N.A: How does the experience of encountering music on the street differ from the concert setting for the audience and the performer?
Kurt Gottschalk: For the listener, the two settings aren't even comparable. A concert is an event, part of a planned evening. Street music is experienced in passing. Even if you're drawn in to stop and listen, it probably wouldn't be for more than five minutes. What buskers are usually doing is providing the incidental music for the city's stories. It's appreciated and people will pay for it, but it's never the focus of the day, or even the hour.
A social experiment conducted in Washington, DC, in 2007 showed the point. The esteemed classical violinist Joshua Bell spent a morning playing his 1713 Stradivarius inside a Metro station. According to a Washington Post story, seven people stopped to listen and 27 dropped a total of $32 in his case out of more than 1,000 who passed by in 45 minutes. The Post coverage portrays the project as demonstrating the general public's failure to recognize genius – interlaced, perhaps, with a bit of classism: Surely Bell would fare better among taxi and limo riders, no? But people at a subway station are by definition otherwise occupied. Bell's underground recital of Bach and Schubert surely didn't go unnoticed by the majority of rush hour commuters, and $40 an hour is a rate many musicians would be glad to accept.
Having never busked myself I won't speculate on the experiences of the performers. Saxophonist Matana Roberts was spending considerable time in the subways when she first moved to New York and wrote about it in her 'zine Fat Ragged. Those interested would be wise to track down old copies.
N.A: Are there any differences in attitude toward street musicians in different cultures?
K.G: Well, I'm hardly an expert but – absolutely. In America, it's seen as a form of begging which isn't always inaccurate. Oftentimes playing music is a panhandler's gimmick here. I will say with no undue parochialism, however, that New York street musicians easily outclass those I've heard elsewhere in the country. That actually makes a certain amount of sense, seeing as it's the city to go to to turn talent into a career.
But even in New York, it's something of a vagabond's pastime. The polar opposite is Marrakech, Morocco, where street performance is a key part of daily life. The Jemaa el-Fnaa, a large plaza in the older part of the city, is host to live music and dancing as well as snake charming and balancing acts for at least 18 hours a day. There is an element of tourist trade to it, to be certain. But by midnight or so the square – lit by the halogen lanterns the performers bring – is filled with young Moroccan couples sneaking some time away from parents' eyes and middle-aged and older men socializing, reveling and dancing often with each other: As its forbidden for women to dance outdoors, men will sometimes perform traditional dances hand in hand and even don female robes and veils to portray the feminine roles of the social rituals.
But it should be noted, they are all buskers. Tourists and locals alike are expected to drop some dirham into a tambourine held out like an overturned hat. While Caucasian onlookers might on occasion be admonished with the command “paper money, paper money,” everyone is expected to make an offering.
N.A: What are your feelings about the licensing and auditioning of street performers (for instance at London's Convent Garden)?
K.G: This is done in New York as well, at least in the subways. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has run the Music Under New York program since 1985. I understand anecdotally that people playing with a MUNY banner make more money in donations but I don't know if that's accurate. Technically it's not legal to play for money in the subway system unless you're part of the MUNY program, but I rarely see musicians out with the banner displayed and I've rarely seen or heard of musicians having problems playing without being registered unless some other problem precipitated the questioning.
I guess I don't have strong feelings about it. Certainly my anarcho-artistic spirit wants music to flow freely without the encumbrance of municipal paperwork. However at least in New York, and as far as I know, there seem to be so few pros and cons to the program that it hardly matters.
N.A: What was the most extraordinary performance you have ever seen from a busker?
K.G: There was a guy who used to play in the tunnel at the Union Square station (in New York City), and I'd actually go out of my way to look for him. He was probably over 60, with deep black skin and a wool-lined hat he wore year-round. It was sad in part. He was clearly mentally disturbed and his cheap acoustic guitar rarely had more than three strings on it. It seemed to anger him if anyone spoke to him, and I never saw him react to money being put in his case (although the case was set out for donations). Once I even walked up to find him trying to attack someone, screaming and swinging his guitar at a couple who appeared to be tourists.
But the blues he played was serious, hardcore, like Mississippi Fred McDowell at his best. It was open form and (assumedly) a stream of consciousness improvisation, not relying on the strict 12-bar formula that wasn't really made mandatory until the 1960s.
After a while he was gone. I had no way of knowing if he was hospitalized or dead or had moved to another town. About a year later an old blues guitarist in a wool hat showed up in a beer commercial. The guy was too gregarious, too upbeat to have been my bluesman. But I'm certain that some ad rep had also seen him walking through the tunnel.
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