Down and Out With The Violin

A talk given at the Russell Library
Middletown, Connectict
April 20,2010

Roy Lisker

My mother was divorced from my biological father, Leroy Weber, in 1939, shortly after I was born. She remarried in 1948 to a professor of linguistics, Leigh Lisker. We moved from the grocery store managed by my grandparents in North Philadelphia, to a house in the downtown area at 10th and Pine. The violin had always been in the family of my step-father, and I was soon introduced to it, as can be seen from this photograph.

Although I have always been passionate about classical music, my career projections have generally been in the directions of mathematics, physics and literature. In 1968 I went to Paris, France to explore the possibilities for a literary career. It was at the time of the student demonstrations of May, 1968. Hotel rents on the Left Bank were low in those years, and I discovered that it was easy to cover them by playing street music on the two main boulevards of the Latin Quarter, the Boulevard St Michel, and the Boulevard St Germain.

The instruments I played were the wooden or plastic recorder, the violin and the guitar. I taught myself to play the guitar by writing a series of guitar etudes which I memorized and played in public. Some of these were gathered into an anthology and published by the house of Max Eschig in 1972.

This charming portrait of me was presented to me by a cartoonist on the streets of Paris.

I returned to the US in 1972.In 1976 I lived for a year in New York City and picked up street music again. This story dates from that period:Lincoln Center in July.In 1980 I moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts and began playing the violin in the subway stations of the Greater Boston area.

In 1983 I travelled to the West Coast, and played on the Mall of Boulder, Colorado before going on to Berkeley, California. I returned to Boulder several times over the next 5 years. This article about me in the Colorado Daily was published in 1985.

This picture was taken on the campus of the University of California in Berkeley. Street violin was supplemented by street poetry, which was developed into a unique form of verbal expression. "Language Compositions",a CD anthology of this poetry, was created in the Coffee House Studio of Mike Arafeh, Middletown, CT.It can be purchased from CD Baby.

In front of the Berkeley BART Station. By this time I’d discovered that one could purchase orchestra and piano accompaniments on tapes and records manufactured by the Music Minus One company. The presence of recorded accompaniments increased my performance income 5 to 10 fold, and made it possible to think of using street music as a way of underwriting major concert tours across the United States and Western Europe. My memorized repertoire also expanded. The complete repertoire is listed at Repertoire (.doc)

St Louis. This picture appeared as a full page spread in the Riverfront Times, a St Louis newspaper . Between 1986 and 1990 I travelled across the country several times, stopping in such places as Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Santa Fe, Denver, Boulder, Cincinnati, St Louis,Lawrence, Kansas Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York, the Hudson Valley, Amherst and Greater Boston.

In addition to Paris, I also played and travelled through France and along the Riviera. These are some of the cities where I performed.

These are some of the cities in Western Europe where I performed, and stayed for awhile. This was often in combination with other sources of income, since the violin alone was not enough to support me. Thus, in Chichester I was also working as a translator; in Eindhoven I was the guest of friends I’d met at the conference in Stockholm. In Brussels I was on my way to Paris.

3 Anecdotes of the Road

Monaco, 1986. Before going to the physics conference in Stockholm in July, I headed down to the Riviera for a period of violin playing and travel. June 21 is the official holiday in France known as the “Fete de la Musique". Street music is not only allowed but encouraged. I therefore set out on an itinerary which took me to Cannes, Antibes, Nice, Monte-Carlo and Menton. The slide shows the fountain in front of the famous Monaco casino; I stood on the sidewalk in front of this fountain, facing the Casino, and played Mozart concertos. The tips were generous, but a cop came up almost immediately and asked me what I thought I was doing. When I told him that it was the Festival of Music, he pointed out that Monaco was not France. I promised to leave right away, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He took me down to the police station and ordered a computer search on me to see if I’d been apprehended for any other crimes in the past.

A larger than life , much retouched photograph of Grace Kelly was hanging on the wall. I explained to this policeman and his assistant, that I also came from Philadelphia.They were informed that Grace Kelly and I had gone to the same performing arts academy, that I knew the Kelly family. Finally it was made clear to them that an article would be sent to the Philadelphia Inquirer letting the whole city know how fellow artists from Grace Kelly’s home-town were treated in her kingdom.

The cops stopped their inquiries art once and ushered me out the door. On my way out, the policeman who had arrested me commented that I must have gotten a good education at "L'Ecole des Quatre-Vents": The School of the 4 Winds!

A complete account of this momentous day can be read at Monaco

“Crazy Like A Fox" : One afternoon in the winter of 1986,after returning from Monaco and Stockholm, I was playing at a location near the Montgomery BART Station in San Francisco. I was spotted by the crew and cast of the TV series “Crazy Like A Fox", who were traveling down Market Street in a pair of trucks. The trucks quickly parked, and the director, and actors Jack Warden and John Rubinstein (son of Artur Rubinstein) came up to me and asked if I would like to be in the next episode.

I signed the consent form and a contract for $300. The crew arrived,cameras and lights arranged hurridly arranged, and we got to work. In this episode Jack Warden and John Rubinstein, a father and son duo of bumbling detectives are walking down a street in downtown San Francisco in a bad mood;after 'solving' their latest case,their car was totalled. As they turn a corner onto Market Street, they encounter me, playing a movement from a Bach unaccompanied sonata, Jack Warden peels a dollar bill from a roll in his pocket. As he tosses it in my case he snarls “Don’t spend it all in one place!" After the scene had been filmed, John Rubinstein, son of Artur Rubinstein and ever the diplomat, said “You play well!"

Perhaps, under luckier circumstances, they would have ‘discovered’ a real musician, Nathaniel Ayers, closer to home!

I've never seen this episode. The $300 arrived after a month or so. Over the following year, as I crossed the country playing in various cities, people would come up to me and ask: “Are you the violinist in ‘Crazy Like A Fox?’"

Playing for the Bolshoi Ballet.

In 1985 I received a commission to write the program notes for the production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni" by the San Francisco Opera. The payment included free tickets to its productions for a few years. On the opening night of “Don Giovanni" I stood on the sidewalk outside the opera house and played arrangements of the arias from the opera. The returns were excellent. Then I astonished everyone by closing up my case and walking in, to take a seat close to the front of the auditorium! Along Telegraph Avenue, which goes from the UC Berkeley campus to Oakland, one finds several streets lined with vendors of crafted items, clothes, paintings, pottery, and so on. In the spring of 1987 I bought a Japanese-style mask from a craftswoman stationed there. For awhile I experimented with wearing it on the streets of San Francisco and Berkeley. In this way I discovered the timeless truth that people find masks very frightening, so I stopped doing it.

However a use was found for it when the Bolshoi Ballet was scheduled to perform in the San Francisco Opera house. By asking around I learned the name of the restaurant, not far from the opera, where they would be gathering for dinner. About an hour or so before they arrived, I showed up outside the restaurant wearing the Japanese mask , with my violin, tape recorder, and music stand. All of the pieces I played were memorized, and the music stand was used to hold a large piece of poster board. On its field, written with a felt pen, was the message: “More Freedom for Russian Artists!" Then I began playing.

The members of the Bolshoi, including some very attractive ballerinas and its manager arrived. They were obviously charmed by what I was doing. The manager came up to me and hesitated about whether he should shake my hand. No doubt he concluded that even this was too dangerous, so he merely indicated by gestures that he liked what I was doing and went inside with the troupe. I played for an hour; then the maitre d’ from the restaurant came out and told me that they’d all gone inside to eat, so I closed up and went home.

Other narratives of adventures coming out of my travels with the violin can be found on Ferment Magazine:

Troubadour in Modern France

Christmas in San Francisco, 1985

Vagabond Violin

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