I’ve never really understood the compulsion to climb a mountain just because “it’s there”, but I’ve always had a soft spot for explorers. The drive to discover, sometimes at great risk, is a phenomenal human trait. We might now cringe at the colonial implications of early European exploration, but there’s no denying the awesome human spirit at work in someone like a Captain Cook, or a Burton and Speke.
Which is precisely why I love pianist Dotan Negrin’s work. Negrin is not just a musician, and a fine one at that. He’s an explorer in the truest sense of the word. His goal is to explore the power music has to connect people. And his means for doing so isn’t just a jam session in his basement or his local bar, or in the comparative safety of a conservatory classroom. Like so many great explorers before him, he’s taken his quest on the road.
His first project was Piano Across America, in 2011. Negrin emptied his savings account, bought a sturdy upright piano and a sturdier truck, and took off across America with his piano – and his dog, Brando, who has a habit of perching on top of the piano like a furry masthead, and is unfortunately occasionally prone to motion sickness. Negrin traveled over 15,000 miles and played on the streets of 32 cities and 8 National Parks. His website chronicles his adventures: the wild beauty of playing in the parks, impromptu dance parties on the streets of New Mexico, jamming with – and getting robbed by – an Oxycontin addict. But it wasn’t for the sheer wild ride of it all, or for some journey of self-discovery. It was to show that, in the words of famed neurologist Oliver Sacks, music “quickens” people. It brings them to life. And it can knit them together in a shared experience.
You can feel this power if you listen to some of the music he’s posted on his website. Go to his website and listen to him teasing out the blues from his piano, or creating impromptu jazz sessions with friends and strangers, or inspiring a bunch of Hasidic men to dance in circle around his piano in New York City. And listen to him absorbing the arrival of an entire marching band led by a bridal couple on the streets of New Orleans. If you can watch that clip without smiling, well, you’re made of sterner stuff than I.
Negrin’s latest project, which just got funding through Kickstarter earlier this week, is Language of the Universe. His plan is to drive from New York City to Panama with his piano and Brando in order to document the importance of music in peoples’ lives. I’m not quite sure what it would be like to drive a piano through Central America…in fact, I don’t think anyone could be. As far as anyone knows, it’s never been done before.
The project’s title sums up Negrin’s feeling about why music is such a great connector. As he put it to me, music connects because it’s in many ways a “universal language”. While he hastily added that he’s not the first person to say that, he’s actually seen what that means when he’s played on the streets of America:
“Everyone can feel a piece of music. You see how people react every time they walk by, even just for a second. Almost every person has a smile on their face. They brighten up a little, even if it’s just a little bit.
“I think when I play piano on the street, it becomes this ice breaker. Like there was this one time I was playing and I had this nice little crowd of seven or eight people surrounding me, and five or six of them were there for something like two hours. Just hanging out and talking and listening to music. And I would tell them how I practice and play.
“And what’s interesting is that I talk to people I’ve never met before. Total strangers. As if I’ve known them for years. And one thing that I’ve noticed is that I never have that opportunity unless I’m playing piano on the street. Like if I’m walking in New York on the street, I would never meet these people. I wouldn’t…I wouldn’t get that same opportunity without having the piano there. Without playing the piano.”
There are some fascinating studies (Negrin’s read them, I look forward to doing so) about how our brain processes music and why it affects us so strongly. And, as Negrin says, performing piano on the street (especially with a dog perched beside you) is a heck of a conversation starter. But I was lucky enough to have Negrin over for dinner last summer. We talked about music over gumbo and wine, and afterwards he played our piano and gave our daughter Mira a lesson in playing the blues scale.
I saw what the philosopher Albert Borgmann has written come to life in front of me. A skilled musician playing his instrument commands attention. A musical instrument is a wonderful thing in and of itself, something beautiful and redolent of human tradition. But in the hands of a good musician it reveals itself. Negrin made the playing look effortless, though I know from Mira’s own hours of beginner’s practice, it’s anything but. When Negrin played, the piano became something. Mira, playing alongside him, blossomed. And the rest of us were caught up too…we laughed, taped our feet any my three year old son jumped up and danced.
And one can see how Negrin’s power really would come to the fore in the public sphere. Borgmann writes about the power of street music – especially jazz – to create communities of celebration. His words might have been written directly for Negrin. While Borgmann notes that a “community” in this context as often as not is anonymous, and tends to form and dissolve quickly, it doesn’t need to be anything more than that to create something meaningful. “The bodily presence, the skill, the engagement, and the goodwill of the musicians radiate into the listeners and transform them to some degree.” And Borgmann adds that “Music as a celebration that is real all the way down will also sink its roots into the reality of the public space where it takes place. Celebration and place will inform one another.”
Piano Across America and The Language of the Universe are fantastic projects. It’s important for psychologists and neuroscientists to continue to study our relationship to music. But it’s equally important to have old fashioned explorers who hit the road in pursuit of a quest. Negrin’s mission, to explore the role of music in our lives and how it can connect one, is as emblematic of the new good life as anything I’ve seen. And by playing in the streets of North and South America, he’s not just studying the good life – he’s creating it.