ever played; it was a terrifying debut. (This is where I picked up the habit of closing my eyes while I play.) My knees were shaking violently for the first few songs, but I settled down quickly, and soon kids were clapping along and money appeared in my guitar case. I got hooked.

4. Paseo de la Concha (San Sebastian, Spain)
My experience here has been well-chronicled in song, but the story goes like this: My friend Adam and I were on a train to Barcelona (after some misadventures), and while he was in el baño, the conductor came by. I had no money for a ticket (just an “emergency” credit card from my parents and a few British coins) and was promptly kicked off the train. (When Adam got back, he had a heated, inebriated confrontation with the conductor in broken Spanglish.)

This was well before cell phones, and I found myself alone and broke in San Sebastian – a lovely seaside town, though I didn’t realize that yet. El estacion del tren wouldn’t accept credit cards, so as the sun set, I tried singing near the beach promenade, and gradually the locals came out for their evening strolls. I raised enough money for my ticket to Barcelona, and even got invited to spend the night with four Spanish girls. (I refused, saying I had to go meet my friend… what the hell was I thinking??! Though to be fair, he did spend an entire day waiting for arrivals at the Barcelona train station.)

3. Tottenham Court Rd. Station (London, U.K.)
I was devastated when I learned that they started restricting buskers from playing in London’s Underground. (I was also crushed when they banned drinking on the tube, since, as a college student, drinking beer on public transport was one of my favorite things to do in London.)

This was the first place I ever made a bunch of money – whether at the very end of the long, Central Line tunnel, or on the Northern Line platform, I would typically make 40 pounds an hour playing here. When my parents came to visit, they were impressed by that! But it was a tough pitch to get – there was lots of competition. I gradually became friendly with the other buskers, including a lanky, punk-rock girl from NYC and a Jamaican guy who played reggae.

2. Haymarket Station, Orange Line outbound platform (Boston, Mass.)
This has become my go-to place. You might think that what makes one pitch better than another comes down to foot traffic, but it’s more complicated than that. It’s like page views for a website – it helps to have a lot of them, sure, but you also want quality page views.

Haymarket isn’t as busy as Park Street or Downtown Crossing, but that’s a good thing. There are fewer trains attempting to sing along with their squealing brakes, and after 7pm you can fit in a solid three songs between trains – giving you ample opportunity to win over listeners. You want people to have a chance to hear you; if mobs of people are whizzing by, they’re only giving you money because you’re there, not because they listened and liked you.

And the acoustics in this tunnel are phenomenal. When I return after not having played here in awhile, I am astounded by how good I sound! What’s more, given its location near Faneuil Hall, it often attracts tourists -- who are more likely to be in a care-free, spending mood than a commuter, and often get a kick out of seeing what they consider a Boston tradition.

1. High Street (Galway, Ireland)
Galway in summer is a musician’s playground. The arts, and those who appreciate them, are everywhere. I often tell people that living in Galway for the summer was like spending three months in the ‘60s.

It’s usually problematic to sing outdoors without amplification, but on Galway’s packed pedestrian thoroughfare, there are no cars to compete with, and the buildings are close enough together to provide some reverb and resonance. The shopkeepers are accustomed to the drill, and so are the passers-by; it’s fairly easy to draw a crowd around you.

In my experience, the Irish love music more than anyone, and have an unrivaled appreciation for street musicians. And waves of tourists seemed to think a 10-euro CD by someone they saw live would make a perfect souvenir for their friend or teenage niece.

I performed almost every day that summer, and during the peak of the season, I would often make 100 euro in an hour if you included CD sales. I’ve never been in better musical shape, or met as many interesting people, singing my little heart out on the metal box outside the Internet cafe.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Album of the month: Dance

Dance by Lissa Schneckenburger
2010, Footprint Records

Running by the ocean at sunset, I was listening to the lilting, Celtic notes of a fiddle. As I inhaled the salt air in gulps and looked out at the gray sea, I could almost convince myself it was Galway Bay out there beside me. But that couldn't be true. For one, the Boston skyline was just ahead.

Also, I was far too busy busking and drinking in Ireland to ever do any jogging.

Anyway, the fiddle was courtesy of Dance by Lissa Schneckenburger. Lissa -- a student of traditional New England music, which is heavily influenced by the Celtic regions -- recently recorded a pair of concept albums, where she researched and resurrected nearly forgotten folk songs from the Northeast.

The first, 2008's Song, focused on ballads, while Dance, released in September, is an entirely instrumental collection of fiddle and dance tunes. (If you can't find a partner -- or, like me, simply don't like to dance -- it does make great company on an evening run.)

Gentle notes ease you into the album's first and best song, "Petronella." What follows is a perfectly arranged traditional tune; everything about this 4-minute wonder is just irresistible. It is both perky and elegant, light hearted and deeply moving. 

Next comes "Lamplighter's Hornpipe / Suffer the Child" -- a true dance number, upbeat and frisky. The interplay between the bass line and fiddle during the second eight of "Suffer the Child" creates beautiful, stirring harmonies.

"Moneymusk" features the album's most ambitious fiddling. At first I thought Lissa might have been shredding her instrument so hard that she hit a wrong note. But that squeaky sharp is part of the tune, and simply sounds a bit odd without accompaniment. The piece builds from solo violin to a full ensemble, complete with horns, that makes the final minutes feel nothing short of exuberant. It could play during the climactic closing scene of a John Hughes movie. 

Track 5, "Eugenia's Waltz," is the album's only real weak spot. Melodic and moody, it feels more like a ballad that should be sung (though I'm not sure it even has lyrics); for the first time, you realize you kind of miss Schneckenburger's voice. What bothers me the most, however -- and frankly this is kind of ridiculous of me -- is that the tune never reaches the high note it longs to hit in the chorus. As a songwriter, it just kills me to listen to this wasted opportunity each time through.

A tune that does hit that high note, however, is "Rory O'More." Charming and bouncy at the outset, it ambushes the listener with a moving bridge section that's extremely pensive, even a bit haunting. The pulsating, rhythmic "Fisher's Hornpipe" follows -- a tune that makes even me want to dance.

My second-favorite track, "Jamie Allen," rounds out the CD, and this arrangement makes the most of its marvelous melody. As the percussion backs off near the end of the tune, the resulting choir of instruments is breathtaking, and a beautiful way to end the album.

In fact, it's worth noting here that the accompaniment and sound mixing throughout Dance is spot on -- Lissa has surrounded herself with talented musicians who complement rather than compete with the fiddle, stealing the show only when it's called for.

While some lyric-loving listeners may find themselves longing for a vocal ballad thrown in the mix, any fan of instrumental trad will enjoy this album through and through. It's enough to transport you to the shores of Galway Bay -- or at least to the stools of Tig Coili's.

Lissa Schneckenburger performs at Club Passim Monday, Oct. 25.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Modern life is rubbish... literally

I remember reading a story about H&M when they first opened up stateside, where the CEO or spokesperson referred to it as "disposable fashion." The clothes are stylish and cheap, but poorly made. (To wit, my wedding suit was from H&M; the pants were unraveling at the seam by the end of the ceremony.)

And the whole idea is: that's ok. You buy a cheap-but-trendy sweater, wear it to your big party, maybe once more, and when it starts to pill/tear/shrink, so what -- it's out of fashion anyway, or you're sick of it, and it's time to buy a new one.

It’s similar with printers, an industry that mastered the now widespread practice of discounting its basic equipment only to rob consumers on refills. When our 5-year-old printer was acting up a few weeks ago, do you think we got it repaired? Of course not! We went out and bought a new one, for just $30 after rebate. It would have cost at least twice that to get it repaired.

I think this is part -- perhaps even the crux? -- of the problem with our modern consumer economy.

Yes, it's wasteful that we continually replenish our supply of poorly made stuff all the time, and unconscionable that our unwanted but more or less functioning printers end up in a heap in Africa, oozing toxins into some kid's drinking water.

But this behavior is also destroying pillars of American prosperity.

Back in the day, a guy owned a good suit or two, and a good hat, and a few nice shirts and a pair or two of wool pants. And he wore them all the time. He may have dressed the same each day, but at least he looked sharp.

Those clothes cost him a bunch of money -- one reason why he owned just a couple of each. But they were made in America, and made to last.

The loss of American factory jobs is well lamented. But there’s another job being lost here, too.

When, after seasons of wear, his pants began to thin, he would take them to a tailor - because they were quality possessions, worth the investment. When the soles of his leather shoes wore through, he brought them to a cobbler. When his TV went on the fritz, he called a TV repairman, because you couldn't just pick up a working television by the side of the road on trash day (mock me, but I haven't paid for a TV in like 8 years).

Today? In many cases, it is generally cheaper and easier to buy a replacement product -- a new blender, or sweater, or toaster, or microwave, or air conditioner -- than to get your old one fixed by a professional. So in addition to wiping out domestic manufacturing jobs, this trend is eating into traditional skilled professions. To quote the US Bureau of Labor Statistics:

"Employment of shoe and leather workers and repairers is expected to decline rapidly by 14 percent through 2018 … buying new shoes often is cheaper than repairing worn or damaged ones."

Thankfully, we will still ring the repairman for major investments like refrigerators, cars, houses. Not to mention our bodies – we still value them enough to go to the dentist instead of just buying fake teeth at Walgreen’s!
This phenomenon even extends to food: By cost per calorie, it's often cheaper to buy food at McDonald's than at a healthy restaurant or even the grocery store. The calories aren't as good for you, of course – but once again we are wooed by the idea of getting more crap for less money instead of investing in something of higher quality.

While we still employ well-paid industrial designers, gone are the middle-class men and women who built and repaired products meant to last a lifetime. The focus has instead shifted toward churning out a never-ending cascade of new products as cheaply as possible -- while white-collar marketers contrive new ways to sell all that garbage to the rest of us.

And we buy it.

It’s discouraging, but does this spell the end of society? No, we’ll be ok. We no longer produce a lot of real stuff, but we do produce ideas and information. And weirdly, they need repairs, too. For better or worse, you are probably more likely to call the Geek Squad to salvage your desktop than hire a carpenter to fix your desk.

Where am I going with this? I don’t really know. I am super guilty of it myself. I own very few nice things, because I lose everything -- on trips, on trains, at people’s houses. In fact I left that H&M suit jacket on Thompson Island in Boston Harbor. I've owned dozens of sunglasses, none of which cost more than $15. And I’m on my fourth bike of the last 10 years, all bought used, on the cheap, because they tend to get stolen. (Although I guess they were recycled back into use after they were stolen… which is a plus? Err… yay.)

Anyway, from now on, I am going to make an effort to buy less crap in favor of quality products that last longer. For every two H&M shirts I might have bought, I will get one L.L. Bean shirt. For every pair of Bass shoes – which are made from “leather and/or plastic” and start to squeak after 4 months – I will buy Uggs or Dr. Martens and wear them twice as long. 

And I promise I'll recycle that printer.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...