Has the advent of Wi-Fi and smart phones changed the way commuters interact with the everyday subway busker? Are we simply too distracted to pay attention to the music and creativity around us? The New York Times reports: “Chris Shimojima, a filmmaker, quickly saw that Wi-Fi would allow subway buskers at different stations to be connected, and that there was a potential video project in the resulting interaction. Mr. Shimojima recruited 11 subway musicians – an eclectic ensemble that included musical saw, theremin, viola, cello, bass, guitar, trumpet, accordion, beatbox and a couple of percussionists – and commissioned Lev Zhurbin, who goes under the name Ljova, to compose a short work for them.”

Now, in a Hippo Reads exclusive, filmmaker Chris Shimojima and composer Ljova offer their statements about this project, which has captivated public attention:

Chris Shimojima:

I was a Dramatic Writing student at NYU with a reputation for being inventive and funny. Then one of my professors told me in front of the class, “More than anyone here, I feel like I don’t know you.”

This shook me enough that I started taking the assignments more seriously, using them to explore things more openly personal and transformative. The result? My peers lost interest. Their laughter and anticipation were replaced by lukewarm appreciation.

This is a professional and personal dilemma I’ve faced ever since, and one I think several filmmakers and artists understand. The more you share your soul, the less people listen. The more you pursue your interests—psychological dramas, dissecting relationships, working with actors on complex characters, creating unique rhythms and camera angles—the more anonymous you feel. There are only a select few in my generation whose neuroses can easily tap into public consciousness (Lena Dunham and Girls comes to mind). My way of doing it would be too uneasy, too much an outsider’s view; I still feel like I was born in the wrong era.

Or maybe the bigger issue is this: no matter how simultaneously unique and relatable my filmmaking can become, it still has to scream over the millions of voices all on an equal playing field now. Our world is a congested Internet world.

I never thought I’d try to fit into this overloaded world in a serious way. My mindset has been, and still is, more about creating personal work. “Signal Strength” is not particularly personal, aside from my being a New Yorker and having a background in music. I figured it’d simply be a unique piece for my reel to help me secure work as a commercial director, while I pursued my dream of making ambitious feature films.

But something happened along the way… something that probably had its roots years back, when I started working as a video editor in advertising. If you had asked me in college, I would never have considered advertising an option. Yet once I was in the middle of it, I met people that, in the best instances, could channel their creativity into something useful for the world. And I began to rethink what film and video really meant. I got back in touch with my desire for peer admiration, my desire to be a showman. I realized advertising wasn’t so much about “selling” as it was about being an influencer. At the heart of being an influencer, via a personal two-hour chamber drama or 60-second commercial, is an idea.

The most exciting thing about “Signal Strength” was neither the number of devices we used, nor the process of finding the various musicians and testing the subway wifi, nor the technological nightmare and fear that we wouldn’t pull it off. The idea itself became the motivating factor for us, and how that small idea united a diverse team. There was no brand involvement or celebrity sponsorship; we had people helping simply because they believed in it, in what we could create together. There are many fulfilling things about the act of creating, but this was something I never experienced before on my projects. If I had told them, “Hey, come support me,” they might’ve had more excuses. Instead, they volunteered to spend hours with strangers to make something they believed had power. It was bigger than us.

We weren’t trying to give people something they wanted. We wanted to show them something they didn’t realize they wanted. We took disparate elements and formed new connections, between musicians of different backgrounds, between Microsoft Skype and Apple and Samsung devices. Somehow, through a three minute video, which was humbler than my lofty screenplays and, in a sense, less about “me,” I was able to find myself.


My father, composer Alexander Zhurbin, studied under Dmitri Shostakovich in the prestigious Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) Conservatory. As a kid, I often showed pieces to my father, and while he’d offer numerous suggestions, he’d often follow them with a paraphrase from Shostakovich—“don’t revise—fix it in the next piece.”

In most of music composing I’ve done thus far, I’d follow that advice—striving to fix shortcomings in a future work rather than getting stuck on the present. During my college years at Juilliard, I grew up listening to downtown experimental music, much of it freely improvised without defined melodies, chords, or a clear sense of taste. I don’t like to second-guess myself in music, fearing that the more distilled something becomes, the less personal.

The experience of working on “Signal Strength” taught me the opposite. I wrote three completely different pieces before arriving definitively at the fourth and final “Signal Strength.” The first three drafts were overwhelmingly attempts to make a challenging piece of music, something in mixed meter, with bizarre grooves and modulations. The pieces were all different, and in retrospect a bit pigheaded—music that was more for composers than for performers or an audience. All three pieces were dinosaurs; they had no chance of taking flight.

I had nearly given up on the project—I couldn’t find a way to squeeze my personality through this assignment. There were things I wanted to accomplish musically, but the music was too difficult to put together, too complex to line up in case of signal failure underground, poor light, or just for playing by ear.

Taking one last deep breath, I went back to the source videos of the musicians for inspiration on one more piece. This time, I wasn’t out to prove that I could write a uniquely weird piece of music—I was going to write something that would make the musicians proud. I made wish lists, took notes. And then, finally, it all came together, nearly a month since the first draft.

The funny thing is, I kept revising even after Chris and I agreed on a piece of music; I kept revising the music even after it was all performed, recorded, and mixed, in the editing. The work became a huge labor of love.

“Fix it in the next piece,” Shostakovich said; “Do not fear mistakes—there are none,” said Miles Davis. And while that is all true in most cases, I am positive that the process of revising a 2-minute “Signal Strength” made me a much better composer for the road ahead.

About the Authors

Chris Shimojima

Chris Shimojima is a part-Japanese-part-Chinese-American writer, director, and video editor based in New York City. His passion for film music is what led him to visual and character-driven storytelling. He is constantly searching for new ways to combine showmanship with subtle psychological introspection. After graduating NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts with a BFA in Dramatic Writing, he joined the high-profile digital agency R/GA, where he worked as an editor on numerous viral campaigns while cultivating his skills as a writer/director of narrative short films, which have played at various international film festivals. He is currently working on his debut feature film.

Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin

Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin was born in 1978 in Moscow, Russia, and moved to New York with his parents, composer Alexander Zhurbin and writer Irena Ginzburg in 1990. He divides his time between composing for the concert stage, contemporary dance & film, and leading his own ensemble LJOVA AND THE KONTRABAND. He also has a busy career as a freelance violist, violinist, and musical arranger. Among recent projects is a string quartet for Brooklyn Rider and a commission for Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Project, arrangements for Alan Pierson and the Brooklyn Philharmonic, tenor Javier Camarena, conductor Alondra de la Parra, the Mexican songwriter Natalia Lafourcade, composer/guitarist Gustavo Santaolalla, The Knights, A Far Cry, and collaborations with choreographers Aszure Barton, Damian Woetzel, Christopher Wheeldon and Eduardo Vilaro (with Ballet Hispanico).