Wednesday, October 17, 2012

They Go Together, Music and Motion

For some reason, music always seems to accompany humans as they transport themselves from one place to another. Consider the Norman Rockwellian scenes in old movies, books and magazines of a man clad in suspenders and a straw hat, hands in pockets, whistling while he walks along. Walking is rhythmic, just like dancing, and it uses the same major muscle groups. Hands and feet are coordinated when transporting ourselves along a path, just as they are on the dance floor, shifting our balance and weight in our own private groove. Next time you find yourself walking for any sort of distance, take note, are you humming a little tune to yourself?

As humans have devised more and more complex ways of moving from point A to point B, music seems to have come along for the ride. It frequently accompanies runners on their training runs in the form of headphones. Even running partners, who presumably run together because they enjoy each other’s company, wear headphones piping different soundtracks into their ears, the need for music trumping companionship. The repeated pumping motion of a bicyclist’s legs paired with the controlled rhythmic breathing of exertion can be a dance of sorts, and there are plenty of bikers who listen to music while they ride, despite the increased chance of accident. Portland even boasts several self-propelled, music-producing vehicles like the neighborhood “disco trike” often seen at festivals and protests around town.

Music and transportation is not a new pairing. Movement of any kind seems to crave music. Take the most common method of transport in the United States – the car. Although it requires minimal exertion, ‘driving’ was the most frequent response to the question, “When do you listen to music?” on a recent Fri-host web poll. It seems that even moving by mechanical means brings forth the hankering for rhythmic bumps and melodic phrases. Just look at the history of cars and music. United Artist’s Chitty Chitty Bang Bang evoked joyful outbursts of singing from whoever rode within. John Travolta exalted his hotrod “Greased Lightning” by driving off into the sunset singing, “We go together…” From Chuck Berry’s “No Particular Place to Go”, to The Doobie Brothers’ “Rockin Down the Highway”, and Alabama’s “Cruisin’”, musicians have sung about the natural match of driving and music.

Music and cars go together like…well, like teenagers and the need to get somewhere. First came the car, next, the car radio. These days, a car without a CD playing-stereo either has been up on blocks in grandma’s garage for the last 20 years, or has been the sad victim of a crime. Over the generations, boys circled the teen hangouts in their smooth rides with music blaring, trying to entice girls. Odds are, rollin’ with the tunes has scored more than a few hot dates. Music mixed with the freedom to move is an attractive combination.

But today’s kids are less apt to drive. Insurance is expensive, let alone the price of the car itself. The bus is the next logical step. Portland Public School teens ride free on the local bus system, but time spent listening to music has not decreased, thanks to the ubiquitousness of ipods and other MP3 players. On a recent bus ride, I counted 15 of the 30 riders wearing headphones. Trimet rules state that ‘excessive noise’, which presumably includes personal music, is not allowed on the bus, but there are plenty of examples around the world where music on the bus is shared with everyone, whether they like it or not.

Recently, I spent some time in Peru. The busses are all privately owned and operated, leading to fierce competition between rival bus companies. I watched this competition play out on the extremely narrow, poorly maintained roads that switch back and forth sharply alongside steep cliffs. It isn’t therefore, surprising that the incidence of bus crashes is extremely high by American standards, and the death toll often tragic. In 6 months in Pisac, Peru, there were 3 fatal bus crashes nearby. The first carried 20 plus teachers who commuted into a remote village every Monday and returned to their homes on Friday. There were no survivors. Another bus slammed into an oncoming vehicle as it was rounding a blind curve at 40 miles an hour, killing the passengers in the car and severely injuring many riders. The third accident I not only heard of through the grapevine, but saw the physical scrapes on two neighbor kids who were riding the hour-long trip home from school that night. The driver apparently fell asleep at the wheel during a double shift.

On every occasion, there was music on the bus. Every bus ride, safe or sorry, comes with music - very audible music. Most busses are equipped with a loudspeaker system that dumps the driver’s choice directly onto passengers’ heads. The music is never quiet, nor very clear (radio transmissions have to fight to reach over the high mountains that surround the Sacred Valley where I lived). I can’t stand static. Here in the US, I refuse to listen to fuzzy radio signals. In Peru, that is practically all I heard. Unless, of course, the bus radio was broken. In those cases, my fellow passengers jockeyed to fill the void with songs stored on cell phones or MP3 players. Silence was not an option. The volume level was either loud or ear-splitting.

Whether it serves as entertainment to pass the time, or a way to keep the driver from falling asleep, music, silent or shared, is as common on busses as backpacks and body odor. Back here in Portland, the music scene plays an important role in the identity of the city. And, we are fanatical about our public transit. Tie these two points of pride together, and we witness music and mobility merge as we ascend the evolutionary ladder of transportation. We serenade ourselves on a much grander scale, on much larger vehicles.

In 2011, a group of young transportation-focused groups created a musical celebration of the latest addition to the Metro area’s multi-faceted transportation network, giving birth to the Streetcar Mobile MusicFest. The concept, broken down into its simplest form, is a toast to Portland’s Streetcar, a rolling party in honor of that sexy thing called public transit, and a celebration of moving with the music. In September 2012, a new Portland streetcar route came online. On October 5th, the Central Loop on the east side of the Willamette river played host to sixteen bands between the Rose Quarter and OMSI as the Festival marked its second year. For one night, Portland’s shiny chariot to hip nightclubs and restaurants on the inner east side resounded with the sweet sounds of live rap, mariachi, boleros, hip hop, rock and roll and indie-folk.

My husband and I took part. We biked from work to the starting place on the east side of the Broadway Bridge, where normal every-day streetcars transformed into traveling music boxes full of rapt listeners. We waited only a few minutes before we saw the first streetcar that would receive its aural upgrade. We scurried to the ticket dispenser and tried to quickly buy two $1 boarding passes. The machine probably would have cooperated if we had used it before, or if we weren’t in a hurry. The five piece band, complete with upright bass, boarded the streetcar. Fifteen fans followed. We gave up on the ticket machine and jumped on just as the doors slid shut. The vehicle started powering up the slight hill towards the Lloyd District and a volunteer announced to the riders what was about to commence. She thanked the event’s sponsors and turned it over to “Ocean Floor”, the first band of the evening. No sooner had the first three tantalizing measures reached our ears, when the benevolent voice of the driver, like an omnipotent being gently scolding naughty children, overpowered the pleasant orchestral beginnings of a promising tune: “It sounds like you’re having fun back there, but I’m going to have ask you to stop playing music. It is a safety hazard and a distraction. I cannot safely operate the streetcar with music being played.”

The gleaming, brand-new interior of the high-tech streetcar with its breezy, cheerful crowd and classical melodies reminded me nothing of the taped-together, cheek-to-chin-overpacked South American busses that ran on fumes as they hurtled down crumbling highways. But I instantly thought of the overworked Peruvian drivers. Was music truly a distraction? Did it cause accidents or did it keep drivers alert and engaged? The contrast between what constituted a ‘distraction’ in a developing country, where slaughter-ready pigs were stuffed into potato sacks and hauled into the passenger area, squirming and grunting at passengers’ feet, and here, where the train practically ran itself, on tracks no less - seemed absurd. Ninety percent of the riders on board the streetcar had come specifically for this musical event. Our collective mouths hung open.

The Festival volunteer approached the driver’s door and they talked. She explained that his employer, Trimet, supported the event. He apparently didn’t get the memo. He refused to drive if the music continued, citing legal issues and his assertion that listening to music while operating a vehicle is unsafe. We sat at the stop for 10 minutes as he apparently talked to his supervisor. The volunteers talked to their supervisors. The band sat mute, the audience looked embarrassed and aghast.

Eventually, it was clear that the driver wasn’t going to back down, so we all got off the streetcar. It was not a propitious start to the evening. We awaited the next train, straining to hear the un-amplified group outside on the platform instead of inside the quiet, insulated comfort of the streetcar.

My husband and I eventually boarded a second train. We listened to the band briefly as we traveled southward on the new tracks. We wanted to experience the variety of acts the night offered, so we got off the train, walked to the other side of the couplet on Grand Avenue and waited for a new streetcar with some new music to listen to. Fifteen minutes later, a streetcar pulled up. In the driver’s seat sat our first, unyielding conductor. His streetcar had reached the southern terminus and was returning on the loop, still silently unadorned with either musicians or fans. Strike two, with the same ball! We hoped for better luck back on the MLK side of the couplet, so returned and, again, waited. We tried to purchase our required streetcar ticket again, but another passenger was waiting for her visa card to be validated in the machine, without results. She tried to cancel the transaction. Neither outcome materialized. She called Trimet to figure out a way to escape the incomplete purchase.

Our third train of the evening appeared. My husband and I eagerly boarded, leaving the woman behind as she continued her battle with the ticket machine. The musician was MC Rose, a female rapper and rhymer in a red track suit and dangling gold earrings. But there was no band, not even a stereo to accompany her. Without a mic, she performed her raps and rhymes and soon ran out of material. We were treated to some freestyle rap - she made it up on the spot. These attempts were honorable, but petered out as her ability to think up good phrases caught up with the speed of her tongue. She entertained us until we reached the end of the line. There, the driver opened the doors and took his mandatory 10 minute break.

The driver cleaned out the streetcar, sweeping all of us out into the cold, onto a pedestrian platform that overlooked a large empty parking lot behind OMSI. Luckily, the festival organizers had planned for this part of the routine (if not for the part about telling the drivers about the event). There sat a friendly man on a barstool, with microphone and music stand close by. It looked like we would be treated to more music. Instead, the performer told stories taken from ancient Oregonian articles, when streetcars were all the rage in the late 1800’s. The vanilla anecdotes kept us from falling asleep as we waited, but didn’t quite count as entertainment.

The ‘ding ding’ of the streetcar bell told us that our streetcar was ready to get ‘back on track’. We listened to one more rhythmic poem from MC Rose, and chose to disembark and wait for another train so we could hear some music that actually had notes. We stepped out onto a dark Grand Avenue that was near the offramp from the Morrison bridge and not much else. We waited. And we waited. Maybe that ornery driver had gone on strike somewhere else down the line and was holding up all of the trains in both directions. Maybe one of the bands distracted its driver, causing him to derail. Luckily, there was a bench to rest on as we passed the lonely time by fabricating a million reasons why the streetcar didn’t come.

As time wore on, we noticed that the digital sign informing waiting passengers when the train would appear was malfunctioning. At first it told us that a train would be there in 6 minutes. A few minutes later, it read 8 minutes. Then it said that a train was ‘arriving’, meaning that a streetcar should have been visible right there in front of us. But no train. A few more passengers showed up and waited with us. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had been tricked into waiting for a bus when I could have been eating a nice meal with friends or relaxing in my living room, listening to…music! After a grueling 23 minutes, a new record streetcar wait for me, a train rolled up, full of happy music lovers and a band with instruments! We squeezed on, eager to experience what we had envisioned the whole night should have been like – rockin’ music played loud enough to hear, an appreciative audience and a festive mood. The drummers slapped their bongos, the singer jammed, surrounded in close-quarters by attendees ranging in age from 21 to 60. We were psyched! But as we reached the next stop, the band surprised us by getting off the streetcar.

My husband and I looked at each other, flabbergasted. We thought the music was going on until 9 pm, but it was only 7:30. Not wanting to ride a streetcar without music, we got off with the band to find out what was going on. The group was scheduled to play at the event’s closing party just up the block - they had to start setting up. We were unable to hide our disappointment. The jamming band walked off towards their party gig, and a reporter with professional microphone and camera turned to us, “Can I ask you a few questions about the Streetcar Music Festival?” she asked. At that moment our mood was not something I wanted broadcast to any audience, let alone one full of colleagues and peers in the transportation industry. “Some of the event organizers are our friends, so we don’t want to say anything negative, but honestly, we haven’t seen much music yet and we’ve been here for 2 hours.” I said. “So, no, please interview somebody else.”

The reporter found another more willing interviewee, and we waited yet again for another opportunity to feel like we were actually participating in this event and not just waiting at a bus stop in common commuter drudgery. It occurred to me as I stood out there in the cold, that only in Portland would people be crazy enough to spend the prime hours of a Friday night sitting at a dark, cold bus stop and call it fun. And here I was, that person! But luckily, a streetcar soon arrived, carrying what would be the highlight of an evening otherwise short on entertainment.

A smallish Latina woman with a crazy mouth, and a dark, curly-haired young man leaned up against a small corner inside the streetcar, beat-up guitars propped on their knees. When the streetcar started to move, they strummed out the beginnings of an upbeat Spanish ballad. They played as if they had been making music together for years. And when she opened her mouth, I was dumbstruck. Spanish poetry slid from Edna Sanchez’ mouth, in turns rolling across the train compartment like a bull barreling down the narrow streets of Seville, or clinging to her voice box like a hesitating drop of dew on the verge of falling from the lip of a rose petal. The two-piece band showed us real talent that fit the streetcar venue like a glove. She sang, she whistled and the two of them put on a worthy performance, the best that we had seen all night. A success! Finally we had gotten what we came for! And just in time, because as the streetcar reached the Festival’s boundary at the Rose Quarter, it was time for us to go. We had a dinner reservation at 8:30 a few blocks away.

Our review of the Streetcar Mobile MusicFest was mixed, but we had seen many happy participants that night, and the next day Willamette Week and the Mercury heralded it as a success. Despite the practical glitches and setbacks that we experienced with our choices, the idea of passing time moving along the smooth rails of the streetcar route and enjoying musical entertainment along the way felt correct, as though music inside of gliding steel transportation devices is the way it is supposed to be. Perhaps it is the physical change in location along a direct trajectory that replicates that human desire for music as we move. Could it be that music is a basic compliment to any physical movement? People feel the urge to dance, to move their bodies when they hear music. Do they feel the need for music when they move?

From elevators to airplanes, music is the background to our motion, the soundtrack of our directional movements. More and more, modern life takes on the characteristics of a movie, with music setting the scene and the mood for how we experience coming to a new place, distinct from the one we just left. Music colors our expectations, just as it heightens emotions in a suspenseful drama. It accompanies us as we maneuver through the obstacle course of our lives, perhaps even guiding us at times. If so, the Peruvian bus driver with his hand on the radio dial, MC Rose and Edna Vasquez may have more influence over us than we thought. Music may not make the wheels go around, but it certainly changes how we experience getting there.

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