Sunday, December 11, 2011

Escape To-And-From New York

(To read the main portion of this blog entry, skip to the middle where it says The main portion of this blog entry. My girlfriend Lisa recently helped me figure out a new system for record-keeping, so hopefully this will be the last epically long blog entry for a while.)

Minor Note To The Reader:
Before I continue writing about any more of my adventures during this project, I would like to shed light on something that I'm sure some of you have wondered about, and a couple of you have even asked about. You may have an occasional curiosity about why-and-how I take expensive equipment (like my laptop studio) with me to places that range everywhere from arctic mountains to crime ridden ghettos. It probably seems too dangerous even without the equipment. Well, if this makes it any clearer: regarding the mountains, I do train hard, and I have some mountain and arctic-condition experience from early adulthood; regarding ghettos and dangerous urban areas, well, aside from leading a micro-street-life while growing up, I've actually spent a good chunk of my adult life studying and training as a martial artist.

When summed up, I've been an MMA guy for much of my life. (You ever want to know details, feel free to ask.) I even have some weapons training. Yes, I am also an aesthetic artist, and no, this is not a joke. I'm actually good enough at martial arts that I occasionally teach kids. Years ago I decided to invest enough time and money into my training that I would eventually feel confident and safe wherever I went; I'm now basically reaping the benefits of that objective.

And yes, I know, this type of thing looks weird for a guy who essentially hates conflict.

There are very few men in this world I am physically afraid of. Whether or not I "should" ever be afraid, it is simply not the affect of my training or my personal mantra. I've had prior experiences in life where I've demonstrated plenty of fear, and I'm sure in some form there will be more, but my confidence as a martial artist has none-the-less grown to a critical mass. There is also a certain acknowledgement-of-the-madness that goes into understanding something like martial arts (or the entire universe), which is rather hard to describe unless you know it. But overall, my previous experiences, cowardly, brave or crazy, have helped me to become the fighter I am today: imperfect, and immensely able.

Even so, I don't actually consider myself a martial artist unless it's too appropriate something. I don't see it as being one of my main talents, just something extra that I do. Also, as able as this all might be toting me to look, I've learned to temper my abilities with an extremely cautious attitude, which was not always the case before. It's one thing to be confident, it's quite another to be cocky, and I learned this the hard way. I had to actually learn that I'm not invincible. Also, if there's anything else I've learned in this life, it's that tempting fate, destructively, usually destroys you. I now act as cautiously as I can afford to act regarding any danger, and the rest is up to the universe. As long as I know I'm not acting overly stupid, you can be sure I'm going to go through life with a notable measure of abandon.

But my motivation for bringing this up is not to paint the picture of a "bad-ass-yet-disorganised traveller that you thought you knew." Not quite. Instead, I think my biggest moral here is to say, with the exception of others whom this doesn't apply to, "folks, don't try this at home!" ,'-) I would almost call what I do "Extreme Travel!" (with the heavy-announcer voice and everything). Considering some of the hair-raising experiences I've had on the road, most of which I haven't even had a chance to write about, I firmly believe I've earned the write to brag about this. I also believe it's a worthy warning to bring up, too. Thus: I do not, by any means, suggest traveling extremes like mine to people who don't predicate a certain amount of experience and/or ability. Part of what I'm doing with this project is to show what you could do if you chose to, and the rest is my own personal-and-artistic goal. Nothing more. I'm not the model traveller, and am not even sure how good-for-my-own-health this will all turn out to be in the end.

And while I'm on the subject of how I'm not invincible, not much weapons-training exists for handling people with shotguns who are out of an arm's range, so let's hope you don't someday read about how I was shot and killed in a dangerous part of the country, either. That's always a possibility, considering how many places I tend to find myself where guns are as common as lottery tickets.

Regarding NYC:
New York City was extremely... cool - for lack of a more casually flattering term - and more so than I thought it would be. I was actually born there, but my folks moved to LA when I was 2. This was my first time ever spending more than a day in NYC by myself, and no longer as a child. My recent visit there lasted about a week, which should have been enough for at least a little culture shock, but honestly, I must have travelled so much in my life already that hardly any was felt (even with incessant warnings about it). And I think I have the last two years to thank for this, more than anything. That one moment at the rim of Island In The Sky (Canyonlands National Park) at midnight last year really marked the beginning of something: how almost every place/spot I visit around the country feels like my living room. As of that moment, on that rim, the world has been my house, complete with mental pajamas.

But I'm also not ignorant of the fact that the matter at hand is me only having spent a week in NYC. It's not as though I experienced moving there.

As much as I found moments to chat folks up, for the most part I was there to do this project, so it wasn't really an opportunity to get to know the town on a personal basis at all. There was very little time for getting-to-know-people. This was a sad fact, considering that I did catch glimpses of people's souls that almost symbolized an eternity.

And I never imagined that NYC would feel so natural to me overall, like a parallel home, but I suppose it does make sense considering how most of my family lineage, on both sides, revolved around that city in one form or another. Most of all, my father had worked there as a musician/composure/arranger/producer before anywhere else in life. After years of working on-and-off Broadway, with no shortage of celebrity colleagues, he landed a job writing music for the Carol Burnett Show and then followed the show when it moved to Hollywood around 71. This is how he first got involved with TV composing, and also explains why he ended up living in LA.

A repetitive thought I had as I wondered the darkly majestic streets of NYC earlier this month was that if it hadn't been for Carol Burnett, I would probably be a New Yorker right now.

Luckily, having been raised on the west coast, I have enough perspective to know that there are both good and bad connotations to that possibility. As great a town as New York is, I would not have given up being raised to appreciate the vast open spaces of the west, for anything. And now that I've travelled the world a little, I have enough perspective not to get overly patriotic about any one town.

Notwithstanding all of my traveling, I do feel like LA will always be my home, but this is conjecture when thinking about how little I've actually gotten to know these other places. And I felt so at home in NYC during my micro-life there that I may be spending considerable chunks of time there in the future. I have to admit, even though the whole town was one big hard attitude, those people really worked their way into my heart quicker than most cities do. Hope that wasn't just the icing-on-their-cake talking.

Lastly, my Travels Rendered journey into NYC was something that I look upon the same way I recall experiences having done this project in certain deep forests, or deep canyons of the Southwest. The dreamy aesthetic of that memory almost seems the same to a traveler like me. It was a places enshrouded by a maze of majestic structures, and all of the thriving or travail that took place within it was inherent to the nature of any wilderness area with that particular layout.

The Main Portion Of This Blog Entry:
I actually arrived back from New York over a week ago. Much like most of my returns home to LA, I had to spend roughly a week transferring important footage, paying bills, tending to due-dates, and finishing this entry before I could let people know I'm back. And mostly, I don't even consider myself back home in LA until I let the internet and the epically long construction on the 405 start to really bother me.

So, hello everyone!

Accompanying my recording itinerary in NYC was the concern that the days are at their shortest this time of year, leaving me very little daylight for filming. And extra worries didn't help, like finding places to stay in Manhattan that would hardly cost anything.

I used to know people in this city. Where'd y'all go?

Grand Central (day 1):
I left my cousin/uncle's house in New Haven on Wednesday--November 30th. I took the mainline to Grand Central Station, and after arriving at the main terminal there, set up my laptop in a corner to record some live a-cappella-ambient-music (a cambient music). It was really great getting those crowds bleeding over into my recording as I sang. The crowd acoustics at the main terminal there are astounding, and I managed to capture some extremely appropriate footage to convey that as well. I was feeling a little sad, having recently found out about an ex-lover's marriage, so my music was somber (with a touch of hopefulness)---pure Grand-Central perfection.

I had recently arrived in Grand Central almost a week earlier, but headed back out of the city a day later due to bad weather that had been on the way. During that initial session in Grand Central, I made some great a cambient music as well, perhaps even a little better than this, but soon over the following few days I managed to lose the camera, including that footage. It was my biggest disaster of the trip. So that's basically what I was here again now to do, make sure I got good footage of my session at Grand Central this time, Nov 30th, at the beginning of my week-long stay in the city. And yes, at this juncture I knew the rest wasn't going to be a cakewalk.

Arriving at my $30-per-night hostel called Broadway Rooms, both me and my Irish roommate Pete were pleasantly surprised to find a fairly pimped-out and clean apartment to share. It was centrally located, and complete with a full kitchen and a spiral staircase leading to a balcony overlooking the city (from below of course). I spent the second day acclimating, rehearsing a couple of songs, and walking around the "neighborhood."

Day three was my attempt to make it to the Statue of Liberty. After arriving at the Battery Park ferry, I soon realized it was actually still a bit too windy and cold to perform outside. I met up with a dude named Ohran, a recent computer graduate from Turkey, and because we both hit it off so well we decided to put off the Statue for a day and walk to Wallstreet where I had planned on doing a different session. First asking the guards if it was okay, I set up my laptop/studio right outside the federal reserve and, in honor of the previously vacated Occupy Wallstreet movement, I preceded to sing the continuation of a rendition of Revolution by The Beatles that I had first started at the capitol in DC weeks earlier. It came out great, and my new friend Ohran was a great inspirational influence, getting me to sing louder then I would have otherwise.

Afterwords, we broke bread (smoked), followed by a long stroll through the city in an attempt to walk all the way back to our apts. We soon said goodbye and ended up back on the subway. ;) That was the last I saw of him, due to the project. Still miss the dude a little. He was like a long-lost friend.
That night Obama was paying a visit to Manhattan for a charity event in the area of my hostel, so I got caught in people-traffic getting back. Welcome... to the beginning of little sleep!

The Statue Of Liberty:
Because I had to transfer footage at the end of each day (a slow process), it would always make me late for the next day. On day four I managed to make it to the ferry, late of course. It was too late to look up my ancestors at Ellis Island, but not too late to make music at the statue. The main bummer was that they had closed the statue's interior a month earlier, meaning that I could no longer have my session in the statue's crown. I decided to do a session anyway. I took the ferry, making music during the ride, and upon arriving at the island, set up shop on the lawn, center statue. Security kept approaching me about my equipment, but after I assured the 5th person that I wasn't doing anything commercial there, they finally left me alone to do my thing.

I successfully-but-laboriously recorded my a cappella rendition of America by Simon & Garfunkel, using the looping capabilities in Ableton Live, as always. Soon, I packed it up and left, knowing I would have to come back someday to do it properly in the statue's crown.
Feeling as unfinished as I did about this location, I recorded more music on the twilight ferry ride back, as though that would help. Definitely won't pay for the plane flight back later.

Central Park:
Day five, I was late heading out to Central Park, which was located only a few blocks from my hostel. Part of this reason was because I had stayed up all night before that, trying to find a cheap hostel to move to after my 4-day reservation was over, and trying to find a cheap flight back to LA at the end of my stay.

When I finally got to Central Park, I had about an hour left of sunlight. The trees were now all winter-stark, and the temperature was freezing. I probably shouldn't have tried so hard to find the "perfect spot in Central Part" with so little time left. Ended up recording some very basic electronic ambient music, using Reactor and Ableton, on Bow Bridge (for lovers) right at twilight. I suppose that was good enough. There were even a couple of lesbian lovers there looking at me like I was crazy in between tonging the hell out of each other.

Empire State Building and the Rockefeller Tree:
Knowing how important this location was, I managed to get some sleep and get an early start on day six. I walked 15-some-odd blocks to the Empire State building, bought a $60 ticket, waited on lines and got to the top only to find out that there was a policy against using anything but a camera up there. I would have had to wait for documented permission ahead of time in order to use my laptop. Unbelievable. By the time I made it back down to street level, it was night. Life in the BC, right? Onward...

The problem now was that I had booked my plane ticket a couple of days earlier, leaving me no choice but to average three locations a day to get everything done by the time I left New York. With the remains of the "day," I decided to follow through on my plan to do the Rockefeller Tree next. I endured the crazy crowds and set up my laptop on a walkway near the ice-skating rink. I used my headphones because at this point I was mildly tired of dealing with people. I recorded a psycho-sounding, a cappella rendition of Silver Bells which I then morphed into my version of I Need A Dollar (Aloe Black). Some looked at me with approval, some with worry. Priceless. And as far as I could tell, songs like that came out great, but I haven't really had a chance to listen back to any of it yet. Looking forward to that possible disappointment...

The crazy part, at this point, was that when I got back to the Broadway Rooms hostel that night, I had to gather all of my bags out of storage and take a subway with them all the way over to my new $30-per-night hostel in Brooklyn, called Putnam. If you could see how bulky and heavy my 3 bags were, and what a shady part of town I was headed for, you would have sympathized. Plus, my knees were still really weak after having mildly injured them while sparring with my uncle Bruce in Connecticut weeks earlier. What a setup! Would the clerks be there until midnight? Would they be jerks? Would I be locked out in that shady a neighborhood? Would the place be a shitsty? Would I be able to handle all that intense weight on subways around town?

Well, I managed it, and the guy at the hostel (Julian) was super nice, welcoming me to a hostel that was one of the best I've ever stayed in. That's what you get for trying.

Cony Island and Times Square:
The next day, day seven, I had intended to take a train to Montauk Point to get some great Atlantic Coast footage, and relive my childhood a little there. Due to all of the shifting, and finally a decent night's sleep, it was now too late in the day for Montauk, which was at least a 3-hour train ride away. I asked one of the clerks there at the hostel about a possible, closer alternative. We came up with Cony Island.

To give you some sense of the kinds of "extreme travel" situations I often find myself in: I probably managed to avoid a potentially bad situation/robbery on the way to the subway. One of the "bolder" things about this project (or just me) is that I'll take footage of bad neighborhoods, or anywhere, just to show the type of places I sometimes visit. After I filmed a quick segment of the hood, before descending into the subway tunnel, I noticed a dude subtly trying to hide the fact that he had been looking at my camera. His right hand was in his sweatshirt pocket the whole time. Dude basically followed me down to the ticket machines and while I waited for the person in front of me to buy their ticket, this guy stood behind me "innocently" faced away from me. I knew that once the person ahead of me left, this guy would try something, and if it wasn't a gun he was going to pull, I didn't want to have to kill somebody today. So I just walked back out and up to street level, and wouldn't you know it, I then saw this guy walk back up to street level himself, and then down the street. He looked pissed, but I wasn't. ,'-) That's just life in the f-cking ghetto!

I descended back down and was soon on the G subway towards the shore of Brooklyn, and I made some really cool synth music with my laptop during the ride. After arriving at Cony Island for the first time ever (basically just the Brooklyn shore), I got myself a hotdog and walked to the shore. I could tell that, in warmer times of year, this place is to the east coast the equivalent of what Venice Beach is to the west coast.

I soon ended up on a pier that seemed almost identical to the Venice Pier. Next to the fishing poles and the immigrant fisherman, I set up my studio on the nasty, dark, decayed wooden floor of the pier and preceded to record a twilight ambient music session. People walked up and then away as I continued. One man stopped to catch my eye and share a sinister smile with me. Moments like that make the project worthwhile.

Afterwords I grabbed some seafood at Nathans and jumped back on the subway for downtown. My last mission: Times Square/Broadway. Before getting there I decided to do a subway station session. I stopped at the 42nd St station, underground, and while setting up there on the bench I met a very open-minded local woman named Terri, who was an ex-artist developer and who also sang a little. I wanted to try out an idea I had, so I used her to do it; first I looped the sounds of the subway, and the people, in Ableton Live, then I had her sing over that while I looped her. I joined in singing myself at the end. It was beautiful, but the sound quality was a little strange. I would have to figure out what went wrong and try it again later.

I then walked up to the streets of Times Square and stopped at the Times Square Starbucks, where I usually went to charge my equipment. By the time I was ready to walk out of Starbucks, the streets of Times Square were completely desolate at 2am. Everything was neon shining, but no one was around, a surreal time to have my session. I set up my laptop in the center of the square, and with a decent jacket on, recorded a lonely a cappella version of the old standard As Time Goes By. It came out okay, but I struggled with a few of the parts, not having had enough time to practice it. By the time I arrived back at the hostel in Brooklyn, I only had a few hours left to transfer footage onto my drives and head back out for the next day of locations.

Sleep? Ha ha ha.

Ground Zero and Mt Sinia Hospital:
On day 8, I managed to arrive at Ground Zero late after somehow getting lost during the subway transfers--and partly because I had been lacking sleep I'm sure. I was late for a 1pm reservation, but after waiting in lines and the usual security checks, they let me in anyway. It was hard to figure out the right camera angles to get, even with the new memorial buildings under construction. It's hard to get just one angle that encompasses the essence of the whole area. That spot now pretty much holds more history and structure than anywhere else in town. My plan was to find a central spot and record my a cappella rendition of The Sky Cries Mary by Jimmy Hendrix, an extremely poetic gesture which didn't come off that simply. I tried and tried, but couldn't seem pull off an optimal performance. It was now clear that everything I had spent time tending to in the surrounding hours of each day had left no time for me to practice, and it was showing. I would have to come back another day and do Ground Zero again, too.

Ground Zero is basically a graveyard without tombstones. I can't really justify not giving an almost-perfect performance there. The security guards told me that they simply appreciated my gesture, having friends of their own who were buried there, too. I was grateful for the reciprocation, but I told them that I take their site too seriously to do a half-ass job. I would be back someday not-too-distant. Besides, one of the main inspirations for this project was a guy named Phillip Petite, who walked on a tight rope from tower to tower when the Trade Center was first built. Ground Zero has a slightly additional connection to this project.

After that session, I stopped at the usual designated Starbucks to charge everything. I had one more location to cover before finishing with the whole city: Mt Sinia Hospital, the hospital where I was born. But before that, I decided to do one more session at Times Square, where I would improvise something this time. I wanted to try doing at Times Square what I had done on the subway, and it worked with flying colors! I picked a crowded spot there, and then set up my laptop. Using Ableton Live, and my recording mic, I looped little sections of the crowd noise around me, and then improvised singing parts over those rhythms. It was a breakthrough! Amazing stuff. And with the footage to back it up, I think I've really got something. Let's hope I find enough time over the next millenium to show you... ;)

Excited, I soon left Times Square for Mt Sinia Hospital. The journey to Mt Sinia was through some serious hood at night, and when I finally arrived, the building looked fairly dark and ominous. But I had made it. There was the hospital where I was born; and, well... wasn't sure how I felt about that. Also wasn't sure why it looked so foreboding, aside from the fact that it's basically a huge black building. "I guess that explains a lot about me" I said to myself.

When I spoke to the desk clerk, he told me that I would only be allowed to enter the building during visiting hours, 11am to 9pm daily. Considering that I had to be on a plane at 11am the next morning, I now knew this location was shot, too. I would have to return someday and do this session as well. Across the street from the hospital was upper Central Park. I found a park bench over there, and recorded one last improvised a cambient music session before leaving.

I can't resist talking to cool people I meet along the way who are not thrown or put off by my intensity-of-focus. But this social habit contributes to my lateness, which makes me work harder, and in turn contributes even more to my intensity-of-focus. ,'-)

So now, at this point, I was so tired and half awake that I continuously got lost trying to get back to the hostel. I finally arrived back there only an hour-and-a-half before I was supposed to leave for the airport. Amazing. I had spent all that time finding an awesome deal on a hostel that I hardly ended up using.

The Flight Home:
I packed my things back up, showered, and rushed out the door with all my bags. I was now on the A Train to JFK, and I recorded one last session during the long ride (and no, not The A Train by Duke Ellington). I did an a cappella version of So Real by Jeff Buckley, something I had wanted to do at the top of the Rockefeller Center, but didn't have time.

After transferring to the airport monorail I thought I would make it, but as it turns out, I missed my flight. They booked me for a stand-by flight the next day, at that same time. I was so worried about missing this flight, too, that I just stayed at the airport for the next 24 hours.

Smacking my forehead as I boarded the plane, I realized that I had forgotten to record a JFK-airport-music-session during that wait, something I had even planned on months prior. I would now have to do it during my two-hour layover in Miniapolis.

Once I was on my flight and in the air, I whipped out the studio and got to work. I recorded two a-cambient pieces 40,00 feet in the air before landing at our one lay-over in Miniapolis. While waiting one-and-a-half hours at the Miniapolis airport, I recorded an electronic ambient piece using Ableton and Reactor synthesizers. It was great, and ended just in time to get back on the plane. But that had been easy, there were no blaring engines and flight attendants to contend with at the airport.

The last leg of the flight was the most potent. I recorded an a cappella ambient piece and a large, majestic, Ableton/Reactor ambient piece while flying over the canyons of Utah and the Southwest--a place I will be recording music at again in a few months for this very same project.

The knowledge of this constructed coincidence was a full-circle moment for me. What a beautiful day! Making beautiful music thousands of feet over where I will be making more beautiful music. Still, the moment I finished recording the last song (mainly because my batteries ran out), I let out a sigh of relief as I turned to start a casual conversation with the guy next to me. I was finally finished, for the year. Freedom at last! Thus, at this point, the fact that the guy next me was a rubber-compound investor was massively interesting.

Happiness pinnacled when Lisa picked me up from LAX at twilight and looked as gorgeous as ever. I hadn't seen her in so long that it was hard to register she was my girlfriend. Coming home to discover what a lucky man you are is always a fairly surreal experience. Wish that kind of natural gratitude would last. Too busy making weird, dark music for any "they-lived-happily-ever-after" type of stuff. ,'-)

Now that I'm back, I'm going to focus on finally completing the Fateless Records relaunch, and will update this bog by adding entries that are missing here from the last two years. After that, I go back on the road in late March and will be gone most of the year, finishing this project and hopefully the last of my travels for quite a while.

Soon I will post some video content of this last trip, including bits of stuff from the beginning of it--my East Coast tour with Vic Hennegan. You can actually hear and download music from our tour right now (temporarily) at my SoundCloud page. Just click the download icon on the far right at the top of each track/song player. Feel free to let me know what you think, and I'll pass it on to Vic, brutal honesty and all.

Until soon,
Season's Greetings,

I think over again my small adventures,
My Fears,
Those small ones that seemed so big,
For all the vital things
I had to get and to reach,
And yet there is only one great thing,
The only thing,
To live to see the great day that dawns
And the light that fills the world.

-Old Inuit (Eskimo) Song