Thursday, April 12, 2007

God bless you, Mr. Vonnegut

The venerated and controversial satirist, Kurt Vonnegut, has passed away at age 84. Unlike many people, I didn't read Vonnegut in high school. I went on a tear of making up for lost time a couple of years ago, reading Hocus Pocus, The Sirens of Titan, Slapstick and a couple of others, I believe, all in the course of one summer. One thing that always struck me about his writing - besides his casual yet dry wit - was how he sets up these running gags, usually catchphrases that recur at (in/)opportune times. Ethan refers to "So be it" in Slaughterhouse Five; my favourite may be the use of "the excrement hit the air conditioning" in Hocus Pocus.


Via Dan, a letter from guitarist and activist Marc Ribot regarding the closing of Tonic (tomorrow) and Sin-é (a couple of weeks ago) and the changing place of improvised and/or experimental music in Manhattan. He links to the collective blog Take It To The Bridge. Unfortunately, not living in NYC, I haven't been able to make many of their meetings nor can I attend the last hurrah tomorrow night at a club that quickly became an important part of my life over the past few months. If you're within commuting distance of the place, show your support for fringe music in the Lower East Side.


There has been lots of buzz on message boards and blogs about the social experiment conducted by the Washington Post and Joshua Bell. A quick summary for those who haven't been following: Bell, a fantastic violinist and one-time poster boy for major label classical indulgences, was "busking" in DC's L'Enfant Plaza metro station during morning rush hour. They then surveyed the reactions (or lack thereof) of commuters. The consensus in many a post is how ashamed North America should feel as a culture, that they can't recognize beauty and art when it's staring them in the face. Is there something inherently wrong with classical music that even when stripped of its "elitist" trappings and customs, it still doesn't attract listeners? I don't really feel like that's the point at all.

Personally, I somewhat resent busking. The idea of having music thrust upon me, without my desire or consent, is not one I appreciate. In five years of daily commuting in Montreal, I've learned to tune out the subway musicians and the blaring iPods, or at least attempt to. I make a private note of which buskers are halfway decent, but I rarely tip or even go over to them. (The one recent exception was a kid in Lionel-Groulx metro doing a passable version of "Karma Police," only because I would never expect to hear that by a subway musician.) But quite honestly, because I consume so much music between my own performances and rehearsals, composing, record reviews, radio shows and pleasure listening, I don't want to be bombarded with anything during my commute, be it Rachmoninoff or Crowded House. And if I'm unfortunate enough to be commuting during morning rush hour, the only things on my mind are:
- Where's the metro train? and
- Has the caffeine kicked in yet?

Would I have appreciated the musical quality? Surely, but privately. Would I have recognized it as Joshua Bell? Probably not. Does that make me a horrible person, or uncouth pseudo-aficionado of the arts? No. It just makes me yet another impatient commuter. And in DC especially, time is precious. I don't think some Capitol Hill flunky can afford to be late for work just because some dude was playing nice tunes at a subway stop, and that is the case for many of us. If I'm commuting that early in the morning, it's because I have a very important place to be, and it could be Oscar Peterson at the metro entrance and I'd still probably offer nothing more than mild bemusement.

I have noticed that on the whole, I've experienced higher-calibre musicians in the NYC subways than here. There's this Mahavishnu-sounding violinist in Penn Station when I get off the train, and I've encountered some passable alto renditions of Jobim in various subway corridors.


Mwanji Ezana said...


So, when are you telling us about that long-distance Kenny Barron thing?

Ryshpan said...

I'm still actually collecting my thoughts on it, Mwanji. I have to admit that it was a great opportunity, but I was a little disappointed.