Q&A: Bach on Track – Making Music Along the F Train

| December 15, 2011 4:00 AM video
Thru-Line, part of the Make Music Winter Festival
Where: Every Coney Island-bound F train platform.
When: Dec. 21 from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m.
How to Join: Ride the F train, going towards Coney Island. To hear most clearly, board the train towards the center.

Make Music Winter, a scaled-down version of its summertime counterpart, offers a dozen parades in total that will bring music to city streets, parks and — in the case of “Thru-Line” — the subway system.

MetroFocus caught up with Jim Holt, the composer of “Thru-Line,” and Colin and Eric Jacobsen, the sibling duo behind The Knights, the dynamic Brooklyn-based orchestra who will perform the subway piece.

Q: What is “Thru-Line”?

Jim Holt: For this piece, 44 musicians will set up with their instrument at every subway platform along the Coney Island-bound F train line. They will all continuously perform the prelude from Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 1 in G major.” Commuters will hear music while waiting on platforms, then hear snippets of the same music from inside the train, every time the doors open.

    Q: Where did you get the idea?

      JH: My wife used to work for an orchestra in New York and they were brainstorming about how to perform a “subway series.” It really got me thinking about how to incorporate public transit into music and what that would look like.

      Colin Jacobsen: We met Jim through Music at the Anthology, or MATA, an organization that commissions and presents works by young composers. The Knights were immediately attracted to the simplicity and beauty of this idea.

      Jim Holt, the composer of "Thru-Line." He said he picked the F train because it passes through Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens. Photo courtesy of Jim Holt.

      Q: Why the F train?

      JH: I wanted to pick a line that passes through the most boroughs and the F runs from Brooklyn to Queens through Manhattan. It’s also a tip of the hat to Michael Gordon, a composer I admire, who composed a choral piece called “Every Stop on the F Train.”

      CJ: It also happens that a lot players in The Knights live along this line. The F train goes right underneath our apartment building and we can feel its rumblings.

      Q: Any predictions on how riders might react?

      Eric Jacobsen: We can’t predict everyone’s emotions but I think that the simplicity of this piece and the volume at which it will be played will make it hard to upset people. You’d really have to be in a bad place to be offended by this.

      CJ: We’re hoping that people will hear it who may not normally seek out Bach. In that way, it will raise awareness of what we do.

      JH: Most people who go to see The Knights perform know at the very least where to show up and when. For most people who experience “Thru-Line,” it will be completely accidental. We’re trying to make people smile when they hear the music at each stop and realize something bigger is going on.

      WATCH VIDEO:

      In “We Are The Knights,” host Paula Zahn brings you behind the scenes of The Knights and highlights why they stand out in the classical music world. The documentary includes interviews with public radio host Fred Child and Yo-Yo Ma.

      Q: Were there challenges to making this happen?

      JH: One complication are the outdoor stops along the F line. It will probably be pretty cold so we didn’t want to ask professional musicians to expose their prized instruments to the elements. That’s why some stops will have more outdoor-friendly instruments. I think there’s going to be an accordionist, a bass clarinet and flute in addition to the cellos.

      The Knights' Eric Jacobsen conducts the group during a performance at the Naumberg Bandshell in Central Park in June 2011. The group is known for playing both traditional and eclectic venues. Photo by Keith Lew.

      CJ: Yeah, Eric and I actually volunteered to hit the great outdoors.

      Q: What if the trains aren’t working?

      JH: We’ll contact all of the musicians with information about weather and F line status but I don’t think there’s anything that would prevent us from going forward unless the MTA said that the F line won’t run at all that night.

      Q: So will musicians be allowed to accept donations, like subway  buskers do?

      JH: Of course!

      The interview has been edited and condensed.

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