Category Archives: manhattan

An Evening at the Music Tapes’ Roving Circus: The Traveling Imaginary

The Music Tapes

You close your eyes and imagine walking in a forest to a tent, and inside the tent is a present, and inside the present is… what? Well, I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise, as you kind of have to be at a Music Tapes performance to really appreciate their ability to immerse fully grown adults in worlds of childlike fantasies, although fantasies which are tinged with something dark that lurks just outside the red and yellow walls of their pop-up circus tent. That darkness comes from their haunting lyrics over a deceptively simple layering of instruments that the Music Tapes, led by former Neutral Milk Hotel member Julian Koster (who’d actually sold his Neutral Milk Hotel Aeroplane Over the Sea banjo to fund the circus tent tour), along with Elephant 6 collective member Robbie Cucchiaro (who also sometimes played with Jeff Mangum’s band), have perfected. They’ve been a part of the Elephant 6 group since the 1990s and sound a bit like if you had an orchestra that suddenly found themselves with only a handful of members and a pile of instruments like saws and singing televisions to try to rebuild their music.

Paris in Bells

Throwing Pennies

Earlier this month on February 2, I went to the Music Tapes’ “Traveling Imaginary,” their current roving performance/storytelling event supporting their new album Mary’s Voice, at the Church for All Nations in Manhattan, presented by Wordless Music. On entering the church we immediately saw a circus tent taking up much of the space, and were all encouraged to try our luck throwing a penny (while blindfolded) at a bell. If you won, you got a prize (like an old key). Julian Koster also gave a solo performance on his saw atop a rolling piano before we finally all crowded into the tent. Then they set off on a rambling set mixed with stories about a mysterious game called “Evening” that you play in your sleep as a child, and a poor clown and cow performing in a circus. It all sounds kind of silly, but the band is so committed to the whimsy that you end up falling for it, too, cheering for a fellow audience member to guide a snowman’s hand to throw a snowball through the moon. A seven-foot-tall metronome even backed the band, and an automaton-organist played along.

Traveling Imaginary

Circus Tent

I’d seen the Music Tapes before when they opened for Jeff Mangum at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a performance that made me fall in love with their music, the giant set pieces and creative instruments somehow not feeling like gimmicks and their scrappy sound being as engaging musically as it was endearing. I have a ticket to see Jeff Mangum this coming Friday, and I hope to make it and see the Music Tapes open for him again, although seeing them in their own environment of the circus tent was something special. When we left the venue a soft snow was falling on the New York streets, and the fragments of lyrics from their song “Takeshi and Elijah” came into my head: “somehow we all played in musical bands/that toured through the lands/oh, they will wake you/and cover your form with old clothes/oh, they will take you into their arms/tell them the secret to snowing,” and I thought about the fake snowy glitter that had fallen in the tent and tried to evoke for us the same magic.

From another performance of the Music Tapes’ in another of their favorite venues: a stranger’s living room near Christmas:

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Happy 100th, Grand Central!

Grand Central

One of NYC’s most glorious icons turned 100 earlier this month with a whole day of festivities. I stopped by Grand Central Station to celebrate the transport terminal’s centennial on February 1, when its always-crowded main hall was absolutely packed with brass bands, ballroom dancers, a Grand Central-themed cake, and, of course, the commuters wondering why this was all happening.

While the train center’s official name is Grand Central Terminal, most everyone calls it Grand Central Station, which was the name of the transit hub it replaced in 1913. Around 150,000 people flooded in on its opening day, and there was almost universal love for its soaring Beaux-Arts design and stately halls. The original 1871 station had to be replaced after steam locomotives were banned from the city (a gruesome train collision in 1902, in which two trains “telescoped” and killed 17, played no small part in the renovation and rebuild).


At the time it was built, it was the largest train station in the world. (It has long been surpassed, and I think Nagoya Station in Japan is currently in the lead.) It’s still the grandest in New York, and one of the few of our transit centers that is actually a beautiful place. (Sorry new Penn Station and Atlantic-Pacific,  you’re sort of dreary.) One of its most stunning features is the terminal clock, which, since its four sides are made from Tiffany glass, is estimated to be worth millions. There’s also the starry mural above with its zodiac constellations, illuminated by bulbs that have to be replaced from the attic, which is almost 50 feet above the floor.

Grand Central Exhibit

If you weren’t able to make it to the birthday (which also included snacks at 1913 prices), there’s a wonderful exhibition called Grand By Design on the station in its Vanderbilt Hall through the middle of March. There are all sorts of centennial events throughout the year (I’ve personally most excited about Nick Cave’s soundsuit horses), so I’ll have to keep an eye out during my commutes.

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The Celestial Beauty of the Eldridge Street Synagogue

Eldridge Street Synagogue

Walking on the Lower East Side in dreary weather, I decided to take shelter inside the Eldridge Street Synagogue, a place I have long meant to visit. The gorgeous building was originally constructed back in 1887 and was the first synagogue to be established by Eastern European Jews in the United States. While for around five decades it was thronged with people, a dwindling congregation in the neighborhood resulted in the main hall that you see above being abandoned in the 1950s. An extensive restoration that started in the 1980s brought it back to its old world glory and it was reopened to the public in 2007, still operating as an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, but also serving as a historical site as the Museum at Eldridge Street. The last of the restoration details was finally finished in 2010.

Eldridge Street Synagogue

The synagogue looms quietly among the low tenements and bustling businesses on the edge of Chinatown. The stately architecture is a mix of Gothic, Romanesque, and Moorish (especially in the interior), with rose windows and ornate details within and on its brick and terra cotta exterior. It was designed by two German Catholics, Peter and Francis William Herter, who went out to build other structures in the area as a sort of extension of the style of the synagogue, so if you keep an eye out on the Lower East Side you might see some tenement buildings with the Star of David or other synagogue-like touches. Overall, it feels like a very proud building, and it was built to be a testament to the hopes for the future of the immigrants in the new world and the strength of their beliefs.

Eldridge Street Synagogue

Eldridge Street Synagogue

There are guided tours, but I was there late in the day so I opted to wander around on my own. Much of the wood in the building has been their for over a hundred years, and you can see in the wear of the staircases, benches, and floors the phantom movement of the thousands who have been there before.

Eldridge Street Synagogue

Eldridge Street Synagogue

From the second story, which is the section for women during Orthodox services, you get the best view of the absolutely stunning stained glass window that was part of the restoration. It’s a celestial swirl of stars created by artist Kiki Smith with architect Deborah Gans, and seems to absorb the star details on the painted ceilings and shades of blue in the smaller stained glass and then project it all back in a way that’s strangely galactic and entrancing.

Eldridge Street Synagogue

Eldridge Street Synagogue

It’s hard to imagine how transporting it would have been to be a newly arrived immigrant in chaotic and grimy  19th century New York and to suddenly step into this soaring room of arches and swelling space rising to 50 feet at the highest dome, and gas-lit chandeliers hovering above their heads. Even today it feels like you are suddenly somewhere else in the quiet peace only interrupted by the creaking of the old floorboards.

Eldridge Street Synagogue

I definitely recommend a visit to the Eldridge Street Synagogue, especially if you are looking for an escape from the cold winter days into warm place where you can stare into a cosmic portal spiraling above a 19th century relic of New York’s rich history.

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