Strings On The Bus: Anchorage Has A Conflux

A group of chamber musicians played for nearly an hour as the 45 bus wound through town, part of a city-wide cultural event drawing crowds to a central location. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)
A group of chamber musicians played for nearly an hour as the 45 bus wound through town, part of a city-wide cultural event drawing crowds to a central location. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)

Over the weekend Anchorage experienced an “urban conflux.” If you’re not familiar with the term, don’t worry: it’s made up.

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A group of community members worked with cultural institutions and the bus system to engineer a unique project: throw a surprise party for the city. And, by some measures, it worked.

It was a strange scene stepping onto the 45 bus by the Alaska Native Medical Center campus at noon on Saturday. Aside from scattered passengers there was a jubilant-looking man in a green t-shirt handing out cards. And, at the back of the bus, a group of chamber musicians.

As the bus wound North past the university area, the lone percussionist uses the relative quiet between stops to explain why they were there.

“If you liked what you just heard, take a little bit of time out of your Saturday afternoon and join us downtown at Town Square by the Performing Arts Center,” he yelled from one end of the bus to the other. “Lot of fun, lot of different music.”

The cards handed out (which doubled as a day-pass for the bus) read, “THIS IS FIVE/THIRTY: An Urban Conflux.”

Five/thirty stands for May 30th. It is the intentionally-vague working title for the city’s first conflux, an invented term for a new, experimental event using music to change people’s behavior across the city. As I rode the 45, there were at least four other buses making their way downtown, each with its own acoustic interventions.

“We (are) trying to create a new event in city of Anchorage,” said Sasha Sagan, the volunteer in the green shirt, who handed out cards to every passenger who came aboard. “People need to understand it’s a fun, great city.”

Organizers kept the day's plans a secret, the idea being to organically draw together a whole event through music. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)
Organizers kept the day’s plans a secret, the idea being to organically draw together a whole event through music. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)

16-year-old Kristen didn’t seem moved on quite so grand a scale. However, she was amused to hear chamber music for the first time on a bus she rides a lot. “There’s more entertainment, so it’s not boring,” she said before getting off in Airport Heights.

From there, the bus stayed sparse until passengers began piling in around Mountain View. Upon realizing something was awry on board, some people appeared indifferent, a few looked annoyed by the noise and lack of seating options, and others, like George Shugunuruk, danced along in delight.

“What do you think?” I asked Shugunuruk when he took a break from jigging.

“I think it’s good, I like it,” he replied.

“Do you ride the 45 a lot?” I pressed.

“Everyday,” he said. The route picks up passengers in some tough neighborhoods, and Shugunurk said it’s the most “ornery” line he knows of in Anchorage. But, the ride was so fun he decides to change up his plans for the day and see what was in store at the park.

“I just think I’ll go down and listen to ’em,” he concludes.

The ride hit a strange juxtaposition crawling past a soup kitchen and homeless shelter on 3rd avenue, with up-tempo violin trills inside, and clusters of people sleeping in the grassy shoulders of the road just a few feet beyond. For 11-year-old Gia, sitting with the musicians, the event itself was a gesture towards social justice.

“It’s nice that they’re doing it, so that they can share (music) with the people,” she tells me. “Some people don’t get to see people play instruments all the time, and it’s nice for them to get to see that.”

Alas, Gia didn’t have her violin handy, so she couldn’t join in herself.

“I had a sleepover with my uncle, who’s playing, and I didn’t bring it,” Gia explained, looking a tad forlorn.

The bus cleared out at the Transit Center, and a number of passengers eventually floated across the street to the plaza.

Town Square Park was filled with stilt-walkers, bicyclists, hoola-hoopers, musicians, and many surprised looking civilians wandering through. Several people pounded at a large wooden marimba with mallets, accompanying the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra on a stage halfway across the plaza.

By 1:30pm on Saturday, Town Square Park was in full swing, with music, performers, and an extremely active bubble machine. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes,  KSKA)
By 1:30pm on Saturday, Town Square Park was in full swing, with music, performers, and an extremely active bubble machine. (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, KSKA)

The event came together with help from major sponsors like the Rasmuson and Atwood Foundations, as well as a small army of volunteers. But organizers were delighted by the idea that there’s not really any way to quantify its success.

“We had no idea if it would work, and it did,” said organizer Laura Oden of the conflux.

Evidence, it seems, is that a downtown park was filled with sounds and smiles on a beautiful Saturday.

Organizers are hoping to fund a documentary about event, and have set up an IndieGoGo page for donations to the project.