The Sounds of Subversion
Montreal’s Skid Row Violinist & the Politics of Listening
If you travel between the Metro stations of Montreal late at night, then chances are, you’ve heard him play. His violin’s music echoes through the underground corridors of Lionel-Groulx, audible between the mechanic hums of lightbulbs and escalators, the squeaking of slush-covered boots, the rumbling vibrations of trains speeding-up and slowing-down. Amidst the familiar drones of the station, he plays the violin for hours on end, producing sounds that are lively, melancholic, and sometimes, even shrill, all while he handles his instrument with the care and expertise of a master. Mostly, he performs the classics: Bach, Mendelssohn, Vivaldi, and, upon special request, Pink Floyd. Solemn and skillful, his music wafts through the Metro station, often to the headphone-covered ears of uninterested commuters.
He is a highly trained musician, a defiant busker, and a homeless man — his name is Marc Landry, and it is to him that I dedicate this exploration of Montreal’s street music, online commentary, and the politics of listening.
Again and again, I watch a video of him playing on Youtube: sitting cross-legged on the yellow and orange tiles of Lionel-Groulx, he hunches, carving eloquent sounds with his bow, as each of his fingers taps expertly against the strings, dancing to the rhythm of a classical composition. Always, he presses his head against the wooden surface of his violin, calm and careful, like a doctor listening for a heartbeat in a patient’s chest. Around him, evening commuters avert their gazes, determined to ignore the sounds of his violin — to them, he’s just another busker, a would-be artist living in squalor, a beggar on the salt-stained floor. His music is a spectre in the background noise of the city, and though we might not be willing to listen, it haunts us. Marc Landry generates the sounds of subversion, his performance challenges hierarchies of social class and cultural taste, along with the powerful institutions that uphold them.
While he might be a well-known local figure, Landry’s history is shrouded in mystery. I scour through Google searches and video comments in search of concrete information about his life, but, it’s hard to trust the veracity of facts when they are found online. According to a La Presse piece that dates back to 2010, Marc was raised by a family of musicians in New Brunswick, spending the early years of his life playing the clarinet, piano, trumpet and violin. There, he learnt the ins-and-outs of the classical tradition, until he reached his late teens, when a slew of bad choices left him living a rough life on the streets. Nowadays, he plays his violin for spare change, another member of our city’s SDF population (that is, sans domicile fixe, a French acronym that accounts for the transient nature of urban poverty).
An entire Reddit feed is devoted to Landry: Skid Row Violinist in Montreal Metro. Never pawned his violin! it’s titled, as if his reluctance to swap his instrument for cash were his greatest musical achievement. On Youtube, anecdotal descriptions of his performances seem to always contain the requisite signifiers of urban homelessness — haggard clothing, drug dependency, mental illness, etc — the same list appears everywhere I look, cited again and again with little variation. More often than not, online discussion of Landry fixates upon the gritty details of his life as a homeless busker. Make a few clicks, and it seems like that’s all there is worth talking about. But, I can’t help but wonder, could this relentless focus on the musician’s poverty be somehow missing the point? It’s time we turn the conversation to the meaning of Marc’s sounds themselves, to his performance, to his art, to his music.
In the video, his violin sounds sharp, quick and precise, just slightly out of tune in the first few seconds, it’s joyful and alive — almost too upbeat for the late night calmness that surrounds him. Eventually, his strokes become longer, deeper and more resonant, emanating like sorrow-filled whispers from the hollow of his instrument. Marc’s music echoes against the station’s cavernous walls, muffled every minute by midnight trains passing through. The song? It’s a Schubert piece that dates back two-hundred years, carrying histories of aristocratic indulgence and Romantic awe, fit to satisfy even the most refined tastes. But, Marc performs from the canons of classic rock and Austrian composition in equal measure, showing little regard for the culturally-determined hierarchies of style that separate them.
According to one online commentator, Landry’s own mother disapproved of this blurring between the boundaries of musical categories: “She didn’t want him playing rock, she wanted him to be the best classical violinist in the world.” What then, would she have thought of her son using his musical talents to gather loose change, playing Mendelssohn in the Metro, mixing precise technique with Pink Floyd? In Landry’s subway context, Schubert sounds slightly out of place — it’s as if the music were taken from its traditional domain, stolen from the grandeur of a space like our city’s Place-des-Arts. But, it’s from this very “theft” of high-culture that Marc’s performance generates its meaning.
Or at least, Jacques Attali would have heard it that way, a French thinker and author of Noise: The Political Economy of Music. “What is called music today is too often only a disguise for the monologue of power,” he writes in the introduction, arguing that music serves an idealogical function, upholding the dominant values of powerful institutions and the people who control them (15). Calling attention to the close ties between aesthetic discourses, conceptions of musical style, and hierarchies of social class, Attali suggests that our age-old conception of music — especially classical music — serves to rationalize the belief system of the ruling elites. Schubert’s compositions aren’t considered “highbrow” culture simply because they are aesthetically superior, but because economically and socially powerful listeners have used them, along with the works of other canonical composers, to distinguish themselves from the “lowbrow” working class (in fact, the whole “brow” system itself is deeply-rooted in out-of-date 19th century thought, referring to racist theories about facial features and intelligence).
The discourse surrounding musical taste is heavily invested in issues of social and political inequality, not simply disinterred judgements of aesthetic merit. Enlightenment and Baroque-age musicians are considered “good” because generations of privileged listeners have declared them to be, and the result is that in our culture, classical music operates as the soundtrack of the ruling elites. At least, acknowledging this underlying class struggle would explain one Redditor’s remark that Landry needs “a fucking tux and a stage.” As this homeless busker performs from the centuries-old canon of musical “geniuses,” he plays music that is typically enjoyed by the wealthiest and most powerful members of society, or better suited for the splendour of a space like, say, Montreal’s Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier. Performing Schubert in the subway, Landry engages in a powerful form of protest, destabilizing the social and cultural hierarchies that underly the institutions of the classical music tradition.
While Landry’s Metro performance might sound peculiar upon first listen, it does have some historical precedent, inspired by the same mentality as Luigi Russolo, a Futurist composer who lived a hundred years before our current age of smartphone-recorded songs and online symposiums. According to historian Emily Thompson, Russolo was driven by an impulse to “create music out of the noise of the modern world,” and as the story goes, audiences responded to the electronic and dissonant sounds of his orchestra with outrage, instigating a violent brawl that left many injured (136). While Russolo was controversial for bringing the the chaotic noises of the city into the orchestra, Marc Landry’s performance works by the opposite logic — he brings the sounds of high-culture into a space as common as the subway, importing the symphony right into the heart of the city.
Online commentators praise Landry for introducing Metro commuters to the classics, impressed by his capacity to produce sounds that are typically reserved for the lustrous performance halls of the cultured elite. “I’m nearly moved to tears at the craftsmanship of his musical skill,” says one listener, while others take to the forum to commend his virtuosity, impressed by his ability to “play almost anything.” Mostly, participants of the dialogue on Reddit are in awe of Landry’s talent, profoundly moved by his “feeling, expression and soul.” While Russolo’s break from the traditional norms sparked riots, Landry’s performance inspires feelings of reverence within listeners, a response that signals our culture’s changing attitudes towards the function and significance of classical music. Comparing the differing receptions of Russolo and Landry’s performances, noise is proven to be a non-objective phenomenon, one that is subject to the flux of passing time and changing tastes. As one person nods their head to the rhythm of a catchy song, another person might struggle to discern harmony in the chaos of unorganized sound. Simply put, to have meaning, music must be heard, and in the case of Marc Landry’s online fandom, listeners make out the sounds of musical expertise, emotional depth and unlikely genius.
But, can we hear the sounds of subversion as well? In his performance, Landry undermines the authority of the Société de transport de Montréal, the government-run organization that regulates Metro spaces, outlining strict policies about the types of performances allowed within them. In Section VIII of Règlement R-036, a by-law that is available online in French, the STM stipulates that “musical and lyrical performances are forbidden within a Metro station, unless permission is otherwise provided.” Granted, some musical performances are permitted so long as they adhere to the guidelines of the “Musicians in the Metro” program, an initiative that enables local musicians to perform in designated spaces for specific periods of time. But, in his own Metro performance, Marc sits at the center of the Lionel-Groulx platform, playing his violin in a space that prohibits it, without a kernel of respect for the various rules and regulations of the STM. As Marc plays his violin, we hear a spirit of rebellion and social protest, listening as he boldly challenges the authority of this city-run institution.
Landry critiques the city’s cultural institutions as well, liberating Schubert’s music from the confines of establishments like Place-des-Arts, he allows it to generate new meanings within the underground space of the subway station. In the process, Marc breathes life into a nearly forgotten history of public music practice, harkening back to centuries-old accounts of street performers and jongleurs — that is, the music-makers who operate apart from society’s rich and powerful institutions. According to Jacques Attali, the street performer was subject to a decline in social status in the 16th century, at a historical moment when “he became the village minstrel, an ambulant musician who was often a beggar, or simply an amateur who knew how to sing or play the violin” (17). As music became more tightly bound-up within the rituals of the royal court and religion, the people’s musician was forced into the margins of society, becoming an outcast, a rebel, a vagrant, and eventually, fading into the background of the culture. That is, until Marc Landry brings the figure back to the fore, even if it’s only for the duration a brief violin performance.
Like the street performers who came before him, Marc Landry could be a minstrel, a figure whose subway performance updates an age-old archetype for our modern times. Situated far-away from the concert hall, he plays the classics with precision and passion, familiarizing us with the sounds of high-society without any of the frills. In the process, he connects Metro commuters to a rich cultural history that they are increasingly alienated from. “He even told me that he adapted his songs specifically for the people listening to him in the Metro,” writes one Youtuber in the description of a video, highlighting his role as a musician for the people. Less a busker and more a bard, Marc introduces our ears to the sounds of the past — preserving our culture’s musical history at a time when it risks being forgotten, lost amidst the never-ending innovations of remix technologies, apps and .mp3s.
In his Metro performance, Marc Landry interrogates the class divisions and cultural hierarchies entrenched within our city’s musical institutions, engaging in a powerful display of social protest as he stirs-up the sounds of dissent with his violin. Still, his music is a glowing testament to the beauty and eloquence of the classical canon, one that he plays in the Metro to exemplify the skill, intelligence and emotional depth of our city’s socially outcast culture of buskers. In the process, Marc Landry makes Montreal’s invisible SDF population audible, enticing listeners to hear their city with new ears, attuned to the subversive sounds that emanate from his violin.
Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Translated by Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.
Thompson, Emily. The Soundscape of Modernity: Architectural Acoustics and the Culture of Listening in America 1900-1930. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002.