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Subway Tracks: Underground Music in New York

AT FIVE P.M. ON A HOT SUMMER DAY in New York, crowds stream through the tunnels of the Union Square subway station. Most people rush past the two musicians laying down a rhythmic groove with a hammer dulcimer and a Peruvian box drum called a cajón.

But some are snagged by the melodic beat. Two teenage boys in baggy shorts and backward caps stop to bust a few moves, after which they laugh and move on. Two young women pause to listen, and one of them lifts her baby toward the music. A middle-aged man in pressed khakis barely slows down to drop a bill into the open drum case. Twin boys, maybe 10 years old, stand spellbound as their mother starts moving her shoulders to the beat. Two songs later, their mom’s wallet comes out and one of the twins drops $10 into the open case to buy a CD while their dad takes a picture. They leave smiling, with a musical souvenir and a subway story.

While some subway musicians set up shop on their own, most are licensed to play underground through a program known as Music Under New York, which started in 1985 and is sponsored by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Arts for Transit. Every spring, 60 to 75 acts, chosen from about 200 audition tapes, try out before a panel of judges (and anyone who happens to be passing by that day) in Grand Central Terminal; about two dozen of them are selected for the program. The result is that more than 100 individuals and ensembles (the two dozen new acts as well as ones already in the program) give 150 free performances every week at one of 25 belowground locations. Scheduling is determined by the musicians themselves, who call in and select three-hour blocks at the times and locations they prefer. The mix of music reflects the diversity of the city itself: There’s everything from blues, jazz, pop, and classical to the sounds and melodies of panpipes, steel drums, didgeridoos, and exotic drums and stringed instruments. Whatever they play, all subway buskers are unpaid; their reward is attention and cash from the more than five million people who ride the trains every day.

“We wanted to promote mass transit and enhance the environment,” says Lydia Bradshaw, the program’s manager, explaining why the MTA started Music Under New York. “It’s an exciting venue for the performers, and it’s exciting for the riders to come across these acts in the subway. They uplift your spirits.”

PAUL AND MARC MUELLER, the duo on the dulcimer and the box drum, have been part of Music Under New York since 1996. The brothers are part of Mecca Bodega (http://www.meccabodega.com), an accomplished world-music band that has performed at Lincoln Center, released seven CDs, appeared on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion, and scored several movies (including HBO’s Subway Stories, directed by Jonathan Demme). Paul also owns and runs a recording studio in Granite Springs, New York, and Marc is an architect in New York City. But they still play underground two or three times a week, and they love the gig.

“Because of the spontaneity of it,” says Marc, 48. “And it’s honest. If people don’t like the music, they don’t have to stay. But you can really connect too. And there’s always a new batch of people, so it’s always fresh.”

“I like the diversity, ” agrees Paul, 43. “We reach people that we wouldn’t in any other way. And the amount of work we’ve gotten from it is amazing -- soundtracks, studio sessions, festivals, weddings.”

The money tossed into the case isn’t bad, either, on most days. If they play for a couple of hours, they aren’t happy unless they pull in more than $100 each. Sometimes, they do much better. They once sold 200 CDs, at $10 a pop, in less than three hours. “We’ve sold so many CDs down here, people would be shocked,” says Paul. “More than most bands sell on tour,” adds Marc. (They decline to provide an exact number but claim it’s “close to 100,000.”)

On the other hand, sometimes the split is depressingly paltry and the hassles are acutely vexing -- the clamor and screech of trains, the labor of hauling equipment, the antics of street crazies, and, worst of all, the indifference of thousands. “My psyche is used to it now,” says Paul. “You need to be resilient and flexible and streetwise.” Truly bad days, though, are rare. In a dozen years, they have been ripped off only three times.

Some locations -- Union Square, Penn Station, and 34th Street/Herald Square -- work better for Mecca Bodega in terms of both acoustics and demographics. “Uptown, a classical violinist might do better,” says Paul. Other variables matter too. People are less likely to listen in bad weather or early in the week; things improve on Thursday, when commuters start thinking about the weekend.

Both brothers agree, though, that the best thing about the subway gig is the unfiltered, unpredictable interactions with the public. People often leave notes, expressing variations on a common theme: “Thanks. You helped me forget my rotten day.” Immigrants from all over ask about Paul’s dulcimer, a type of zither, because it reminds them of their homeland’s santir, citera, or guqin. And regulars wonder when they can get a new CD.

“But what really gets me every time,” says Paul, “and it happens a lot, is when people of different backgrounds, ethnicities, or ages, who probably wouldn’t spend time together anywhere else, spontaneously start dancing together. That’s human to the roots.”

WHILE THE MUELLERS are subway veterans, Dagmar 2 just finished its first year underground. “The first thing we learned is how tough it is to sing for three hours,” says Jim Bauer, 53, who also plays guitar and writes the duo’s distinctive songs, which he calls art-rock opera. “The other thing to get used to is playing and being ignored.”

“The three-second drive-by look,” says Meghan McGeary, who sings, plays melodica and metallic percussion, and is the duo’s theatrical focus. She wears high-heeled boots, silver glitter, a black gypsy skirt festooned with bangles, a midriff-baring top, and, over her long blond hair, a World War I aviator’s helmet, complete with goggles. Oh, and sparkling diaphanous wings that seem to sprout from her back because, she explains, she’s an insect goddess. (She gives her age as “immortal.”)

Dagmar 2’s lyric-heavy songs might seem too fragile for the commotion and cacophony of the subway, but commuters who pause for the spectacle of McGeary often end up hooked by the music and the performances.

Today, as a song ends and crowds rush by, a middle-aged woman on a nearby bench bursts into applause. “I didn’t intend to stay and listen,” the woman, Roberta Maria Atti, says, “but they captivated me.” A nutritionist, she sees lots of subway musicians while commuting to New Jersey, and she usually makes a donation, even if she doesn’t stop. “I’m grateful they’re here,” she says. “They bring beauty into your life. You deal with your workday, the subway, the stress, and then to have this -- it’s such a gift.” She drops a few dollars into Dagmar 2’s case and descends for her train, a little lighter in spirit.

Just as the Muellers do, Dagmar 2 has CDs, a sophisticated website (http://www.dagmartheband.com), and aboveground gigs. Bauer has written music for television and film. Blue Flower, his song cycle (think of a series of songs performed together as a single entity, like the Who’s Tommy) with actors, ran Off Broadway earlier this year and may get another production through Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the hit musical Wicked. But like most musicians, Bauer and McGeary live on the possibilities. “Sometimes it only takes one big break,” says McGeary.

Wider exposure gives them a better chance at that, which is one reason they auditioned for the subway program last year. “We’re so visible here,” says McGeary. “We reach so many people.”

Meanwhile, they hone their act. “You can learn a huge amount about your music here,” says Bauer. “You learn how to adjust the songs to appeal to people immediately -- it can’t be a heady intellectual experience. It’s a true test of the music, and the response is so immediate. If people appreciate it, they show it.”

It’s been an educational year. Bauer and McGeary have learned a lot about how the variables of weather, time of day, and location affect their success. People don’t stop if it’s too hot, too cold, or too early. “Unless you’re a classical musician, mornings are tough,” says Bauer, “because people are on their way to work and they’ve timed it to the second. In the afternoon, work’s over and they’re looser, and they can interrupt their day for half a minute to listen.”

As for locations, they have found that Times Square can be good or so-so, depending on that day’s tourists. The station at 53rd and Lexington, on the other hand, “is basically a small, noisy commuter stop -- mostly all business suits,” says Bauer. “It’s not good for us.” Union Square station is ideal because it’s bigger, with acoustics that allow their music to be heard and crowds that are more open to idiosyncrasy. “They’re going to Williamsburg or coming from the Fashion District or Chelsea,” says McGeary. “People downtown tend to be more culturally interested in what we do.”

They won’t say how much they’re making underground, only that their take has improved as they’ve learned how and where to play. They’ve also learned from their only robbery experience -- teenage girls in plaid school uniforms distracted them while one girl cleaned out the case.

Commuters leave them many things besides money: cigarettes, wrapped chocolates, thank-you notes. Kids sometimes draw pictures for them. One street vendor dropped in silver earrings that he’d made for McGeary as he sat listening. “And coins from all over the world,” says McGeary.

The performers are unanimous in their love for the subway’s unpredictability and human diversity. “Spending three hours here,” says Bauer, “you really get a sense of the flow, of how many people come through and how different the crowd is.” Sometimes, even in the middle of a song, people want to converse or take a picture with them. But there are also those who listen for three hours or who have gone to the group’s website and showed up at the next subway gig.

“It’s really a much better musical and artistic experience than the clubs,” says Bauer as McGeary nods. “It’s just a great gig.”

©Steve Kemper. All rights reserved. Cannot be reproduced without consent of the author.