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I'm an NYC-based director, and this is an outlet for my various musings about theater and about the city of New York. Sometimes the subjects run together, sometimes they are entirely separate, but between the two they comprise the most fitful, most intense, most trying love affair of my few years. They fill my head, my heart, my mouth every hour of every day; they could fill a book.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Drums and Strings

I'm standing on a subway platform, listening to the steady, rabid beat of drums - a busker somewhere further down, obscured from my view. I notice without really noticing a melody underneath the drumbeat, a shy, thin strain on strange strings. Barely audible, but persistent.

For a moment it sounds like the two are keeping time together, and the observation calls the string melody into sharp focus. I listen closely. A few refrains more and it's clear the synchronicity was accidental. The music is not playing along with the drums, but struggling mightily against it.

The enormity of the struggle is extraordinary; the drums overwhelm the entire platform. The situation suddenly strikes me as utterly bizarre. What would compell someone to compete against such immensity of sound? But then again, what other options are there? Clear out whenever a more ostentatious act rolls in? Tap the player on the shoulder and say, "Excuse me, you probably couldn't hear me on the other side of the platform, but my music just can't compete with yours, so if you don't mind..."? Appeal to some imaginary authority for justice? I move closer to the source. It's a funny instrument that I recognize but can't name, played by a woman who hits each string with some sort of hammer. She's a small, thin, Asian woman - middle-aged, I guess, neither old nor young. Her bony body hunches over her instrument, eyes downward in deep concentration. I imagine her terrible battle against the rhythmic Goliath, bending forward, fighting to hear her own music through the roar of the drums, silently cursing with every note. Then I correct myself: she's probably just tuned it out, depending on how long she's been here.

A subway train comes through (not mine), taking even the ceaseless drumming with it. The wind off the train knocks the woman's music off its perch and she struggles - unsuccessfully - to replace it without breaking from the music.

My train still has not come, so I move toward the other end of the platform in search of the drummer. When I find him, he is in his element, flipping his drumsticks in the air and keeping time with easy expertise. You can't even hear the string music from here. Does he even know she's there?

I want to claim allegience to the woman and her strings, but the percussion is exciting and intoxicating. He moves effortlessly from beat to beat, his eyes soft, his muscles tensing and relaxing as the rhythm moves through them.

He must be improvising, mustn't he? It seems impossible, the beat is so crisp, so unwavering. I wonder what it must be like to create rhythm like that. To be so at one with it, so alive within it that the question of which drum to beat next and when becomes irrelevant, the answer is so obvious, like one's the next breath. It must be excruciatingly wonderful.

The drummer pauses to rearrange his kit, replacing one type of drum with another. For a second, before the divine cacophany resumes, you can hear the woman's tinny strains again, sounding very far away.

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