Part One: Sounds of the City – Musicians, Watch Out!
New York City is catching up with Philadelphia in its quest to severely limit (if not eliminate) street
performing in the subways and parks. Rather, I should say, New York City seems to be on a track that
will take it back to the days of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s total ban on street performing. Luckily, as
a member of MUNY (Music Under New York) I’m still able to go through official channels and play music
underground – at least for now.
The momentum being gained by those who’d ban such activities altogether is worrisome. The logic behind
the reasoning is absurd at a level that’s laughable. It started with amplified instruments being banned
from all parks. The thinking is that there’s a tendency to play far too loudly, impinging upon those who
prefer quiet and tranquility. I’m all for a peaceful park experience and I understand completely. Music
never discriminates; it reaches the ears of everyone whether they want to hear it or not. In that sense,
it’s admittedly invasive. Considerate musicians will always choose a somewhat isolated spot and play
quietly; it tends to be a sort of invitation for anyone interested enough to come and listen.
Oddly, musicians are still permitted to play acoustic instruments in the parks. It may bring to mind
images of quiet guitar players, maybe a lone violinist. But I’ve witnessed first-hand, people playing
“drums” made out of 5-gallon plastic buckets, bashing away as loudly or louder than instruments
connnected to amplifiers. I’ve seen (and definitely heard) a duo comprised of a sax player and full
kit-equipped drummer playing fantastic jazz that could be heard throughout Washington Square Park and a
full five blocks away from the park itself.
On one occasion I performed above ground on a sidewalk two blocks north of the Metropolitan Museum of
Art. I played at a volume level just loud enough for me to hear above the buses but soft enough that it
was virtually inaudible from just half a block away. I played for three hours and people had a great time.
A week later, during a crackdown, I was playing in the same spot and was confronted by an officer who
claimed that I was standing on museum property and that amplified music was not allowed. I was kicked off
the spot. Strangely, taking place at the same time two blocks down, right at the bottom of the front
steps of the museum, there was a huge crowd of cheering spectators enjoying troupe of break-dancers
(extremely talented, by the way) who were performing to ear-shattering plastic container drumming.
The double standard of the loudness argument is ridiculous, even moreso when you move below ground into
the incredibly noisy environment of the subway trains, with their screeching wheels, blasting horns and
all-around thunderous presence. And the additional argument that loud music potentially obscures announcements
that come over the PA system? As anyone who’s been within earshot of such announcements can tell you,
they’re almost always unintelligible (for a perfect depiction of this, watch the train platform scene from
the 1951 Jacques Tati film, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday). The truth is that underground, no one’s
expecting peace and quiet; we put up with the noise and a lot more.
When an actual melody reaches my ears from amidst the horrendous cacophony , it makes standing down there
on the platform a little more bearable as I wince at the huge rat I’ve just spotted scampering along the
Notes from the Street
Part Two: It’s Music to Whose Ears?