Monthly Archives: June 2010

Out of the mainstream and into the underground – Music Under New York

by Hannah Yanega

NEW YORK CITY — Late night concertgoers jolted to a stop on the Downtown R-train returning from Carnegie Hall. Still mesmerized by the climactic final notes of Beethoven’s “Eroica” and the astounding following applause, the subway seemed very quiet.


R-Train pulling into Herald Square

When the train doors opened and travelers stepped onto the station platform, a new composition was already being performed – the music of New York City. Cars honk, voices chatter, train rails screech, turnstiles beep and click and above it all there’s bass, drums and the lyrics of John Lennon. To some passing by and to the moonlighting band, this performance is just as wonderful and vivid as the Uptown concerts.

Meet The Meetles, a Beatles and 60’s era tribute band. They’re playing their Friday night set in the subway station at 34th Street and 6th Avenue. A few people pass and watch, throwing bills and spare change in an open black duffel bag.

Part of the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s “Music under New York”(MUNY) program, The Meetles and 350 other musical and performance talents hold mini-concerts at 25 allocated stops along the subway lines. Since space is limited, auditions are held every spring for the coveted slots.

When considering candidates, variety and quality both factor in heavily. What’s the most important thing about groups like the Meetles? They make their living outside of subway music, but they keep coming back to play anyway.

Since the MTA’s program began in the 1980’s, artists have swarmed to play violins, dulcimers, spoons, log drums and more. According to Lydia Bradshaw, general manager for MUNY, most are not looking for some sort of big break.

“It’s really a program about being in the subway, not about getting out,” Bradshaw said. “Musicians have interesting lives. Some may use the program as a place to perform, just like any other venue.” Because of the unbelievably broad variety of instruments and musical genres being represented, subways riders are exposed to new music all the time. “Many artists really enjoy the environment and interaction, and the public enjoys the music. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.”

Fast forwarding to a muggy Monday in Grand Central Terminal on 42nd street, crowds of hundreds of passengers move sluggishly through the haze of May and humid, stale station air. Set up against a wall in the Graybar Passageway, a slender woman sweating through her tank-top practices a few quiet notes on a guitar before turning on her amp.

Wendy Sayvetz in Graybar Passage

Wendy Sayvetz singing Simon and Garfunkle

Wendy Sayvetz doesn’t have to be here to play and sing on a miserably warm day, but she wants to because it’s good for her career and her audience. Sayvetz has been an MUNY performer for 20 years. She found that when she first started her career in music and began playing in the subway, the work was immediately financially viable and her career jumpstarted.

“The money is really, really good and it’s a great way to sell records; “said Sayvetz, “better than with most record deals.” A spread of her CDs were laid for sale on a music stand as if waiting to prove her point. “Moreover, you form great relationships with your audience. It’s satisfying, rewarding and it makes and sells a product.”

Being a part of the MUNY initiative is a personal mission for Sayvetz as well as a gift. “It means I give people a little bit of beauty and inspiration, stopping the rat race for a few seconds,” Sayvetz said. “It’s not like a club with a set audience. I get to play for everyone.” She hopes that her music will “keep people remembering that they’re human beings.”

After hearing Sayvetz’s delicate soprano voice to a set of Simon and Garfunkel classics, those walking to their 4, 5, and 6 trains will inevitably pass a long-haired young man singing in the mezzanine. Laying out “Hotel California” on an acoustic guitar and tapping green sneakers on the yellow tiles, he’s got a lot of heart in his mellow voice, but very few people stop to listen. A female voice crackling harshly over the loudspeaker is competing for importance, but the man keeps playing doggedly.

Joe Taylor doesn’t give up a gig for train announcements.

Joe Taylor playing for MUNY

Joe Taylor in Grand Central performing a set on a humid afternoon.

A singer and songwriter from Los Angeles, Taylor heard about MUNY through living in New York. Already a musician, he would see pass artists playing their underground show.

“You see people performing and you think, ‘Huh, maybe I could do that!’” A few years later and he’s touring around North America, producing Top Ten hits in Canada and jamming out within the subways. Two of his albums, “Save Me” and “Try”, are even available on iTunes and Taylor assures that there’s more to come.

A two-year veteran of the program, Taylor sees his subways performances as a means of survival, but beyond that he loves being underground to reach out to people.

“My music means everything to me. I’m not specifically hoping for a certain outcome for people. If I can just get through to anybody, they’ll interpret it in their own way,” said Taylor. “The most discouraging thing is when people don’t seem to care. In the end, it’s not really them, it’s your perception of being liked and accepted. You just need to get in the right head-space. “

While in the middle of a soulful rendition of “Beautiful” by James Blunt, a hurried man in a pinstriped suit drops a few crisp dollar bills in Taylor’s open guitar case. The act of recognition does not go without a thank you from the artist, even in the middle of the chorus.

“People really for the most part don’t want to be bothered,” said Taylor. “If you can get somebody for even a minute or two and put them in a good mood, that’s a pretty cool thing. Bring them to a better place.”

Hundreds of artists compose the subway’s musical talent, and many like Wendy Sayvetz and Joe Taylor have much bigger careers outside of the MUNY program. Their real love for their music and for people is evident in the care they take to show up and play their best, regardless of the response they receive and the conditions that they face. The program has continued to further their careers and give them the opportunity to affect the thousands of people who pass by every time they play.

“The artists can reach so many people in the subways,” said Bradshaw, “and they are performing for the greatest audience in the world.”

MUNY Photo Slideshow

Bottum Line – Selfish Acts

It’s a profession of conflict and ethical dilemma. If you’re not ready for it, pack your bags. No one is saying goodbye.

Joseph Bottum, editor of “First Things”, came to speak to us today. He was supposed to come last week and he ended up coming today because of a delay. For some reason, many people didn’t seem to understand what he was getting at when he told us he was going to convince us of why we shouldn’t go into this business. What a point to make to a bunch of students who have wasted away for three weeks trying to furiously fight our ways into a career in journalism field. Should we go home now?

“Writing, in essence, is masturbatory. You do it by yourself. Your family will hate you. What do you do when you write? It’s a selfish act. Writing is the self-elevation of the self’s point of view,” said Bottum.

It’s blunt and it’s harsh, but it’s never been more true. It may be done with intention aimed at other people’s enjoyment or understanding, but it’s like personal poetry. It’s selfish and closed off. I suppose I feel free to say this because I am a victim of a personal code in my writing. My poetry can be horribly selfish. I don’t do it intentionally. I just mindlessly focus in on my words and on the flow of the language. My heart is on paper, and no one except the surgeon who removed it is going to recognize it.

If you want to appear to be a selfless writer, with only the reader in mind, never put your name on anything. That’s not the world we live in. We live in the required world of accreditation and claim. We give our words to people so that we have our ideas in circulation. Even in news writing, you are jotting down your personal perspective and observations. There is no such thing as subjectivity. Even in pure factual writing, unless copied from another source, there is objectivity. We can’t escape it. We can avoid it and try and be purely neutral, but is there ever such a thing as pure neutrality? Is there ever an option to isolate completely from this horribly public thing? No. Or at least, I cannot find one.

What’s more moral: doing your job as a journalist and taking a photograph of a wounded and dying girl, or stopping to calm her from her screaming? You sign your own death warrant when you’ve committed to this work. I’m not saying to just dive fully into the work and silence all other influences. But how do we, as Christian journalists, have any right to argue that God placed another caregiver on the scene to deal with the hurting? Who are we to pinpoint God’s will? We could be the caregiver. In order to be a totally subjective Christian photographer, it feels like the subject must be silenced and we must make them objects.

If you are writing as a selfish act, it doesn’t mean you are selfish. It’s like stupidity. Someone can do a stupid thing, but it doesn’t make them stupid. Does the repeated act start to have its effects? If I repeatedly write, which is proven to be selfish, does it make me a selfish person? Who am I to write to change people? I have no right, in my equally created humanness, to write with the purpose of influencing people’s lives. My writing or my presence will have some influence of some kind. If I write with the intention of changing the world, I will fall in my pride and my expectations.

Moreover, if this is the end I am resigned to, how do I incorporate my Christian perspective? Am I a journalist or a Christian? Where do those lines meet? This has been the purpose of the course – to intertwine the two and recognize the symptoms of passiveness. Thus far, my solution is as follows. I do the task set before me, I go about it morally and pray that God forgives me.

This isn’t right. Why do we think this way? We’ve been told to be machines. We vomit what we know best onto everything around us, killing everything that grows. We need to get ahead and we need to stay the course. Does staying the course mean putting a cold camera lens in between myself and the starving child, or does it mean snapping a picture and handing the child a piece of bread?

We can’t separate ourselves from this idea either. We must either be truth-seekers through photos or missionaries. Missionaries take photographs, but photographers don’t usually minister. The act of the photo-taking is a ministry in that is offers truth in one of the most permanent ways possible.

This entry was a result of my immediate thoughts after Joseph Bottum’s talk this afternoon. I will add to it at a later time. Right now, I just need to take a deep breath and focus on my video.

I don’t need an ethics class to tell me where I ethically stand. It may help to focus that ethical thinking in one area or another, but who am I if I don’t know ethics? I shouldn’t touch this career with a ten-foot pole.