Monday, January 30, 2012

Pipe Organ Restoration Concert

Praise Him With Organ was the name of a mostly sacred and but still somewhat secular recital in recognition of the restoration of a rare pipe organ housed in St. Michael Church on 9th street. It was one of the most unique music experiences I’ve ever had and it’s not just because classical and choral music have never been on any playlist of mine.

The concert was held in a church, the audience sat in the wooden pews. The organ and the organist were in the balcony and in the back of the church, far above the pews. Unless you turned around and arched your head at a distinctly uncomfortable angle, the organist performed unseen. Even if were willing to risk a neck cramp, you still only caught a few glimpses of the organist’s back, maybe some elbow.

Part of the live music experience is watching a musician play; for musical theater or some other type of show, the orchestra is hidden. The point of those performances is not the music, it’s the show and the story it tells or extravaganza it presents, be it opera or musical comedy. Sometimes at large concerts, even sans show, the charisma of the celebrity on stage, the way he or she personifies the song, can overcome the actual musicality (or lack of it) of the performance.

Here, there was no distraction to the music, no visual point of focus to dilute the aural experience. Surrounded by colorful, stunning religious art – St. Michael is home to some of the best sacred art in the entire state of New Jersey – you merely sat and listened, your mind was what you heard because there was no stage to hold your attention, other than the intrinsic abstractions of your own consciousness.

The story behind this particular organ is fascinating. The church was founded in 1867, serving the then mainly Irish immigrant community. The St. Michael organ is a 1925 E.M Skinner Opus 542, which is similar to the one at St. John the Divine Cathedral in NYC. Similar is the key word because the pipe organ uses pipes – St. Michael’s has 2,702 pipes – which are fluted with wooden resonators, much like a whistle – and the pipes are placed through out the church, literally embedded into the architecture. Because the instrument must be customized to the building, the organs can only be similar to each other, each one is unique. According to notes in the brochure given out at the event, in the 1920s, EM Skinner was a premier organ manufacturer, but the company went out of business during the 1930s and as musical tastes change, pipe organs fell out of fashion. While Skinner made 2,500 (St. Michael’s was # 542) only 190 are believed to still exist and only 20 are believed to be in their original condition, making the St. Michael instrument rare indeed, so rare in fact that the Joseph Bradley Foundation, which is dedicated to preserving Skinner organs, agreed to underwrite the bulk of the cost restoring the instrument – $400,000, a five-year project by Peragallo Pipe Organ Company of Paterson, whose founder of the company first installed the instrument. “We are continuing the history,” said John Peragallo III, the latest generation of a family renowned in the tight knit pipe organ community.

 As might be expected, Bach (Prelude in G Major BWV 568) opened the recital, which featured various works of organ specific composition. I particularly liked Carillon, which had a splendidly eerie feel – it’s hard to escape the Cabinet of Dr. Calgari/Phantom of the Opera connotations one has with the pipe organ's inherently spooky sound.

My favorite though was A Grand Instrumental Procession by George Frideric Handel – within a context of a march-type, steady rhythm this folk melody appeared, dancing around the other notes and it was echoed. You see the pipe organ has these things called stop, that create an accent to the sound so the it mimics say a French horn and here the melody would be repeated by a different instrumental mimic, it was almost a dissonance, this strange melody echo, separate but also contained by the main musical theme. Amazing this orchestral fullness was made by one instrument as well as the fact the musician the keyboard was not an octopus.

As the notes to the performance said, the pipe organ envelopes you. You become encompassed by the sound, enhanced by the fact that you are not seeing any performer. The sound was loud, but warm and while electronics are used in some of the keyboard wiring, the amplification is all acoustic, through the touring flutes that align the nave of the church. Hidden behind the organ of course are huge bellows that create the wind for the flutes.

This being an organ in a church, the  program's intermission – between the opening and closing musical performances – featured Bishop Thomas Donato, who blessed the organ and the fluteswith holy water form an aspergillum and incense from a censer. The bishop is a downtown Jersey City native, who graduated from the now closed St. Michael’s High School. At the reception after I saw him talking to another born and bred JCite about growing up on 7th near Division Street.

After the blessing was a hymn, which was sung with organ accompaniment, When in Our Music God is Glorified. The song had this striking couplet: “And did not Jesus Sing a Psalm that night/when utmost Evil strove against the light?”, referencing the Garden of Gethsemane the night before the crucifixion. Hey, the concert was in a church, blessing and prayers were part of the program. The finale was a truly grand performance of a Toccata in b minor. According to my dictionary, a Toccata is a composition for a keyboard instrument written in a free style that includes full chords and elaborate runs and is intended to show off the player's technique.

In addition to the reception, you were able to see the organ up-close and I got a chance to ask some questions of one of the Peragallos about the organ, it’s quite a contraption, as much a musical machine as a musical instrument. It has a real steam punk feel because the technology is old fashioned, real vintage yet the sound it makes fills an entire church.

What a unique musical experience. The sound wasn’t just magnificent, it was an aural embodiment of magnificence.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Little Lebowski… Shop

 The dude abides… on Thompson Street in the village. The Big Lebowski is one of the greatest films ever made. If you don’t agree, you do not understand cinema. In fact, I don’t want to know you; go read another blog. The Little Lebowski is the film's disney store. A cardboard cutout of Jeff Bridges in in the icon icsweater standing there on the sidewalk, plain as day in the winter night.

According to the proprietor, whose name I didn’t get but let me take some pictures and who was a friendly Greenwich Village retailer, the hole in the wall shop started as a comic book store, and what looked like stencils of underground adult comic book adorned parts of the ceiling, a remnant of that incarnation. He said that he carried some Lebowksi items, but about two years ago it started to take off and the store became solely devoted the film.
All the items, which included a lot of t-shirts some of which are exclusive to the store, were quality stuff. The drinking game, the DVDs of course, weird stuff like Walter action figures!, cool stickers with lines from the film, and there were arty film tributes – a toilet with the famed rethort against the rug pissers – At Least I’m Housebroken! On an ctual toliet, 0r the landlord in the tights and leaves, as he was dressed for the recital or a blow up doll representing Marge Lebowski doing her art. An homage to the movie, a fan recreation – the store is a both a desintaiton and a specialty retailer. I don’t really buy this sort of memorbilia, but I am glad I can. Knowing this place exists… is well…. I forgot what I was saying.

The stores claims it’s the first shop for achievers, and proud we are of all of them. The Village, it was always sort of touristy and is still bohemian and it is satisfying to see how well Lebowsky appreciation fits into the timeless funkiness, in the parlance of our times, that will always be Thompson Street, just south of Washington Square Par. The block has yet to be completely assimilated into the NYU Campus. One thing the Cohen Brothers film does is celebrate, through comedy and cinema, the suvival of 60s counter culutre ethos (at least it's an ethos) into the 90s; the Little Lebowski Shop is located in the heart of where people first coalesced around the ideas contained in the ideals to which the Dude dedicates his life. 

The Village is the rug that ties the whole room or history together. 

 In this age of wonders, you can even buy the merchandise on line too. Website:

Sunday, January 22, 2012

V. Fiore’s Deli

This building has been fallow for years. It was an upscale pizza joint, Lombardi’s or something, I can’t remember exactly. Not bad but nothing special. Construction resumed a few weeks ago, progress has been made, big letters on the roof Studio 17, another hair salon. I wish it well. It’s on a peninsula type street, Monmouth, Newark, First. As part of the construction they removed the yellow exterior revealing the colors of the Italian flag, red, white and green, thus revealing the gone but not forgotten original establishment, Fiore’s Deli.
I caught the tail end of their multi-decade reign when I first came to town in the early 90s. I guess now only the bakery on Newark is the last vestige of Italian Village, as old time locals like to call the western side of Downtown near the Heights borderlands. It was only open for lunch; not on Sundays. It was legendary for the quality of its food, simply one of the great Italian delis ever, with the salami, pepperoni, capicolla, and provolone hanging down like delectable stalactites. Fresh fish fillet sandwiches every Friday (or was that only during Lent).
For a few years, during the height of my freelancing period where I was working mainly out of the apartment, I went their weekly. It was around the time the Internet first dawned in a serious way. I had written an articles, actually wrote a coupla three like that, which include a history and glossary of terms like browser and newsgroup. Believe or not, people expected big things back then from the Information Super Highway. Anyway I gave one of the guys (for some reason, only guys worked there) to give to his son who was studying computers. It was still family owned, and there was a location in Hoboken. They were very Italian, gesticulated when they talked but sincerely warm and welcoming and going there was a always fun and enjoyable.

And the food was simply awesome. They had these rolls, man oh man, Italian Break perfection, and fresh mozzarella as creamy as fresh churned butter. The taste buds of my memory can recall the smoked turkey with fresh mozzarella and sun direct tomatoes, drippy with olive oil. The epitome of the ideal lunch.
The born and bred Jersey City folks, talk to them about Fiore’s, they can get weepy.
Seeing the old exterior, chipped, in pieces, back for a while during this rehabilitation phase was a nice reminder and obviously a brief one. Memories I hadn’t thought about for years came flooding back. There are plenty of places in town where you can get a decent sandwich; there are no places where you can get a great sandwich. There is no place like Fiore’s here or in Hoboken and even in New York, nothing like the quality. The family was still running the place when I ate there, had an interest. Seeing the old exterior exposed again, after more than a decade was a unique experience in and of itself, sort of like Charlton Heston seeing the Statue of Liberty head on the beach at the end of Planet of the Apes.
Even then, then being when I first discovered Fiore’s, it had a faux old fashion look, a little corny, almost like somebody’s fantasy of what an Italian Deli should look , but inside was it was genuine. I don’t know what generation of Fiore’s gave up the ghost, why they never expended, extended their hours. The foodie culture, like the Internet, was growing and back then it was so obvious and Fiore’s seemed like such a natural fit, but it was not to be. In fact, I remember the selections getting narrower, one of the guys died. You know you’re in trouble when the beverage refrigerator hasn’t been restocked. But it was part of the city, well since 1912 according to the sign on the wall.
Nothing lasts… if only chipped paint could talk… pretty awesome this echo from the past. I wonder what happened to those guys, that fresh mozzarella, the sundried tomatoes all drippy with olive oil….

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Snow on Palisades & Newark

Autumn had more than six weeks to finish up when we got snow and ice, the winter mix of Halloween 2011. Winter has been with us for a month now, nary a flake nor flurry. In Fact, warm days mostly, few really cold or chilly even, a couple downright balmy, confusing our coat selection. Then the snow came, only a couple of three inches, enough of a reminder of what winter should be.
I had a doctor’s appointment on Palisades, the Heights, more the edge of than square in the heart of the heights; everything went well and as I always do, I walked back to my downtown abode, form Palisades down Newark Ave. It’s a fine walk, past the ominous high school, down the hill, the cemetery, Turnpike overpasses, freight train pond and woods. It’s the borderland, where the hill country of the heights meshes with the lowlands of downtown.

Was this a statement being made? Why would somebody apparently etch AIDS on this rusting lock? The more you keep your eyes open the more you see that’s simply inexplicable.

There’s giddiness when it snows. You want to see the snow, feel it, like when you were a kid and school was called off. What I love about it the most, at least when it first falls, everything is change, transformed, covered with the cold, wet white. It’s fun to take pictures for the sole reason that perceptions are altered along with our familiar terrain.

Pause in Trasition

 Medicaid and Union Health plans are still being accepted by this pharmacy, which has moved two store fronts down, now in a former 99 cents store, which closed instead of adding not including sales tax to its marquee. Well maybe it has to do with land lords, the dominance of development companies on downtown lives and commerce. The pharmacist has been in this storefront a long time, decades, long enough to have this classic storefront sign, optimistic 60s era art deco design. What will happen to this large outdoor sign; obviously it didn’t move with the pharmacist and I can’t imagine a new pharmacy repurposing the sign.
 The gate is usually up so this is a rare picture of the inside, now cleared of all the shelving, products and life. Decals left on the door as if they were selling lottery tickets just the day before. Hooks and marks on the walls, shelving gone, the aisles clear of aisles, harsh, bare, fluorescent lighting. Clues galore of what used to be here, giving the appearance the clearing out was sudden and there was no reason to entirely erase the remnants. That will come, who knows what sort of likely yuppie establishment will appear in the irrevocable march of gentrification. I mean, I hope it’s good and I don’t even use this pharmacist and besides the pharmacist is still in business. I’m just saying… otherwise, this picture is a moment in time. What preceded this pause is gone and what will follow that has yet to arrive. We are seeing change, pragmatic, inevitable and a little sad, like the tattered awning with its promise of hablamos Espanola. The new order is here and whatever cannot adapt will be disposed of.

Fruit, Unpeeled

Winter outside; saw this plate of fruit, unpeeled. I’ve been thinking about it, thinking about what to say about it since I took this picture two weeks ago. I think it was being used as a model for a still life painting by a local artist with Monet (or was that Manet?) aspirations but by the I saw it no artist, paint brush, canvas or easel in sight. Just all this enclosed juicy Vitamin C. Winter outside, this plate reminds us of shipping, the fruit all from southern climes, here for us to prevent scurvy, give us tangy comfort from the chill of facing mortality.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Grab Your Branch and Escape

He’s being pursued. He grasps a branch, leaves fluttering in the breeze as he runs, leaping above the rooftops... escape... transcendence... ascending... into a pale sky. 
 On 4th & Brunswick, there is the newest mural in our fair city.
Isaac Fortoul is the artist. Website: and
He tells me grew up in the city, the man depicted is escaping from the city. He’s holding onto something that is important, trying to save it. The artist is a gentle, soft spoken cat and he seems uncomfortable trying to verbalize what the painting means. Plus it’s cold. The chore of muralizing is more difficult in winter.

People work hard in the city, especially these days where wages are stagnant and often precarious and the one dependable constant is the rising cost of every damn thing. You have to work all the time it seems and someone always want a piece of you –seems that way some days, many days. This painting criticizes the survival of the fittest mentality pervading urban landscapes; it suggests the promise of escape, by showing both the attempt and the anxiety of making that attempt. Maybe the attempt is sufficient enough because in that anxiety Issac includes a tangible feeling of hope.

 The illustration reminds me of the work of Don Martin, the Mad Magazine cartoonist. The runner, wearing muted orange jeans, blue jacket and oversized, orange striped sneakers has long, gawky legs. It is not the stride of an athlete, yet he perseveres, bounding over the rooftops, a congested field of hurdles. The running would be easier if he let go of the branches – he might even get away – but if he lets go, why run at all? The suggestion of movement in this mural is uncanny. It feels active, more like an animation clip than a picture on brick exterior. A pretty difficult effect to pull off on a canvas so massive as the side of a building. 

The city skyline is drab, dehumanizing, gray and black, the odd geometry of rectangles and partial cylinders is repeated throughout. There’s no deviation from conformity in this Babylon. Claustrophobic and stifling, if the runner’s ascension fails and this nightmarish Gotham swallows him and the precious branch back up, the fate is nothing less than death. One detail I find particularly endearing, at the lower right hand portion of the work, the gray and black buildings spill out of the picture’s frame onto the actual red brick of the back of what is a liquor store, a subliminal reinforcement the relevance of the theme of this mural, a commentary on the urban life in which the physical painting is actually situated.

The branch symbolizes humanity, or perhaps truth. It is grace, the better part of his nature or is he like Prometheus and stolen fire from the gods, or does he carry the branch from the tree of knowledge of good and evil and he’s just another Eden refugee on the run?
While it is not always so apparent, survival is always a moment by moment condition. What strikes me most about this mural of escape, is not in the feeling of being pursued, but the feeling that the man and the precious branch is getting away. He’s going to make it the viewer concludes, at least I do. There’s optimism to the honesty in this witty illustration. 

After a few freakily unseasonable warm Saturdays, today winter returned and feels like January. There’s a gelid tinge to the breeze, the sky is overcast. Snowflakes of an anemic flurry appear.  The mural, which doesn’t yet have a name, is nearly complete. Isaac is adding only a few small slashes around edges of the building, suggesting welding marks, which echo the stiches around the sneakers and seams of the clothes worn by the figure. The black marks create an almost subconscious symmetry, enhancing the overall balance of the composition, especially the gray and black city which fills half the picture and the upper orange and blue torso against an ultra-beige sky. Although the colors used are muted tones, the sense of movement makes the work seem to shimmer. 

Weather permitting, tomorrow Isaac will put a sealant over the exterior to prevent degrading. He’s been out here a few weeks, mainly on Saturday it seems. I happen to pass by this particular corner and it’s been fun watching this mural – and its blend of starkness and transcendence, anxiety and hope, grays and blacks, orange and blues and an ultra-beige – evolve these past few weeks. Isaac Fortoul has made a compelling and original contribution to Jersey City’s growing collection of outdoor murals.