Thruline by James Holt
Part 1: The Origin of the Idea
I know someone who used to work for a New York City-based orchestra. A year or two ago, this orchestra was debating a new programming idea with the working title of “Subway Series.” My understanding of this title is that it comes from baseball, and is usually in reference to the annual New York Yankees / New York Mets series against each other.
This got me thinking: if I worked for a music performance organization, what would I do with the idea of a subway series?
Maybe it would be cool to divide up all the pieces on a program into their individual movements, and hear each of the movements of a piece at designated subway stops. For example, you could be told ahead of time that on a certain day at a certain time, that you could hear all five movements of Philip Glass’ fifth string quartet at each of the five Manhattan stops on the L-train. The first movement at the 8th Avenue stop, the second movement at the 6th Avenue stop, the third at Union Square, etc, etc.
Wait. Wait! I think I have a better idea: what if you could hear a single short piece at every subway stop? We often see musicians playing music in the subways, we’ve even seen Joshua Bell performing Bach in a train station, but what if you heard the same piece at every single stop. And what if that piece was something that literally everyone would recognize, even if they didn’t know the name of the piece or the composer?
What if I could have a single cellist on every single subway platform performing the Prelude of the G-major solo cello suite by Bach? With this, an idea was born… but the question remained: is it even possible to make something like this happen?
Part 2: The Idea of Simplicity
I always try to find ways to simplify things in my life. My ideas never seem to work out the way I think they will, but I’m always looking for simple solutions. One of the challenges to making this simple idea come to life is sorting through all of the logistical complications and decisions.
Complication #1: Which subway line should I chose? There are 22 lines in the New York City subway system, but only a handful that reach more than two boroughs. It would be really cool for this project to reach out into Queens and Brooklyn as well as Manhattan. Considering these options, I was reminded of a choral piece that Michael Gordon had written with an accompanying video by Bill Morrison called Every Stop on the F Train. That was it: the F-line would be perfect for this project and would simultaneously be a nice tip-of-the-hat to Michael Gordon.
Complication #2: It turns out that about a dozen of the stops on the F-line are above ground, and this project is supposed to take place in December on the longest night of the year. Assuming I could actually find enough cellists to cover every single F-line platform, I couldn’t ask them to play outside on what could be a sub-zero evening. Why not invite other musicians to perform the Bach as well – maybe a trombonist would be willing to play outside in December? Maybe there could be an arrangement for toy piano, or even a melodica? Luckily, the fantastic and adventurous musicians of The Knights agreed to supply musicians at every stop, and I agreed to make sure that everyone had a proper arrangement of the music.
Complication #3: How important is it that the unassuming public who happen to ride the F-line on the evening of December 21 actually know what’s going on? There’s no way to notify everyone, and I decided not to even try. One of the things that I love about this project is that it turns the public into accidental participants. The only question that remains is, what will their reactions be?
Part 3: So What?
The last question to address before this whole idea comes to life is: what do I hope will be the public’s reactions?
I love that this is a simple idea being implemented in a simple way. Fortunately, my goals for this piece are just as simple as the idea: I want people to smile. Easy. Lots of people much smarter than I could come up with fancy metaphors or aesthetic objectives for a performance piece like this, but I just want people to smile.
I want people to slowly realize, after stepping onto the train and making several stops, that something out of the ordinary is happening and that it is a kind of gift from us to them. I want people to look around at others on the train and wonder if they notice what’s going on as well – are they in on it? Are they paying attention? I want them to smile when the doors to the train open at every stop and they get to hear bits and pieces of one of the most beautiful compositions ever written. I want people to get to their destinations and tell the people they are meeting that they just experienced something unique and special. I want to give the people who ride the F-Train tomorrow night an adventure, a pretty low risk adventure, but one where they will be left wondering what’s around the next corner.
There are lots of people to thank for making this idea come to life. The Knights, Make Music New York, MATA, David T. Little, Phil Kline, and Rose Bellini. Thank you so much for helping me realize this project, I could not have done it without you.
From Curator James Holt:
Most MATA curatorial statements describe a live performance that will take place in a traditional performance space. Normally, these projects follow a fairly straightforward formula: the curator plans a concert; invites and coordinates composers, musicians, ensembles, rehearsals, writes program notes, etc. This process is very valuable, especially to a young composer or future presenter.
My project, however, came about through a slightly different process than most Interval productions. After undergoing a competitive application process, a formal public presentation, and a discussion with MATA’s guest composer/mentor Phil Kline, Thruline was selected for development and presentation by the collaborative partnership between MATA and Make Music New York.
Notice that I’ve used the word “project”, a word that I will choose to use over and over again in my writings about this experience. I feel it is important to make the distinction between what can be called a piece or composition, and what is in essence, just an idea. I didn’t compose anything for Thruline: I came up with an idea. That idea is, at its basic core, a performance of Bach throughout the New York City subway system.
In this installation, cellists (and in some cases, alternate instruments) perform the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G major on every Coney Island bound F-train subway platform. The Prelude lasts approximately 3 minutes, and musicians will play the movement continuously for the duration of the installation, repeating as many times as necessary.
Of all the pieces I could have chosen, I decided on this Bach Prelude because of the way that the general public so often recognizes it, and is drawn in immediately; it is a work that subway riders would notice as they hear it again and again at each subway stop. In addition, the texture of the piece remains consistent throughout, with a pattern that non-musicians tend to recognize without needing to know whether the piece is at the beginning, middle or end. These properties create the experience that the title refers to, no matter where a person begins and ends.
As an “accidental” participant in this project, the public initially hears the music as they wait on a subway platform, and then again as they ride the train, every time the doors open at a station. With each subsequent stop, the listeners develop an experiential “thruline” that starts and ends wherever they enter and leave the subway system. The ideal public experience is one where a subway rider hears fragments of the piece every few minutes, recognizing that, at each stop, the same piece has continued, but perhaps in slightly different contexts.
Date: Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Place: Every Coney Island bound F-Train platform