While most Miami commuters wrestle with traffic to claim a space on the road, local musician Juraj Kojs steps onto Metrorail, which runs a skeletal route along one of the county's primary transportation corridors. Like his fellow passengers, the 40-year-old Kojs uses the train to get from place to place. But he also uses it for inspiration.
For an attentive ear, trains have a rich sound environment: announcements, beeps and dings, and cars rolling over the tracks. For Kojs, a musician and performance artist, it's all raw material. He recently recorded Metrorail's rhythmic pattern and transcribed it into a musical composition. Bang for the Train, the resulting performance project, is both a love song for public transportation and a campaign for change.
Kojs has been a full-time Miami resident since 2011. He has insisted on using public transportation, sometimes past the point of practicality. He knows the routes well — he can list six possible combinations of cars, buses, and trains to get from his Miami Beach home to the University of Miami in Coral Gables, where he works as a professor. By public transportation only, he says, the round-trip commute takes three hours. He experimented with taking this time-consuming route for almost a year but eventually gave up and incorporated a borrowed car for one section of the trip to cut travel time. By choice, he has not owned a vehicle since 2002.
For most locals, commuting on public transport is possible but inefficient. According to 2010 U.S. Census data, roughly 4 percent of the South Florida population commutes via mass transit. Compare that figure to the 30 percent ridership in New York City. Miami's culture fetishizes cars, but with the city's rapid upward and outward growth, lax traffic enforcement, aggressive and distracted drivers, and traffic congestion ranking as some of worst in the nation, an upgraded transportation system is due. The Miami-Dade Metropolitan Planning Organization, which bears responsibility for the upkeep and expansion of the county's highways and mass transit, voted unanimously in February to bump transit improvements to highest priority, in response to an urgent need. Their current tactics are laid out in the so-called SMART plan, including two, five, and 20-year projections, incorporating research on successful public transportation systems elsewhere, and soliciting the public for ideas.
Bang for the Train is Kojs' contribution to the conversation. It is designed as a recurring performance event, with train-inspired rhythms played in multiple locations around the city. The music is generated not only by his professional percussion ensemble but also by the people in the audience. In Kojs' ideal vision of the project, he imagines people all over Miami making noise to raise awareness and summon a better transportation system, like a massive rain dance.
His goal has led him to various performance venues, including art centers and public spaces. "I could envision the whole city drumming, the schools from kindergarten to university, to offices," he says. "People are playing these patterns, and they are drumming and expressing their desire for change." In planning future performances, Kojs is in conversation with the New World Symphony and Miami-Dade's Department of Transportation and Public Works. As the network of performance spaces expands, Kojs will link groups of people through shared experience, in much the same way that a train system would connect people from different neighborhoods.
Kojs' background feeds the ideas behind Bang for the Train. He was born in the former Czechoslovakia, a socialist republic until 1989, now Slovakia. In a political system favoring the communal over the individual, public transport was a staple of daily life. Although his family owned a car, they usually traveled from place to place by bus. When he later relocated to other major cities, including Bratislava and Copenhagen, Kojs observed multiple variations on public transportation. In Copenhagen, for example, he says, "when they see that there is a new district being created, they start planning on extending their metro and city trains to that quarter. That's something that makes sense. You create an infrastructure for all these new inhabitants of your city. It's not just building condos and places for people to live, but also building access."
His stance on public transportation in Miami is not only a protest against the current state of affairs. He also feels strongly that the communal experience of public transportation is a humanizing force that fills a basic social need. "We are group animals," he says. "We live together, we hunt together, we socialize together, so the idea of getting to places together is the most natural thing.
"Think about being in the car for whatever amount of time, driving to a place," he says. "You are by yourself, a single person locked in a cell." Cars also tend to restrict individuals to narrower social circles. As people drive from one destination to another, they are likely to be surrounded by others with very similar lives and circumstances. Kojs observes that public transportation creates a more socially and economically blended space. In cities with fully developed transportation systems, "you will see businesspeople and artists and tourists and young [people] and people of color, people of all ages" sharing their in-between time, he says. The effect is one of a larger and more inclusive sense of belonging, an antidote to separation and segregation.
"There is something about the 'I' culture: iPhones, iTunes, the celebration of individuality," he says. In the arena of transportation, "the car is that absolute control. It's your personal vehicle where you make the choices. If you are on public transportation, you really have to surrender that 'I,' that egoistic view of the world, because in public transport, that 'I' becomes 'we.'"
In Bang for the Train, an emphasis on community is built into the structure of the piece itself. Under Kojs' direction, each performance begins with percussionists performing his musical score of the Metrorail sounds, along with a rendition of the American train classic "Wabash Cannonball." As the performance progresses, it turns into a kind of parade, with the audience following the performers through the space. While the lead percussionists hold the rhythm, audience members are given noisemakers and encouraged to bang on whatever surface they can find. The whole thing ends in a raucous participatory free-for-all.
Rather than using sophisticated instruments, Kojs chooses everyday objects to produce his scored music. In Bang for the Train's first appearance, this past May at the Miami Light Project's performance festival Here & Now, the show opened with musicians playing empty water bottles. A month later at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden, their primary instruments were empty plastic pots.
When the audience joins in, there is no pressure to perform with virtuosity. Kojs has found that people feel comfortable participating because the instruments are so familiar and because nobody gets singled out as an individual. Everybody together forms a choir of sound.
The events are freeing and fun. But as Kojs makes clear each time he introduces the performance, Bang for the Train has a purpose: to bring awareness to Miami's public transportation system with the hopes of improving it.
"In the end, it's about empowering people to have a discussion and control over how a huge part of their life in the city is shaped," he says. "I do not believe that people want to be sitting in traffic. I believe people care about the quality of their life. And I hope that's not just being optimistic. I hope that is being realistic."
Bang for the Train
For upcoming performances, visit kojs.net.