Music Where You’d Least Expect It

By Chloe Chaobal, Anchorage Press

In the tunnel near Elderberry Park in Anchorage, 23-year-old Oliver West tunes his guitar. It’s 9 p.m. The pluck of an E string rebounds off the wall. The echo creates a stir on the Coastal Trail and a cluster of people gather to watch.

West enjoys the sound and feel of the tunnel.

“Sometimes I’ll just play in here by myself,” he said. “If no one’s there, I’ll just run through some tunes. I won’t even listen to myself; I’ll listen to the echo.”

West’s inspiration for busking in tunnels came in Münster, Germany after he heard the sound of a saxophone in the distance.

“I popped my head around the corner, it was not a saxophone,” he said. “It was three old, drunk dudes wailing on these battered, old, junker guitars.”

West thought, “If these guys can do it, why can’t I?

“The thing that struck me about it was despite the fact that they sounded bad, the tunnel sounded great,” he said.

The idea of playing in a covered place resonated with him.

“Busking doesn’t necessarily feel safe,” West said. “You’re just throwing yourself out there.”

West brought the tunnel idea back home to Anchorage. Born and raised here, he has now been busking for about six months. This fall he returns to Münster, a city in Germany’s North Rhine-Westfalia region, where he’s been teaching English under a Fulbright scholarship awarded for his academic excellence. He is the tenth Fulbright Scholar from UAA in the last 10 years.

Once again, the Elderberry Park tunnel amplifies West’s melancholy acoustic songs onto the trail. His music is similar to Bon Iver, or maybe Ed Sheeran. West says he prefers to play at night. He sees his music as nocturnal.

He flips the guitar upwards, and then hits the strings, like a drum, for a song.

“I think one of the things people respond to is not what I play but how I play,” West said.

Rather than strumming, he uses his fingers to pick the notes on the neck of the guitar. The drum-like sounds create an echo within the guitar, which is doubled by the echos in the tunnel.

Skyler Catiller and her daughter Payton, watch West perform. When Catiller first heard sounds coming from the tunnel, she thought, “That’s a little creepy.”

“It was odd,” Catiller said. “I was intrigued.

Walkers, bikers, and longboarders pass by.

“Sometimes they’ll whistle or something or they’ll clap and they’ll kind of enjoy the echo,” West said.

A man continues walking, then just before he leaves the tunnel, he does a double take. It looks like he was debating whether it’s worth it to stay.

“It’s almost something you’d find in New York, not downtown Anchorage,” Kaysie Rich, a friend of Catiller, said.

“This is the first and only time I’ve ever seen anyone around town playing in the tunnel,” Catiller said. “Is it a thing, now?”

West said that the unexpectedness of his presence is what has made Anchorage his favorite city to busk in throughout his travels from Europe to Portland.

“It’s unique here and people are really stoked about it. It’s not just like, ‘Oh, there’s just another dude sitting on the street’ or whatever. It’s like, ‘Oh, there’s a guy, in a tunnel, in the middle of the night, singing these melancholy songs and things like that. That is unusual.'”

West has a passion for lyrics, poems and prose. He grew up playing music. His first instrument was the trumpet.

“But that’s years gone by, I couldn’t do it,” he said. “It would sound just like farts now. It would not be good.”

Now bass and the guitar are his primary instruments. West plays left-handed.  He played bass in the Anchorage band Tiltback and the cinematic-rock group Presque Vu. Now he’s solo. His first album Barn Burning was released on June 30, 2016 and is available on SoundCloud, YouTube and Bandcamp. The title of his album was inspired by the short story of the same name by William Falkner.

“I can tell the music is straight from the soul,” said James Gallaway.

Gallaway is one of West’s most frequent audience members. He has been watching West perform for about a month. For Gallaway, the music was profoundly unique. He’s seen how people respond to West’s music.

“At first they think he is just another folk singer, but then they listen,” he said. “They are thrown back-taken back by the melodies.”

As more people gather in the tunnel, West becomes energetic and engages with his audience. “What do you want to hear?”

His performance changes the atmosphere of the dark tunnel. It’s warm and feels safe.

“I’m not even worried about walking through a tunnel,” Catiller said.

Just as West finished a song a train passed overhead.

“Train applause!” West joked.

Published in the Anchorage Press on August 11, 2016.