The New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority (or MTA) is host to a program called “Music Under New York,” in which it acts essentially as a patron of the arts, exposing musical acts to a captive audience of what’s probably millions every day. Day or night, a walk through New York City’s subway stations sometimes feels like a trip to a concert hall (except that a concert hall hopefully smells better and is a lot less crowded). As a lover of music, I appreciate the program. As a commuter, I hate it.
It’s great that New York supports the arts, especially in this day and age when art and music classes in schools are harder and harder to come by. I come from an extremely artistic and musical family, and I think it’s important that talent and creativity in these realms be fostered and encouraged. I just wonder if it’s really necessary for that to happen during my commute, undoubtedly the most stressful part of my day.
Navigating the NYC subway system is not exactly one of life’s greatest joys. In fact, if you ever get real high on life and start feeling too good about humanity and people’s tendency toward goodwill, I suggest you try riding the subway during rush hour. You will very quickly realize how much potential people have to be downright nasty to each other, for absolutely no reason.
My theory is that the MUNY project does little to enhance the experience of commuting; indeed, I’d go so far as to suggest that it may even aggravate and add to the already sky-high levels of stress that seem to coagulate in that smelly underground system of tunnels. For one thing, a musician of any kind or quality always draws a crowd, and when the subway stations were designed, I don’t think crowding was really taken into account. A mass of people gathered in one place, seemingly mesmerized by someone playing a guitar is the last thing that the subway system needs. And yet there it is, creating the sort of congestion that is best left to a sinus infection. But it gets worse, because as you’ve probably figured out by now, live music in the subways means that no matter what, you are forced to be an audience member. It doesn’t matter what’s on your iPod, you have no choice but to listen to the acte du jour.
It’s possible that in some cases, such a fate is tolerable. It is not, however, if the act happens to be one Michael Shulman, an electric violinist and frequent performer in the Grand Central subway terminal. People seem to love him, and he always attracts huge crowds. Personally, though, I can’t see him as anything more than a hack. His thing is to play riffs on his violin over a track of a recognizable (and often repetitive or otherwise catchy) songs of various genres: classic rock, pop, rap, etc. You might think it sounds like an original idea. If that’s the case, I urge you to think about how you would feel if you heard him performing every other day (at least that’s what it feels like), and if doing so led you to realize that he only seems to play along to one or two different songs (one of which is Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir,” which has an incredible hook that I’m afraid this guy’s music is going to ruin for me). How does your commute feel now?
Sometimes I dream about having so much money that I could pay Michael Shulman (or any of his equally annoying counterparts) not to play music. In a way, I’d still be supporting the arts. I’d just be supporting them being taken elsewhere. It’s already loud and crazy enough under New York.