On a sunny September morning, mid Bryant Park, Ljova Zhurbin stood surrounded by an array of laptop-supporting folding chairs. With screens featuring 11 of the city’s celebrated subway musicians over Skype, the city’s first digital orchestra—once isolated within their separate subway stations—joined together in a timely beat. A beat that was created solely with the collaborative project “Signal Strength” in mind.
Chris Shimojima and Anita Anthonj director and producer of the Signal Strength project, co-hatched their plan mere months ago, during a conversation covering their shared fascination with subway musicians.
“Subway musicians in New York have always amazed me,” Anita explains. “If they were anywhere else in the world, these people would be playing in huge, elaborate orchestras and concert halls. It’s just part of what’s truly incredible about New York City.”
Ljova, a local composer already residing on Chris’ artistic radar, was thrilled to join forces. Soon, the team was sourcing musicians. Chris states, “Anita and I spent one day checking out WiFi-enabled subway stops that we knew to be a bit quieter, and recruited a couple of musicians during that outing.”
Collecting a diverse, atypical orchestra was their intent from the beginning. “The city—the subway—there’s such a wide variety of performers—of cultures—of musical traditions. It was our goal for this experiment to bring them all together,” explains Chris.
Natalia Paruz, freelancing master of the musical saw, sensed this shared objective from the get-go. With nearly 20 years of performing behind her, ranging from orchestras and bands, to film scripts and television commercials, she states “My favorite thing to do is play in the New York subway. It’s so different from any other performance. You get to engage with your audience.”
When Chris approached her mid-performance, she explains “I was very intrigued. You know, I get approached all the time from all kinds of people, but Chris seemed very serious about the project. And, furthermore, he seemed to have a deep respect for subway musicians.”
With Natalia and 10 others onboard, Ljova was given the green light to compose the project’s score. After a couple of less-than-ideal attempts, he returned to the video links—sent over by Chris—showcasing each musician. He adds, “I created a ‘Wish List’ of the things that made each musician special, and began a new piece with these particular elements in mind.”
Pinpointing this magic “has as much to do with the player’s personality as the instrument that they play.” He continues, “This is not your typical orchestra—it’s a very diverse bouquet of cultures and musical traditions. As a composer, I tried to find the common ground where all of these cultures could playfully intersect.”
Perhaps this “common ground” was what caused “Signal Strength” to resonate so profoundly among the public. Perhaps—given the world’s chaotic state of affairs, folks were simply struck by a charming film staring art alongside technology, Skype as much as the musical saw.
Ljova elaborates, “There’s so much anger in the world now, and this is a story that counters that in so many ways. It unites us. It unites a city, it unites musicians, it unites all of us who are watching. We are all united by screens. We may be in different places, but these screens that we look at all day, and the sounds that we hear in our headphones or on speakers, they bring us together, and that’s a powerful thing.”
Anita adds, “There’s so much discussion about whether the internet alienates us or brings us together, and this project brought a lot of people together—using Skype and modern technology—and in a way people never could have imagined.”