Sax on the Streets
Chapter 7:
Århus, Denmark

Parades and Papers

© Dan Gordon, 2003

On to Denmark, to visit Jytte (pronounced YEWdeh), another friend from the previous summer’s workcamp in Hungary. We took a day train and couldn’t believe the comfort of it. For some reason the train was almost completely empty, and we had as much room as we liked to stretch out, relax, and enjoy the scenery out the window. We traveled on a German train, which has seats that pull out and transform the entire compartment into a giant mattress. There we lay, sprawled out in the train in the middle of the day in the middle of the summer in the middle of Europe, without a worry in the world.

“What’s going on here, Gary?” I asked. “Look at us—in the lap of luxury, no discomfort, no crowds, people treating us like kings everywhere we go, we’re getting free meals offered to us left and right, earning money as we go…Where are all the crowded summer trains that I’ve heard so many horror stories about? Aren’t we supposed to suffer at least a little bit? It’s not supposed to be this easy!”

“It has been pretty good, hasn’t it?” Gary replied. “But what are you complaining about? Just relax and enjoy it.”

“I guess you’re right.” I sighed and kicked off my shoes as I lay back slowly. “Rough life, this busking.”

Actually, there was one thing we had to worry about: how to get in touch with Jytte when we got to the train station in her town of Århus. We had no Danish kroner. We couldn’t, after all, cash a traveler’s cheque—that was against our principles. Our concern didn’t last long, however, as when we stepped off the train in Århus, Jytte was standing there to greet us. Blonde and blue-eyed, she was typically Danish in appearance. Round wire-frame glasses accentuated her intellectual look. She was thin, even twiggy.

“Jytte!” I shouted. “What are you doing here? How did you know we were on this train?”

“You wrote to me that you’d arrive around July 15th from Bonn, so I looked up the schedule and guessed which train you’d be on,” she said in an American English that had no trace of a foreign accent. “I came this morning and you weren’t here, so I tried again now, and well, here you are.”

“Ingenious, Jytte, ingenious. Good thing, too, or we might have even had to c-c-c—”

“Don’t even say it, Dan.” Gary interrupted.

“Cash a traveler’s cheque,” I whispered to Jytte. “Even the thought of it makes us cringe. We haven’t cashed any since we started. Street musicianing’s treated us well. Say, is there a pedestrian zone here in town?”

“Oh yes, a big one.”

“And are Danish cops fussy?” Gary asked.

“I don’t think so. There are plenty of musicians playing on the pedestrian zone every day.”

“Hmm,” I said with a sly grin. “I get the feeling we’re going to like Århus.”

Jytte showed us real Danish hospitality from our first moments in Århus. Before we arrived, she had arranged a private room for each of us in the dormitory where she lived. She had planned out an itinerary for our entire visit. Jytte gave that kind of thought and care to everything she did. She was quiet yet productive. Her studiousness struck me as mature; sometimes she seemed even old. Her habit of hunching over and rubbing her hands upon one another to relieve a skin condition conjured up images of an elderly woman. Yet she was youthful in spirit. She had a passion for travel and learning about other places. She studied Italian at Århus University and also worked as a tour guide. She therefore saw to it that Gary and I got a thorough tour of her town. Århus is the second largest city in Denmark, after Copenhagen, and the principle city of Jutland, the region of Denmark connected to continental Europe. Jytte filled our heads with facts and figures about every king, queen, prince, and duke that ever passed through the town. History was her hobby, and she used it well in her work.

The most striking characteristic of Århus for me was nothing about the city itself, but rather the strange language the Danes speak. To uninitiated American ears, Danish is an incomprehensible mess of inarticulate gobbledygook. When I first heard it, I thought the people speaking had cleft palates. Even Norwegians and Swedes, whose languages are grammatically and syntactically similar to Danish, say Danes speak like they have a hot potato in their mouths. Jytte must, too—she grew up on a potato farm.

Then there’s Århus’s pedestrian zone. Nice place. Not too big, not too small, right in the center of the city, and plenty of people walking around. The only problem is that since it’s the best pitch in town, every busker in town is there jockeying for position. A street musician cannot, after all, just place himself down anywhere he pleases and start playing away. There are certain rules of street-musician etiquette that all buskers follow. For instance, you have to make sure you’re not invading anyone else’s territory when you set up to play. That’s not easy to figure out when you arrive in a completely new place every few days. Actually, a newcomer to town could be excused for such an infraction—but only once. There is one rule, however, whose violation is taboo: Never play within earshot of the next busker down the street. That is the fundamental doctrine of street-musician courtesy.

So we scouted up and down the pedestrian zone until an electric guitarist packed up and left us space. We pitched the music stand, assembled our instruments, and let Telemann sing. The same duets we had played dozens of times didn’t feel quite the same here; the cooler Northern air carried the music in a different, refreshing way. Even the oldest music sounded new as its setting changed. Yet for all the differences in surroundings, our earnings remained the same. An hour of Telemann netted 200 kroner, just under 30 dollars.

The next morning, we set out early to beat the busker crowds. We played our cards just right and found space directly in front of the fountain in the center of the pedestrian zone—prime busking real estate. Gary and I merrily passed the time playing as the Saturday morning shoppers stopped, listened, asked questions, and generously dropped kroner into the hat. Some guy even claimed to photograph us for the local newspaper.

As we rested between pieces during the morning’s pitch, Gary looked around with a puzzled expression on his face. “Do you hear something funny, Dan?”

I stopped to listen for a moment. “No, do you?”

“Yeah. That music in the background. Don’t you hear it?”

“Oh, that. I think there’s a brass quintet busking up the street. Does it bother you?”

“Well, no, but I think it’s getting louder,” he said. “Aah, never mind. It’s probably just my imagination.”

One duet later, the music behind us was definitely louder. We turned around. Again we found nothing.

“What is that? I don’t see anything,” Gary said.

“Me neither. And we can’t go looking for it or we’ll lose this spot.”

“All right, forget it,” he sighed. “Let’s keep playing.”

Another duet, and suddenly the music was so loud we couldn’t hear ourselves playing any more. We turned around again. We couldn’t believe our eyes. An all-girl drum-and-bugle corps had just turned the corner and was parading down the street toward us. The music and the marching grew louder and louder as they approached, rendering busking utterly impossible. All we could do was stand and watch the marching band tromp toward us. First came the drum majorette, waving her long silver scepter as she traipsed by. Then came the drums, rattling and booming away. The brass followed, the trumpets blaring and the tubas bellowing. The whole band plodded by and continued down the street out of sight.

Gary and I looked around in bewilderment, shrugged our shoulders, and played on. Telemann sounded like a cool breeze after a hurricane. Two or three duets later, the same cacophony rumbled in the distance.

“Oh no. Do you hear what I hear?” Gary asked.

I nodded slowly. “Looks like another obligatory intermission.”

Back from the other direction came the band, marching right past us, just as tumultuous as the first time. Again we stopped and waited. Again they stomped off into the distance.

When the noise faded away the second time, Gary asked, “You think they’ll let us play in peace now, or are they going to parade up and down the street all day?”

“Don’t ask me,” I said. “If they keep coming, we might as well join the ranks and march away with them.” I paused for a moment, then chuckled to myself. “It is all rather amusing, though—interrupted over and over by a drum-and-bugle corps as we try to play saxophone duets on the streets of Denmark.”

“Shut up, Dan.”

We started to play once more. And dammit, in the distance, the forsaken marching band whined yet again, louder and louder by the minute. Only this time, instead of parading by, they got as far as the fountain beside us and stopped. The director shouted some orders, blew a whistle a few times, and the band broke out into Sousa marches. They stood there for at least 20 minutes as they played one Sousa favorite after another. So that’s why Gary and I were able to get that primo pitch in front of the fountain—all the other buskers in town knew the all-girl drum-and-bugle corps invaded it on Saturday mornings!

When the band finished their assortment of tunes and finally marched away for good, Gary and I played uninterrupted for over an hour. What a pleasure it was to busk again without being repeatedly upstaged. The hard-earned pitch was rightfully ours. We busked beside the fountain and gathered a healthy amount of comments, complements, and coins. But the things one has to put up with to earn a buck in Denmark!

Sunday morning, we awoke to shouts of glee from Jytte. “Look at this! Look what you two have done! It’s incredible!”

“What, what?” I yelled as I jumped out of bed. “Did we do something wrong?”

“Your picture is in the Sunday paper! Look!” She shoved a newspaper in front of me. A half-page spread in the leisure section displayed several pictures of the pedestrian zone, one of them with us in it.

“What do you know,” I laughed. “I guess that photographer who took our picture yesterday was for real. Hey, Gary, look at this! We’re famous!”

“Let’s see,” he mumbled, staggering out of bed with a yawn. “Hey, I like it!” he said as he rubbed his eyes. “Oh look, they even got a picture of our favorite marching band. You never told us about that, Jytte.”

Jytte gasped as she suddenly remembered the weekly festivities in the pedestrian zone. “You weren’t…”

“We were.”

She burst out laughing. “I forgot all about it! It’s an Århus tradition, every Saturday morning!”

“Thanks for telling us now,” Gary said. “We didn’t know what was going on.”

“Sorry about that,” she said as her laughter came under control. “But look, you can’t complain—three days in Århus and you’ve already got your picture in the paper. I’ve lived here for ten years and haven’t had my picture in the paper even once!”

“You haven’t been trampled by a marching band, either,” I joked. “What’s the article say?”

Jytte translated the text for us:

It’s a good time with busking and music on the street

People enjoy the street entertainers

There seems to be a consensus of opinion about the summer’s busking and music on the streets and squares of Århus.

People find all this colorful entertainment festive, especially the activity on the pedestrian street between Salling [a department store] and Clemen’s bridge.

Yesterday, Life in the City reporters spent an hour listening to people’s opinions about the street musicians and buskers. We asked all the people we could possibly find within the hour: men, women, young, old, fat, skinny, people from the Århus area, and even one person from Viborg. Every last one spoke positively of the life and spirit that abounds throughout the pedestrian zone in the summer. Not a single person wanted the musicians and buskers off the streets.

So we are not showing any bias by offering you the following comments:

FINN CLEMMENSEN owns a shop in Rømø, but is in Århus this weekend: —I think it is festive. We could stand to have more of it in Rømø.

PIA REFFSTRUP, Århus: —Yes, I think it’s great that there’s always something going on in the pedestrian zone. I think it creates a nice atmosphere when there’s music and entertainment.

LARS GULDBORG JØRGENSEN, Tilst: —It’s fun when they play on the streets. I especially like marching music and I am always pleased to hear the girls’ marching band of Jutland and the girl’s marching band of Århus when they play in the streets. It creates life and atmosphere.

CARL ANDERSEN, Århus: —The street musicians don’t bother me at all. It’s fine with me that they’re here. There’s more life in the streets when they are here and that is good. What I most certainly do not like is all the drinking in the streets these days. That should be stopped—but there should be room allotted for the buskers and street musicians.

KAREN MØLLER, from Århus, and her mother-in-law, from Copenhagen, JANNIE ROSENKRANTZ: —Of course it is festive. We enjoy walking up and down the pedestrian street, and the musicians are part of the pleasure. But they really shouldn’t stand so close to one another. That does not sound good! Mother-in-law: There are also a lot of those types in downtown Copenhagen, but somehow the pedestrian zone in Århus is a little more charming.

RUTH SEJERSEN, Hørning: —It is great when there is music in the streets. I actually look forward to finding this kind of entertainment when I go downtown. They don’t bother you; if you don’t like it you can always keep walking. I think it is a good thing.

As if that weren’t enough, some weeks later, long after we had left Århus, I received a letter from Jytte with a clipping from the same newspaper of another picture of us. This one was a large photo of Gary and me in front of the fountain as we played amid the activity of the pedestrian zone. The caption under the photo said, “It is ‘A Sure Thing with Sax’ when two American saxophonists play classical music on their little instruments.” A small article along with it read:

A Sure Thing with Sax on the Streets

You come across all kinds of instruments and musical genres when you walk up and down the pedestrian street of Århus these days.

During the last few days you have had the chance to listen to sonatas by Telemann played by two soprano saxophonists from the USA, Gary Scavone and Daniel Gordon.

The two musicians have simply “played their way” up through Europe from Spain. After a couple more days in Århus they will go on to Copenhagen, and from there to Sweden and Norway.

“We have had a very positive response to our music here in Århus,” the two talented saxophonists say.

Two newspaper appearances after only four days in town!

Next on Jytte’s itinerary was a trip to her hometown farming community in the West of Jutland. As the train passed through the spacious green pastures and gentle rolling hills of the Danish countryside, Jytte again informed us about every fact of the land. The rolling hills that gradually leveled out as we traveled west were a result of the ice age, when glaciers covered almost all of what is now Eastern Jutland. The ice smoothed out the peaks in the land and left the rolling hills in the East. When the ice melted, it ran off west into the sea and left nothing but flat land in its wake. The contrast in landscape between the two sides of Jutland is not at all dramatic; Danish hills do not resemble mountainous terrain. The highest point of land in the country is only about 500 feet above sea level.

A pleasant way to take in this flat landscape is by bicycle, as we did soon after arriving at Jytte’s house. Indeed, the Danes are fully aware of how their country’s topography is ideal for biking. They bike everywhere. Denmark must have one of the highest per capita bicycle populations in the world. Everybody in Denmark rides around on cheap, old, entirely unsophisticated bicycles. The country is swarming with them. Cities have bicycle parking lots, bicycle roadways beside the automobile roads, and even bicycle traffic signals with little red and green bicycle shapes.

Rides through the countryside provided a welcome change of pace, particularly for Gary. He had frequent reservations about spending so much time in cities. He felt more comfortable in rural surroundings, but his chosen activity for the summer prevented many visits to the countryside. Jytte, too, seemed more relaxed away from the tensions of urban life in Århus. I enjoyed trips into the country, but was content to stay in cities.

We spent a day relaxing around the farm, but duty soon called. We had to earn our keep. The next day we drove with Jytte to the west coast of Jutland (imagine that—cross-country in a matter of hours!) and stopped in the small beachfront community of Ringkøbing, the nearest buskable town. German tourists filled the town’s artisans’ shops and cozy pedestrian zone, but for all the tourists, we found no other buskers. Apparently the town was too small for other street musicians to bother with. Gary and I had all the space we wanted.

With no competition, our busking became the main attraction of the town. Almost every pedestrian stopped to listen. Even some shop owners came out to watch. In no time we were surrounded by appreciative listeners, all cheerfully pitching coins into the hat. A case like that, where everyone genuinely welcomes the music, allows a street musician to put down the guard he normally has when he begins to play. When an act is not being interpreted in any way as a disturbance, it becomes pure entertainment. These situations don’t come up very often, but when they do, both busker and audience can really enjoy them.

Then it started to rain. Our ideal conditions were washed away after barely half an hour. Nothing frustrates a busker more than that. Rain, police, complaining residents— these things that all too often spoiled our busking now began to bother us. A few weeks earlier, when we had first started out, learning to deal with such factors was part of the adventure. By the time we got to Ringkøbing, negotiating them had become a hassle. Once Gary and I discovered that we could survive on busking, our outlook toward it changed. Busking was no longer a diversion, but a livelihood. That conceptual switch carried along with it a change of attitude. Our mood reflected the fortune of our latest performance. We formed opinions of cities based on the profits we made there. The more wrapped up we got in making busking the focus of our travels, the less tolerant we became of anything that stood in its way.

Fortunately, Jytte’s presence put things in better perspective. She saw our busking as pure fun, and thus interpreted the rain as merely a petty inconvenience. Besides, as a Dane she was accustomed to bad weather. She took our minds off our busking woes by taking us home and preparing a home-cooked dinner to end our stay. The meal was an education in hygge, Danish coziness. “You Americans take no pleasure in eating,” Jytte said as she meticulously laid out flatware and lit candles that matched the tablecloth. “For Danish people, a meal is a social event.” She unfolded a cloth napkin and laid it on her lap, then sprinkled parsley flakes over the herring and potatoes with bearnaise sauce to commence the dinner. The blustery storm outside heightened the hygge inside. Even with lousy weather, there was much to be cheerful about.

Sax on the Streets, by Dan Gordon
Click here for next chapter.
All material copyright 2002 by WebMerchants and Dan Gordon.
Reprinting by permission only.


Dan Gordon, 1770 Mass Ave., #630
Cambridge, MA 02140
Voice mail: (617) 320-6989