Sunday, July 29, 2007


New York, where I was staying with friends recently, is a city pulsating with music. From bars and clubs to concert halls, buskers, street sounds and stores – melody, harmony, rhythm and dissonance seeps uncontrollably from its pores.

As I arrive on Amtrak from Washington DC, a man on the train next to me is listening to Charles Ives on his headset. I can tell this from the CD sleeve by his side rather than any discernible notes emerging from his earphones, but it is enough to evoke the music in my head.

On a Realty company’s forecourt a reggae trio, unlikely and popular with the passing lunchtime crowd, strike out with Bob Marley’s Exodus and more.

Then on one walk the Lincoln Centre comes into view. I remember hearing the Lincoln Jazz Orchestra at the Proms in London several years ago. In the aesthetic battle between Wynton Marsalis and the variegated memory of Miles Davis, I’m on Miles’ wing. But you don’t have to choose. The custodians of tradition and its innovators into new forms and possibilities can live together, if they are smart.

Mostly Mozart is on. But it seems to be mostly Beethoven, Mido, and the merest smattering of contemporary composition – which would not please Wolfgang Amadeus, surely? Steven and I talk Thomas Ades.

Across the road, of course, is Strawberry Fields, the shrine to John Lennon (‘Imagine’) and Yoko Ono’s overlooking apartment. The ‘found sounds’ beloved of John Cage are everywhere. And the imagined silences. Laurie Anderson haunts the sidewalks, resting between the cracks and rushing the red lights.

Somewhere else is the building depicted on Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti album. And in a studio I get a personal performance (well a rehearsal, actually) from R.U.B...with my friend Steven Sullivan doing the maths on bass for some reworked ‘80s material – including Depeche Mode (when they finally do the gig on 6 August 2007) and Elvis Costello’s ‘Pump It Up’.

Not quite The Juliet Letters, admittedly. But my mind slips naturally to the Balanescu Quartet, Nonesuch, Eno, Kronos Quartet and other border-crossings on the musical superhighway.

Talking of which: in Borders itself, I pick up Suzanne Vega’s new NY-centric collection, Beauty and Crime (11 songs bursting with hope, anguish and delight). Plus I note the relative absence of Tippett, A Child Of Our Time and some Ogden piano sonatas aside.

In another store I peek at the New Orleans jazz (is Woody Allen at Michael’s Pub tonight?), I peer at a Gramophone article on Ian Bostridge rescuing Handel, and I hear a track from the New York Dolls – who I never really liked, to be honest. But beloved Morrissey gets them, so there must be some point.

On CD in Jane and Steve’s apartment I take in, at various times, Bartok, Kodaly, Messiaen, Yes, Starcastle (don’t ask), Montreux, Arctic Monkeys, and the not-quite-forgotten John McLaughlin, Tony Williams (of Lifeime) and Jaco Pastorius power jazz trio. Press random again.

Something I listen to – I forget what, exactly – reminds me of that quintessentially NY downtown new music ensemble and festival, Bang On A Can. And in Virgin records I pass racks of Glenn Branca, whose post-punk orchestrations beat the eardrums into submission while enlivening them with sub- and apr├Ęs-sonic overtones, allegedly.

Last, but not least, is the Summer of Love psychedelia art exhibit at the Whitney – Jimi Hendrix, the artist who painted the cover of Miles’ experimental classic Bitches Brew, Jefferson Airplane, Ginsberg, Warhol and the Velvet Underground, a picture of Adrian Mitchell on the steps of the Royal Albert Hall (he now lives on my street in NW5), Janis Joplin, Julie Felix… more memories than my mind an hold.

Sing on, New York… from The Met all the way out West to Haight Ashbury. And well beyond. [Picture: Suzanne Vega, Beauty and Crime]

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