by Carol Denney
[dropcap]P[/dropcap]laying music on the street is not easy. Even if you play a loud instrument, have a loud voice, or both, the probability of breaking into someone’s consciousness and inspiring them with a few notes is small when your music must be heard over all the traffic and bustle. Amplification is illegal in most cities without a permit, which can be costly and takes planning to acquire.
Those most successful at stopping a crowd of hurried commuters or shoppers without amplification often have a gimmick. They play a toy piano and a trombone simultaneously, dress like clowns, or play catchy novelty repertoire — probably not their goal when they first fell in love with music.
Those compromises along the way often end up affecting, or infecting, that original surge of desire to play in a world of pure sound.
Philip Rosheger, one of the most distinguished classical players and composers of our time, never compromised, whether on stage at Herbst Theater or on Berkeley’s noisy streets.
He’d use a small amplifier if the cops would let him, sometimes dropping a microphone entirely inside the sound hole. He would arrange his legs in what looked like an impossible pretzel, and then he would simply play.
The depth of his classical repertoire is difficult to imagine for those who are not classically trained, but Berkeley has a fairly high ratio of people for whom hearing the world’s best, most challenging classical guitar compositions ringing from the instrument of a man playing on the street was too powerful a sight and sound to resist.
People walking by might hear the flawless technique, or the mastery of a classical piece they had never before heard live, but they would have to wait until the end of the piece to discuss it with Philip, who loved to talk but needed to make enough money to pay rent, to eat, or to put some gas in his car.
Playing on the street was sometimes his only income. He also respected the balance of a composition, and was unwilling to interrupt its flow even to schmooze with admirers.
When I first met Philip, we were two of the few musicians who got good-paying gigs in town. We talked for hours about the emotional content of various chord inversions, politics, housing, and the crazy life we were expected to live just to play.
Philip was immersed in music and composition, but loved to talk about injustice, poverty, and local issues. He felt strongly that the world needed to be a safer harbor for music and for musicians, and he was right. The musicians I knew in the 1980s who gave it up along the way would fill a stadium.
Philip fell ill this summer, and is currently in a critical care unit in Oakland. Those of us who know him well are not sure at this point if he’ll be able to communicate verbally again. So we play to him, we read to him, we talk to him in case he can hear us.
We have some of his own compositions on a CD player by his bed, hoping to reach him and possibly comfort him the way his music and his originality and spirit so affected us.
I hope those who read this will consider being generous with the next street musician you see in his honor. I know he would love that.
Star Spangled Corners
(for the woman with the harmonica, for the man with the saxophone, for the boy with the guitar, for the family with violin and tambourines.)
by Mary Rudge
What a city long lacked, now is on every corner!
Music, shimmering over us all,
every note shines in our ears,
we wear our day necklaced in sound.
For coin we spare, we get so rich.
The poor have jeweled us with song.
Are we entertained by the starving poor?
There should be artist’s subsidy
for all who make those silver notes,
those emerald tones, gold mined from
the depths of soul…
HERE’S MONEY! HERE’S MONEY —
not worth half of what you give us! Your work
is worthy of support — fingers busy all day long,
you who play the saxophone, banjo, harmonica,
guitar, in patched shirt, torn jeans, bare feet
in the cold, blood and pain in every bleeding
drop of ruby rhythm!
It took joblessness and homelessness and hunger
to fill our streets with music. Song for food,
sing for (you hope) your supper, play your music
which is now our city treasure, our pleasure.
Starvation keeps thrilling us.