The long slabs of chipped wood by the entrance of the Union Square station seem to approximate chairs (thank you, Plato, for your bit on “chairness”). And when Raices Group performs, every chair at the station fulfills its function: all benches are filled with squished bodies, and several leftovers (including me) must stand to soak in the music. The benches aren’t close to a train platform; it’s almost as if they were placed here for Subway-goers to comfortably watch performances.
Playing music of the Andes, the three musicians used a variety of percussion and wind instruments, all of which were decorated in multicolored threads and neon pom poms. I later identified the instruments as zampoñas, quenas, bombos, and randadors (don’t be impressed by my knowledge — it’s all here). As the group was taking a water break, one of the friendly musicians walked through the crowd to sell CDs. When he approached me, I inquired if I could chat with him about the group. He pulled out a tiny MTA – Arts for Transit schedule and pointed to the group’s 2-hour time slot. Although I didn’t manage to chat with the buskers, listening to their music was full of enough sweetness on its own.
After spending half an hour underground, I emerged from the subway station only to find more talent being showcased throughout Union Square. On one side of the square, a crowd surrounded a 5 or 6-year-old boy who was playing chess with a man who was 3 times his size and probably 7 times his age. And to my left, 2 soccer pros were showing off their moves, kicking the polygon from fancy angles.
A few weeks ago, I interviewed artist Neil Goldberg for WKCR FM New York, Columbia University’s radio. A selection of his work was recently featured in a contemporary video art exhibit entitled “Stories the City Tells Itself” at the Museum of the City of New York. During our interview, Goldberg described how the subway is one of the coziest places in the city. According to Goldberg, the subway lends itself to several artistic opportunities. This is partially because the subway is “liminal,” in that it’s a “space that exists somehow between public and private…the time down there isn’t supposed to count. It’s supposed to be instrumental.”
When we recount the highlights of our day, we often dismiss the “in-between” time: riding a subway, taking a coffee run, or walking from one block to another. It doesn’t have to be an ambulance to force New Yorkers to stop in their tracks and exhale: a few tunes can enrich and give weight to these instrumental moments.