On Being A Captive Audience

Despite the rejoice-worthy fact that I’ve finally finished the series of short piano pieces I’ve been working on for Jenny Lin for nearly a year and a half (newly titled Seventeen Windows)—despite all that, this week’s post is a cranky bit of ranting.

I’ve had lots of reasons recently to reflect on the experience of being a captive audience. Last weekend, I rode in a jitney to Cooperstown, NY, with the cast and creatives of the musical comedy National Pastime, which we were presenting in a staged reading at the National Baseball Hall of Fame (I was the music director). The bus had a DVD player, and the group enthusiastically endorsed the playing of movies to while away the four-hour trip. The movies weren’t bad—although a tiny screen in a noisy bus isn’t the best venue for a cinematic experience—but I was seething throughout, because the social niceties meant I had no choice but to sit through them.

Then there’s the not-infrequent sinking feeling when the subway car doors close and the musicians start playing. Subway car musicians (as distinguished from their more reputable brethren, subway platform musicians) wait until the doors close, and you’re trapped. Examples from recent memory are the male a cappella quartet, the trio of conga players, and the South American accordion and guitar groups. Sometimes they’re decent musicians; sometimes they’re even really good. (Sometimes, of course, they’re truly terrible.) But I have never given and will never give money to a performer in a subway car—whereas I will donate to, stop to listen to, and even buy a CD from a musician on a subway platform—like the Saw Lady.

Then there’s the humidity.

“What,” you ask, “does that have to do with being a captive audience? Simply this: I live in a near-street level apartment on a busy, busy street, along which fire engines race, trucks trundle regularly, and people of all persuasions like to stop underneath my windows and talk. The windows are open, because it’s warm; sound carries noticeably better in humid air; and suddenly the street sounds that been a faint and muffled background for the winter and the first part of spring all sound like they’re happening in the room with me.

I doubt I’d have been able to live in this apartment for 12 years—at least in the summer—if it hadn’t been for the literary works of John Cage, who got me to recognize that the difference between all of that and art is simply the way I’m listening to it. (See Kyle Gann’s blog for a description of his recent book on Cage’s 4’33”, the “silent piece.”)  So I’ve developed an appreciation for the finer points of sirens and truck idles, in particular, that I never would have anticipated.

And finally, there’s the music in my head. Don’t get me started about earworms.

One piece of audio for today: My First Popup Book of the Infinite Beyond, which is dedicated “in memory of John Cage.” It was written shortly after he passed away, in honor of the aforementioned influence.

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