Sight Readings: From busk till dawn

Spare a thought - and some change - for the talented musicians playing on a corner near you

IF THIS is the season of goodwill, let's forget the pomp and circumstance of the big orchestras, and the overpaid megalomaniacs who wave a stick at them. Consider instead the opposite end of the snob spectrum: let's go down among the buskers. And I don't mean industrial-strength Bolivian bands, or winsome waifs with a penny whistle and a dog. I mean the people who brave public humiliation, police harassment and other adverse conditions of all kinds to create music which is, by any standards, good.

One of the high points of my musical year occurred outside a London Sainsbury's, where I was transported to the American South by a young man with an electric guitar and a truly Orphic touch. Another was thanks to a Romanian clarinet-and-accordion duo who hopped on to my train at Leicester Square, hopped off at King's Cross, and in between played Viennese classics with impeccable panache. They couldn't stay to talk; they just took our money and ran. You find such people everywhere on the Underground, plucking and blowing in corridors or at the base of escalators, boldly ignoring the orders to stop that blare from loudspeakers above their heads.

Many buskers work alone, but some hunt in packs. In the interests of science, I watch a succession of such groups in that neat little open- air theatre formed by one of the sunken courtyards in the Covent Garden Piazza.

First to take their stand behind the semicircle of brass studs - busking here is strictly policed - is a string group led by an Irish bassist- clown who achieves miracles of audience participation without once overstepping the magic line. Next comes a string quartet that wouldn't be out of place at the Wigmore Hall. Then come two singers announcing themselves as Joan Sutherland and Renata Tebaldi, who deliver a non-stop feast of Mozart and Puccini while taking it in turns to dash round with the begging bowl, before finishing with a luxurious rendering of the "Flower Duet" from Lakhme.

They seem a boldly convivial bunch, but cameras and notebooks make them instantly uneasy. While some are studying at the London conservatories, others are "resting" professionals whose chances at audition might, they say, be threatened if their busking came to light. They are also understandably loth to say what they earn, though pounds 60 a day seems the average: not terrible, but not easy money for singers who must bust a gut to be heard unamplified. Sometimes, says Tebaldi, wonderful things happen: last Christmas they found two tightly folded pounds 50 notes at the bottom of the bowl. Sutherland has this job to thank for meeting the man she is about to wed, but they won't busk connubially; you can't marry a voice and a violin.

Many of the string-players here are Chinese. One of the violinists in the Wigmore-standard quartet is a Hong Kong engineering draughtsman named Kai Choi, who is the founder/ co-ordinator of an unusual organisation. Sigma consists of a floating population of anything between 30 and 60 players, whom Choi directs wherever there is either an opportunity or - in the case of private parties - demand. Choi admits that giving up his designing career was initially a risk, and that it took time to find collaborators with the right combination of qualities, for musicians are by nature perfectionists, and busking requires a thick skin plus a theatrical ability to "project". In the beginning he lugged a huge box of sheet music to every gig, but he soon realised what the public wanted, and found that it went over better if played from memory. He modestly eschews the virtuous guff that musicians usually use to describe their "outreach" aims, but outreach this is, and of the best possible kind.

When I ask what sort of living this game provides, he winces. "Let's call it a way of life." A stable way? "Not really. There are now so many groups that the ecosystem has been destroyed." A year ago there were so many players competing for the available cash that some gave up and went elsewhere. Only the toughest survive.

But some go on to great things. After 20 years' slog, the Cambridge flautist Michael Copley has won serious fame with his Classic Buskers group. Nigel Kennedy used to busk, as did many other pillars of the musical establishment. Brian Hawkins, head of strings at the Royal College of Music, supports it unconditionally. "It's excellent experience. I used to do it, and I'm pleased when my students do so. It takes bottle."

u

HAWKINS AND his friends deserve an accolade this week for responding to this column's recent appeal on behalf of the beleaguered music students in Tirana. There is a desperate shortage of sheet music in Albania's arts academy, and a total absence of decent instruments; several conservatoires at the richer end of Europe are now laying plans to ship out their cast- off violins and cellos, plus some of the barrow-loads of scores that are regularly bequeathed to them. Anyone wanting to make direct contact with the academy should write to its vice-rector, Bujar Sykja, c/o Arts Academy, Tirana, or fax him on 00 355 422 5488.

There is yet another conduit for those who want to lend a hand, in the form of a trust set up by June Emerson, a music publisher. The Albanian Musicians' Trust (Windmill House, York YO6 4HF) helps pay for scholarships for outstanding young musicians, and tries to mitigate the havoc that political anarchy has wrought in their early education. To get into the mood, listen to two marvellous CDs of Albanian music that have just been released. Albanian Village Music (Heritage HTCD40) consists of dances recorded in Tirana in the Thirties, and Folk Music of Albania (Topic TSCD904), collected in the Sixties, contains songs which, to Western ears, sound ravishingly strange.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?