Saturday, April 26, 2008
I set foot on Staten Island for the third time in my life today. Staten Island, for those unaware, is a borough of New York City, one of five, though in virtually every respect--geographically, culturally, architecturally--it's part of New Jersey. There's an old neighborhood, St. George, near where the Staten Island Ferry docks after its trip from lower Manhattan, that retains vestiges of New York. The rest of the island, which is quite sizable, consists largely of private, middle-class houses--large and flimsily built--, many trees, strip malls and the world's most voluminous landfill.
I came here on a group trip when I was about 15, ostensibly to watch a Wagner College football game in the freezing, damp cold, ending up gallivanting around the campus with my friend Mike and two girls from Long Island we met at the field. (Now there's a memory that's remained undredged for many a year!)
About 15 years ago, my friend David and I biked to the ferry from the Upper West Side, took it over to Staten Island and toured the place, a fairly extensive, for me, ride of about 60 miles total. There are parts of it, when you get to the higher hills, where you think you might be in the Catskill Mountains, unpaved roads winding off into the thick woods, dead quiet, etc.
That's not where I was today.
A month or so back, Kurt Gottschalk contacted me, asking if I'd participate in a project, a realization of John Cage's "49 Waltzes for the Five Boroughs", written in 1977 and, as near as he could determine, only ever performed once. I knew the event was taking place but didn't for a moment think it appropriate to contribute. However, the score for the work instructs an individual to go to one of 147 designated locations (49 groups of three) and "do something". Kurt thought I could write about what I experienced there, particularly the sounds heard. Well, how could I refuse?
Being a Cage piece, I randomly generated a number between 1 and 49, garnering 26. Kurt had asked that, if possible, participants try to choose points on Staten Island as takers for those slots were likely to be harder to find. Having a car and easily able to approach from the Jersey side, I chose the one one of three possibilities so situated and come to find myself at the intersection of Richmond and Katan Avenues, settling in to write about what I hear, which I shall now proceed to do....
(later that same evening)
Nice day. The results of this endeavor will be posted at wfmu.org at some future date. As far as I know, people played music, made field recordings, videos, etc. Not sure if anyone else simply observed.
One amusing thing, in a dopey way, is that when I came home, I realized I'd misread my location! Staten Island is known, technically, as Richmond County and the address was listed as "Katan Ave. and Ridgewood Ave. (Richmond)" which I senilely read as "Richmond Ave." which, in fact, exists. Turns out I was four blocks away from the proper point. Ah well, nothing wrong with a bit o' randomness....
It was a purely residential neighborhood with no convenient sitting place on any of the four corners. I'd found an elementary school a couple blocks away with a nice set of stairs and almost substituted that but figured I'd play it straight. One of the odd things was that, for all the extensive car traffic, there were virtually zero pedestrians. People don't walk there, apparently. I counted two in an hour and could often look up and down Richmond, about 1/2 mile of straight road, and see absolutely no one on the sidewalks.
Very enjoyable undertaking though. I do a reasonable amount of "Cageian" listening in the normal course of things, not as much as I might but more, I daresay, than your average Joe. But it's different when you're constrained to do so for an extended period and, more, to write about it. You concentrate better, or at least I do. It's be nice to have that level of clarity at all times. Maybe some do.
Drove back into Manhattan to meet up with other participants at the north end of Madison Square Park, beneath the statue of Chester Alan Arthur, exchanging stories from around the boroughs. While in Staten Island, one of the nice, almost giddy sensations was knowing that 48 [it turned out, 61] other people were engaged in some tangentially related activity at the same time, elsewhere in New York. Something rather comforting in that.
When the results are posted, I'll let people know.
Thanks, Mr. Cage!