In one of my recurring dreams, I’m handed an enormous map of an unfamiliar city and discover that it’s written entirely in musical notation. Because I’m a mediocre sight-reader, I find myself hopelessly lost after a few turns. Bossa Nova Boulevard moves along nicely enough until it unexpectedly dead-ends at the Fusion Freeway, leaving me scrambling for the nearest exit. Eventually, I abandon the map and submit to the found sounds of the streets and alleys, not sure if bebop or bhangra or blues will lurk around the next corner, perhaps followed by country-tinged hip hop, harmolodic polka or ukulele death metal.
While New York City didn’t quite become the city of my dreams when I visited last week, the annual Make Music New York festival helped it come close. On solstice day, more than 1000 musical performances in a staggering variety of sounds enveloped the boroughs. Dozens of pianos lined the streets, meaning that if you were in Queens, you might hear someone like teenage conservatory student Lisa Occhino, performing a medley that meshes Lil’ Wayne, Lady Gaga and the Beatles. The Bronx hosted an inspired griot summit of New York-based musicians from Burkina Faso, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Mali, Senegal, and Sierra Leone. Governors Island became Punk Island for the day.
Manhattan had Mexican ballads and a tabla symphony uptown, while downtown, you could find a concerto for bicycles and Wall Street businessmen rocking out on their lunch breaks. Greenwich Village had perhaps the best variety, including traditional shakuhachi players, Gypsy strings and vocals (Barmaljova), Afro-Colombian funk (M.A.K.U. Sound system), singer-songwriter Tracy Bonham with rock classicist Jim Boggia, and the audio gumbo of the Underground Horns. In Washington Square Park, dozens of guitarists remade Outkast’s biggest hit into an urban campfire song.
Some of the most ambitious concerts were projects of Super Critical Mass, an Australian collective that arranges for large numbers of musicians to play the same or similar instruments in public settings, drawing from simple, agreed-upon “algorithms” of sound. Close to sunset in Central Park, the MATA Festival presented one of these, an evocative piece called Swelter in which dozens of brass players collaborated lakeside, calling and responding with swirls of sound enveloping an audience of boaters and onlookers. It wasn’t home, but it was a great place to get lost.