Nine Variations on the Idea of Street Music

If no one is really listening, who is the street performance for?


| Winter 2015



We played. That’s the verb every musician uses. I play drums. I play harp. I play for the New York Philharmonic. I play in a garage band. We played on a street, and other people were listening, more or less. We made a mood.

Photo by W. Scott Olsen

1. Saturday Morning in Christchurch, on the South Island of New Zealand, and the weather is not good. This is May, autumn in the Southern Hemisphere beginning to think about winter. Rain falls, constant though not heavy, more enveloping than intrusive. Low clouds. Enough of a chill that collars get pulled close when heading outdoors.

It’s a gray morning, but not an unhappy one. The weekend street fair at the Arts Centre is open. Slate-colored stone walls of the old university buildings, as Old World English looking as you can get, shimmer from the water running off the roofs. Tents cover folk arts and crafts: handmade soaps, wool hats, mittens, scarves, carved wood, candles and paintings and socks. Puddles line the sidewalk, and the smell of hot food, gyros and curry with beef and lamb, pulls people through the crowd.

I’ve just left breakfast at Le Café, strong coffee and warm bread by the corner fireplace, and am walking down Worcester Boulevard, the Gothic buildings to my right, the old street to my left.

I do not expect to hear his voice. A young boy, no more than 10 years old, is, at first glance, standing just one step in from the gutter, his back to the street. He wears black shoes, black pants, a black overcoat. His posture is perfect, his chin a bit raised, and he is singing.

I stop on the sidewalk, as do the people around me. This is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard, the boy’s high voice shattering every raindrop. The song is slow and the notes complex. I have no idea what song it is. A lament, I am sure. Irish or Scottish. The tone is filled with sadness and longing, and the boy’s high voice makes it seem nearly tragic. No one moves.

No one stands in front of him. We gather to both sides. Something about that front space seems more personal, more private. We are hearing, but we are not the audience. When he is done, he walks a few steps to a group of adults sitting on a small stone wall. His parents, I think. They wrap him in their arms. “Good job,” they say.