Vijay Gupta’s trip to being one of the winners of the 2018 MacArthur genius grant started with questions – questions only a musician would know to ask. Nathaniel Ayers was the questioner and Vijay, a violinist with the LA Philharmonic was immediately intrigued. The space where he met Ayers was at Skid Row, where upwards of 60,000 homeless people camp in Los Angeles. Vijay says, “Nathaniel was one of the first African American men to be admitted to the Juilliard school in New York in the 1970s. Due to mental illness, the therapy that he received left him a mere zombie, and he lived within walking distance of where I played in one of the most prestigious cultural institutions in the city. Along with other musicians, I read about him in the Los Angeles Times, and when I met him, I was pretty devastated to see such a brilliant musician living in abject conditions.”
The inequality that existed between playing at LA Philharmonic and the poverty at Skid Row revealed places that were worlds apart. Meeting Nathaniel pushed Vijay to wonder whether, “there were other musicians like Nathaniel who were languishing in a place like Skid Row, silenced by homelessness and poverty
That thought was the impetus for starting Street Symphony an organization dedicated to providing free music programs, mentoring opportunities to budding musicians and much more in LA’s Skid Row. They have now grown to include over 100 professional musicians and have given over 500 concerts at homeless shelters and county jails.
Of playing at Skid row and other facilities, Vijay says, “I was aware of the HIndustani tradition, where the audiences are extremely well-versed and give critical input to the musicians. At the LA Philharmonic, I was used to sitting on stage, with all of us wearing tuxedos in bright lights, with a “wall” between the performers and the audience. Our audiences for Street Symphony would break that decorum. They would applaud between the pieces. We could not just play and leave. They would ask is questions about the composer, and then add telling comments about their feelings when they heard certain parts. It was truly a humbling experience.”
And, at one of these concerts at a county jail, Vijay spoke about the composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856) who was committed to a mental asylum and who died there, before playing a piece written by him. And then Vijay confides, “I was dumbfounded to have an audience member at the jail look around him and say – Schumann must have been in a place similar to this one. He was comparing his own story to that composer, even if I hadn’t done that as a performer.”
And, these humbling interactions and experiences drive Vijay to this day in running Street Symphony. He says with wonder, “This audience is made up of emotionally astute intelligent empathic and creative people. We make the mistake of looking at the arts as a luxury item. Why are you taking music to ‘those’ people? – is a question I get asked often. And, the undercurrent is that those people are somehow unworthy. To me, the arts is a way of believing in everyone’s humanity and when we take that away from certain groups, what we are saying is that they don’t deserve access to their own humanity. Art allows me to connect with people. The way I was brought up, art is a form of sadhana, an act of devotion. In my native Bangla language, I was taught that you worship Shiva in the form of people. To me, a performance by Street Symphony feels like that – a puja performed with deep reverence, committed to the restoration of humanity.”
The MacArthur genius grant comes with a purse of $625,000 with no strings attached and he hopes to use this to chart the future course of Street Symphony.
Learn more about his work at http://streetsymphony.org/