Sunday, April 15, 2007

Why street-sing?

My buddy Wei Jin (the bass in my ex-acapella group skritch) pointed out this excellent article by Washington Post to me. Evidently, they did an experiment by asking an internationally acclaimed violinist (Joshua Bell, who just a few nights ago played for a crowd who paid $100+ ticket to see his performance) do a street-performance (playing a $3.5m instrument) at a train station at DC and see what'd happen. In the end, nothing much. What followed was in my opinion, an excellent article on the psyche of the street-performer, and how he interacts or rather ignores his surrounding in pursuit of a musical high. There're so many lines in this article that really captured how I feel towards singing on the streets; I'm really not much of a writer, so I'd let this journalist speak on my behalf:

"Each passerby had a quick choice to make...Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he's really bad? What if he's really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn't you? What's the moral mathematics of the moment?"

"It was all videotaped by a hidden camera. You can play the recording once or 15 times, and it never gets any easier to watch. Try speeding it up, and it becomes one of those herky-jerky World War I-era silent newsreels. The people scurry by in comical little hops and starts, cups of coffee in their hands, cellphones at their ears...he seems so apart from his audience -- unseen, unheard, otherworldly -- that you find yourself thinking that he's not really there. A ghost.

Only then do you see it: He is the one who is real. They are the ghosts."

""It wasn't exactly stage fright, but there were butterflies," he says. "I was stressing a little. When you play for ticket-holders," Bell explains, "you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I'm already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don't like me? What if they resent my presence . . ."

"So, for the first time in his life, Mortensen lingers to listen to a street musician. He stays his allotted three minutes as 94 more people pass briskly by. When he leaves to help plan contingency budgets for the Department of Energy, there's another first. For the first time in his life, not quite knowing what had just happened but sensing it was special, John David Mortensen gives a street musician money."

""The awkward times," he calls them. It's what happens right after each piece ends: nothing. The music stops. The same people who hadn't noticed him playing don't notice that he has finished. No applause, no acknowledgment. So Bell just saws out a small, nervous chord -- the embarrassed musician's equivalent of, "Er, okay, moving right along . . ." -- and begins the next piece."

"There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away."

"Watching the video weeks later, Bell finds himself mystified by one thing only. He understands why he's not drawing a crowd, in the rush of a morning workday. But: "I'm surprised at the number of people who don't pay attention at all, as if I'm invisible. Because, you know what? I'm makin' a lot of noise!"

Bell wonders whether their inattention may be deliberate: If you don't take visible note of the musician, you don't have to feel guilty about not forking over money; you're not complicit in a rip-off."

"Hessian was one of those people who gave Bell a long, hard look before walking on. It turns out that she wasn't noticing the music at all. "I really didn't hear that much," she said. "I was just trying to figure out what he was doing there, how does this work for him, can he make much money, would it be better to start with some money in the case, or for it to be empty, so people feel sorry for you? I was analyzing it financially.""

"Souza (a shoe-shiner who works at the station) nods sourly toward a spot near the top of the escalator: "Couple of years ago, a homeless guy died right there. He just lay down there and died. The police came, an ambulance came, and no one even stopped to see or slowed down to look. "People walk up the escalator, they look straight ahead. Mind your own business, eyes forward. Everyone is stressed. Do you know what I mean?""

"(Picarello, a passer-by said,)"Really. It was that kind of experience. It was a treat, just a brilliant, incredible way to start the day."

""It was the most astonishing thing I've ever seen in Washington," Furukawa says. "Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I wouldn't do that to anybody. I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?""

To end off, just watch the following video of Bruce Springsteen singing on the street. If a mega star like him still does this, I think it says a lot about busking. To me, it is a journey and feeling unlike any other.

1 comment:

Kevin said...

You are a brave brave man... especially in "critique-cal" Singapore. Now that my teaching stint is over, I'm interested in coming by next time you sing. Maybe we can punk the crowd... I could walk by then start to sing with you, and look back at the confused faces of pedestrians :P

BTW, I just had my students sing on in something I call the "COM125 Idol Contest". Check them out... do any of them have potential?