Spin the Globe with Justin Butner

A world citizen may provide value to society by using knowledge acquired across cultural contexts.

Opera Busking

The day is a warm one for winter. The sun is shining with no clouds in the way. But in the pedestrian strip of shops here in the heart of the CBD the walkers have been in the shade for an hour. The tall buildings block the light, but they also block the sounds of traffic and the smell of exhaust.

The place is relatively quiet. It is a Wednesday but still early enough that most people are at work. And in the middle, in front of the entrance to another collection of shops, stands a lone busker.

People know when they approach a street artist, or a band, or a guy with a guitar and an amp, a collection bin and a stack of CDs. But people walk past her without noticing when she is standing still and preparing. There is a small silver collection box, something that might have once held a fancy pair of shoes or a crystal ornament. And she stands a couple meters away, a black leather handbag, a bottle of water at her feet, and a reserved stance.

She has no signs. She makes no grand gestures. And with no motions indicating her intent, she slightly parts her lips and a heavenly voice comes forth. She starts quietly, audible but not too much above the general level of conversation of the sparse crowds that walk past. People don’t stop to notice.

As she sings on she gets louder. Her voice hits higher notes. She does the range of things and opera singer might do that I know by sound to associate with the trade but by lack of experience don’t know terms for. A warble. A quick succession of steps up or down in pitch. A bending of notes. A long sustained fade out.

She suddenly hits a note at a volume my voice doesn’t hit. It reverberates. It is the sound that would shatter a glass in a cartoon. The note comes from nowhere, some undetermined spot inside this demure 20-something woman, through an opening the size of a golf ball, and it spreads forth into the cool shade, bouncing off the stories of sandstone behind her, off the windows and mirrors of the shops selling bright colored pillows and fur boots and trendy slightly askew sweaters. The sound reverberates down the pedestrian walkway, easily the fifty meters away to where I first heard it and got up to investigate. It catches passersby unaware. An older Chinese woman stops suddenly in her tracks as the sound begins, her sudden freezing almost as quickly relaxing into a curious look around as her brain processes the thoughts in the order of Sudden Loud Noise, Not Dangerous, Curious. Upon visual recognition of the source she gives a bemused smile and reaches for a dollar to put in the box.

The singer doesn’t smile. She can’t smile and maintain her performance. But she slightly curtsies to indicate her appreciation.

I close my eyes to absorb it all. The sound sweeps through me. Is this what opera is? When you strip away the costumes and the stage and the hundred dollar tickets, is it just a few people who have vocal talents that seem to do things an amp would do? That can float over notes or waver through them, that can slowly adjust their own volume knob in a way so delicate that you expect a machine to control it?

The sound is beautiful. I don’t have experience with it so I don’t know how to parse it. Where to file it. But it resonates deeper than most sounds.

I open my eyes again. No one is stopping. People drop a coin or two in the box. They linger. But they don’t really stop. There is no circle built up around her. Magicians command an audience directly. Speakers blasting music seem to do it without words. But the less elaborate setup somehow means people don’t savor the experience.

A few years ago the Washington Post printed an experiment they had conducted. They asked a musician – a violinist I believe – who was performing to sold out crowds at the Kennedy Center to perform as a busker in the subway. They set him up for a couple hours at L’Enfant Plaza, one of the busiest stations during rush hour. He played with the skill that twelve hours later critics and aficionados would be raving over, glad they had shelled out the cost of the tickets. And he made about as much as any other busker with moderate talent would. Only a few people stopped to listen. A couple seemed to just appreciate good music. And one lone guy stood there baffled. How was no one stopping? How could no one see the performance they were being given for free?

Whatever the reason, whatever everyone else’s motivation, I was glad that I had stopped. I could hear it.

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This entry was posted on July 20, 2012 by in Australia, Concert, NSW (Sydney).

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