Friday, October 14, 2011

The rules of musical attraction

Lost in the moment: performer Scott Dusenbery regularly draws a curious crowd

It’s rush hour at the Clark and Lake subway stop. A frantic flurry of coats and briefcases marks the beginning of the end of the day. And then it ducks and weaves through the crowd: a violin’s sweet, sorrowful song permeates the tired old tiles of the station. Trains barrel in and out. Yet a handful of commuters remain rooted to the spot – for now, home and other destinations can wait.

His name is Scott Dusenbery. Neat and nondescript in jeans and a preppy white polo shirt, he coaxes his violin into a mellow tune of lingering notes, seemingly oblivious to the crowd. Nearby, a silver-haired woman leaning against a paint-chipped beam shakes her head in admiration. “Wow,” she whispers. “Just… wow.”

An occupational therapist graduate, Dusenbery learned to play the violin at the age of five. After graduate school, he started playing in subway stops “for the side money and for fun.”
“I think what I play brings out something that’s within people, whether it’s sadness or happiness,” he says. “Music has the ability to evoke an emotional response from people.”

Judging by the small cooler overflowing with tips, it seems Dusenbery’s efforts certainly don’t go unappreciated. In 2009, he appeared in “Sweet Home Chicago,” a music video by the Chicago Street Musicians (CSM), a non-profit organization founded by its director, Gabriel Chapman. The four-minute clip, produced and directed by Columbia College professor, Mark Schimmel, is a sampling of the city’s most remarkable street talents. “When I was filming, I completely stopped dead in my tracks,” recalls Schimmel. “They were these amazing, amazing performers and you just have to stop – you’re pulled into it.”

Finding the right frame

But sometimes an artist’s caliber isn’t enough to draw a crowd.

The video also features singer Crystal Bowersox in her pre-‘American Idol’ days and according to Schimmel, “she was singing her little heart out” yet everyone walked past. “There’s a perception in our culture that if it’s free it’s not worth it,” he says.

While there’s no set formula for what makes people stop and listen, it’s apparent that context matters. “The context in which people experience music frames how we value it,” explains Katherine Brucher, a professor at DePaul University’s School of Music. “People aren’t attracted to just one type of music – it has to do with people’s cultural backgrounds and what they perceive as beautiful music.”

In Dusenbery’s experience, it can be due to something as simple as timing. “If I’m playing something slow and everyone’s excited about a Cubs game, then I’ll just go unnoticed,” he shrugs. “But if I set it up right and at the right moment, music can be a magnet that draws people in.”

An unusual attraction

Sometimes, admits Brucher, the way we perceive music is shaped by the wide array of recorded music available online. She says, “Listening to recorded music changes people’s expectations so when they hear (something different), their reaction is like, ‘Wow, it’s a lot better than I had expected.”

For Dusenbery, it simply boils down to three things: location, location, location. “If people see a performer in Vienna playing a violin concerto outside an opera house, people wouldn’t think twice about it,” he explains. “There can be a sense of pretentiousness to classical music and by bringing a violin into a subway station, I’m making it more accessible for those who wouldn’t normally have the money or desire to see an orchestra.”

Back on the subway platform, Dusenbery is in a reverie as he sways with his violin to ‘Falling Slowly,’ a song from the indie flick ‘Once.’ He ends the piece to a burst of applause. Dusenbery self-consciously avoids the eyes of the strangers watching him. He’s about to start his next piece until a man approaches him with a business card. A teenager gets closer for a better view, recording a video that would likely join the string of YouTube clips that have left viewers curious about the identity of this mystery musician. It’s an outpouring of appreciation that one rarely associates with street musicians. “It’s this overarching vibe when everybody’s on the same page,” he says, smiling. “It’s addictive, like riding a wave.”

In an instant, the moment is snatched away as a train screeches and clatters into the station, taking with it Scott Dusenbery’s impromptu audience.

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