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Faraway Places

February 21, 2018

Manhattan feels huge and full of many wonders (which it is!). But now that we’ve seen many of the ‘greatest hits’ we have started to explore a little further afield. So we are gradually filling in the map and seeing some new neighbourhoods, with the added bonus of getting some time in open spaces wide enough to actually see the sky and horizon. Here’s a couple of the latest.

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Holiday Time

February 5, 2018

After Christmas we had a strange feeling – no work, no urgent duties, nothing in particular to organise, and we finally had a couple of weeks to simply enjoy the city, as well as sleep in and laze around and eat lots of delicious leftovers and baking. Here’s a bit of a rundown of what we managed to get up to.

We had a couple of big events booked in already for our Christmas time enjoyment. The first was the New York Ballet’s Nutcracker, for which we had got some seats perched way up on the 5th tier with a terrifying drop down to the main floor. This did give us great view of the overwhelmingly huge, bright, sparkly, and colourful scenery and it was a gorgeous thing to experience. Particularly in the first half there are tons of children on stage and it is all about the costumes and the story telling and the spectacle rather than blowing you away with incredibly technical dancing (although it had some fabulous moments of that too). This is a pretty representative taster:

It was just pure joy and fun and one hilariously over the top costume after another. I don’t think we’ll become ‘go every year’ type people but it was a wonderful thing to experience. It was also really cool to see the theatre itself, because we’ve gone to the Lincoln Center for the Met Opera a few times but hadn’t yet checked out the other major bits of it. Turns out the ballet is just as huge and fancy with the spectacular lobby and the sheer gigantic size of the theatre.

The next night we did in fact return to the Lincoln Center for The Merry Widow starring one of Lis’s idols, Susan Graham, in the title role. Kinda like Nutcracker, it was also less about spectacular singing and more about the huge gorgeous sets and crazy folk dancing scenes and the storyline which never really gives too much doubt that love will win in the end. How can you listen to this and not feel happy and have your heart melt a little!?

I think we both still have a feeling of being kind of intruders when we go to these types of huge shows. The huge scale of everything and the luxury of the productions, and even arriving at the enormous plaza itself with the famous fountain and the thousands of fancy-looking New Yorkers in the fur coats makes me feel like I’m sort of just sneaking into something that is meant for a whole different class of people. But thanks to the wonders of student tickets we get to enjoy and be swept away by it all.

You might have heard that 2017 was one of New York’s coldest ever New Year’s Eves. On December 30th, with snow coming down steadily, we headed out to Brooklyn to go to a pop-up store where a designer that Lis loves had set up a sale. Trudging through snowy streets to an obscure little shop felt like a real winter adventure, and Lis ended up with a fabulous jumper:


Alongside hip looking cafes and shops there were also the novel (to us) sights of rows of buildings with signs in Hebrew and Jewish families with the men wearing furry shtreimels that seemed very well suited to the conditions.

Since we were all the way over in Brooklyn we’d decided it would be fun to take the ferry (or ‘ship’, as Lis described it to make it more epic) to the stop under the Brooklyn bridge. Waiting for it to arrive was a very cold experience, but we got some fabulous wintry views across the river back to the big steaming chimneys and skyscrapers.


The ride was quick and efficient and we landed in Dumbo where there is a great park running along the river with great view spots and tracks, leading up into some historic streets in Brooklyn Heights and further in to some big war memorial/civic squares near the Borough Hall.

The whole place was fairly deserted and obviously covered in snow, and it was all very grey and dreary looking. Kind of reminiscent of some depressing film set in Eastern Europe perhaps.

It is really so much fun getting out to these sort of places and getting to have the combination of new places, different architecture, different eras of city history, along with the weather that we don’t really get back home. It’s a great little walk too because you get the big famous sights of the Brooklyn Bridge and the downtown skyline mixed with cute little housefronts and neighbourhood life. A handful of people were out clearing the snow from their front steps and walking their dogs, but tourist numbers were definitely on the low side.

New Year’s Eve itself was indeed extremely cold. The idea of cramming into Times Square never really appealed, but it appealed even less with the forecast -13 C midnight temperature. We briefly watched some of the live stream, but mostly spent the evening with some delicious nibbles and wine and a couple of episodes of The Crown. A perfect way to end the biggest year of my life so far!


Christmas in New York!

January 23, 2018



The space-saving yet fabulous Christmas tree designed by Lis


In the few days before Christmas I felt like I spent a lot of time wandering to various shops to get all the supplies (and utensils & pans!) that were needed for our Christmas feast. We had planned out what we wanted to make and I had picked up a few extra snacks and such, but it still took a while to get everything together given the availability of various ingredients at the different nearby shops. I cooked up some risotto in advance to make into arancini balls, made some chipotle mayo and spinach and feta dip, plus a chocolate/cranberry/pistachio loaf/log thingy. A nice way to pass the time until Lis arrived home!

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Catching up!!

January 18, 2018

Not only did I take a break from work over Christmas, but I also seem to have taken a month off from posting. Whoops! But never fear, I shall catch you all up on what’s been going on.

Shortly after my last post, Lis flew off back to New Zealand to perform in the Messiah with the Auckland Choral Society (and did very well indeed!), leaving me to my own devices for about a week and a half leading up to Christmas. Before she arrived back I spent a fair bit of time just veging out and catching up on some reading and saxophone practice, but I also got out and about a little bit, because there are always ten billion things to do in NYC – if you are at a loose end and have a little bit of cash there’s almost too much to choose from.

We got our first snow of the winter on Friday the 15th, and after cooking up some leftover vegetarian sausages I braved to cold to see what the neighbourhood was looking like and to grab a few snaps:


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December 12, 2017

New York is so familiar through TV and films, and many aspects of American culture so saturated into world culture that moving to the US was not particularly jarring or overwhelmingly exotic. There are a lot of differences that are smaller and go under the radar of years and years of sitcoms and musical references and everything else we get from the US though. So here are a few of the ones that we’ve found the most amusing, perplexing, or unexpected.


Beautiful gift that Lis received from her favourite local theraputic massage place Lucky Spa

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Live Music

December 3, 2017

We’ve been here for a little over three months now and I thought it was about time I talked about the many wonderful live music performances I’ve been able to attend.

Tonight I finally made it to a jazz gig, and as an example of just how luxurious the selection is here (if you have the spare $$), I only found out about this gig on about Thursday when I decided I should find something to go to while Lis was out babysitting. Google searching for live music in New York City, I found that Danilo Pérez was reviving his 90’s Thelonious Monk tribute album for Monk’s 100th anniversary, so I figured why not. The gig was at the Jazz Standard which is kind of a restaurant/bar/music venue but is pretty formal too (like, serious seating arrangements and they kick everyone out at 9pm after the 7.30 set so that the next set can come in).


The music itself was great. I saw Wayne Shorter’s quartet at the Wellington Jazz Festival in 2016 and it was definitely one of the best jazz gigs I’ve been to because I got the sense that the group had broken away from the monotony of head-solos-head jazz standard tradition while still sounding like a really wonderful jazz band and giving everyone time to shine. Pérez was in that show and played a lot of wonderful stuff. I did feel like the trio was missing a little bit of extra ‘bite’ at times, especially in the first number, but thanks to Terri Lyne Carrington’s astonishingly tasteful and energetic drumming a whole pile of wondrous stuff started pouring out as the show went on. Also rare for a jazz “tribute” thing not to be kind of boring and overly reverent so I appreciated that!

Though at times I wished the band would break out of their structures a bit more and just leave all the composition behind (I have been listening to too much free jazz lately, sorry), this gig did remind me that improvisation is something that really is missing from some of my other favourite bands/genres. When you can really tell that everyone on stage is finding something in a tune or a groove or a melody that they’ve never found before, and is bouncing off each other trying to push, pull, react, or guide alongside the rest of the band with whatever tools and sounds they can think of in the moment it really is something special. Pérez offered free improvisation lessons to anyone in Washington that someone in the audience happened to know, and there was a bit of a bleak vibe in the next tune after he expressed his despair at the tax reform bill, but I think the remainder of the set really embodied John Cage’s beautiful statement that

nothing is accomplished by writing a piece of music
nothing is accomplished by hearing a piece of music
nothing is accomplished by playing a piece of music
our ears are now in excellent condition.

Rather than a nihilistic statement of the pointlessness of music, I think what this expresses is exactly that sense you get after a great show – it didn’t change the world, nor did it mean to. It made you listen and appreciate and set off something in your mind and created a wonderful experience, but now it’s over. So don’t pretend that playing the piano will achieve something, and don’t expect it to, just hope that everyone will forget about tax bills and simply enjoy the wonder of our ears being in excellent condition.

Keeping your ears in excellent condition at some gigs certainly requires some earplugs, however. I’ve made it to two metal gigs in the last month, both featuring the monstrous Krallice, a kind of black metal band but being comprised of four astonishing musicians who to me are creating some of the most amazing “chamber music” in the world right now, regardless of genre. I know this won’t be to most people’s taste but still:

Listen to that sense of stasis and space in chaos, the subtle variations in guitar tone and the interaction between the two lead guitars, the desperation in the vocals, the development into something more melodic and promising, the overwhelming complexity and balance between repetition and development, and the amazing moment when that initial bleak guitar tremolo returns. And that’s just the first track! I think what I most got from their live performances was an understanding that not only can these guys reproduce everything on the record to perfection on stage, the emotion and energy comes across even more strongly. In some of the other projects/bands that the members play in things can seem a bit overly noodly and technical, but the general aesthetic of black metal focusses this into an amazingly cathartic experience.


The support acts at these shows have also been fascinating. At the first show I went to, Pyrrhon did something like this:

Again, it is super screamy and in your face, but it is also wonderfully interactive and everyone plays off each other, including some almost free-jazz improve sections, in addition to absolutely nuts guitar and bass playing that makes those 80s metal giants sound like Johnny B Goode.

At the second show I went to, the opening act was Hathenter, which is the guitarists from Krallice plus two other shredders all playing a wall of noise (I think one of their rules is “Nobody changes [what they are playing] on purpose” – inspired by Ouija boards but also very interesting as a performance/improv concept in itself), accompanied by some ritual sounding vocals, electronic noise from a laptop-equipped Austrian guy, and some scorching lead guitar solos from Kevin Hufnagel (who plays in the legendary and also wonderful death metal band Gorguts with Colin Marston from Krallice – it’s all very incestual and makes me think that the NY metal scene now is a lot like what you see on all the Blue Note jazz records from the 60s, where everyone shuffled around and played with everyone else in a whole lot of different styles and frequently created magic. Following down everyone’s connections on Bandcamp gives you exactly this same mass of interconnected bands and musicians – it is wonderful!).

The outcome of this performance reminded me a lot of Merzbow (relatively formless noise):

but had still a sense of metal running through it. What I think was/is really interesting about this performance is that it really is designed to operate a lot like those avant-garde classical chance based pieces where everybody kind of can play what they want, but within a strict set of rules. The fact that Krallice’s other guitarist, Mick Barr, has had a residence with John Zorn (who basically has played/written in almost every genre, including jazz, hardcore punk, string quartets…) is not an accident!

Going to a bunch of student performances at Manhattan School of Music with Lis (as part of her concert attendance requirements) also has been a really interesting experience. Some of the students have a lot of things that they could improve, but have this core of something exciting and interesting. Some even have that magical thing where from the first two or three notes you can tell this will be a great performance.

What has been extra fascinating is being able to compare the many students at various levels to some of the greatest singers in the world in the three Met Opera performances we’ve been to. Both the two traditional/old school operas (Norma and Contes d’Hoffman) included at least one or two lead singers who, honestly, didn’t seem particularly great, alongside truly transcendent singers who you can argue about details but who had their own compelling way of performing that was totally convincing. In Exterminating Angel (the US premiere), the music and drama feeling modern and so beyond 19th century tropes meant that the pure singing skill and ‘big aria’ moments weren’t really important. Yet all the performers seemed excellent and show as a whole felt more flawless than either of the others.

All of this has made me reflect a lot on what it is that connects and differentiates these genres. I certainly wouldn’t say that this:

is ‘less virtuosic’ or ‘less musical’ than this:

They are both crazily great and beautiful examples of people pushing the limits of technique and physical possibility on their instruments. Just because I saw one of these guys in Carnegie Hall and one in a basement venue that fit about 50 people doesn’t mean anything!

Enough rambling! Viva music and listening and feeling inspired. I’m auditioning for a wind orchestra on Tuesday, wish me luck :O

Oh yeah, and the other thing that’s great about gigs here: you get great views coming home!




Old and New

November 16, 2017

Was New York the first “big city”? I was thinking about this the other day because we were wandering around some of the iconic buildings of midtown, like the Chrysler & Rockefeller buildings (with the Empire State not far away), and I thought, not only are these some of the most famous and archetypal skyscrapers, yet they are also some of the oldest. New York held the tallest building in the world title for a long time with a string of taller and taller buildings until the Empire State in 1931. So what that means is that not only are a lot of the tallest buildings here, a lot of the oldest tall buildings are here.

Here’s the list from Wikipedia of the tallest buildings since 1901:

Screenshot from 2017-11-15 18-19-17

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