Saturday, February 26, 2011

Across the Pond

(Backstory: I'm studying abroad in London for the semester)

Where there's a subway, there's a busker, or at least that's what it seems. During a visit to New York, a friend of mine and I stopped in one Metro station to hear a rocking out electric violinist, then later found ourselves peering down at a three-piece band on the platform. Back home in the Bay Area, BART busking seems to be less regular, (from what I can remember) but there still tends to be one or two musicians in the bigger downtown stations.

Here in London, they take busking pretty seriously. In fact, most Underground stations (aka Tube stops) have designated "busking pitches," which are either labeled as such or are recognizable by a semicircle painted on the ground. That being said, this general encouragement towards busking doesn't come without bureaucracy. There's an application process, complete with audition and submission of a predetermined set list, and only a limited amount of permits available at any given time.The same goes for above-ground busking as well, and apparently there's a fair chance you'll be approached if law enforcement finds you playing without a permit.

What with all of my frequent Tube riding and general wandering, I regularly encounter musicians performing, often in the tunnels connecting different train lines, which of course makes me think of the Tunnel Project. I've often taken note of street performers in the past, but since beginning the project, I've become more aware of both the performance itself and the interactions and reactions of the passers-by doubling as the audience. Since these musicians have all been screened, they can more or less carry a tune and/or play their instruments, but that also means that there's not as drastic of a range in quality as there is in the States and one decent player doesn't score any bigger points than another. I have yet to see much of a crowd form around any of the Underground pitches, probably because most of them are along paths with heavy foot traffic–The big winners are performers on the surface, usually the showier and more popular-culture-related groups, or small music ensembles which wouldn't have the space in the Underground. That's my experience after four weeks here, at least. As time goes on I'm sure I'll understand the dynamics better.

An adventure with some housemates took me to the South Bank this evening, where I passed by a lone saxophonist improvising under a bridge. I was struck by the scene for some reason, perhaps because of the acoustics, or because of how naturally (or classically) he seemed to fit into the almost surreal world around him. Not far off from his location was a small merry-go-round, and occasionally the saxophonist would riff off or echo the tune or chords of the plinkety ride. His case did have some coins in it, but I wish I'd put a few in myself, in exchange for this Tunnel Project-esque memento:

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