Trains, Buskers, and an Opera: Sounds of a New City

At the end of June I left San Diego and SoCal for the environs of New York City and took up residence in the neighborhood of Bushwick in Brooklyn. I lived in San Diego my entire life, and as I was finishing my master’s degree at San Diego State I decided it was time for a change. I looked around the United States for places to relocate and created a list of towns based upon existing contacts. After deliberation, Brooklyn was my choice.

There’s lots to say about the music and sounds of New York, so I’ll start by saying that my first few weeks have been wonderful. My first night in town I hooked up with a local barbershop chapter, Voices of Gotham, and sang with them until the small hours of the morning. It was a great first night in the city for sure, but exploring the soundscape of New York has been a real delight. Brooklyn (and NYC in general) contain a world of daily sounds that are new to me, and experiencing it for the first time reminds me of my childhood fascination with my surroundings; it has unlocked something in me that I haven’t felt in many, many years.

The first thing that I noticed — at least over Brooklyn and Manhattan — is the lack of airplane noise. San Diego’s airspace, with its downtown airport, was a sewer of noise. That isn’t to say that there there’s no noise, the sounds of traffic certainly contribute a lot of noise pollution; but that’s a dynamic confusion of smaller sounds, not simply a blast of pure loudness. What has been most exciting about the soundscape are the subway trains. There are so many variations and possibilities: screeches, clangs, bumps, metal on metal, horns, announcements, various conversations, even the blast of wind rushing from the tunnels. Riding inside that trains has a different set of sounds from standing on the platform, and when the trains are elevated above the streets, one gets to experience a different set of sounds from those underground. Having a whole new gamut of sounds to feast upon is just fantastic.

Another early observation about New York has been the musical sounds that abound here, particularly I’m speaking of the abundance of buskers who populate the subway stations, trains, street corners, and parks. My favorite so far has been an elderly gentleman playing an Erhu (a two-stringed fiddle sometimes called the “Chinese violin”) on the High Line. It was a stark contrast to the hurried sounds of the city that were only meters  beneath us.

What I’ve found most entertaining about the buskers here has not been the skill displayed by them, nor the enjoyment of an aesthetic experience, but rather the canned backing tracks that these musicians play along with. My first experience with this was at the Staten Island Ferry station in Manhattan on a Saturday morning. I was sitting alone waiting to board the next ferry (it was about 9:15 on a Saturday, so the crowd at the ferry terminal was relatively sparse by New York standards) when I heard the sound of someone tuning up a violin. I looked around and saw a man preparing to play. “Hmm, this might be nice,” I thought to myself; and then, suddenly, some smooth furniture music started coming out of his amp, and he started to solo over it. Eventually he got to playing an ornamented, easy-listening version of the theme from The Godfather as we all boarded the ferry. Over the next couple days I learned that a lot of these buskers use backing tracks for their performances. The strangest one I’ve heard thus far was someone jamming along with a Jimi Hendrix track, but playing the rhythm guitar part — not soloing over the band: playing rhythm guitar. It was remarkable.

Eventually I decided to see a concert. I’d been told over and over again of the rich concert-going experiences and eclectic offerings of New York City. I did a quick look around the internet for free concerts and I stumbled upon the River to River Festival happening about Downtown Manhattan. This festival (which runs for a few more days) had a lot to offer, and after checking out the listings I found myself at the South Street Seaport going to watch You, My Mother: a chamber opera in two parts. This work was put together by Two-Headed Calf, and included four actor/vocalists with the music performed by Yarn/Wire, an NYC percussion and piano quartet. This unconventional opera was amazing. It’s difficult to create a dramatic work that discards the traditional narrative form, but this work succeeded. Additionally, the separation of the work into two parts — each with a different composer/librettist team — presented two separate perspectives upon the central theme of the show: reflections upon the relationship one has with their mother.

The presentation of the characters was interesting and fun also. Rather than seeing them as individuals motivated by events, wants, and needs; each actor embodied more of an archetype, representing broad experiences and feelings. Although the characters had names, I didn’t relate to the person they portrayed. What I did connect with was the ideas each person represented. The most powerful moment I experienced was when one of the characters reminisced upon a family vacation. It was a fresh shot of sentimentality that was exceptionally poignant and well placed within the action of the show.

Although the music was certainly contemporary in nature, the use of two different composers gave a sense of contrast. The first part’s use of the instruments was environmental and pointillistic, creating an atmosphere and tangible affect for the show. The second part was more tune oriented, but not dominated by themes or motives. I got that sense due more to the lack of conspicuous themes in the first part. The second part also made more use of the singing voice and vocal harmonies; but as I mentioned earlier, both parts expressed the central idea of the show in a different but unified way. It was a great first performance to see in a new city and I will be keeping my ear open to more from the folks who put this together.

So far I’ve been here for almost three weeks and it has been wonderful. New and delightful sounds are all about me, the community of barbershopping is ringing with life, and a culture of unconventional dramatic music thrives. I’m looking forward to what the future has to offer in New York City.

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