Periscope Depth

home is the place I want to be, but I guess I’m already there

Every fall, the Hancock Tower starts bringing in live musicians to play during the afternoon. It’s someone with an electric keyboard, or a flautist, or a string quartet once we approach the Christmas season. It adds a touch of culture, the kind you’d get in a suburban mall or a clean hotel, to an otherwise utilitarian space. Plus, the lobby and mezzanine of the Hancock feature interesting acoustics. They’re divided by pillars, walls and elevator banks, but sound carries through the open spaces.

Walking to the gym this week, I passed a violinist in the lobby. She had a music stand in front of her while she worked some baroque air. I didn’t stay long enough to place it, but I doubt that I would have recognized it even with another hour. My ear for classical is limited. She had her case and her puffy coat in the corner, resting against a pillar. She must have set them there when she arrived; she’d retrieve them from there when she left. Not that anyone would think she teleported into the lobby out of the phlogiston. But something struck me about those little evidences of her arrival and her imminent departure. It’s like going to an art gallery and seeing a dolly leaning next to Water Lilies. Guy in coveralls with Latex gloves checking his wrist watch.

We don’t think much about music in transactional spaces. You listen to music in your home. You nod your head to the manager’s playlist in a cafe. Even when I’m in the car, I associate the music with being in the car, not with the act of transit. Music belongs to a destination: I’m here, so let’s crank up the stereo. Or it’s something you carry with you to retain that destinational sense of security: the iPod cocoon on the subway. The kind of music you hear in hallways, in food courts, in elevators, is always bland and forgettable. The day I’m browsing in a Target and I hear PJ Harvey’s “50 Foot Queenie,” I will buy a latte just so I have something to spit-take.

A few years back, there was an article in the Washington Post about a world-renowned violinist playing a Stradivarius in the D.C. subway. The article couched this as some sort of experiment: to see if “the masses” could recognize profound art. I saw this article shared several times among my circle. Everyone thought it was really deep, including me. Only one of my friends* pointed out the obvious: no one noticed this really profound performance because people don’t go to the subway to look for art. People go to the subway to get some place in a hurry. There’s no subway station in D.C. where I’d want to loiter.

(In fairness, the article makes the same point near the bottom)

The lobby of the Hancock Tower – and don’t get me wrong, I love working here – is a transactional space. It’s not a destination. No one goes there just to chill. You’re passing through there on your way to or from an office. Adding music makes the space feel a little more humane. But why bother making it good music? Why bring art to it? No one’s going to linger. No one’s going to be moved. I wonder about these things when I see a Berklee or Longy student, cradling the instrument she’s studied for years, playing to 30-second audiences in the lobby of an office building, standing for three hours with short breaks, then snapping her violin into its case, shrugging into her puffy jacket, and wondering who she talks to about her check.

*Probably Joel. I can count on him to be irreverent.

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