Archive for July, 2013

Notes From the Street

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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
filthy tracks.

Coming Soon:
Notes from the Street
Part Two: It’s Music to Whose Ears?

Resolved: The Arts Are Unnecessary

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Part Two – Lip Service and Art Class
(See Part One, posted on July 13, 2013)

All the lip service devoted to how the arts are important is clichéd. Michelle Obama’s words on the last Oscars
notwithstanding, the arts are continually “branded” as if they’re something outside the norm. Why? It’s due in
large part to the fact that during students’ formative years, educators look at art as something exclusive to
those who are talented. Art classes (the basic painting/drawing classes and music/band classes) do involve
everyone but teachers gravitate toward those they perceive to have talent. It’s just a perceived “given” that
most are average, and therefore either passed over or routinely accepted, but only those with promise are
encouraged. What other fields foster that kind of attitude? In classes like Science, Math, History and language
skills, yes, it’s understood that some possess more skill or greater potential than others, but all students are
expected to measure up, regardless. At the core of such expectation is standardized testing. Our perception
that these other subjects absolutely demand a certain level of comprehension and ability simply do not apply to the
arts. This mentality relegates the arts to something for those that are interested in them or who demonstrate, if not
an above-average ability, a strong desire on the part of the student.

It’s obvious, regardless of subject, that there are some students who possess abilities that surpass their peers.
Some love and excel at the sciences. Others at math. For some, these disciplines will engender lifelong career
pursuits. This understanding, that some students gravitate toward specific subjects is, for the most part, nurtured
in every area of endeavor except the arts. The prevailing parental attitude toward students who decide to pursue a
career in the arts is that it’s more a flight of fancy than a valid career goal; the hope is that they’ll grow out of
it. And most do.

While the predominant perception of the arts in general, we’ve seen, is that they’re something extra, something
outside the norm, the predominant media message is that the arts (and our school boards, public figures, politicians
and celebrities say it with conviction) are still very important, “vital,” in fact. They’re so important that the
minute a school district’s budget is shrinking – poof – like magic, the art class or music class disappears. As a
teaching artist, I have been brought to schools in which my brief workshop, for a single class, was the only music
program that existed in the entire school.

One solution has been to make the arts an extracurricular activity, an after-school program. Students are neither
required to participate, neither are they graded. Another solution is to bring in teaching artists occasionally and
expose students to all the arts periodically throughout the year.

But there’s a big, fragrant elephant in the room that needs some shoveling up after.

Coming Soon:
Part Three – The Elephant in the Room

Video: Vinegar Mother Live at Cornelia Street

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Lesson 9 of “Lessons from Vinegar Mother.” This version features new original video as intended for the
performance piece. The spoken material is also clearer than the Asheville footage. The Cornelia Street
Café is a much more intimate setting (with a much smaller stage) and it certainly captures the immediacy
of the experience. Thanks to friend and owner, Robin, as well as curator Angelo for a fantastic evening.

Resolved: The Arts Are Unnecessary

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Part One – How to Upset Anyone Involved in the Arts

Just say, “the arts are unnecessary.” We’re loath to say it. We’re defensive if the notion surfaces. However,
somewhere along the line, despite the hype, despite the political-speak, the educator-speak and the
arts-organization-speak, it’s staring us in the face. The arts have been rendered irrelevant. Unnecessary.
(Are you getting upset yet?) Excluding movies and huge rock concerts, from a statistical standpoint, only
about 5% of the population of a given region attend any live arts events. Of that 5%, only a fraction will
attend a dance event, a classical music concert or go to see a play.

Ask your neighbors; do they or their kids think about or use the arts in their daily lives? Do the people
on your street come together for singing or dancing? It shows everywhere – people now believe the arts are
for schools. They believe that artists are a special (and weird) breed, not everyday people. Ask your
neighbors: what’s more important for a student – learn about math and science or learn how to play the piano?

Ask any parent what type of profession they’d like to see their children go into. It’s a good bet that not
a single art form will be mentioned.

Virtually every major art form was originally central to the cultural life of the community, from a small
tribe in the amazon jungle, to Native Americans, to the all early civilizations like the Chinese, Greeks and
Romans. The arts were inseparable from the culture – dancing and singing were part of ritual and celebration,
paintings and carvings adorned utilitarian objects (clothing, pottery, tools, etc.), and cave paintings were
arguably the earliest form of documentary. In America, every artisanal craft from clothing to bowls to toys to
religious objects is now factory-mass-produced. In China. True craftspeople are out there, but predominantly
relegated to specialty shops and small venues, seen or experienced by a relative few.

And the arts? Now? They are “electives” in schools; but they have absolutely no part in the all-important
standardized testing. They’re the last programs to be considered and the first to go when budgets are cut. The
litany of outraged complaints about how the arts are viewed and treated is too long to go into, and besides,
arts educators and teaching artists already know.

Even though those of us who care speak out, we’ve actually bought into it. If we hadn’t, we wouldn’t be in such
trouble. Years of struggle have made us buy into the bleak reality as much as those we look to for support –
support that goes far beyond the financial type. And all those funders, everyone from endowments to the big
corporations looking to keep up their images as supporters of the arts, everyone is tired of hearing the same
endless evidence that the arts matter and they’re weary of the same old pleas for help.

Coming Soon:
Resolved: The Arts Are Unnecessary
Part Two – Lip Service and Art Class

Video: Il Vecchio Castello

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Thanks to Greg and Hong Waltzer, who captured a brief segment from the premier of this new
performance piece. Kivoldny Prossar, Russian Thereminist and Ardeth Bey fanatic (that’s why he’s
dressed the way he is) ia playing “Il Vecchio Castello” from Pictures At An Exhibition.

Treat Your Ears To The Noise Beneath the Apple

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Over three years in the making, I’ve been privileged to be included in the new book, The Noise Beneath the Apple,
published by the organization of the same name. The Noise Beneath the Apple bring the experience of street
performing, or, “busking,” featuring and tracking Manhattan’s street performers. The book itself (a huge
coffee table volume) is now available in a very limited edition of 250 copies. Beautifully designed, written
by music journalist, Heather Jacks, with photography by Bryan Close, The Noise Beneath the Apple showcases
thirty-five street/subway musicians, myself included. It comes in a custom slipcase, accompanied by a 12-inch
red, black and white splatter patterned vinyl disc containing the work of eleven musicians (myself included).
Check out the book and the entire Manhattan street performing culture at