Make Music New York

While living in France, Aaron Friedman experienced Fête de la Musique -- a day-long summer solstice celebration in French cities large and small in which amateur and professional musicians take to the streets. Friedman was struck by how the event went beyond a traditional music festival to become "a massively participatory musical holiday. It had this kind of spirit like a musical comedy where everyone's going out on the street and then everyone starts singing together. It was just like an amazing thing to witness. And I thought it might be able to work in New York too."

Creating Make Music New York -- the festival Friedman subsequently founded --involved getting buy-in, both from the musicians who would take part, as well as the city government and neighborhoods. While he met with some skepticism from those who felt such a spontaneous event wouldn’t be successful in New York City, at the same time, Friedman was able to garner support by attending community board meetings and meeting with city council members and other neighborhood groups, such as community gardens, block associations, and churches, as well as musicians of every kind in every neighborhood.

From the start, Friedman recognized that if he wanted Make Music New York to be a success, it would need to involve a wide range of musicians and musical genres, and he turned to those who knew those music scenes to coordinate. "I had 12 volunteer interns from Columbia and NYU, who each specialized in a particular genre of music. It was their job to go out and recruit classical musicians in practice rooms and concert lobbies, or punk musicians by passing out flyers at punk shows. Every kind of music had a different strategy behind it. But the idea from the beginning was to create an event, like in France, that is clearly open to any kind of musician in any part of the city."

Friedman acknowledged that the festival is very much a partnership with the city of New York. "The city is so supportive of what we’re doing—we have liaisons in each of the city agencies, so there’s someone in the police department and part of his job is to help coordinate Make Music New York, someone in the Street Activity Permit Office, the Parks Department, the Department of Cultural Affairs. All of this has been able to happen because they’ve been able to work through all these inner channels to make sure that each event has the right kinds of information from each place."

Now in its sixth year, Make Music New York has grown to include more than 5,000 musicians, performing in all five boroughs, in venues ranging from Central Park to the Brooklyn Public Library. And the idea is spreading throughout the U.S., to cities such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and Seattle. Friedman is also planning to expand the program in 2011 to include Make Music Winter, a companion festival on December 21st, the winter solstice.

The following slideshow provides a snapshot of the 2011 festival as Friedman describes the enormous creativity and unique partnerships that make Make Music New York a success.


A large group of people sit on steps, playing their guitars.

"This photo is at Union Square on the South Plaza. These Mass Appeal events are for musicians who don't have bands to play with but they still want to participate. They can just show up with their instrument, at a particular time, at a particular place, and there's someone there to lead 80 trombones or 200 guitars.

With guitars, there are so many guitar players that a large organization was needed. The New York City Guitar School organized this event and there was a second guitar event at the 92nd Street Y on the Upper East Side. For the Union Square event, the Guitar School wrote the chord changes on large pieces of poster board, and these were held up when it was time to play that particular chord. So you don't have to have individual music stands for everyone; although they do have charts that people can download and bring with them. They've been doing that for three years and can accommodate any number of performers. They actually have practice sessions at the New York City Guitar School for absolute beginners. Guitarists can also look on the website to see which songs they'll be expected to play. But if you just show up, you'll still be able to see the chords, follow the leader, and play along."

All quotes by Aaron Friedman

Photo courtesy of New York City Guitar School


 A group of musicians and singers in traditional African clothing perform while a young girl walks up to the musicians to offer a tip.

"One of our special initiatives this year was to have more prominent world music performers involved. These West African musicians, many of them kora players, came together for a Griot Summit at Wave Hill in the Bronx. There are lots of West African musicians who have ended up in the Bronx, where we've always had a certain number of Make Music New York concerts take place, but it's much more scattered than in the rest of the city. The Bronx is sort of laid out in a way where there's not a good central place that everyone wants to play, the way that people want to play in Lower Manhattan or along Broadway or Times Square. The Griot Summit was our major Bronx event. The tradition involves having musicians wander around, telling stories, and singing praises of the people who they come into contact with. And then people will give them a tip, or pay them, as they sing praises. This is how it works in West African countries. In the Bronx, 35 musicians all gathered, performed together, and then started to wander throughout the gardens, and even outside of Wave Hill, wandering around and singing praises to everyone who they came upon. So it was sort of a moment of West African culture transported into one of the most urban environments."

All quotes by Aaron Friedman

Photo of Nagna Diabaté, Aissatou Kouyate, Tapani Sissoko, and Mmah Doumbouya performing at the New York Griot Summit © 2011 by Magali Regis/Fula Flute Music


 Two trombone players perform, facing a lake with the audience in rowboats.

"Last year, in 2010, one of our special projects, which I produced myself, was a performance surrounding the Central Park Lake, with six percussionists: three of them on floating stages, surrounding an audience in rowboats, performing an avant-garde percussion piece by the Greek composer Iannis Xenakis. The performance was really quite spectacular. This year we wanted to have something else, making use of the unique setting and acoustics of the lake. The way that sound travels over the water is really different from the way sound travels on land, and a lot of acoustic effects are possible in this setting.

"An organization called MATA, which was started by composer Philip Glass about 15 years ago, commissioned a group of three Australian composers to come to New York to create a site-specific piece for Make Music New York called Swelter. Small groups of brass players surrounded the lake and performed with each other through cues—there was no one conductor. They were all just listening for particular motifs played by their brass colleagues."

All quotes by Aaron Friedman

Photo by Darial Sneed


 An orchestra of student musicians performs in front of the Kaufman Center.

"Face the Music is a group that’s based at the Kaufman Center, which is connected to Merkin Concert Hall on the Upper West Side. This group of teenagers performs contemporary classical music at a very high level, and they’ve been part of Make Music New York for at least the last four years, possibly all five years.

The city closed a block of 57th Street and had a performance of Steve Reich’s Tehillim, which is a large 50-minute work for singers and percussionists and lots of instruments. I think anytime when you close a street, people will take notice, and the music’s so hypnotic and beautiful, and it’s really just kind of the perfect Make Music New York situation where this kind of amazing group of musicians is playing a great piece of music. Face the Music is still not very well-known among their neighbors. I don't know how many people would recognize the name of the group, but having them outside where anyone can walk by and start to listen is just a magical experience."

All quotes by Aaron Friedman

Photo by Darial Sneed


 A punk band performs outside on a large green field.

"There's a basic framework for Make Music New York that's based on the Fête de la Musique, where anyone can sign up and create their own concert. But there are lots of other special projects that we've created ourselves, as we've seen the festival grow, and certain needs that aren't otherwise being met. So, for example, from the beginning we've had lots of punk bands and not enough places for them to play. It was actually the punk bands that complained to us that we were offering them places or ideas of where to perform and they were thinking, well, if we play as loudly as we want to be playing, people are going to throw eggs and it's going to be a terrible experience. So we were able to secure Governors Island for them to use, and have Punk Island every year for dozens of punk bands. [In 2011, more than 50 punk bands played.] That's become one of our signature annual events.

"This year we worked with a group called ABC No Rio which is a Lower Eastside venue and artist space collective that’s been putting on punk shows in New York for over 20 years. I personally know almost nothing about punk music, and having a group of experts who are actually figuring out which sorts of people should be performing close to each other [and who know] the different subgenres of punk, those are all invaluable pieces of the puzzle."

All quotes by Aaron Friedman

Photo by Doug Glass


 Four percussionists perform outside the Brooklyn Public Library on traditional instruments.

"This concert was organized by one of the business improvement district groups, one of our community partners, the Flatbush Avenue Development Corporation. There are about 35 similar groups that came to us and said, 'We’re very active in this neighborhood, and we want to take part, and we will help to coordinate the locations,' and sometimes, you know, 'We also have musicians.' This is the first time Flatbush Avenue Development Corporation was involved. It’s in Southern Brooklyn along Cortelyou Road, and they put together a few locations, one of them outside the Brooklyn Public Library. I believe this is a local band that they were able to find as they tried to spread the word that they were going to be part of Make Music New York this year. We got the permit and promoted the events and did our normal things, but this is sort of a new neighborhood for us. When it’s not a neighborhood with a lot of music venues … it’s pretty surprising to people, and you get a lot of impact.

"Business improvement districts throughout the city, often in places like Sunset Park and Astoria and Fort Greene, these are places that in some ways are most eager for cultural programming because these aren't neighborhoods like Midtown Manhattan or the West Village where there's an established tradition of lots of cultural activity. So in these business improvement district areas, they'll put up maybe 15 options for venues. Musicians will sign up for them, and they'll have a kind of matchmaking process where they can propose different things, and accept them or reject them. And you end up with these unusual partnerships between musical groups and the owners of bodegas, or an auto body shop, people who don't really have a lot of history of artistic presenting. But they see a band that they like, and they choose them. Then they start to sort of figure out where the band is going to play, how they're going to get equipment there, and all of the other things needed to have a concert take place. Often it's a musician sort of teaching the venue how to throw a party, and how to have a concert…A lot of those situations have turned into regular gigs for the musicians."

All quotes by Aaron Friedman

Photo by Berlotte Antoine


 A pianist performs on a piano painted bright yellow with large pink and red flowers.

"The picture here is of a concert by the organization Five Boroughs Music Festival at City Hall Park at one of the Sing for Hope pianos for Make Music New York. From the beginning, we’ve had this issue of what to do with pianists because all the Make Music New York concerts take place outdoors, and it’s not a simple matter to bring a piano outside. In 2010, a group called Sing for Hope worked in part with [the artist] Luke Jerram who had an initiative in England, which has since become international, called Play Me; I’m Yours. The idea was to get a lot of cheap pianos from Craigslist or some equivalent and fix them up and put them on the streets for a couple of weeks for anyone to play. In 2010 the pianos were unveiled for Make Music New York. We were a consultant with them to help get permits for all the different locations and then coordinate Make Music New York musicians. In 2010 there were 60 pianos and in 2011 they put out 88 pianos for obvious symbolic reason. We worked together with them to coordinate musicians for as many of those pianos as we could."

All quotes by Aaron Friedman

Photo of pianist Yegor Shevtsov by Adam Jason Photography


 Outside a large brick building, three string musicians perform for an audience of adults and children.

"From the start, Carnegie Hall has been a Make Music New York participant, and the first couple of years they had concerts outside of Carnegie Hall itself. They have some groups that they work with throughout the year who are musical ambassadors or teaching artists or residents and they often have used those groups for the Make Music New York performances. A couple of years ago they started to have their Make Music New York events in other neighborhoods—one year they had a group at the Brooklyn Museum in Crown Heights and this past year [they had a group] at the Abrons Art Center on the Lower East Side. In a way this is part of their initiative to bring Carnegie Hall programming to all corners of New York City. The string quartet Ethel is a high-level innovative classical string quartet that plays a lot of their own music and sort of rock-influenced music—it’s hard to sum up. They really do their own thing, and they have been in touch with us for a while about trying to be part of Make Music New York on their own, but it really took Carnegie Hall’s administrative powers to get everyone’s schedules to align and put it all together.

"Most of New York's major musical presenters take part in Make Music New York; if not every year, then most years. Central Park SummerStage, the River to River Festival, Joe's Pub [at the Public Theater], City Winery, the Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum—it’s a very long list. And probably what motivates some of them is a little different from what motivates a garage band that never gets a chance to perform and loves to come out on their block. For them, it's more about highlighting the kinds of musical programming they do throughout the year, and creating a sort of showcase for them, for what it is they do, and a way for their neighbors, and other people who are curious, to have a kind of free sampling, kind of an open house for their programming."

All quotes by Aaron Friedman

Photo by Liz Ferguson


 A man plays a conch shell in front of a small group of musicians holding other percussion instruments while the audience sits on the grass around them.

"Inuksuit was produced by the Miller Theatre at Columbia University, a major presenter in New York. It’s the first time they were joining Make Music New York. Inuksuit is a composition by an Alaskan composer John Luther Adams that was meant to be played outdoors and this was the first time it had been played outdoors in New York. It’s a piece for between nine and 99 percussionists that goes about 75 minutes, and of course, this being Make Music New York, we had to do all 99. Columbia invited a lot of percussion groups from all over the country and organized weekend-long percussion workshops and screened a network film about John Luther Adams’ work, all leading up to the performance in Morningside Park, which is just outside of the Columbia University campus.

"The piece has most of the percussionists starting together in a central area and then dispersing throughout the space and playing separately for the duration of the piece. Audience members wander from area to area in the park and get to hear different aspects of music. A lot of it has to do with the interactions between the sounds of the percussion and the ambient sounds in the environment. So birds, or in our case, car horns honking and trucks, because it’s a big urban setting, all those things blend in with the music, and the musicians can react to what’s playing in the environment.

"The experience of Make Music New York as a whole involves a lot of wandering around listening and thinking that you’re hearing a band around the next corner, but maybe it’s actually someone playing a radio, or maybe it’s some other kind of noise entirely, and it’s like having a musical scavenger hunt for audiences. Make Music New York attunes you to the sounds of the regular daily environment. This piece, more than any other, is based on this idea of having interaction between the environment and what the musicians are doing.

"In previous years, it seems like projects like Punk Island and Mass Appeal, these are things that I come up with, and then I try to convince people to do them, and this was the opposite. It was Columbia coming to us to say, ‘We think this would be perfect for Make Music New York, and we want to put it together.’ If this is the future of Make Music New York I’d be very happy."

All quotes by Aaron Friedman

Photo by Shawn Brackbill, c/o Miller Theatre at Columbia University