UNDERGROUND HARMONIES: Music and Politics in the Subways of New York by Susie J. Tanenbaum

UNDERGROUND HARMONIES: Music and Politics in the Subways of New York

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A community activist details the culture and conflicts of New York subway music, from bucket-drummers to city bureaucrats. Urban centers must constantly renegotiate the fuzzy boundary between freedom of speech and public nuisance, outdoor art and disturbance of the peace. In this exhaustive and disappointingly academic study, Tanenbaum begins by locating subway music in its cultural and political context, but as music underground is a relatively young phenomenon, this background becomes an incomplete history of street entertainment in New York. The author laboriously defines the difference between official or ceremonial subway music and the ""freelance"" performances of today's troubadours, and provides personal sketches of various players, riders, transit police officers, and subway personnel; she reprints verbatim their written answers to a survey she conducted several years ago. In describing the interactions between musician and audience, Tanenbaum suggests that the presence of spontaneous performance creates a multicultural community in a space normally considered a necessary evil, to be navigated as quickly as possible. Having established subway music as an absolute good and subway musicians as messengers of harmony in a troubled city, she moves into a comprehensive review of the political debate: the Music Under New York Program, which officially sponsors certain performances; ongoing legal battles; poorly defined regulations; pleasure versus noise. Tanenbaum wishes that the Transit Authority would listen to the opinions of the players and their audiences (as she has) and work with them to ""nurtur[e] urban diversity underground."" But the resolute independence that leads a musician to set out a hat on a New York City subway platform seems incompatible with her vague vision. The New York subway's modern minstrels are a lyrical subject that here undergoes a lengthy and pedantic scrutiny in a prose devoid of lyricism.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0801482224
Page count: 256pp
Publisher: Cornell Univ.