The New York Diaries
I had this idea of doing a portrait of one person every day: a short interview and a photo. I did three then was carried away by the life here.
My first glance of New York was Harlem. Bibbe and Sean live there, on 127th street. Kris drew a rather gloomy and violent picture of the neighborhood; however, it seems my own experience was totally different. Not once during my stay have I encountered an unfriendly person. My joyous state of mind could only fail to attract negative energy, I think.
The rite of customs was smooth and easy. I was not so comfortable with all the food for Yingshin I was carrying in my bag: wine, chocolate by Hévain, a jar of foie gras, a huge bag of tea from Marriage Frères and some woman lingerie.
Actually, that’s nothing, but I feared the two hours at the customs scenario.
As I emerged from the subway, I saw the worn down buildings of Harlem. The change of scenery didn’t shock me this time. I was stepping back in a film I left eleven years ago.
I had talked to Bibbe the previous day. Our first live conversation. I knew how her voice would sound and wasn’t surprised when I actually heard her. I knew how it’d feel to see her for real, and I wasn’t surprised when I actually met her.
She was standing the middle of the living room with a broad smile on her face, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses, but I caught their expression: “At long last you’re here!!!”
And she opened her arms to welcome me.
Her written description of her flat deceived me into visualizing a dark, untidy and overstuffed place. But Gunilla the flat mate was out somewhere in the world, and they could hang a few of Al Hansen’s art on the wall. I liked the flat. The atmosphere was warm and cosy, Sean and Bibbe are the perfect hosts.
I woke up at 5:26 in the morning. Not surprising. So I got ready and took the tube to the theatre. Jo had said to meet him there at 8:30. I had plenty of time. The streets were deserted. I wanted to kiss the sidewalks, every building and every person I’d meet so happy and elated I was to finally find myself in wonderful New York. I wouldn’t say it enough. New York, New York, New York!!!!!
Buying a box of cookies suddenly was an intense experience. Using the pay phone was another.
8:30. Of course it was much too early. The poor dancers were just coming from Chile. Apparently, NINA was more then well received. Standing ovation, said Jo. So we were all slightly nervous about New York. How would the audience appreciate it?
Jo was sitting in the theatre and watching the crew prepare the stage and the set the light. “Hey, hey hey!!!” The first words he said when he saw me climb up the stairs to greet him. When you love someone, time does not exist anymore. Ten years could go by and it would seem like you left him or her just a few days ago.
Hey my love. I’m so glad to see you again. It shall always be like this.
I bumped into the dancers from the other companies, among them Kim Itoh, who is to share billing with us this week. Bald head, an eye patch, a remote, mysterious, almost blank expression on his face…
Lunch time. I had to see Yingshin to deliver all the goods. She was working with Tan Dun’s wife at an office near the Joyce. But it took me more than hour to find. I was too distracted and excited to read and hear the information accurately, so I walked the whole area, looking for a number 367.
We had our meal at Nooch which would soon become my head-quarter. A Thai fusion cuisine restaurant, decorated a taste too much in the hi-tech, minimalist neo-retro style.
Only the music – some tacky italo-trance disco, was unbearable.
Afternoon. Meeting Kristina at Union Square Plazza. Wev’e mostly seen each other in Paris. Yeehee, yaahaa. Emperor, Goddess.
Paris? London? New York??? We were together, only the decors was changing!
Freezing weather. We were dancing and singing on the street. Kris showed me the mythical Village Vanguard, one of the celebrated homes of jazz! Trendy chocolate bar called The Chocolate Bar, how original!
Premiere followed by a cocktail with the theatre trustees. NINA got lots of applause. Jo is relieved. We are all proud. A shame we can only show the first part. Everyone wants to see the whole piece. Next year…? Lincoln Center…? We shall see.
The old ladies were delighted and charmed. A young, dynamic and strongly creative team we are! In this lonely life I’m leading, I seize those rare moments of togetherness with rapture.
I promised Kristina I’d come to see her rehearse her solo for the Balinese Dance Company. I had nothing to do in the morning, so that was a good chance to see her doing something different.
The studio was located near the Empire State. I was early, so I had breakfast in a little diner across the street. I don’t know why I picked that one in particular. It looked nice and pretty from outside. Quite a different story inside. The place was tended by a strong willed Russian woman who was directing her two Mexican employees with a tongue of steel.
There were only two tables for the customers. The place was so tiny that a gush of wind would make the food and napkins fly on my face each time someone would open the door.
I was still early when I managed the last bit of fried egg, so I went to the hardware store to do my first interview.
Name: P.A. He would tell me. He was a refugee so he didn’t want to give any specific detail. No photo was allowed either.
Ethnicity: Persian. Arrived in New York some fifteen years ago. A friendly, observant and cheerful man who managed to bring a very good atmosphere among his clerks.
Any favorite thing about New York? Acceptance and tolerance. Wasn’t it a standard theme? No, he replied, the multicultural dimension does indeed bring people closer to one another, which doesn’t mean racism and differences didn’t exist, but a die-hard right wing supporter could curse the whole Asian race and be found eating Chinese noodles two minutes later. That’s what he liked.
As he was explaining that to me, his eyes were shining. He did really believe in such a thing.
I’ve rarely seen such a heartfelt conviction in Paris…It’s more about the mind and theory here…
Kristina was working in a dance studio which was actually a flat that belonged to a retired woman, Islena, who now dedicated herself to that American Balinese dance company. A former dancer she was and a beautiful one, according to the pictures that hung on the walls. The place was run down, full of souvenirs and barely hidden secrets. Dust would travel from one corner of the flat to another. Past was dominant here. Kristina didn’t look good. Her face was puffy and she seemed weighed down, even if she would strike a smile and spread her habitual joie de vivre. Too many things in her life. She was directed by Carlos, a handsome young man, obviously the company’s artistic director. Really, something in the air wasn’t right.
Bibbe and Sean came to the show tonight. It was a good chance for them to discover another side of my work, as they only know the album.
I felt like a proud son showing his latest achievement. And from the way Bibbe smiled, she was too. I was glad they could be there. I realized that none of my close friends or family saw the show live except Simon and Nolico.
The performance was followed by a talk between the two choreographers and the audience. Kim Itoh came out as a rather discreetly arrogant person. Someone may say solitary.
Jo had told me he saw the piece ten or twelve years ago and was very moved by it.
What I witnessed in New York didn’t impress me much. It was visually beautiful. The light work was superb. Three naked men sculpted in light and shadow as Kim Itoh would cross the stage in extremely slow motion. The use of Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony and the second movement of Ravel’s Piano Concerto was a bit risky, especially the latter that was used for Kim Itoh’s solo. It can be so easy to slip and fall into a self-indulgent sentimentality. And when arrogance meets sentimentality, the result is embarrassing.
My cousin Laura was waiting for me at a flat on the Upper East Side. Near Central Park. A groom led me to the lift and took me to the tenth floor where I was expected. The lift doors opened directly onto the flat. The sight that offered itself to my vision was worthy of a Vanity Fair spread. Perfect flat, flawless taste, somehow what one would expect from a fancy flat. The owners apparently have their main home somewhere else; this was only a pied à terre in the city.
Laura wants to start a business and came to New York to meet some potential investors and partners. She has created a web of well to do’s and has been selecting interesting items out of the pool.
She had to meet one later on in the afternoon, actually not far away from the Balam dance studio… The office was located in one of those buildings that nest millions of small companies in a maze of corridors and hallways. We were greeted by a fat and honey-mannered man and introduced in the meeting room. Grey, nondescript, a big table with chairs around it.
Step number one: be nice and cheerful.
He listened to what my cousin had to say. But she wanted to learn more about their ways before revealing her intentions (please Laura, take more time when you talk!)
Both sides were cautious. I remained silent the whole time and looked at him intently, which provoked some uneasiness from him. Who was I? A partner? She had introduced me as a cousin. If I was also her partner, he had to convince me as well. His body language started to change and he kept on shifting uneasily from me to Laura.
Step number two: be persuasive.
His colleague, B.S. came to his rescue. Thin, suave, intense dark eyes, dressed in a purple suit, with a bad hair implant work. What a pair. We had the plump and sugary on one hand, the sharp minded and street wise on the other.
B.S. took matter in hands. He replied to all my cousin’s questions. ‘Why would they have such a dodgy looking office?’ Because they had many other offices in town and preferred to invest the money in developing their business than paying an expensive rent only to impress the customer’. He had a point there. ‘Words were more important than a signature. A question of trust’. So the guy had ethics. But he was cunning all the way. No need to be a clairvoyant to see that. ‘I have learned how to defeat bigger opponents without getting any blame.’ Of course. You don’t do for altruism’s sake. I would rather have this man on my team than against me. Some words escaped my understanding. I was falling asleep but still tried to look intently interested. I didn’t know anything about business. This was the first time I attended such a meeting. When they learned I was just a musician, they temporarily lost interest in me and shifted their focus on her. The air wasn’t pure and clear. Those two men were hiding something. I was now in a gangster film.
Step number three: Crack a joke.
Still they weren’t so sure about me. So B.S. turned back to me and spent a whole ten minutes talking to me. I don’t remember a single word of what he said. He was looking in my eyes, as if to hypnotize me. From the corner of my eye, I felt Laura trying to take part, but the magnetic field B.S. had created prevented her from managing even a single sound.
Then he released his grip. I had been staring back with all my might. What a strange exercise. What was I doing there? But I knew I was to get something out of the episode.
B.S. then started recalling some awkward and funny stories, one involving a fat girl with a sexy voice who passed for a beautiful siren, a flight on a private jet, a ride in a convertible limo where she could hardly fit and the parents angrily waiting for her when she got back home.
So the man could also be gentle and sensitive.
It was time to leave. Rain was pouring outside. We went back to the Vanity Fair flat. As we stopped at a grocer’s on the way, I discovered the Pepperidge Farm's soft baked Chocolate chunk cookies. They’re now my favorite.
Laura shared the same feeling about those two blokes. But she wanted to give it a try. She had nothing to lose and no partner so far. I said I liked the characters but wondered whether it’d be wise to get too close to such people. If the first impression isn’t right, why go any further?
Radiant sky today. I spent the morning with Bibbe. I was observing her Christmas tree: a bouquet of branches on which she hung small pictures of friends and family. This led to a photo album moment. She as a young mother, Sean with hair (he's balding now), her father, her first husband, Beck and his brother Channing. Beck aged 16. "Blackmail material", she added wittily.
I saw Weldon for lunch and we went to Chinatown. It was starting to be really cold. He took me to Soho and we visited a few art galleries. Beautiful spaces. The art didn’t arouse so much enthusiasm in me. Lots pop art. It’s so easy to follow the steps of Warhol or Liechtenstein.
Then we stopped at the Paula Cooper Gallery which was showing a Bob Wilson video installation entitled Voom Portraits: high definition video portraits ‘framed’ in television sets and set in space for a unique viewing experience. The sitters were filmed many times as still subjects, yet allowed to make an occasional movement of the head or the eyes. Each portrait was apparently inspired by a film, or a book. (Maybe Bob Wilson read Harry Potter…)
The viewing experience is quite remarkable because Wilson managed to combine theatre, cinema and photography. He did portraits of Lucinda Childs, Isabelle Huppert (as Greta Garbo), Brad Pitt (as a crazy person on the streets in the rain), Robert Downey Jr. (as a dreaming corpse in a Rembrandt painting), Johnny Depp (as Marcel Duchamps’ alter ego Rose Selavy), Marianne Faithful, Winona Ryder (as Winnie, the main female character in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, buried up to her neck in sand), Gao Xiangjian… and a snow owl. The latter is the one that I saw in New York.
The owl portrait series was presented on 40 set pieces, vertical television sets hung on the wall.
In evening, I attended the program B of the Japanese contemporary dance showcase at the Joyce. Two companies. The first one with very good dancers, but which ran short of ideas after a few minutes. It was pleasant to watch nonetheless. The second involved three crazy girls in a mix of manga, nonsensical comedy and theatre. I laughed a lot. But I wonder whether I liked it.
Our final day of performance! Two shows. And it all passed by too quickly. After many phone calls and messages left on her answering machines, I managed to get hold of Marion and invited her to see the show. I heard that she had it tough in New York. Just imagine a young girl from Bern with stars in her eyes, dreaming of musicals and dance and having to confront the city. She told me she loves it now and has found her bearings. But it took her a few months.
Then I thought, Marion was there when I composed the Nina’s hidden Glass movement. The year was 2004, we were in Vienna, and I played her the first drafts! Since then, Simon, Jo and Cécile each tried their vision on the music.
…And I decided to rest.
Beppe. We contacted each other on Myspace. (God bless Myspace!!!). An ocean is not easy to cross on a whim, but since I was in New York the opportunity had to be taken. We let in Soho and he took me to a delightful Italian café near Spring Street. (Ach! Me and names!!!)
You know when you see someone for the first time and it’s instant chemistry. We could have said we were old friends, no one would doubt it. We had a delicious tiramisu and were held a lively conversation with a charming and beautiful young waitress from Holland.
Beppe was born and raised in Italy but settled in New York eight years ago. We discovered many common points, for instance our do-it-yourself approach which leads to us being multi-task and multi-skilled persons.
I might find a solution for an online distribution of my music. He will see what he can do.
Georges Brassens was playing in the background. Never thought I’d find it hip to hear his music. It takes some miles and a different language to really appreciate something everybody takes for granted.
I was to spend some time with Jo later on. I met him at his hotel. He handed me a copy of the New York Times. There was a review of our show. He hadn’t read it yet, so as I was waiting for him to get ready, I had a little glimpse at it. A review by a certain Claudia La Rocco.
“I have seen the Glorious Future.
It wasn't wearing any clothes.
The Future (or at least the three naked men claiming to represent it) arrived courtesy of the annual Japanese Contemporary Dance Showcase, which hit the Joyce Theater on Tuesday, having outgrown the Japan Society. The dance group Noism 07, along with Kim Itoh and the Glorious Future, performed Program A on opening night; Program B features Leni-Basso and Pappa Tarahumara.
This popular sampler is in its 10th year, and it has become a cliché to describe the weird assortment of alien visions it offers up. (''What will those wacky Japanese think of next?'') These days there seems to be a depressing sameness to the strangeness of Japanese dance, or at least to much of what finds its way here. It's as if choreographers were adhering to a style rather than responding to individual artistic imperatives. This sameness is particularly problematic, given the existential nature of many of these dances; if you're going to go all deep and ineffable on an audience, you'd better mean it.
Kim Itoh and the Glorious Future's ''Dead and Alive -- Body on the Borderline'' began with Mr. Itoh crumpled on the dimly lighted stage as the naked men slowly organized themselves on a diagonal. Hands covering their crotches, they posed and simpered and writhed, muscles clenching and jiggling; Jerry Seinfeld's famous distinction between ''good naked'' and ''bad naked'' came to mind.
As unidentified classical music played, the dancers continued their contortions. The juxtaposition highlighted the age-old gulf between man's lofty consciousness and the physical body's earthly preoccupations. All bodies tire, of course, and the second half consisted of a solo for Mr. Itoh, seemingly representing the lofty with his demure white shift and searching, sinuous limbs.
Then it was over, and everyone came back for bows, the members of the Glorious Future still naked and clutching themselves. It was all very cute, a wink-wink retreat from the Big Questions. Who needs answers when you've got showbiz?
Title aside, there was nothing cute about ''NINA materialize sacrifice -- 1st part.'' Choreographed by Noism 07's director, Jo Kanamori, and set to Ton That An's layered, compelling score, it offered a stark vision of the sexes in which five women portraying female mannequins are manipulated by sinister men in dark suits.
Mr. Kanamori has devised captivating movement, especially for the women. But again, the dark-and-repressively-rigid-society idea seems about played out. New Yorkers hardly need look overseas for choreographic automatons. »
What to say? This lady had no clue what buto is. All those truisms about Japan and the supposed wackiness of its people are deplorable, coming from someone who’s writing for such a prestigious newspapers. Is Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony such an unknown piece of music that she failed to recognize it? I found the reference to Steinfeldto be extraneous. Was she blind enough not to see the heartfelt response of the audience after the show? Jo was upset and furious. He knew he shouldn’t be. Misunderstanding bites the hardest sometime. I was the only one to come out with something positive. I didn’t dare to show my pleasure. But well, it was quite a big strike for a first time in New York! It wasn’t before the evening, when I talked to Bibbe and Sean that I realized how big having these mere three words in the New York Times was. Bibbe was so happy and proud for me. Sean set up to do a link to the article and prune it from the negative points. But eventually, there was nothing left but those three words about me…
We made our way to The Cedar Lake. A small private theatre dedicated to dance that belongs to the son of a very wealthy business man. Jo’s friend, Jacopo Godani had choreographed a piece – Symptoms of Development and it had been picked as the final part of a triple bill program. Jacopo had been a prominent dancer for John Forsythe, his presence was enhancing the level. And it sure did. The dancers were gorgeous, showed impressive skills, had a perfect body, were beautiful to look at. The music left a lot to be desired, and the choreography… Well it was no more than an excuse to show off the dancer’s anatomy. Like a nice spread from Vogue.
Guilty pleasure. Sometimes I like not to think too hard.
Then we looked for a restaurant. The temperature dropped. We walked up to Time Square but didn’t find anything to our taste. Time was running out and we were starving. The final solution was a diner near the hotel. Terrible food served with love 24 hours a day. Some ‘stars’ of screen and stage have stopped there for a meal, according to the worn autographed headshots that were proudly hung on the wall.
Down day. I spent long hours talking to Bibbe, everything from mops, family, creativity, vitamins, Al Hansen to sex. Bibbe suggested an idea for a new song. She said the idea came to her when she heard Love and long for someone where I set a Vietnamese folk poem to a minimalist techno background and recited the text in both English and the original language.
‘Why not write a sexy upbeat number, where you would mix different languages?’ She pointed rightly that there was no one on that field yet and that my music inspired such musical wish. It’s so good to be around creative people who have walked a similar path. Even if we are quite different, I find uncanny similarities between the two families. Both Al Hansen and my father are quite unique artists who are misunderstood by the mainstream. Beck and I are the same age, born the same month. Channing and Chân are the same age, born the same month. Bibbe and my mother are unique women who had many lives and managed to juggle with their creativity and their job as mother, found stimulation in music and writing, were oddly curious about alternative medicine but couldn’t be more different.
I had a hook up with Jason who took me to Kim’s Video and Saint Mark’s bookstore. Where I met my downfall! I saw the Joe’s Pub building. Beppe told me it was a good place for performance. I shall go there to investigate.
Bibbe and Sean were meeting a lady who’d help them get some funding to preserve Al’s work. I’m sure the appointment went well. I had lunch with my cousin Laurita. Always such a good laugh with her. We shared tips and some funny intimate stories. Since she’s hardly read any book for the past years – except the business volumes friends give her as presents, I got her Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a pearl earring.
Then I got lost in some bookstores, had drink with Beppe in the Village and eventually met Ying Hsin for a Richard Foreman’s performance at the Saint Mark’s Church. Sean was joking about what he called ‘endurance art’. That was exactly what we had this evening, a nonsensical theatrical experience that was supposed to sweep away all mind work. No text, except some phrases that would be used as leitmotiv, actors who would act like puppets and point at some seemingly random objects in a heavily charged set design. The audience was only asked to follow and watch without thinking. I was falling asleep but could really doze even for a minute, because a light would flash on my face and wake me up. So I pretended to look interested and deeply concentrated.
Weldon managed to get some tickets for a performance at the Met. I told him whatever the opera, I wanted to attend one show. La Bohème was on tonight. Visconti’s beautiful staging from 1982. The stage design was superb, although it crushed the singers, actually allowing them only one quarter of the stage space. The musical direction was lazy and sluggish. The conductor had no stamina and managed to ruin all the beautiful arias. Funny how I always see shows that could be great but fail for some reason. The audience roared as if they had to because they paid for the ticket.
Another dance performance I attended this evening at the Dance Theater Workshop, this time by Susan Marshall and her company. I had passed the venue many times on my way to the Joyce Theatre. A piece called Cloudless. Ying Hsin got us two tickets and I said yes even if I had no idea who Susan Marshall was. I arrived at the theatre just in time to get on my seat and see the light go dark. Am I getting more and more demanding, or have been witnessing another instance that real talents are rare. I couldn’t say that I didn’t have a good time. The piece was filled with poetry and some innocent, childlike imagination. This simplicity really touched me. But I wished she had broadened the emotional scope. If the dancers from the Cedar Lake Company were gorgeous and technically flawless, Susan Marshall’s on the opposite were almost clumsy, which added to the charm. I But I forgot about the piece as soon as I left the theatre.
Bibbe had been boasting about Regina Spektor, Adam Green Kymia Dawson and Paleface during my stay. She played me their music. I was only familiar with Regina Spektor when I listened to her first album and liked it. So she and Sean decided to take me to the Sidewalk Café, the home of anti-folk. Beck made his debut there, and so did Adam Green and many others. Anti-folk and I couldn’t more remote musically. But there’s one thing we share: the do-it-yourself approach. It is unexpected for me to meet so many people going that path here in New York. It only proved me that my way wasn’t a solitary one, that a lot was to be achieved through it.
Sidewalk Café is located on Avenue A. I had to queue up for half an hour before managing my way in a small room, packed with happy-faced young people. Remember Phoebe from Friends? Remember The Shaggs, my all time idols? I guess what I heard stood halfway between those two. Endurance art, Sean once said…
There was this couple. A guy playing the guitar, hardly ever looking at the audience, whilst her female partner would sternly bang on a table with two sticks. The lyrics amounted to this:
“Step up, step down, step up, step down
Fair is fair
Get down, get up, step up, step down,
Fair is fair…”
We had stepped in a time loop. After a impossibly long time, I whispered in Bibbe’s ears
“Well, I don’t think I really like that…”
To which Bibbe answered
“Well, Sean and I had been making up new lyrics…
Stand up, get out, shut up, go out…
Stand up, go out, shut it, get lost…
Fair is fair”
Ten minutes later it was still going on…
“Step up, step down, step up, step down
Fair is fair
Get down, get up, step up, step down,
Fair is fair…”
“Endurance art”, Sean would say again later in the evening. I felt less lonely suddenly…
I was introduced to a singer Jack and his girlfriend who had the most charming smile I had ever seen, Regina Spektor. It wasn’t the best place to strike up a conversation, but the sparkle in her eyes and her smile were enough for me! Adam Green was also there. We were squeezed on a bench near the stairs. I could hardly see anything. Even though the music wasn’t my cup of tea, I really loved the atmosphere and people’s friendliness.
When Kymia Dawson was finished, everybody decided to leave and have dinner. A big white stretched limo was parked outside the venue. A man in his fifties was trying to lure people to get a ride. “Twenty bucks for a ride!”
We looked at each other. Adam said “why not?” and we all jumped in. Of course pictures were taken for this historical event. I had seen some white stretched limos in Paris, usually for Chinese weddings. But they were nothing compared to this one. I wondered how he could turn right or left on small streets… The evening was reaching an unreal stage.
I didn’t know where we were going. But the ride didn’t last more than five minutes. And we stopped at a diner. Hamburgers or salads on the menu. Back to reality.
Regina and Jack joined us later. Adam was testing his funny stories on us like the showman he is, making sure everyone could hear him. The conversation didn’t make sense at all. We discussed the termites’ genius at building their home, how bees could get rid of a grizzly bear and how they would in turn be defeated by the cunning ants, how we all hated Mickey Rooney as the Asian neighbour in Breakfast at Tiffany’s… As the evening progressed, more people joined us and we ended up a table of twelve.
My last full day in New York. Beppe and I decided to have a look at the video installation Doug Aitken did at the MoMA, Sleepwalkers. All the walls of the museum had been turned into screens which showed five different persons living a day in New York. Five city dwellers. At first, we didn’t see the point. Okay, there she was, beautiful Tilda Swinton magnified on the entrance wall. But then as we walked to the other wall, an inner film was starting to play in my mind. And as we reaching the back of the museum with the inner garden, the mental film was complete and was playing as I was watching the projections on the walls. And the MoMA had been transformed into a living building that was breathing to the same rhythm as the five city dwellers, and I, the watcher. Magnificent!
Final day. It has been snowing today. Sean baked home made pancake with real maple syrup. He did some last week and I loved it. I can’t believe I went through 36 years of my life without having tasted that. My bags were packed. I didn’t have that much really. Of course, I could have restrained myself from buying those dvd’s I could have ordered online for a cheaper price. But, that’s the joy of instant consumption!
I had time to have a last meal downtown with Beppe. I couldn’t believe I would be on the plane back to Paris a few hours later. I belong here!