After my stint playing cello in a Melbourne flash mob last year, I was keen to try something else in the same spirit. And what better city to seek out new musical experiences in than the Big Apple? On December 21, while visiting New York, I was fortunate to be a part of a Make Music NY Winter Festival event curated by US-based composer James Holt. The event was called Thru-line and involved 44 solo musicians performing the Prelude to JS Bach's Cello Suite No 1 at every station platform on the Coney Island-bound F line through Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. Every stop was coordinated so that when the train doors opened the musician would be up to a particular measure
We began on the dot at 7pm and continued right through until 8pm. I was stationed at one of the busiest stops on the line, which had both its advantages and disadvantages.
After a minor setback getting temporarily stuck entering the turnstiles at the station (they're not made quite wide enough for both cello and musician!) things were pretty smooth sailing. I scouted out my desired location: "as close to the middle of the platform as possible and near where the guards would appear", as we were told. I was a bit early so I tried not to look too suspicious. At five minutes to 8pm I speedily unpacked and took my place as curious commuters looked on.
I must admit, I wasn't totally comfortable with performing in this setting. Not only did I have no idea who I was performing for, but every two minutes a train would come crashing past me, not only drowning out my sound, but nearly blowing my stand onto the tracks! Within about 10 minutes though, these concerns seemed to fade away as I became more relaxed and more aware of the audience around me. I found reprieve from the noise of the trains almost instantly after they departed, when an immediate hush and immense sense of calm would descend.
Despite all the passing commuters there was not much noise, and it was in these intervals between trains that I really enjoyed making music in this so ordinary yet unique location. Sometimes I would feel as though I was playing to nobody; then I would finish and hear applause coming from behind me. It was a real delight to see people detach themselves from their iPods and forget about their Christmas shopping for a minute to stop and listen, and others who would stay, despite missing their train, until I finished the movement and they would have a chance to applaud and talk to me.
Music seems to be everywhere in our modern world. From the moment you turn on the television in the morning, listen to the radio on the way to work, take the elevator, visit the department store and go out for a drink at a bar, music is everywhere. So much so that, increasingly, we don't notice it. What I realised from this exercise was that the element of a live performance remains special. It's still able to turn heads, capture imaginations and transport us from our ordinary world. As a musician I think it's important to find ways to bring these experiences to people, whether it's in a concert hall or out in public, and give them a moment to pause, listen and enjoy. After all, you never know; the next time you pass a busker in the subway it might just be Joshua Bell!
Thanks and congratulations to the event curator James Holt, presenters MATA, New Music NY and performers and friends of The Knights.