The Pitch is a week-long series on local street performers and the state of busking in Boston. See more from the series here.
Boston’s bouquet of buskers also contains orchids: musicians whose playing is so elegant—so technically refined—that you can’t help but wonder if they aren’t simply using the subway or the street as an alternative to formal rehearsal space. After all, Boston has limited stock of official rehearsal spaces…
It’s also important to be reminded from time to time how much of a difference context makes in our perception and valuation of art.
Though it has received some critique around its methods, the 2007 Washington Post experiment that observed responses to a world renowned violinist playing a world renowned violin as a busker in the DC Metro, does highlight how differently attention (and cash) is doled out to the same artwork presented in a public space versus a concert hall. The talent and the music are the same, but one setting makes an orchid of a musician seem majestic. In the other setting, orchids have limited meaning.
Ilana Katz Katz
Approaching her pitch from behind, hearing only the music, and seeing only the toe-tappers standing on Park Street station’s Red Line platform, orchids are not the first flowers that come to mind.
Ilana is playing hard and fast fiddle—Appalachian “Old Time” music. It’s bluesy sounding, but upbeat and there is a lot of space left in it for a guitarist, Kevin McNamara, who is playing with her for the day. The flowers that come to mind more readily are daisies. Or just whole green fields. Which is a fantastic alternative to the lumpy grey ceiling and grimy Red Line tiles that actually surround her audience.
But when she really goes at it in earnest on a solo, you realize you’re hearing an accomplished fiddler.
Ilana’s been busking in Boston on and off since the mid-1980s, when she was in college.
“I busked in Harvard Square during the summers from 1985 to 1988 and then I began performing weekly in the subways in early 2011. I’ve been there ever since and never plan on stopping!”
But she plays elsewhere as well. “I do also perform above ground quite a bit with lots of bands.” A quick peek at her Facebook page confirms this: she’s performing at a festival in Rhode Island in late-April and then has a show at Passim’s in mid-May.
Like Joshua Bell, the violinist in the Washington Post experiment, Ilana plays with the same fervor and focus whether below ground or above.
“I put everything I have into my music and I know that people feel that and connect to it. They tell me, they show me. They smile, they dance. They give me all kinds of things… I never take a smile, a thumbs-up or anything for granted. I feel blessed each and every time someone appreciates what I do.”
Her commitment to busking is deep. As is her love of it and her view of how much good has come of playing in the subway. Her feelings echo some of what other buskers have said here:
“The very first time I was down there, I had an overwhelming sense that I was supposed to play music in the subway. I never ever dreamed that people would enjoy my music so much…That one of the most famous living blues guitarists, Mr. Ronnie Earl, would offer to be on my CD. I had no idea that I would find so much joy and share so much joy. It is way, way beyond my wildest dreams. Each time I leave the subway, I feel so grateful to be able to make music that people enjoy. It never ever gets old. It’s a really wonderful and humbling feeling.”
The theme of humility, which comes up repeatedly when talking with buskers, is a strange one to hear about from an artist—especially in this day and age—when gigging musicians are expected to self-promote around the clock. Ilana explains it a little:
“[Busking] is a great reminder that we are all people and to have compassion for one another. I’ve had challenges with addicts who weren’t sober, people wanting the money that I earned, people who clearly weren’t in their right minds.” But also there are “people who were going to get marriage licenses and we played a waltz and they waltzed around the subway platform, people staying for hours to listen…I never know what the day holds when I head down there. I try to always be mindful of our common denominator as people and to have compassion. That doesn’t mean that I don’t take steps to protect myself, but I try to have compassion and think about what other people might be going through.”
If you want to hear Ilana’s fabulous fiddling, she usually plays in the subway on Fridays from 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. But only when it’s above 32 degrees and below 82 degrees out (fiddles are fussy!) She posts her subway location on her Facebook page once she knows it and her “above ground shows” get announced there as well.
Her favorite Boston busker is someone she knew during her college busking days who goes by the name ‘Busker‘. “I lost touch with him for decades and he went through a lot, but I have seen him around lately. He certainly inspired me.”