New Yorkers are accustomed to seeing musical performers of different genres scattered throughout the city. But have you ever watched these artistic subway regulars simultaneously take part in a citywide orchestra performed via Skype at nine different train stations? One young filmmaker coordinated just that.
Chris Shimojima, 27, wanted to experiment with his interests in music, film, and the city through a conduit that people use every day — the subway. His idea eventually became a grand out-of-pocket project called Signal Strength that featured 11 subway performers, one composer, and a support crew of 40 volunteers and tech experts.
“I thought he was crazy,” says Signal Strength‘s composer, Lev Zhurbin, about when Shimojima approached him in August to put the ensemble together. The idea of creating a harmonious melody out of an unusual combination of instruments — ranging from the theremin and the saw to African drums like the djembe, and even including beatboxing — sounded “impossible, tricky and messy” to Zhurbin.
The project seemed monstrous to organize, but Shimojima’s commitment inspired Zhurbin. The duo joined forces with Anita Anthonj, a producer who was keen on doing a documentary on subway performers. Together they toured subways and scoured websites to recruit their performers. They settled on a group with an eclectic array of skills: Albert Behar (accordion), Ian Baggette (bass), Adam Matta (beatbox), Leah Coloff (cello), Amit Peled (guitar), Natalia Paruz (saw), Llamano (theremin), Jordan Hirsch (trumpet), Allyson Clare (viola), and Jeremiah McFarlane and Carl Jacob (djembe and shekere).
Zhurbin gave each performer something unique to string together with the others. He was fascinated by the idea of conducting over Skype, but when the day came, on September 14, the composer felt strange standing in a corner of Bryant Park with seated laptops arranged in front of him instead of real-life performers. Up until Signal Strength, he had “always done music with the people in the same room,” he said.
Signal Strength begins with a soft intro of African drums that gradually folds in all the other instruments until they burst into a euphonic competition of notes. Just when you expect one sound to drift into discordance, another performer quickly rescues it.
The nine Wi-Fi-enabled stations that constituted the orchestra’s grounds were mostly in Midtown Manhattan and the Upper West Side. Shimojima and his crew picked stations that seemed quieter.
But the group had a number of challenges. They had to ensure there would be reliable Wi-Fi service and that they would have no run-ins with the NYPD. One of the things Shimojima wanted to showcase through the project was that “subway performers don’t really disturb people.”
“They don’t have to be stopped” by the NYPD, he added. Nonetheless, as a precautionary measure, Shimojima’s team “stationed the musicians in places where they wouldn’t disturb commuters.”
Other hiccups were internal. Some performers could read music; others couldn’t. Not all the performers could show up for rehearsals because of their different schedules (in fact, some of them still haven’t met). The team had initially planned to have composer Zhurbin in a concert hall, but it was too costly, so they settled for Bryant Park.
Performer Paruz — or the “Saw Lady,” as she’s commonly known in NYC — agreed to work with Shimojima because of his “deep respect” for subway musicians.
“When I play in the subway, I get approached by all manner of people with peculiar ideas, but Chris seemed genuine and capable,” she said.
Working on Signal Strength also gave her the opportunity to fulfill a longtime dream of playing a duet with a theremin (an electronic instrument that is played with no physical contact). Her saw and Llamano’s theremin laced the composition with sounds that were both eerie and elegant.
Skype is wont to lag, and Paruz admits issues with the Wi-Fi frequently affected the sound and visual on the recording day. But when that happened, she resorted to playing by what she heard rather than what she saw.
Both Shimojima and Paruz hope Signal Strength will encourage more unprecedented collaborations between live music performances and the tech world.
“I wanted to ignite a fire in other people to experiment with technology and music,” said Shimojima, a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
NYC is a creative hub that never stops giving. The three-minute clip is a tribute to the city’s underground (complete with an MTA announcement at the end). The project celebrates the young and the enterprising and certainly not its transient oligarch class. It is an ode to the city’s hustling culture, which in itself can be beautifully discordant.