Posts Tagged With: New York

New York, New York. Part 1. Discovery.

My readers would normally expect me to write on Ireland.   But I have family in California, so I visit occasionally.  And of course I take my camera and my pen with me (as well as my fiddle!).

I have come to love New York.  I was so impressed with much there and I started writing a blog on two great galleries in that city. But as I wrote I realised I had never really spoken about my impressions of the City itself. So in the long tradition of horses and carts it is time to redress that. I’m calling this Part 1 and will talk in Part 2 about the Met and MOMA which was really what I wanted to write about in the first place.

My priority in discovering a new city for the first time is to walk the streets without any plan. I only pay cursory attention to guide books preferring to stumble over a city’s attractions myself and as much as possible avoid my fellow tourists.

This was what I have done in visits over the years to some of my favourite places: Paris, Edinburgh, Venice, London, San Francisco and Cape Town. Then I read the guide books and see what I missed.

My first visit was in April of 2016 and at that time I spent three to four days exploring.  I visited again in September 2017 which as I felt more at ‘home’ was when i visited the museums.

Although time has passed I did actually put pen to paper during my first visit, so most of my words in this blog are from those first mind blowing moments experiencing New York.  Looking back they have a certain naïve immediacy; more so than anything I would write today as a more ‘seasoned’ visitor.  One more thing though.  This is not a ‘Guide’ to the City’s Must-sees.  It is a random collection of impressions and moments that unfolded over those few days.  So I know it is only a very superficial view of possibly the greatest city in the World.  But it’s my view.

So here goes:

My first visit to New York; but it’s funny. isn’t it? It has an air of familiarity to it. All the names of places are straight out of American sit-coms or movies. Places like Manhattan, Times Square, Empire State, Madison Square Gardens, Fifth Avenue, Broadway, Brooklyn Bridge, Grand Central, Park Avenue, Central Park.  Am I in an episode of Seinfeld or a Woody Allen movie? Though you feel you know the place nevertheless the reality is different and exciting.

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My first impression though was of the grandeur. The streets were wider than I had thought. Not at all the claustrophobic canyon city I imagined, but remarkably everything seemed to be in proportion. There was abundant light in the streets and that was a surprise. Turns out this is a result of a 1916 city ordinance that required buildings to be set back from the kerb and only occupy a percentage of the land area.   It also hugely influenced construction during the golden age of skyscrapers with tapered buildings meeting these demands. There is an immensity however you can’t possibly be prepared for.

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I just love the mix of architectural styles, though its reputation as a city of skyscrapers was cemented during the boom of the 1930s This was the time of art deco architecture and the massive buildings of the day such as the Chrysler and Empire State have become world wide symbols of American success and New York’s central place in that.  Due to the limited space on Manhattan, construction of tall buildings was always a necessity and the Victorian period saw highly decorated and opulent expressions of this. They speak of optimism and confidence and brashness. Often flamboyantly decorated they stand in stark contrast to the stone and concrete elegance of the 1930s and the minimalist glass and steel of the modern period.

Some streetscapes seem to be entirely of buildings from the turn of the century. Built up against the street they give a more closed-in feel of an earlier New York,  But buildings such as these sit comfortably with the neo-romantic and the hyper-tall towers of glass. New York continues to make a statement saying “Hey look at me”

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I love the way the New York of old is often reflected in the sheer glass walls of the new. As if paying homage to their presence. You see this all over the city.

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I loved the Empire State. The Empire State is not only bigger and more impressive than I expected but clean and sparkling and visible from anywhere in Mid Manhattan. And then I discovered a building called The Flatiron Building. Hard to believe it was built in 1902. With innovative engineering of a steel frame suspending the concrete walls. A triangular building, simply elegant, though not considered so by critics of the day.

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I loved the architectural detail everywhere.  Exotic decoration, simple brickwork, Demonstrations of confidence everywhere.

I walked dozens of blocks and hours of foot-wearying slog but in almost a state of wondrous trance. A bit like Alice in Wonderland. And blow my socks off there in central Park is a statue honoring Alice.  Art imitating Life imitating Art.

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The place is constant noise and colour.  Constant and incessant screaming of sirens and clattering traffic. No one seems to bat an eyelid because it is so constant and people hardly notice. They are buried in their phones or plugged into their ears. In their own virtual world. Or their shouted conversations trying to raise above it. There are police everywhere. And I mean everywhere.  New Yorkers are loud themselves. Definitely a product of their environment. You are part of every conversation whether you want to be or not. Especially phone conversations. I said Colour didn’t I?  Well where better to see that than Times Square?  An in-your-face statement of popular American culture and neon-materialism.

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There is an aggressive element to the place. Brash, fast. A city of apartments, so many live their lives on the street. Everything is happening on the Avenues. Shops are open at all hours. You can buy bagels or seafood from roadside vendors.  You can listen to music or watch street art. You can walk your dog. It is a city of characters. And they all want to talk to you or at you. One taxi driver born in 62nd Street gave me her life story in the space of a cab rideof only a few blocks. On the streets you see sad and and you see quirky Your senses are assaulted in so many ways.

You see the beauty of inner city green spaces and then you see piles of rubbish.  A city which is in many ways in the vanguard of civilisation can’t work out a decent way of collecting its rubbish or housing all its people.

You could see anything on a New York street.  A fashion shoot, evocative statues, indecision on street names and reminders that if it isn’t bolted down forget it.  An headless commuter? or legal cannabis drinks.  Or the distinct New York humor evident in street signs.

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And I have to mention the stairway in my Apartment that I rented through AirBnB.  The floor number was beautifully mosaic-ed into the tiling. Only problem was the artisan’s English language skills were just a little wanting.

There was a brightness about the town. It was of course Spring so tulips were in full bloom, trees were flushed with foliage. Central Park was alive with birds. I spent a whole afternoon wandering aimlessly there and I would not have touched a quarter (or a quarter for that matter – there is so much ‘free’ entertainment). What a treasure the forefathers left. Truly an oasis, a place to recharge and incredibly you can choose your own natural fix. Ramble in a forest, cycle the paved roads, relax on a rocky outcrop, kick a ball, bird watch or take a pony trap. Central Park is many Parks.

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New York is such a big city with its many boroughs and then its many districts. I was mainly in Manhattan. As with most ‘tourists’, but Manhattan is Soho and Upper East Side and Little Italy and the Merchant district and Lower East Side and Greenwich Village and Chinatown. All so different but all vibrant in their own distinct way. It is also hidden gems such as the High Line Park, a former elevated railway line, turned into a Linear Park, with gardens, boardwalks, cafes, and installation art. And plenty of rules. I was there late one night and came across this fellow. A hyper realistic statue  “The Somnambulist” by Tony Matelli.

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Though I tend to avoid the tourist traps; the closest I got to Statue of Liberty was from the Manhattan shore, but I did walk across Brooklyn Bridge. The walkway is built above the traffic lanes so you have magnificent unimpeded views back over Manhattan or over the docksides of Brooklyn. Possibly the oldest suspension bridge in the world it was opened in 1883.   It has held up remarkably due to the designer, William Roebling, building six times the engineering redundancy into the design. And for at least forty years until prohibition, huge vaults at either end stored the finest french wines in perfect conditions under the pylons.

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I love the way you just stumble across things.  On the corner of West 58th and 7th is Petrossian Restaurant.  It was the architecture that initially drew me in.  Formerly an apartment building dating from 1907 in French Renaissance style with elaborate terra-cotta ornamentation it originally had 14 room – 5 bathroom apartments.  THese were subdivided during the Depression.  Now it is an iconic Caviar restaurant.  I was briefly tempted until I saw the tasting menu at $250pp.  Next time!

Oh Nearly forgot.  Trump.  He has two towers in Manhattan and most notable was the crowds in the street just gawking outside the Trump Tower.  I went in.  Past the machine gunners who thankfully gave me a broad smile, past the security check but my curiosity was very quickly satisfied and really it was a ‘nothing burger’ inside.  More troubling though was the permanent multiple NYPD presence outside the other Tower whether he is there or not. Two Towers.  Is one real and the other ‘fake’?

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So that was my New York.  Except I haven’t even mentioned the fabulous Irish music. I went to 11 sessions in all in the City.  A great place with a great Irish heritage.  Next time.

Speaking of next time, no doubt any of you who actually read all this are screaming at your screen.  How could you miss this? or that?  Please tell me what are your must-see’s and I’ll try and fit it in next visit.  Because I will go back.

Part 2 is coming.

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Them’s the Rules. No Instruments Allowed.

Tell me I am not paranoid but musicians really are at the bottom of the heap. We all know about the difficulties often experienced trying to take a fiddle on a flight. But here’s one roadblock I’d never come across before. Actually not one but two.

It’s my last day of a holiday in New York. My plane doesn’t leave until 6.30 pm so I have a few hours to kill. Why not take in the iconic Museum of Modern Art or MOMA?

Checkout is 11am but the hotel will kindly hold my bags.  As I am depositing them the Bell Hop hesitates over one.

“What’s in there?” he says, pointing to the violin-shaped object in front of us.

“A violin” I helpfully offered.

“Oh you can’t store that without paying a fee.”

“Why not?”, I asked.

“Because it’s an instrument”.

He could offer me no valid reason other than that so I eventually located a supervisor who confirmed that they didn’t accept instruments. His answer to my question “Why not?” was that “Instruments are not luggage. They are not shaped like a suitcase!” However apparently with the payment of a fee suddenly they take on the shape of a suitcase? Anyway I wasn’t going to pay a fee and it was not heavy so I would take it with me. Big mistake!

MOMA was a bit over a kilometre from the hotel so I walked in the soft rain just a few city blocks. There was quite a queue stretching down the pavement and when I eventually got inside more queueing for the cloak room and then more queuing to get tickets. Apparently every other visitor to New York had the same idea about what to do on a wet Labour Day Sunday.

So I get to the cloak room, deposit my coat and camera bag but, pointing to the violin-shaped case the cloak room attendee says, yeah you guessed it. “What’s that?”

By now I was ready with the answer; “A violin”.

“Oh you’re not allowed to bring them into the gallery”.

“OK” I said “that’s why I wanted to put it into the cloak room”.

“Oh well we don’t accept them in the cloak room. They are not allowed in the gallery. Period.”

I looked over her shoulder at the hundreds of odd shaped bags, umbrellas, strollers and garments wondering silently why a small violin couldn’t be lodged there somewhere. Well actually not silently, but my protestations fell on deaf ears.

She was adamant. “Them’s the rules”.

I could see we were going round in circles here so I said I would find a manager. One helpful gent in the queue suggested I was wasting my time because “they were the rules.” I thanked him for his assistance but went to find the manager anyway.

This took some time but when he was located he confirmed that that was a ‘rule.’ “No instruments”. He added that they didn’t want to take responsibility for any damage. As I had observed that there were no baggage handlers from United Airlines in sight I was prepared to wear this risk.

He paused and my pleas maybe wore him down. He relented.  Bless you Franklin from MOMA.  He told me to follow him. We went to a white door marked Staff Only and he swiped his card. “Leave it here” he said “it will be safe.”.  Music to my ears.  So I rested it in the corner of this store room beside a folded up stroller and some brooms. Relieved, I queued again for my ticket.

Ironically as I waked around this extraordinary collection of art I kept being reminded of the great interest visual artists have shown over the years in musical instruments, often placing them at the core of their work.  This puts into sharp focus the reticence of the administrators of the gallery that displays their work at having an instrument anywhere near the building.  Here are a few examples from Picasso, Matisse and more modern works from Adkins.

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Three Musicians. Pablo Picasso

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Music (Sketch).  Henri Matisse

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Sus Scrofa (Linnaeus). Contrabass, wild boar hide and skull, and wood. Terry Adkins.

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Guitar.  Pablo Picasso

So there you go. It would seem that in the US ‘rules is rules.’ And no one seems prepared to buck them no matter how absurd. There was no empathy with my predicament. Except thank God for Franklin.

It sometimes pays though to have a bit of a tilt at windmills.

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Go Girl!

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Sometimes something uplifting happens during my travels that shakes me a bit.  Something unexpected and just so out of left field that I have to write about it. Such it was with Stacey just the other day.

But before I get too deeply into this story let me say that this has nothing to do with music. Except perhaps the music of life.

Every person has a story.  Always unpredictable and mostly it stays hidden. Especially with a casual encounter.  But sometimes one little sentence or comment opens the door to that story and the real person is revealed.

My holiday in the US was nearing an end.  After spending most of the time in Los Angeles and San Francisco (stay tuned) I was unwinding for a few days with my friend Kira, at Southold a quaint rural setting on the northern tip of Long Island abut three hours east of New York City. A comfortable, quiet, conservative place with plenty of specialist farms and vineyards and an increasing wealth spilling over from the nearby Hamptons.  Kira took me and my camera on a bit of a tour of the beaches and country side and we found ourselves at Horton Point Lighthouse, dating from 1857, though it had been commissioned decades earlier in 1790 by George Washington.  It is operational and stands guard over the Long Island Sound but today it was closed and gated off.

It was hard to photograph as it was hidden by trees so there was little point staying.  As I was leaving I was approached by a cyclist who asked if I would take a photo with her phone, of her on her bicycle with the lighthouse in the background.

I obliged of course, but when she said she needed it as proof it made me curious. She explained.  She was training for a charity bike ride in Florida in November to raise funds for a cancer survivor group. The ride is 100 miles. She has never ridden anything like that distance so she has to prove to herself and the organisers that she is up for it. Hence the photo evidence of her rides to various landmarks and hence our meeting at Horton Light.

We talked a bit.  She was a cancer survivor herself. This seemed totally incongruous as I looked at her. She was a picture of health and fitness belying the fact she had had a double mastectomy, reached a weigh of 150 lbs , was couch ridden and had lost all her hair. That was then. This is now.  Just three years later.

She had been helped by an organisation called First Descents which provides adventure experiences for young adult cancer recoverers and survivors. For her it was a kayak journey. This was life changing and she wants to help provide that experience to others.

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I was inspired by this story and asked if I could take some photos of her. Then I finally got around to introducing myself . “Oh” she said “I know some Singers but they are Jewish.”  What followed was an incredible bit of synchronicity. It turned out her grandparents were of Jewish descent and had escaped Nazi persecution migrating to the United States just as my parents had escaped from Hungary in 1939 and had gone wherever the boat was sailing.  In their case to Australia.

I would have loved to have talked more but we each had to go our own way and I watched her ride away on the next leg of her life’s journey.

Aliveness can sometimes be a bumpy windy road with many twists and turns and we sometimes think that we have been dealt a tough hand.  But then you meet someone like Stacy and it puts your own problems into perspective. So inspiring to see how one person deals with adversity and uses it as a springboard to change her life and the lives of others.

In the midst of the current turmoil and apparent decline in the values of, dare I say it, a once great nation, it is reassuring to see that people like her exist.

I was so lucky to meet Stacy.  I hope I meet her again.  Perhaps when she cycles around Ireland as her next challenge?

You can contribute to Stacy’s fund raising efforts at this site  https://support.firstdescents.org/fundraiser/1082893

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Tom Carmody – Home in a box.

I first met Kerry accordion player Danny O’Mahony in Birmingham in 2016 at a Festival, where he surprised with an amazing set in concert with renowned fiddler, Liz Kane. I then heard him again more recently at Ballyferriter in West Kerry. It was here he played his mighty Tom Carmody accordion. It was hard not to notice it. As dazzling as his playing.

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Intrigued, I chatted to him afterwards about this instrument, and my interest was piqued so we agreed to meet at the Rowan Tree Café in Ennis for a chat. I want to write here about the story that unfolded. It is a story of a tradition that spans time and continents. Of happenstance and passion. Of connections and stewardship. And of rescue and revitalisation.

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I have to start somewhere so who was Tom Carmody? Danny explains. Tom is not well known today but he was a master accordion player born in 1893 in Dromlought near Listowel in Kerry and emigrated to New York in 1925. He immediately made an impact and during the Irish recording boom of the 1930s appeared on many 78s with James Morrison.  New York was a melting pot of Irish melodies; and new tunes and new influences made for a vibrant scene. Indeed, Danny says that Tom introduced James to the tune “Stick across the Hob” which was to become the famous ‘Morrison’s Jig’. One can only assume Tom was in much demand as he became the first to play Irish music at the Waldorf Astoria and was employed to organise music there.

Flashy players required a flashy instrument. And Tom had the flashiest. He commissioned an Italian maker in New York, F Iorio, to make this instrument for him. It was loud and brash as was its exterior. Gaudily decorated with the Irish and American flags and detailed inlays in mother of pearl on the fingerboard incorporating a harp and shamrocks. The name TOM CARMODY is boldy emblazoned across the instrument where it will have maximum exposure. It is a work or art. But the story behind it is just as interesting. It was nearly lost.

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Tom returned to Kerry in the 1970s and died in 1986. This was the year Danny started to play the accordion. Danny grew up with no knowledge of this Kerry man, despite the fact he was a distant relative. He is a grand nephew. Growing up, Danny tells, his father was an accordion player with a overriding passion for the instrument. There were three gods in his house. As in most Irish homes silence was demanded for the Angelus when it came on the radio but in the O’Mahony home, silence was also demanded if there was a tune from Joe Burke or Tony McMahon.

Twenty years later Danny discovered the legacy of Tom Carmody and in 2006 he found the location of the Tom Carmody box. Following the death of Tom’s wife in the 90s it had passed to Denis Moran, her nephew. Denis did not play and it lay forgotten in a shed behind his cottage.

Danny approached Dennis to ask if he could borrow it with a view to photographing it. What he discovered was the accordion in its original case in a very sad state. It was all there but held together with binding twine and caked in dust and grime and a home for live insects.

It was almost too late. Its fate was somewhat ironic. From what we know about Tom and from contemporary photos he was a very dapper and meticuluous man, always well presented and his instrument always in immaculate condition. No doubt he would not have been pleased to see it now.

Denis agreed to let Danny take it away. It was cleaned it up and this revealed it to be in marvellous condition externally but totally seized up. Seeing it now Danny, was desperate to get it back to playable condition. Further negotiation ensued and with some trepidation it was agreed to let Danny take it for two weeks to see what he could do. With the help of accordion guru from East Clare, Charlie Harris, they feverishly went to work and brought it back to life, carefully cleaning and tuning the original reeds which were underneath it all in perfect condition. The only part that needed replacing was the left hand leather strap!

It must have been a remarkable experience to hear that box sing again just as it did in the 1930s.

Danny was concerned that it would continue do deteriorate if kept under the same conditions. He broached this with Denis asking him if he, Denis, could keep it in his bedroom with him so it was not subject to extreme temperature variation. The answer was “Oh no, I couldn’t do that”.  But Denis had done his homework and was happy that Danny would be a suitable custodian of the instrument and gave it to his care.

Danny also obtained valuable material on Tom including photos and all his recordings so since then he has researched his legacy and Tom’s tunes on Tom’s box are a feature of some of his concerts. The work of this forgotten box player lives on.

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I love stories like this. But it could have been very different but for Danny’s persistence and a little bit of luck. If you get the chance to hear him, go listen.  You might be lucky and hear him play the Tom Carmody.

Meanwhile you can check out his website at http://www.dannyomahony.com/

 

Categories: Real Ireland, Stories, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Green Fields of America. Part 1

It’s been quite a while since I blogged. That’s not because I’ve done nothing worth talking about. Quite the opposite. I returned this week from a visit to the US.  My first, other than a brief business trip to Arizona, over twenty years ago.

I had three weeks. Hardly enough time to see America. Well not all of America. But New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas were definites. And then the idea of going to Portland, Oregon, popped up. This might seem a strange selection but the first three were because I wanted to experience Irish Music there and then LA because my son lives there.

I can’t possibly do justice to this county in a single blog and in any case anyone interested in finding out about New York or LA won’t look in my humble part of the blogosphere. So this blog is about some of my experiences and my impressions of the people and the country. Sort of like opening the window in a new house and taking in the smells and sounds for the first time. Most of my activities centred around Irish music of course but I won’t dwell on that for the moment . I have written about some of these experiences on Facebook already and will compile into a blog later.

I have made a lot of friends in Ireland through music and many of these live in far flung places. Some in America and these provided the fulcrums for my adventures. Firstly I owe my visit to New York to Kira, who lives at the eastern end of Long Island. She invited me over and kindly offered to coordinate my visits to East Coast attractions.

I was picked up at the airport by Kira. And I got my first distant view of the skyline of New York from the roof of the carpark at JFK. Like some Crocodile Dundee clone I snapped away excitedly to the incredulity of my host. But it was my first day.

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We headed out to Kira’s home on the end of Long Island – North Fork. Not the posh end of the Hamptons but a gorgeous place to live, two hours drive from Manhattan.

New York had welcomed me with glorious blue skies and so we stopped at the iconic Jones Beach on the way. I did not think my first experience of New York would be getting sand in my toes! It is a very wide beach stretching for 10 km with clean white sand. It has all the facilities of a theme park and I can imagine it packed during the heat of the New York summer. Indeed it is the most popular beach on the East Coast of the US with 6 million visitors a year . Conceived in the 20s the area was reclaimed from bogs and marshes and turned into a summer playground.  There is a boardwalk and many fine art deco buildings such as bath houses and pavilions and a wonderful water tower, recently resotored.

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Kira had organised a little house session to welcome me and there was even Dancing in the Streets. But this was very much the entrée. New York City proper awaited me. That will be the subject of Part 2.IG3C0398

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