Wednesday, August 28, 2013


Have you noticed that my life has changed so much over this summer? I sure have. Music has become a big part of my life again, the way it was when I was with Tara back in 2008-2010.

I can trace this back to certain very specific events this year:

  1. Attending the New York Audio Show and hearing the vinyl edition of the Talking Heads "Remain in Light" at Classic Album Sundays.
  2. Skipping out on "Lincoln" in the movie theater to watch "The Perks of Being a Wallflower."
  3. Seeing Sigur Ros in concert, and seeing Muse and Steven Wilson in short order.
  4. Buying a digital copy of the book, "1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die" by Tom Moon.
  5. Watching the play "Once" on Broadway.
Of the five, the first one is certainly the most influential because it's gotten me back into vinyl after I'd lost my entire collection in the fire of 2005. As you know, I've bought a new turntable and I've started collecting records again, although the turntable has developed a problem so I'm bringing it in for repair on Friday.

What's important to understand, for me, is that this is not about analog vs. digital so much as the importance music plays in life. Everyone knows I'm a nut for movies, and I certainly haven't abandoned them. Times Square Movie Club is still alive and well. But slowly I've been exploring new music, and when I say new, I mean new to me, of course. It's harder without a guide like Tara, but it's just as rewarding. She gave me a good start on the right path, because before she came along, I really didn't know good music from bad, and I hadn't been exposed to a lot of good music at all. I was a musical idiot, so to speak. And I still have a long way to go.

But now I try to spend at least a couple hours each day listening, really listening to music, along with my usual diet of TV, books and movies. That means focusing on a one-hour sound recording the same way you focus on a two-hour movie or two chapters of a book, without distractions. Some of this is done on the train, but that almost doesn't count since it's earbuds and there are plenty of distractions. 

I'm also buying a ton of music too, new and familiar things. I'm going through used record stores and shopping online. Here's some of the records I've recently bought:
  • The Band - The Band (LP)
  • The Band - Music from Big Pink (LP)
  • The Cure - Disintegration (LP)
  • The Smiths - Singles (CD)
  • The Smiths - The Queen is Dead (LP)
  • Alanis Morrisette - Jagged Little Pill (LP)
  • Radiohead - My Iron Lung (LP)
  • Nine Inch Nails - The Downward Spiral (SACD)
  • Mannheim Steamroller - Fresh Aire V (LP)
  • The Beach Boys - Pet Sounds (LP)
  • Maurice Ravel - Un Coeur en Hiver soundtrack (CD)
  • The Beatles - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (LP)
This last one, the Beatles record, was one of the first rock records I ever listened to, since it was one that I used to check out of the public library and it was just about the only popular music available at the library. The first record I ever owned was Shaun Cassidy's Da Doo Run Run (which gives you an indication how old I really am) but I consider my first record that I actually bought with serious intention to be Hall & Oats' H2O (that record was still in my collection that was lost in the fire). The challenge of listening to Sgt. Pepper is to try and approach it with fresh ears, to listen as if the music was recorded this year, and not continuously think about all the music that has been influenced by it over the decades since it came out.

I love being passionate about music again. I hope you are as well. Music and magick are alike in many ways, but the most important, primary way is that they both require you to make space in your life for them or you risk losing your connection to them.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Runaround for records

In my protracted pursuit of analog nirvana, it turns out that everything is fine with my turntable and it should be on its way to me from Glendale, AZ today. I've never had a problem with shopping or selling on eBay. I used to do it quite a lot in my early days of transition, buying and selling clothes and such. In fact, my eBay account is michelletg328, a name I would never choose today. But I found my current talisman on eBay, and other magickal items, plus my stuffed polar bear Oz, so it’s been a good resource for me to find hard-to-find things.

Since I purchased my Rega P-1 turntable with the Performance Pack on Aug. 1 and paid for it through PayPal, I hadn't heard a word from the seller so I assumed everything was on its way. After a few days of not hearing anything, I started to become concerned, but eBay said to wait until Aug. 9 to open a case that would be the first step for arbitration. I got a notice that the Postal Service had opened an account, but there was no tracking information and still not a word from the seller. I had to wait until Aug. 15 to escalate to eBay Customer Support, which would mean they would step in and possibly refund my money if the seller continued to be unresponsive.

On the 15th I sent another note to the seller, telling him that if I didn't hear anything from him by 3 pm that day, I would escalate the case. Three pm passed, and still nothing. I didn't want to get a refund; I wanted my turntable, so I sent him another note giving him one more week. I’m glad I did, because a few hours later he finally responded with an apologetic note explaining that he had been traveling for work and family business this month. He had packed it up for pickup at his office (hence the USPS account opening) and the Post Office never picked it up. I think if he hadn't done that, I would have given up more quickly. At least I could see that something was being done, although the non-responsiveness was very troubling.

So next time I buy something on eBay, I’m definitely going to ask the seller some questions, just to establish the connection before money changes hands. A good lesson for any online shopper to learn!

With that in mind, I did also just buy an isolation platform for my new used turntable on eBay and I did ask questions before I bought it. Since we all know that analog is more sensitive to vibration than digital, I was concerned about the placement of my turntable so close to my speaker and on my less-than-audiophile standard dresser. In my old house that burned down, my Micro Seiki turntable sat on top of a five-shelf equipment rack with spiked feet coupled to the floor. I even filled the hollow joints of the rack with lead shot to dampen vibration – the whole thing must have weighed about 200 pounds. But as I said in a previous post, I don’t have room for such extravagance in my current space, so I’ll try a different solution.

The isolation platform is a simple concept that even non-audiophiles can understand. It’s a flat wooden box that’s filled with plain sand, and the turntable sits on a floating plank on top of the sand. Anybody who has played beach volleyball knows how jumping out of sand is much harder than off solid ground. That’s partly because the sand absorbs part of the energy of your jump by the displacement of its mass. I used to have a Bright Star isolation platform under my Laserdisc player in my old setup, which is the same exact thing, but a little less homemade-looking. Bright Star appears to have discontinued making them, so I was happy to find this homemade (and cheaper) solution.

At the base of the box, four brass cones are the feet, resting on brass discs with indentions for the points to hold them in place. So any vibration coming from below (say, from dancing on my wood strip floors) has to travel through the dresser, through the brass feet, through the maple wood box, and through about 50 pounds of sand before it reaches the turntable, which itself has non-resonant feet and plinth (the body that holds the platter and tonearm) before it can affect the critical point where the needle touches the groove of the record. Now, air vibration from the speakers affecting the playback have a much more direct path, but that shouldn't be too big a problem as long as I don’t play records at high volumes. We’ll see how that all works out when I get everything in the next week or so and get it set up.

Last night I went down to St. Marks to find the used record dealer I passed on my way to the last Shotz. He didn't have much that I wanted, but he had a lot of crap I used to have that I’m not interested in replacing. I did pick up a Charlie Parker record and a Verve Japanese pressing of Duke Ellington standards, plus Philip Glass’ Songs from Liquid Days. I also got Mannheim Steamroller’s Fresh Aire VI, a modern tone poem based on the Greek myths and a nostalgic throwback from my early days as an audiophile. Now that I think about it, I’d really like to hear once more Fresh Aire V that is based on an imaginary trip through space by Johnass Kepler, so maybe I’ll look for that online.

I also found Stevie Wonder’s double album Musiquarium, so even though I have it on mp3, I thought that was worth picking up. Plus I got a couple classical albums – the CBS Masterworks pressing of Hayden’s three favorite concertos with Wynton Marsalis and Yo-Yo Ma, and Lorin Maazel's version of Ravel’s Bolero. Not a bad haul for $63, but I’m really looking forward to shopping at the Princeton Record Store, which has the area’s largest collection of vinyl. I went there once with Morgan last year, but I wasn't shopping for records back then, obviously.

I haven’t done any TSMC events in a while since I've been so exhausted, but I think I can start doing those again soon. The farewell party for Emily went really well, and I was happy she and Miriam got to see where I live at last. We saw “Wings of Desire” and everyone seemed to enjoy it. It was just the right amount of people too – Becker, Puck and Chelsea also came. Any more people and it starts getting a little uncomfortably crowded when everybody’s standing up.

Today is the first day at work in the past two weeks I feel like I can relax a bit. Maybe I’ll go get a massage after work before going home, I think I deserve one. I’m really looking forward to a relaxing weekend as well.

Monday, August 12, 2013

I dig music

So there's been a little snag with my turntable order. The seller on eBay hasn't shipped it or contacted me yet, so I've been trying to chase it down. I just hope the seller isn't a complete fraud. eBay has guarantees so I won't lose my money, but I really wanted that turntable at that price. So we'll see what happens in the next few weeks.

I've already got a decent start on my new record collection, a mix of old and new:

London Calling by The Clash
Weather Systems by Anathema
Electric by Pet Shop Boys
The Perks of Being a Wallflower soundtrack
The King James Version by the Harry James Orchestra (an original Sheffield Labs direct to disc pressing)
The Velveteen Rabbit by Meryl Streep and George Winston
The Steadfast Tin Soldier by Jeremy Irons and Mark Isham
Purple Rain soundtrack by Prince and the Revolution
Wish You Were Here by Pink Floyd
O Brother Where Art Thou Bona Fide Rarities and Unreleased Tracks soundtrack
Kveikur by Sigur Ros

The children's stories, especially the Velveteen Rabbit, are replacements from my old collection. I was always amazed how much better they sounded on vinyl than on CD, so it should make a good demonstration. The human voice is one of the hardest things to reproduce accurately and we're all most critical about listening to it because we hear it more than any other instrument.

Tonight I listened to some of my SACD samplers while reading Sandman. It's been a while since I've played an entire album at home, although I've been listening to a lot of Pandora lately.

The other day, I was listening to Paramore's Riot! album on the train and I had a powerful memory of the person I was back when that album came out. It was like I was inhabiting the mind of the person I used to be when I was living in New Jersey and working in New York, being with Tara and first meeting Puck. I remember how much more innocent I felt, how much more open I was to new things and ideas. I was a sponge, soaking up everything to do with living my new life, with new people, in a new place.

Compared to then, I'm much more stable, set in my ways. I've never been keen about meeting new people, but I'm probably a little better at it now than I was then, but I'm less inclined to adopt ideas from people close to me. I have a better sense of who I am, and there's a feeling of permanence to my personality now. Paramore's music brought me back to my adolescence of five years ago, when I had no idea where life would take me. It was an interesting out-of-body experience. Music, like sights and smells, can be the catalyst to take you to a place and time before you became who you are. It's another way of looking back and seeing how far you've come along your chosen path.

Monday, August 05, 2013

A gift for Emily

This is a story about a quest for the perfect gift. And like most quests, it's not so much about the successful conclusion, but about the journey to get there.

As I said in my last post, my yoga teacher Emily is moving to the opposite side of the country this month, so she's coming over Wednesday for a little farewell party. I wanted to get her a going-away present, and decided to try and find her a custom name chop on Saturday. In my heart of hearts, I was skeptical I could get it done in so short a time, but I was determined to try.

I found a place called Chinatown Frame & Art online that said it sold name seals, so I went in search of it. The site said it was located at 40 Elizabeth at Canal, but when I got there, there was no sign of it. I looked it up on my Blackberry and found that they relocated to 7 Pell Street, a short walk away. I went down there and finally found a sign at the location, but no store that I could see. I called the number and spoke to the proprietor, who said he had closed his business permanently. So much for the easy way.

I called all the other stores listed on the website, but every one of them was either a wrong number, or didn't have what I was looking for. I visited one of the frame stores and they had one chop, but no way to engrave it. A blank chop wasn't much use to me. I visited a few souvenir shops, but the ones who even knew what I was talking about didn't have it.

I was about to give up when I looked across Bowery from Pell Street and saw the words, "Confucius Bookstore." I decided to give it one last try, so I walked in and asked the young lady and she said no, they didn't carry them. I asked her if she knew anyone who did. She asked a co-worker in Chinese and turned back to me and said, "Two doors down." My heart started racing - could it be possible I was close?

Two doors down was a fine arts and antiques store that sold furniture, vases, scrolls and other artworks, and lo and behold, they had a small collection of chops in a glass display case. Most of them were very plain, but there was one with an oval design with a dragon on top that was perfect! I asked where I might be able to have it engraved. The answer? "Two doors down."

The proprietor escorted me another two doors down to an engraving shop run by Victor Pei and his wife. I later learned that Mr. Pei is the first cousin of legendary architect I. M. Pei (who designed the glass pyramid entrance for the Louvre, among many other things). One wall was completely covered with photos of celebrities like Liam Neeson, Mayor Bloomberg, etc. They helped me typeset five Chinese characters that phonetically sounded like Emily's name (and didn't have any rude or off-color meanings). The three characters of her first name are a surname and two characters that translate as "jasmine". The two characters of her last name translate to "hope" or "aspire" and "achieve". So, perfect for someone who is going to school!

As I suspected, Mr. Pei asked me if I could pick up the finished piece on Wednesday night. I explained I had to get it sooner because the party was Wednesday night. It became even more complicated when he told me that his shop closed at 6, meaning I would have had to work at home or take a day off just to pick up the chop. Seeing my distress, he offered to start on it immediately and see if he could get it done today, and I just about hugged him in gratitude!

While he worked on it, he sent me to another bookstore on Elizabeth Street to get the mudpack, the traditional red paste used to ink the seal. This required going up an unmarked stairway and coming out into the Chinese equivalent of a Barnes & Noble. They not only sold books, but art supplies, ping pong paddles, musical instruments and lots of chops. I had finally hit paydirt!

Since I've never had a chop in my current name (I lost a collection of several seals with my old name in the fire of 2005) I ordered one made for myself. I also got a pot of ink for Emily's chop, and I asked the clerk to help me translate "Michelle" (I already know how to write my surname in Chinese). This task seemed to capture the imagination of the entire store staff, as I watched four clerks consult four different dictionaries and reference books, and even get the opinion of more unseen employees in the back room. Finally, they agreed on two characters that sound reasonably similar, with the meaning of "beautiful" and "baby bamboo". I thought the baby bamboo was a particularly appropriate meaning since I just celebrated my 9th birthday!

While waiting on Mr. Pei, I strolled around Chinatown in areas previously unexplored and saw so many things that I wanted to try on future outings - a hand-pulled noodle shops, restaurant supply stores with gorgeous tea sets, grocery stores, Shanghai soup dumpling restaurants, bubble tea stands, etc. I thought a lot about when I was growing up and the long-buried memories of going to Chinatown in Houston, trying new restaurants and shopping every week in Chinese grocery stores.

Finally, just past 6 pm, Mr. Pei was finished and we put the whole package together and this is what it looks like. I hope Emily likes it, and I'm grateful for the experience of this day, and for my own chop that I will pick up next weekend! To end the day, I stopped by nearby Great N.Y. Noodletown and devoured an order of their seasonal soft shell crabs, and got an order of roast duck to go.