Posts Tagged ‘new york’

Field recording; buskers, NY subway

Posted 14 Nov 2010 — by Jonathan
Category General

On my last morning in New York, before my connecting flight to SLC, I jumped on the subway at Prince St to go up to Central Park, and just as I boarded, so did a group of buskers, who began a rendition of ‘My Girl’. The standard response to buskers on the subway is, of course, to look down and ignore them. But these guys had grins breaking on people’s faces and toes tapping – even if they still weren’t giving up any cash. By chance, I had my Zoom H1 in my hand, so I pressed record.

Listen!

Review; Lou Donaldson live in the Village

Posted 11 Nov 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Music, Share, Travel

Wow, on my last night in New York City I did something I’ve meant to do for some time but never quite got round to, mainly because I’ve never quite known where to start, wanting to take in some proper NY jazz, but not wanting to do it in some aneasthetised tourist spot, paying an arm and a leg for the pleasure. Once or twice I’ve nearly gone to some heavily advertised jazz club, but never felt it was the right option. On Friday, having gone for a couple of drinks in the Village after work, I set off back towards my hotel at about eight o’clock, intent on giving up my last night for some well deserved rest – an early night.

Walking back towards where I thought the subway station was, I passed under a delapidated red awning. Glancing up I read the venue’s name. ‘The Village Vanguard’. It was a name I vaguely recognised, but I thought nothing more of it and kept walking. I must have walked another couple of hundred yards before I realised I was headed in the wrong direction. I turned around and retraced my steps. This time, as I passed the venue, I glanced absent-mindedly towards the doorway, and a sign stopped me in my tracks. Hand written in marker pen on a piece of white paper: Lou Donaldson.

I’m a long way from being a jazz specialist, but I know that name well. Donaldson is one of jazz’s greatest alto saxophonists. A student of Charlie Parker’s, his soulful, populist Blue Note jazz puts him up amongst the absolute masters of his art, even if fashion moved away from him (the good humoured octagenarian cheerfully derides ‘fusion and con-fusion’ from the stage). The opportunity to see him live, in exactly the sort of small, run-down, bohemian venue I always imagined hearing jazz was obviously too good to miss.

I opened the doors and went in, clambering down the stairway to a small, bustling room, carpeted in red with photos of jazz heroes covering the walls. Tickets were $30. I held out three notes and smiled excitedly at the guy on the door.

“Do you have a ticket?”, he asked. I shook my head. He shook his head. Damn.

But not all hope was lost; if I headed up to the awning, he explained, there was a reserve queue. If I waited there, they’d let me in in an hour if the place wasn’t full. Ugh. I headed upstairs. There were already eight or nine people stood at the awning. I weighed up my options, and stretched my fingers experimentally in the cold Manhatten air. It might be a long wait. I decided to stick it out.

About 40 minutes later, starving, very cold and desperate for the loo, I began feeling a bit negative about things – not least because a steady stream of people, clutching tickets, were heading through the door. The reserve queue was up to about 15 people. Suddenly, a man – broad shouldered and shaven-headed – veered towards me. I stepped back, hoping to avoid an exchange. He said something about a ticket. I wasn’t sure if I heard right. Happily, he repeated it.

“You want a free ticket buddy?”, he asked.

As the guy placed a ticket in my hand, explaining that someone he’d been supposed to be bringing had dropped out, I grinned and thanked him. To my right, someone said – in a tone of voice which suggested they weren’t entirely pleased for me – “you got lucky”.

I certainly did. Five minutes later I was sat downstairs watching Lou Donaldson and his band take to the strange. Donaldson is relatively frail, as one might expect of his advanced years, but his playing is just magnificent, and his range, tone and power is completely undiminished. He’s also a born entertainer, whipping the crowd up with jokes and anecdotes, every inch the performer. He brought a physical, crowd-pleasing quality to jazz which I don’t think I knew existed – this wasn’t cerebral, although it was undoubtedly complex. This paradox is, I think, what I get out of jazz. Compared to many of his peers, Donaldson is conservative by nature – he even has a pop at Miles Davis for ‘stopping playing jazz’ at one point, but it’s truly remarkable that within his populist boundaries he still creates sounds so dazzlingly inventive and unorthadox. On several occasions his playing reduced the audience to open-mouthed expressions of wonder. The applause he received after each solo was as warm as it was awed.

At the best moments, I think I captured something of the experience of jazz which I was craving – something rich, physical, incredibly harmonious and welcoming. Thank god I was given that ticket. On a few occasions I glanced over to the bar, where I spotted my benefactor. Of every person in the club, he seemed the most enthusiastic; dancing ecstatically on his bar stool and hollaring his approval. THANKS.

Here’s the last three or four minutes or so of Donaldson’s set – a nice rich recording too; my Zoom H1 always picks up brass instruments really well.

Speak your actions

Posted 06 Nov 2010 — by Jonathan
Category General, Observations, Photos

I’m writing this in a pub in the West Village, not far from the Hudson. I arrived in New York on Tuesday, and since then I’ve noticed one disturbing but inevitable thing. Each time I come here – this is my fourth trip – it feels less like a wonderful holiday, where I socialise a little with my American colleagues, and more like a work trip, where I temper a concentrated burst of quite testing work with moments of reprieve in the city. That’s not to say that I’m not enjoying myself, but it’s a pity of sorts to discover that New York is not a playground, after all.

It’s autumnal here, but not so dramatic, in the New England sense. The trees are dipping towards the colours of rust though, inevitably. Tomorrow I’m going to head up to Central Park, which is invariably the part of my trip I never plan for, but often enjoy the most. Other things – watching the skyline from Dumbo, shopping in Tribeca, I may have to leave ‘til next time. Thus far I’ve not really engaged with the city’s wider spaces, so it’s been a few days of packed delicatessens in SoHo, busy bookshops, bustling storefronts in Chinatown. I’ve sought refuge, to an extent, in the fact that I now know this city relatively well, so I can head straight to places which are reliably lovely – the Housing Works Bookstore, Shakespeare and Co and McNally Jackson for books, Other Music for records. Here – the White Horse on Hudson St – for an end-of-work drink.

The abiding memory of this trip, I think, will be the election. It’s not my job, as a liberal outsider, to weigh into these matters, but it’s hard not to conclude that America is making an incredible mistake jettisoning the spirit of optimism that came with Obama’s election. I’m prepared to accept that he has not been the revolutionary leader people were looking for, but it’s such a failure of the imagination to elect someone on the basis that they might deliver change, then judge them so early, when its seems so obvious that change of the nature that Obama promised would take so many years. As is so often the case, self-interest guides the electorate – it does in England, too.

I watched the election results come in – some of them – in a bookshop in SoHo. New York, like California, I bet, feels pretty weird at the moment. The coasts must wonder at the middle, must feel so separate. At work my boss wearily complained ‘I’ve decided to become a Republican – it’s so much easier’.

Yesterday, before I headed up to the University of Columbia, I checked in to the Strand Bookstore off Union Square to get some books, and spotted this graffiti on the walk up from Astor Place. I guess this guy – a lonely conservative in liberal NY – feels like his fellow New Yorkers do, when they check the Midterm results.

Angels of New York

Posted 21 Jun 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Photos, Share

There’s something about my enthusiasm for Anthony Gormley that isn’t intellectual or aesthetic at all – it’s a learned feeling which I think I must have developed as a teenager, visiting the North East; the the birthplace of my parents. Gormley’s Angel of the North arrived at the right time for me; a work of art I instinctively got; something big and impressive – meaningful, political and wistful simultaneously. My dad explained how it was important that it paid tribute to the industrial heritage of the North East, but most of all it felt important – at a time when it was particularly fashionable to decry modern art – that the people of Gateshead and Newcastle so enthusiastically welcomed it. Geordies know the value of local pride and the value of loyalty, so they quickly wrapped the Angel in an Alan Shearer shirt.

So I’ve always had time for Gormley – the same way I do for Newcastle United. I want him/them to do well. And he does good work consistently – even if he’s repeated himself and pursued a vision so doggedly it’s become over-familiar, I think he understands public art better than most, and instinctively makes art human, which is innately valuable. Event Horizon, a touring exhibit made up of life-size, cast iron and fibreglass models of his own body, is a brilliant example of what he does best. Having missed it in London, and never seen the comparable Another Place in Merseyside, I was really excited about seeing the figures – placed discreetly or imposingly, high or low – in Madison Square when I visited New York last month.

So I wasn’t surprised at the extent to which I loved the piece. Although they are wonderfully still, the statues inspire constant interaction, whether in a tactile sense at ground level, or, most excitingly up high, where one must strain one’s vision, scan the horizon in search of them. At first, I sought them out keenly, searching the tall buildings for the figures, and then began, in a more leisurely way, to slowly examine the skyline, to see parts of the city I’d otherwise surely ignore. The men themselves – they seem far more real than statues – are startling. Grounded, they are like silent sentries, motionless amongst the hubbub of the city. They attract people to them, who stop and stare. They reach for their cameras, or reach out a hand to cup an iron shoulder blade or, inevitably, laughing, the moulded genitalia.

Raised from street level, their stillness, and their proximity to the edge at such grand heights, is nerve-wracking. They seem poised to jump, and no amount of reasoning entirely dispels the frisson of concern their positioning provokes. It’s funny how hard it is to unlearn the lessons we’ve all been taught. Stand back from the edge. With each sighting I felt a ripple of unease. But the unease is tempered by excitement at seeing a new relationship of sorts between a city and a human form. From what I could tell, others seemed to feel the same way. Gormley has created a really fascinating, involving, thought provoking work. I hope it moves on somewhere where it can alter another familiar landscape is another, unfamiliar, way.

A night out in Williamsburg

Posted 30 May 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Music, Travel

On my first night back in New York earlier this month, I decided to try something outside Manhatten. In all the times I’ve been to New York I’ve managed to do a bunch of sightseeing, I’ve caught a series of pretty good gigs, but I’ve always stayed in the comfort zone of the areas I know. So I figured that I’d head over to Williamsburg and see Real Estate at Monster Island, supported by a bill of fellow New Jersey bands. I caught the L Train over the river and spent five minutes standing on Bedford Avenue trying to figure out which way to walk. It was already dark by the time I arrived, with rain steaming up my glasses and adding weight to my clothes. Bedford Avenue itself is just awesome; a lively, colourful thoroughfare with great cafes, bars, foodie hangouts and record stores. Turning south, and towards the East River, Brooklyn became quiet – I strolled through deserted streets, becoming slightly disconcerted by the remote route I was taking.

In the end, Monster Island was pretty hard to find. Essentially an unmarked, unsignposted basement in an old factory building down by the river, I only found it by anxiously circling the deserted looking building a couple of times ’til I spotted some kids so conspicuous in their hipster attire that they could only possibly be looking for the same place. They swanned up to a big metal door and strolled straight in. Feeling stupid – I’d walked past it a couple of times – I followed them in.

The venue was terrific; a sweaty, brick-lined bunker styled as a venue in only the most cursury of ways, it contained a bar which was essentially a plank of wood propped up on stool, a huge sofa so knackered that one collapsed to almost floor level when one fell back into it, and a little stage accompanied by an enormous, floor-rattling PA system, tonight playing nothing but antique African funk and psychedelic rock. Feeling slightly awkward for being on my own, but nevertheless excited to be in such a strange, intense little venue, I ordered a beer and waited patiently – and for quite some time – for the first band to come on.

Liam The Younger were dreadful at first; heavy, directionless garage rock for three or four minutes, then steadily better and better from that point on, to the point where I was grinning like a maniac by the end, my good humour compensating for me the sheer shock of the volume right up next to the speaker. The band, led by the pissy, prissy and titular Liam, played a purposeful, skilled and bad-tempered set of loose indie rock, somewhere between Bob Dylan and late Pavement. Between songs Liam stared annoyed at his bandmates, poured sarcastic scorn on the audience, and played some mesmerising songs. Very excited about this guy – he had that classic indie rock chip on the shoulder, cf Malkmus, but could really write and play. Great stuff.

Up next were two band who were impressive but nothing amazing. Big Trouble played noisy, dextrous dream pop, but they seemed to be intent on reproducing the early work of the young Boo Radleys; an odd choice, given they had the power to think bigger. I amused myself by working out which song from ‘Everything’s Alright Forever’ they were re-working on each track, and singing the original lyrics along loudly. Family Portrait, pictured below, were much better, but not my sort of thing at all – heavy surf-rock mixed with garage rock and pysch. Expertly performed, but I got rid of Nuggets box-set years ago.

Real Estate made up for it. Their music is wonderfully vivid; extremely pretty, harmonic, hypnotic compositions which I witnessed open mouthed through a sudden fog of pot smoke, the room shimmering and throbbing before me. Their trebly, tremulous guitars wash over everything, but their success is achieved by the shape and balance of their songs, which are actually driven by a really accomplished rhythm section – psychedelic indie with a lovely even keel. They’re capable, too, of really lovely turns of phrase, which always helps.

“Suburban dogs get afraid when it rains,
Suburban dogs bark at slow moving trains.
They’ll run from your house and come back the same day
Suburban dogs are in love with their chains”.

Show over, and a touch effected by the sequence of beers and the sweet, arid scent of the air, I stumbled out into Brooklyn and strolled euphorically through the streets, by now getting absolutely hammered with rain. Somehow, eventually, I found myself back on Bedford Avenue and soon after awoke, smiling, totally refreshed (but slightly mystified how I got back) in my hotel room, with Manhatten once more washed clean and sunny.

120 Hudson Street

Posted 04 May 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Photos, Travel

Down in Dumbo

Posted 20 Apr 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Observations, Photos, Travel

All being well – in other words, assuming that the signs are tomorrow morning that there’s a fair to middling chance of flights restarting – tonight may be my last night in New York, and that fact didn’t really sink into ’til about 7 o’clock tonight when, gazing out of my hotel window, I realised I had perhaps an hour of light to get out and about in. Pretty much by a process of prior elimination (I’ve now ‘done’ – in the most elementary a fashion – most of NY), I picked a place I’ve never been and piled out of my hotel and onto the Subway.

The place I picked was Dumbo, the contained, art-loft dominated enclave just over the East River (the acronym stands for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass), an area I plumped for because I dimly remembered it being a lively place for graffiti. As it happened, I didn’t see any, largely because as soon as I arrived I saw the enormous darkk buildings of Manhattan looming over the river and knew I had to rush North to take some photos of the skyline before the light went. I headed to the to the Empire-Fulton Ferry State Park, on the river bank.

It was truly magical – this small patch of green space takes you right down to the water’s edge, and I sat there, silently, listening to the trains buzzing past on the bridge above, and to the gentle pulse of the river washing up against the shore.

The sight was truly spectacular.

Discovering Chinatown

Posted 19 Apr 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Music, Photos, Share, Travel

As I think I’ve said before, the joy of passing from one district to the next in New York is the rich, seamless transition from one predominant culture, one predominant attitude, into another. Probably I’m seeing that through rose-tinted spectacles, as a tourist – not appreciating that for some the transition is far less painful. It’s probably so for the locals of South Bronx who see wealthy artists moving in and raising the rents, or for Italian families in Little Italy who can’t help but notice that as Chinatown grows, so their community contracts. It was doubtless once so for the many families in Tribeca, Nolita and Williamsburg that have had to move on as property prices have soared. Nevertheless, to the tourist, the endless variety of communities one ecounters in the city is remarkable.

Of all of them, Chinatown is probably the easiest to locate and get to grips with, and yet equally perhaps the hardest to interact with. It’s been a constant on my trips to NY, somewhere I’ve always gone, and somewhere I’ve always been at my most touristy – taking photos, peering at food stalls, always walking, never stopping to really take in what I’m experiencing. The Canal St area is such a bustling, fast-paced neighbourhood. But last week, on the final day of my first stint in the city, I strolled South of Canal St towards the Financial District and, appreciative of the blazing sun, found myself taking a break in Columbus Park. It was just as busy as everwhere else in Chinatown, but the provision of benches, and grass upon which to sit, gave me an opportunity for a breather and gave me, in turn, one of my happiest travel moments. Having weaved through the crowds, and admired the many, complex board games being played by the locals, I found a seat and watched a traditional Chinese band set up their instruments and pass around reams of sheet music.

It would be very easy to accuse me of cultural tourism – only engaging with something if I encounter it packaged up and prettified in an outdoor space, and I’m consious too that claiming to love a style of music so far removed from the Western tradition makes me sound positively pretentious. But sat in the sun, watching groups interact, games unfold and listening to cascades of strange, beautiful notes and thunder-clap cymbals, I felt like I was experiencing a moment of real beauty, and marvelled at the sound of the songs I heard. Very short clip, below.

Stay warm

Posted 18 Apr 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Photos, Travel

ash and immobility

Posted 18 Apr 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Observations

Well, time for a quick update on my whereabouts, I think, seeing as it’s fairly obvious that I’m still in the US with no immediate certainty about when I’m getting back (although just seen this, the first optimistic prediction about UK airspace re-opening).

For those of you living in a cave, an erupting volcano in Iceland – and the resultant ash belched into the atmosphere – has effectively cleared Western Europe of planes, meaning that those of us fortunate or unfortunate enough to be abroad are effectively trapped ’til the skies clear. Happily, I’m in New York, whereas two days ago I was in Atlanta, which is a terribly warm, but terribly boring place in comparison. I was due to fly back from JFK on Friday, but obviously was unable to, so I’ve checked into a cheapo hotel in Chelsea and am sitting out this unlikely delay.

Will try to get this blog up to date while I’m here, but you may have to cope with a bit of chronological uncertainty, as I review various bits and bobs that I’ve done in both NY and Atlanta, almost certainly in the wrong order.

Nolita wall paintings

Posted 11 Apr 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Photos, Travel

The more I write about the disparate districts of New York, the more likely I am to declare each and every one of them my favourite; but another that always inspires me when I’m here is Nolita; a tiny little community north of Little Italy (hence the name), it’s vibrant, fashionable, and everything is probably terribly expensive. This difficulty can be circum-navigated if, however, you only do what I do – which is shuffle through the bustling streets watching for people, windows and – especially – walls.




Mirror / Dash

Posted 11 Apr 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Music, Reviews, Travel

Family Bookstore is a terrific little arts bookshop based in Los Angeles, and this month the owners are running and curating a little pop up shop in NY’s Chinatown; it’s ostensibly mid-way between a shop, a gallery, and an impromptu arts space, and I went down there last night to go through the books, admire the pictures and – most importantly – to enjoy a live performance by Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, who treated the small hipster audience to a 40 minute wall of feedback and guitar noise.

Playing in the corner of a high ceilinged, white-walled warehouse, they started quietly, sat over their guitars, sawing and scraping at the strings with nail files and drumstricks, occasionally picking out shards of fractious counter-melodies with their fingers. Gordon was the most demonstrative, occupying centre stage, sometimes sat, rocking her guitar back and forth, colliding it into her amplifier, sometimes standing, arched over the mic whispering phrases into the ether. Her tired, expressive croon is a marvellous instrument in itself – at times I thought I heard it, but it was just the sound of Thurston wringing a squeal of feedback from his guitar. Sometimes Gordon would yelp ‘let’s dance’ – a counter intuitive invitation if ever I heard one, for the music was as experimental and formless as any you’ll be likely to hear.

For all that, however, the musical and personal bond betweem Kim and Thurston is so profound, so developed, that the music never seemed pointless or pretentious. It was explorative, enthusiastic, rather than high-minded. And it actually sounded extremely beautiful sometimes – an other-worldy, cacophonous orchestra of cicadas one minute, a soundscape of echo the next. Once or twice Kim played a formal riff for a minute or two, and the whole thing began to churn with the rhythmic intensity of Neu!, only for a deliberate or accidental hum to lead the pair snaking in another direction.

Mindblowing stuff.

Heel disintegration

Posted 08 Apr 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Travel

The heels of my shoes arch slightly, the shape curved, a thin band of wood and rubber worn down by my ever-so-slightly off-centre way of walking. On my left shoe, the left hand side of the heel is eroded. On my right, the right. This must mean, I have concluded, that I walk with my feet pointing outward. I am like the cheerful cockney on an old music hall stage.

Much of my heel, part of my shoe, has been sliced and scraped into the paving stones of Manhattan. I walked for hours, yesterday – long thick, springly roads, yielding in the baking sun; back and forth past cafes and bars; down thin passages and across squares teaming with students from NYU, neighbourhood drunks, afternoon chess. As I mentioned before, you wouldn’t believe how hot it is here. It got as high as 92°F yesterday. As I stumbled through East Village, neck craned to catch sight of the heavy blossom, bending the brances, and the iron and steel of the staircases, snaking up the houses, I wondered to myself, “how can a city full of such tall buildings cast so little shade”.

So I back up, veer left, catch sight of some new diversion, and forget the heat, striding off excited, toes pointing outward.

Early days

Posted 07 Apr 2010 — by Jonathan
Category Observations

It didn’t occur to me to check the weather forecast before I came over to New York, as I’ve been at this time of year a couple of times and know it to be bright and cool; good, respectable, Spring weather.

Well, it’s absolutely boiling. I touched down late last night and pretty much went straight to bed, so I woke this morning caught somwhere between real confusion (where was I? what time was it?) and pure excitement (oh yeah – New York). I skipped the hotel breakfast and darted out onto the busy street.

I double checked. Maybe I really didn’t know what time it was? I was pretty sure that I’d adjusted my phone correctly, and that it was 8.30am; but it was just too hot for that. It must have been at least 25 degrees. Now, a couple of hours later, it must be at least 30. In short, it’s fantastic – but I’m woefully over-dressed, having only packed a couple of dark suits and a pair of heavy jeans. No trainers, just shoes. The perfect justification, then, for some spending.

It being early, all I could do at first was window-shop. My hotel is sat at the connecting point, pretty much, of a bunch of Manhattan’s most interesting districts. To the right is the Lower East Side. To the left sit Little Italy and the ever-encroaching, visually-intoxicating Chinatown. Just above is Nolita, which struck me last time I was here as a massively interesting neighbourhood, and to the side of that, SoHo, where I headed this morning.

SoHo is really amazing; wide streets, huge cast-iron industrial buildings, and some wonderful shops. It being early, I pressed my nose up against the glass at McNally Jackson and the Apple Store, and then headed to Cafe Bari, a lovely little cafe on Broadway, where I read the Village Voice and ate breakfast, which consisted of two eggs (over easy), bread, potato croquettes, an unbelievably tasty salad, and some little beef sausages.

That done, I tracked back through Nolita, picked up some books in McNally’s, and started planning next steps – which right now I think will have to consist of buying an entire new wardrobe…

zipless poetry

Posted 12 Apr 2009 — by Jonathan
Category Books

The other night I dropped by McNally Jackson, a really lovely independent bookstore in New York’s SoHo, to see Erica Jong read from her new collection of poems, Love Comes First. I’m a huge fan of Jong’s brilliant, fabulously rude ‘Fear of Flying’, so it was great to see her talk and a pleasure to hear her witty and wise poetry, which is simultaneously accessible and thought-provoking, as you’d expect from a writer of Jong’s stature. That’s not to say, however, that I’d swap her prose for her poems. I’ve spent much of my time in the US reading the poems of John Ashbery, and Jong is not in the same class. But that’s a mean observation to make, and perhaps an unworthy comment. What’s more important is that I really enjoyed Jong’s reading, and am very glad I caught it.

matmos, so percussion and PLOrk at the Kitchen

Posted 12 Apr 2009 — by Jonathan
Category Music, Reviews

Just back from a triumphant, deeply original concert performed by the ceaselessly inventive electronic duo, Matmos, the Brooklyn-based percussive quartet So Percussion, and PLOrk, the Princeton Laptop Orchestra, a collection of sound artists who create, with nine laptops, a symphonic avalanche of noise. The collaboration, staged over two nights at The Kitchen, a charming little venue on the outskirts of Chelsea (the one in New York, rather than London), showcased new interpretations of the artists’ own songs, as well as material from a forthcoming album they’ve created together.

And how to describe it? It’s hard to say. A member of So Percussion is the first to take the stage, and his first action is to lean over a table, take out a box of plastic toothpicks, and start sticking them into a large sweet potato. Once a few have been inserted, he begins plucking at them, noting with satisfaction that each rings with a different note. He starts picking out a melody of percussive clicks. Three bandmates join him on stage and stand around the vegetable. Each leans forward and before long they have established a hypnotic, mesmeric cycle of sounds. I can scarcely believe I’m watching four men play a root vegetable.

It’s at this stage that Matmos make their entrance; as ever Martin Schmidt looks the very image of the mannered academic, prim and serious in his neatly ironed shirt and bow tie. His colleague, Drew Daniel, arrives dressed in blazer and tie, but soon discards them; he’s far less formal; a bit of a joker. When Schmidt is explaining the use of beer cans as musical instruments, Daniel can’t resist turning on his mic – which he’s fixed up with a filter which makes him sound like Darth Vader – to interrupt his partner and get a big laugh from the audience. As So Percussion continue hammering a tune from their doctored vegetable, Matmos start piling complex squiggles and skittering beats to the mix. The sound builds and builds, simultaneously experimental, primal and funny.

This relaxed, complex but cerebral approach defines the set. The Princton Laptop Orchestra join the proceedings, wringing amazing, cascading sounds from their laptops, and each player is thoroughly distinct, courtesy of a custom designed hemispherical speaker which “emulate the way traditional orchestral instruments cast their sound in space”.

‘Aluminium Song’ begins slowly with atmospheric squeaks and squiggles, but climbs up and down through several dizzying tempo changes, organised intuitively by a rotating set of animations on the video screens, which the players patiently watch and follow. ‘Ceramic Song’ is an absolutely beautiful number which summons up thoughts of Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Gamelan in the way that So Percussion hammer out a beautiful, cyclical melody (this time played on suspended plant pots). It draws gasps from the audience in its latter stages as PLOrk contribute a simply extraordinary, unfathomable panoply of sounds through floor-mounted devices which allow long strings to be pulled up and stretched, changing sound with the players’ movements. At one point the song is so hypnotic and involving that all nine musicians, their arms cycling through the air as one, look like downhill skiers descending a mountain in unison. Jaws are dropping all around me.

The next few songs (and I started losing track of which song was which here, unfortunately) are just as good. PLOrks’s matching set of Apple laptops are clearly fitted with motion and tilt sensors, meaning that the musicians raise and lower their machines, creating an effect analogous with the bending of a string. Any notion that their highly technical approach is not every bit as real or authentic as a traditional orchestra is quickly dispelled by the sight of their highly physical, emotive performance.

One song (perhaps ‘Boomdinger’, perhaps ‘Inlayers’) begins with dark washes of synthesisers and a steady electronic pulse that recalls something early on Warp Records, but switches tack suddenly to embrace a lush, deeply organic collage of faux-natural sounds. PLOrk’s laptops begin to talk to one another, each emitting a different sound, somewhere between a animal’s grunt and alien song, and the musicians face each-other, responding carefully and offering their voices as if in the most natural of conversations. One member, whose laptop offers up a sound like a lamb’s bleat, begins to sweep his laptop down towards the floor, laughing, and enjoying the way the sound rushes through the registers. Suddenly the noise is anguished. The screen, by now showing leaves nestling in water, consolidates the deeply bucolic noise filling the room. The song ends with the sound of rain, and newspapers and bin-liners being scrunched up and torn up close to the microphones. It’s just stunning.

This is an unqualified recommendation, in case you hadn’t guessed. I’d love to know how different these guys sound from show to show, as so much tonight seemed intuitive and improvised – and yet so often sounds came together with such perfect precision that it seemed impossible not to observe great deliberation being employed. Either way, this was a collaboration that was deeply musical, deeply arty, and deeply enjoyable. Am already excited at the idea that this lot might come over to the UK sometime soon.

amid the noise

Posted 11 Apr 2009 — by Jonathan
Category General, Travel

I seem to have oriented my visit to New York around the Hudson River – it’s been my most consistent and regular landmark, a kind of distant light that always let’s me know where I am. This isn’t a spiritual observation. Most evenings I’ve been in the West Village, or Chelsea, and on each occasion the sun has set magnificently over the nearby river, drawing me closer on my wanderings. Tonight I’m sat outside The Kitchen, an arts space on W 19th St, and the sun is throbbing over to my left. I’m waiting for a show by So Percussion and Matmos, which promises a showcase of “the range of colors and expressive possibilities of percussion, from subtle, quiet gestures to raucous, no-holds-barred explosions of sound”. The literature makes sure to point out that Matmos craft sound from “amplified crayfish nerve tissue”, which sounds like a warning of sorts…

view from hoboken

Posted 10 Apr 2009 — by Jonathan
Category Photos, Travel

you bet

Posted 09 Apr 2009 — by Jonathan
Category Observations, Travel

I’m so ridiculously suggestible. I’ve only been in the US for a few days and I’m already picking up figures of speech (if not the accent). I just went round to talk to a colleague for a few minutes and ended up agreeing to do some work for her; as I left she said “thanks a lot”, and I replied – as if it was the sort of thing I always said – “you bet!”.

I’m turning into an American!!!

tribeca film festival

Posted 09 Apr 2009 — by Jonathan
Category Uncategorized


Turns out I’m staying in TriBeCa the week before their big film festival, meaning that the area is buzzing with expectation, with lots of activity evident as people prepare for a week of premieres and parties. I’m annoyed I won’t be here – it looks really exciting. For those of you who like looking at these things from afar, rather than from just around the corner, here’s the programme. Why not imagine the films you’d see if you were here? That’s what I’m doing.