The Gowanus Canal may have been declared a “public nuisance” back in 1877 and a federal Superfund site in 2010, but this summer it’s also the city’s most unlike concert venue. As part of Make Music Day, the largest music festival on the planet, avant garde musician Elliott Sharp will lead a flotilla of 10 canoes down the waterway for a 90-minute solo guitar concert at dusk.
“From the very first year, we’ve been doing some crazy things,” says James Burke, executive director of Make Music New York, which returns on June 21.
The founder of it all, Make Music Alliance’s Aaron Friedman, brought the holiday to New York in 2006 after visiting Paris during Fête de la Musique, the famous day-long festival of music that takes over the city’s streets. And he wasn’t looking to start small here. “At the time I was the producer of the Central Park SummerStage festival,” recalls Burke, “and I first met Aaron when he called me up because he was looking to activate a program in Central Park from rowboats on the lake.”
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Make Music New York, now in its 12th year, spans more than 1,000 concerts in public spaces throughout the five boroughs from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., always free and open to everyone. The festival is held in more than 800 cities in 120 countries worldwide on the longest day of the year, the Summer Solstice.
Though there are special concerts like Sharp’s all over the city, Make Music is unique among music festivals because it’s primarily about inviting everyone to, well, make music.
Pick up an instrument at one of the Mass Appeal concerts around the city, where groups of musicians stage impromptu single-instrument like a banjo march around Governors Island, a guitar jam session in Union Square Park and ukuleles in Central Park. Sing some of your favorite Abba tunes with live backing at the Mamma Mia Sing-Along Truck, or go more soulful at the Stevie Wonder Piano Bar in East Harlem. Street Studios invites passersby to collaborate on original tracks with DJs and producers.
“The mission of Make Music New York is to celebrate local musicians and empower them with the opportunity to perform in unique outdoor settings and hopefully make some new fans,” he says. “And at the same time, we’re really trying to connect communities by activating the city’s shared social spaces, which are so crucial to the lifeblood of what makes New York so great.”