It was an omen: I was standing on the information line at the train station in Barcelona, Spain, when from amid the commotion I suddenly heard someone yell, “Hey, Gordon, what are you doing here?” I spun around. Ten yards away stood my friend Gary, whom I hadn’t seen in half a year.
“Gary!” I hollered. “What the -- You’re not supposed to -- How can you -- I DON’T BELIEVE IT!”
“How’d you know to meet me here, Dan?” he asked calmly.
“How did I know? I didn’t! I’m not here to meet you -- you’re not even supposed to be in this country yet!” He wasn’t due in Spain for another few days. Our meeting was pure coincidence.
Or was it? I believe it was an omen about the good fortune to come in our travels as street musicians.
Neither Gary nor I can remember exactly how, when, or why we decided to busk. The closest we can come to pinpointing the decision is some time during the previous winter, when I visited home and had a big party for the Christmas holidays. I had been in Barcelona for a year and a half teaching English, work I had stumbled upon after three months of post-college vagabonding across Europe. My visit home served as a college reunion of sorts at which I saw all my friends for the first time since I graduated. Gary, the foremost among those friends, showed up at the party and contracted a serious case of the travel bug as we discussed my life overseas. We made plans to meet up during the summer and travel together. The rest just fell into place. It was a foregone conclusion that if we were to travel together, we would try to pick up a little cash along the way by playing the same duets that we had so often played for nothing while studying saxophone together in college.
Just as we never consciously chose to busk, we never consciously decided how to put our act together either. We simply did what occurred to us naturally. That was to play on two soprano saxophones, since these were the smallest saxophones both of us had. We didn’t want to bring anything big if we could avoid it; the huge backpacks on our backs were enough to lug around already. We carried our instruments in little “gig bags” -- sleek, padded, leather cases that were a lot easier to handle than standard wooden boxes.
Our soprano saxophones were curved, less common than the straight variety, and they proved to be a good choice for a couple of reasons. First, they were more compact than the straight kind, again making transport easier; and second, their uncommon shape attracted a lot of attention. Curious how a little curved soprano saxophone, which by the very nature of its curves made it entirely more identifiable as a saxophone, elicited so many questions. People asked in any variety of languages, What is that contraption? Is that thing a saxophone or a toy? Are those special instruments for little children? How can you fit your hands on those tiny things? Countless times we answered, Yes, these are saxophones. Yes, soprano saxophones. Yes, they’re curved. Yes, they’re usually straight. After a while we grew so tired of explaining the same thing over and over that I would joke, Yes, this is a curved soprano saxophone. It used to be straight, but I accidentally sat on it. That crack usually got us an extra coin in the hat.
It was a hat that we collected our money in, only because our leather cases didn’t stay open by themselves. Any hat would have done, as long as it were stiff enough to keep its shape and deep enough to hold a lot of change. I’ve met buskers who use buckets, baskets, and inverted umbrellas to collect their money because they believe earnings increase in direct proportion to the size of the collection receptacle. I have no basis to determine if there is any truth to this theory; we couldn’t experiment because we had to travel light. For our purposes, a fisherman’s hat, which was of negligible weight and space, worked fine. We simply placed it in front of us and tossed in a little of our own change to start off. No stopping to walk around holding the hat out and asking for donations -- that’s begging. We just left the hat out there, as if to say, Here’s our music, if you like it, throw a bit of change in, if not, fine. And that was how we liked it, even if we made less money that way.
Our repertory consisted of several volumes of baroque flute duets by Georg Philipp Telemann. Baroque music on saxophones is somewhat of a musical oddity since the saxophone was invented 100 years after the baroque period. But as classically-trained musicians, both Gary and I had been weaned on Telemann, so that’s what we went with. Actually, the soprano saxophone adapts remarkably well to baroque flute music. The two instruments have almost identical ranges, so we read straight off the flute parts and it worked great. In fact, for busking purposes, soprano saxophones might even be more effective than flutes because their sound carries much farther. And they certainly attract a lot more attention. Nobody expects to hear saxophones playing baroque music. Add that to the visual curiosity aroused by our peculiar little instruments, and it gave both an aural and visual surprise -- all the more reason to stop, listen, and drop a few coins in the hat.
We used music bound in book form, with both parts printed on a page. That way we needed only one fold-up wire music stand, which is easily stored and carried. With a book, no loose pages flapped around in the breeze. A few clothes pins kept the whole book from flying away, and when heavy wind threatened to blow the entire stand over, we held it down on the ground with one foot. The clothes pins created a problem with page turns, but a few strategically-placed photocopies fixed that. Once we’d resolved all these little difficulties, we had four complete books and about 2 1/2 hours of trouble-free Telemann. And one final touch, which we learned after repeatedly answering the same questions about what music we were playing: We left one volume of the unused books turned face-out on the music stand so that passers-by could see the title. It saved answering the same question.
Our earnings might have been higher if we had played more popular music, but we weren’t into it. We felt like going with what we knew best, and that was classical music. Playing more popular music for the sake of making more money would have been “selling out” to some extent. Besides, there is something to be said for making it with what you really do best, no matter how esoteric it may be. To know there’s a way to get by without having to compromise the thing that gives you the most satisfaction -- hey, that’s where most of the kick comes from.
As for our travel itinerary, our only plans were to head from Spain in a general northeasterly direction toward Scandinavia. We had arrangements to participate a month later in a volunteer camp in Norway where we would paint an old fishing boat among the fjords at the northern tip of the Continent. I had participated in a similar volunteer program in Hungary the previous summer and found these “workcamps” to be an enjoyable and cheap way to travel. They offered an alternative to the usual tourist activities and were a great way to meet other volunteers from around the world. Gary and I hoped to visit a few workcamp friends as we went.
That was our basic game plan. We had no idea how much our act would earn, nor how much we’d play every day; we didn’t even know exactly where we would go. But we did know that we’d at least cut our travel expenses with our music, and no doubt have a blast as we went.
That fateful meeting in the Barcelona train station began the adventure. Back to my apartment we went, and what was the first thing we did? Why, play through our duets, of course. Gary reacquainted himself with his saxophone, which he had shipped over to me from home to avoid carrying it around during a month of traveling alone. His eyes lit up when I presented it to him. “How’s my baby been?” he cooed, affectionately stroking the instrument as he pulled it out of its gig bag.
Soon Telemann’s counterpoint filled my bedroom, spilling over into the rest of the apartment and out the open terrace doors. The sudden presence of harmony, which had been absent during all my months practicing alone in Barcelona, created a magic that made me tingle all over. I could once again interplay with that other voice, listen to it, blend with it, be subordinate to it, or soar above it.
“We still have it, Gary,” I beamed. “All this time hasn’t taken the sparkle out of these duets.”
“It does feel good,” he said. “I just hope we can earn something with them. I can’t afford not to -- I’m running out of money fast.”
I chuckled and twiddled the keys on my saxophone. “Don’t worry, I have plenty you can borrow. But let’s not worry about that just yet. You never know, we might even end up in, say, Sweden with more money than we have now.”
A grin appeared on Gary’s face. “‘Sweden with more,’” he repeated. “I kind of like that -- it’s got a nice ring to it: ‘Sweden with more.’”
Our duets had now made it half way around the world, from the dingy old basement of Crouse College at Syracuse University to my tiny bedroom in Barcelona, Spain. Sometimes I stop to think of how strange it all was, even that Gary and I had become such good friends at all. Our backgrounds had little in common: me, liberal, urban Jew, born and raised around New York City; him, brought up in WASPy conservative suburbs of Buffalo, New York. I noticed over the years that our views had begun to converge, yet we still differed considerably in character. I was prone to extremes of emotion, fluctuating between worrying myself sick and bubbling over with enthusiasm. Gary was more even-tempered, a characteristic which attracted him to study engineering as well as music in his schooling. Our difference in character manifested itself when a letter confirming Gary’s acceptance at that Norwegian workcamp arrived at my apartment. Up until then, we thought we’d have to split up at the end of the summer and work in separate places. I read the letter and began screaming and jumping up and down in ecstasy. Gary sat calmly.
“Why am I so much more excited than you?” I hollered. “This affects you a lot more than me!”
“Sorry, Dan,” he replied. “It’s just not in my character.”
Yet our common love for music and the saxophone brought us together, indeed, on both sides of the Atlantic. We may have shown it in different ways, but duetting together again was a joyous occasion for both of us.
Even our enthusiasm for the music, however, could not overcome the unbearable stench from Gary’s feet. He hadn’t washed his socks for three weeks. One doesn’t maintain the highest level of personal hygiene when traveling. Gary sported a scruffy beard, which he had let grow so he wouldn’t have to shave. His receding hair was oily and matted from the lack of a recent shower. His clothes were wrinkled, hanging lifelessly on his smallish frame. And those stinking socks simply had to go. We took a break to soak his clothes in a bucket, then dined on a meal the likes of which Gary hadn’t eaten since the beginning of his travels over a month earlier. I whipped up a specialty from the Spanish cooking class I had taken during the year: gazpacho, sauteed rabbit, and some cheap wine from the shop across the street.
“Enjoy this meal, Gary,” I said as he wolfed it down, “because once we hit the road you may not have another one like it for a long time.”
Before we actually did hit the road, we tested out our act on familiar ground in Barcelona. My final days’ classes at the little language academy where I worked was the perfect place for it. We stood out on the school’s back patio, which opened up into a large plaza with several other residential buildings surrounding it. I had gazed across that space daily over the previous two years and rarely saw a soul; only littered rooftops, stray cats, and crisscrosses of laundry hanging out to dry. Now, when the duets started, dozens of neighbors came out to listen, as if the music unlocked doors that were otherwise closed to us. The neighbors leaned against their terrace railings, smiled, even waved handkerchiefs at us.
My students responded with equal enthusiasm. “Senor Gordon, we do not know you play that funny little instrument,” laughed one, amused at her teacher’s unusual sideline.
“Did not know,” I corrected, grammarian to the last. What she still didn’t know was that teaching English was actually the funny thing for me.
Gary smiled and looked introspectively at his saxophone. “People really seem to like this, Dan. Maybe we really can get by on the money we’ll earn from it.”
“If we actually can make a living at it,” I said facetiously, “why don’t we do this forever?”
Before committing ourselves for life, though, we thought it wise to get a few more opinions. The next day we went off to the Guell Park at the outskirts of the city for a combination of sightseeing and busking. Guell Park surrounds the home of Barcelona’s most famous architect, Antonio Gaud’, and flaunts architecture that even the unorthodox Gaud’ would not dare elsewhere. Gary and I worked on our duets amid the rippling concrete, stone trees, and myriad mosaic tile chips of the world’s longest park bench. Little did we know that the day we chose to practice there coincided with an end-of-the-year outing for a nearby elementary school. No sooner had we begun to play than we were surrounded by scores of enchanted school children, all wide-eyed and mouths agape at our miniature instruments. True-to-life Pied Pipers!
With responses like that, Gary and I felt confident and ready to take on the world with our saxophones. “I love it, I just love it!” I cried. “‘Sweden with more,’ yes indeed! We’ve gotten our act together, now let’s take it on the road!”
My excitement over the prospects for busking obscured most of the melancholy over leaving Barcelona. After two years, I developed a connection with the city’s people which made me feel like I belonged. When the time came to leave, I had warm feelings about having carved a niche for myself in a very special place. I also had a whole lot of excited anticipation about the summer that lay ahead.
So I stuffed everything I needed for life on the road into my huge backpack, shipped the rest of my belongings home in a few boxes, slid my railpass in my pocket, and took a deep breath. Gary and I had each effectively reduced our lives to one saxophone and the contents of one bag. We were ready to go. Onward!
Dan Gordon, 1770 Mass Ave., #630