“The subway is very polluted with noise,” says Curvello as he tunes his guitar. “Busking is all about making these people’s moments a little better.”
“One day we were playing a really sad song, and when I finished a girl came over and hugged me,” says Jordi Nus as he adjusts his violin. His cheeks turn a deeper shade of pink and he grins. It’s Thursday morning and Nus, a violinist, is performing in the Delancey Street Station with his friend, Pedro Curvello, a singer and guitar player.
While the two guys in their mid-20s look like your standard buskers as they stand in front of their amplifier and open guitar case, they’re actually graduate students in NYU’s film scoring program. They started busking a month ago to complement their composition work and have a set of 15 songs that they play – a mix of “gypsy jazz,” folk and alternative music.
Curvello had been singing and playing guitar and piano since he was 15 years old, before he got his undergraduate degree in classical composition. Originally from Brazil, he was part of a band that he feels became too focused on fame, leading to his decision to bow out and attend NYU.
While Curvello’s dulcet tones and guitar playing add energy to the performance, people are also drawn to the sounds pouring out of Nus’ violin (which he’s had for 15 years). Like a river, the music varies in its ability to sweep or soothe, depending on the song.
“The violin gives something more to the music,” said Sebastian, a visitor from Belgium, before stepping on the train. “You feel they’re in the music, it’s their passion.”
Passionate is certainly the best description for Nus’ relationship with music. Since he was 4 years old he has played the violin and later got his undergraduate degree in violin and composition. A composer, orchestrator and arranger, his compositions were performed at numerous music halls throughout his home country of Spain. This year he was a winner in the NYU Film Scoring Competition and both he and Curvello were selected for the Society of Composers and Lyricists mentorship program.
Throughout the performance commuters wait for the train and stand, as if entranced, listening to the music. At 10:44 am, 10 minutes after they started playing, the buskers receive their first dollar and change from a passerby. A pattern quickly develops where people listen to the music and, just as the F train pulls into the station, they rush over to rid themselves of George Washingtons.
“They’re getting out the kinks and developing their style,” says William, a businessman in his 50s, who watches the pair for a few minutes with a grin on his face before giving them a couple of dollars. He is a lover of folk music and thinks Nus and Curvello have great chemistry.
Such responses from the audience, and the pure joy of performing, make busking an invigorating experience for both performers. They relish in moving the crowd, so much so that if they don’t get the reaction desired then they’ll move to a different location, explains Curvello. Neither Nus nor Curvello feel inclined to change stations that day.
“The music is so relaxing. We need this in this time,” says Yolanda, a woman in her 40s who wants to buy a CD (which they don’t have). “It makes a big difference in life. You want to hear these things instead of seeing things that go wrong on the train.”
Though they’ve only been busking for a couple of weeks the guys already have a system down. Nus explains that morning is the best time to secure a spot – the earlier the better. Despite the excessive humidity we’ve experienced this summer, Nus and Curvello perform three to four times a week and four to five hours in a day with few stops in between. They estimate they make $12 an hour on average (“That’s better than [working at] Starbucks,” laughs Curvello).
10 a.m. – secure location
10:10 a.m. – set up
10:34 a.m. – play first song (“Dream A Little Dream of Me”)
10:44 a.m. – first dollar received
12:06 p.m. – break
12:40 p.m. – continue performing
2:45 p.m. – pack up and head home (total take: $42 each)
“When you’re a musician, it’s not about the money. It’s about the respect,” says Curvello, and adds that he feels guilty when people who look worse off than he is toss in money.
Not long after receiving their first dollar, a toddler and her mother twirl in time to the music. After the woman picks the girl up and carries her away Nus says, “When you see a smile or a kid dancing, that makes it worth it.”
Just after 12 p.m. they both have shiny brows and damp shirts. Curvello goes to smoke and Nus stays behind to watch the gear. In between puffs Curvello explains that his favorite quote is, “life is in the art of the encounter.” This motto is in keeping with their performance because, before the strangers in the subway meet the performers, they’re drawn to the music. Says one heavyset man as he limps by with a cane, “That sounds good from all the way up the stairs! I love the violin.”
Nus needs this freedom as well. For the NYU competition he wrote a seven-minute piece of concert music in approximately four weeks. This summer, when he isn’t busking or working his part-time job he’s composing music for short films – Curvello has similar projects in the works. In September they’ll slow down in subway performance so they can focus on school.
But for now they’re fixated on the music. As they switch up songs, Frank, an aspiring rapper, carefully places a dollar in the guitar case. He says he finds their performance “beautiful.”
“They’ve got chemistry. They’re so composed and humble,” Frank says of the guys. “You look at some people in the subway and they don’t really like to play. They just want to make money.”
He tilts his head in the direction of Nus and Curvello and adds, “Whether they’re playing for one person or a thousand, I think their joy would be the same.”
Nus also performs with other bands. Watch him on Aug. 7 at Circulo Espanol (Astoria) and Aug. 29 at Tomi Jazz (Manhattan).
Video by Stephanie Leontiev.