Listening with Ghosts, Or, Airport Musicians

December 5, 2011 § 4 Comments

I’ve never properly understood the economics of airports.  It’s evident the goal of those enormous buildings is to be as classy and extravagant as possible; to be the kind of place people leave saying “I’ve just experienced an art museum and fine dining and holiday shopping all while stressing out about catching my flight.”  Do people really book flights based on the art exhibits and blinking lights in the places they pass through?  I won’t properly understand the place that airports hold in our society, I think, until they start having adjoining hotels.  I assume this is already a custom outside the US.  You want to be a destination?  Don’t be just a switchboard.

I’ve written a lot about airports, mostly in bleary letters to friends, drowning in dramatic iterations of  “soulless” and its ilk.  I’ve grown.  Everything has a little soul.  More is said by: what kind of soul is it?

PDX – it seems crass to say ‘The Portland Airport’ when it literally gave the city its name – appeals to me mostly because of the music.  I also love that it’s small, and that it’s mine, so sometimes there are familiar faces.  But it has this program, with the modern notion that airports are patrons of the arts, which causes there to be live musicians playing everywhere you go.  It’s subtle.  People don’t seem to notice the lone pianist every wing, softly playing along.  There is something deeply unsettling about a musician in the center of circles of seats and benches and lights and fake plants, performing for an imaginary audience while busied travelers hurry on 30 feet away.

Next time you’re at PDX, stop for the musicians.  Let them know that someone is watching; someone other than the air of a place that never thinks of closing.  Think of it like sitting on the forest floor and listening to the rustle and the birds that you had missed in your rush.  The unheard fauna.

Today I heard two musicians, both pianists.  The first was an accident – I had sat near a piano, and young man came by to set up.  I stayed and listened for a while, and saw me looking and called to me over the music, asking me questions and exchanging pleasantries – a new experience.  Was I a fellow pianist?  No, no, I shouted back, I had taken 6 years as a child and can’t play a single song.  He’d put a cute little stocking up for tips and I stuffed a one in the top, an alluring signal to other travelers.  If you’ve only got one dollar, make it count.

The second was in the abandoned amphitheater-like area – you know it, right past where you come through security – it looks nicer every year.  He was playing what vaguely resembled “I Could Have Danced All Night.”  I could tell from the bald crown and occasional pair of eyebrows that it was the same older fellow whose photograph was propped prominently up nearby.  Older folks would pay to sit and listen to this for hours, but here was a ghost audience, and stepping into it, I was a ghost too, apart from the world of travel.  Airports are thoroughfares; they don’t know what emptiness feels like.  The air is like eyes.  I closed my mine and listened to the mingling travel and soft notes moving up and down.  I opened them now and again to watch the eyebrows appear and disappear, and to blissfully lick the chocolate off my eclair wrapper.

He finished and picked up his books, telling me,”I’d stay and play longer, but I have two puppies to get home to.”

“What kind?” I ventured.

He looked around comically, and whispered what I believed to be, “Badasses.”  And then he listed the imposing breeds that they believed themselves to be (rotweiler), followed by tiny breeds that they were (pomeranian).  I didn’t know what to make of this, so I laughed.

He slipped me one of his CDs and told me to keep it, and I apologized there weren’t more people.  He shrugged, unbothered. “They do come and listen.  One person telling me that I lifted the burden from their shoulders is worth more than selling a CD, or a few tips.  Musicians are burden-lifters, that’s what we’re here for.”

So this is a post for the rarely-heard musicians of PDX.  They’re volunteers, classical buskers, driving out to the airport to play unnoticed in hopes of a few CD sales or tips – or to lift the hearts of some weary traveler.  Pause a few moments, stop frozen in place or step away from the hurried and sit, listening silently with the ghosts.

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§ 4 Responses to Listening with Ghosts, Or, Airport Musicians

  • anudibranch says:

    I sent an email to the Port of Portland (otherwise known as Portland’s Airport otherwise known as PDX) thanking them for their program, and including a little link. What should appear nearly immediately, but a reply! And from a very nice lady, too, with some excellent thoughts.

    So I share it here, so I have it close: a little context on the Port of Portland’s music program, and a witness who can perhaps attest to the character of the pianist’s dogs.

    Dear Kara,

    What a wonderful blog about PDX! I’m guessing from the musician you mentioned (Bill Fischer, by the way – I know his dogs!) that you were here in the off hours. The musicians actually get a lot more attention than you witnessed during those slow hours. Peak times are from 5:30AM – 3PM. Since you seem genuinely interested, I’ll offer some insight on the program.

    Our program started in 2002 as part of the special Holidays Take Flight Concessions promotions during the winter holidays. Mostly school choruses, local small bands, etc came to play and carol. From that, it has grown to a year-round program featuring 30 musicians at four locations throughout the terminal. We average about 15 performances per day featuring everything from Adam Hurst on cello and Rob Lewis on Electronic Marimba to Belinda Underwood on ukulele and bass foot pedals. We have a variety of musicians with one common denominator – they rock!

    Musicians must go through an audition process before a Port committee that considers talent, variety, personality and overall fit with the Port environment. Currently, the program is full so we aren’t accepting any new performers but I get several calls a week from interested parties. The word is spreading and Portland is full of talent. We’re very lucky.

    PDX plays host to over 11 million passengers per year so not only is the music good for our environment, the environment is good for the musicians. One of our performers doesn’t even sell CDs, but 80% of his bookings (weddings and parties) come from contacts he’s made at PDX. Others’ CDs sell here and travel across the globe. It’s certainly a mutually beneficial program.

    Next time you are here, maybe you’ll notice some of the art exhibits around the terminal, too. We have four rotating exhibit spaces and two temporary site-specific art installations, all curated to increase exposure for our regional artists and beautify the environment for our passengers.

    I don’t think we are trying to be a gallery or a museum or a concert hall but we realize that travelers are captive, waiting. Or frazzled. Or just plain tired. Some may notice the music and art (like you); others may not notice directly but I believe they do feel a difference, although they may not realize why. Much like Portland, our PDX environment is subtle and it’s a good place to spend some time.

    Thanks again for the time spent spreading the word.
    Safe & happy travels,

  • Sunshine says:

    What a wonderful idea having musicians and art at the airport. I loved Greta’s thoughts in her last paragraph . . . “travelers are captive, waiting,” and the musician who slipped you his CD . . . “Musicians are burden-lifters . . .”
    Simply charming folks adding a bit of spice in a usually ho-hum arena, the airport!
    I agree with Greta, wonderful post. 🙂
    Thanks for your visit too 😉

  • Candance McCaige says:

    I love this! The musicians at PDX are simply amazing. Their music calms and soothes. I wish more folks would stop to listen and absorb the peace and beauty being offered. Thanks to all the amazing talent and thanks PDX for supporting musicians.PDX!

  • Chad says:

    I need a name of one of Portland’s Musical Ghosts! He looked like a monk meets burning man. Jet Blue terminal (on the way from “C” terminal I think) on Feb 17th, 2013. I was in too big of a hurry to get his name/music, but his music hit me. Can anybody help?


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