Category Archives: new york city

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 (I’m not making any of this up and, no, there weren’t drugs involved). 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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Winter Finally Arrived and I Saw the Snow in Green-Wood Cemetery

Green-Wood Cemetery

I love New York in snow, and this past year winter barely arrived, so I was excited to see snow in the forecast last week. It was only a dusting, but in the morning I visited nearby Green-Wood Cemetery to walk through the grounds glimmering with snow. Here are some of my photos from the winter morning, before the flakes melted away and the paths were trodden down with visitors.

By the way, if you want to join me on some winter cemetery exploration (who knows, maybe we will get more snow and sun), I’m leading a visit to Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery next Sunday with Atlas Obscura. The theme is “The Awful Dead,” so we’ll be visiting the graves of some of the coldest hearts (for winter, of course) of mob bosses, murderers, and just horrible people, and also stopping inside the usually off-limits catacombs. So sign up!

Green-Wood Cemetery

Green-Wood Cemetery

Green-Wood Cemetery

Green-Wood Cemetery

Green-Wood Cemetery

Green-Wood Cemetery

Green-Wood Cemetery

Green-Wood Cemetery

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