July 26, 2009

Montreal - Paris of North America

I just recently returned to New York from a short break in Montreal. After my last trip to Canada in the autumn of 2008, it made such an impression on me that I promised myself I'd try to see more of the country as soon as I could. This time took me to Eastern Canada and to city environs, very much the opposite of my previous visit. Montreal has long been a high priority on my endless list of places I want to travel to, and with it being a train journey from NYC this seemed like as good a time as any to do it.

Being an absolute lover of train travel, the 10+hr trip was just one of the highlights. I had heard from many people that this is a spectacular journey through upstate New York through the Adironacks. It couldn't have been a more pefect summer morning as the train pulled out of Penn and I had been forearmed with the knowledge that I should grab a seat on the left hand side of the train for the outbound journey. The scenery was lovely, but I have definitely been on more breathtaking train journeys. Maybe I'm just getting old and harder to impress! The 10hrs passed by in no time. Dervla Murphy's "Full Tilt" was my companion for the trip, along with the music of Gustavo Santaoalla.

Initial impressions of Montreal as we arrived were of a very North American city - skyscrapers, shopping malls, etc., but my taxi driver obliging played the tour guide and explained that the city is divided into an old and new town. Montreal Vieux was where my hostel was situated. After checking in and dumping my baggage, I set out walking to explore some of the old town at night. On a week night, the whole city was bustling and vibrant, restaurants windows thrown open to reveal romantic couples sharing bottles of wine, jazz musicians crooning in the background, tourists snaking their way lazily along Rue St. Paul stopping to look in art galleries. With snatches of French conversation on the air all around, you could easily have been in Paris.

Over the course of 5 days, I walked as much of the new and old city as I could. Montreal has a beautiful old port, a trendy, chic nightlife, fantastic clubs and bars (I managed to catch the end of the Jazz Festival as well as the Just for Laughs festival), wide open parks and walking trails, an underground "shopping city" (because it gets that cold in the winter!), a fusion of architecture which works very well due to a respect between the old and the new, a very happening gay district, China Town, a Latin Quarter - the list goes on.

The Montrealers I met were extremely friendly, courteous, so helpful and anxious for you to experience the best of their city. One of the most interesting characters I met there was a guide I met one day on a walking tour of the city. Fiercely proud of Montreal and equipped with all the history of the city, he went almost an hour over his scheduled tour time with our group, so eager was he to answer everyone's questions and show us all the most interesting parts of the Old Town.

It's true Montreal Vieux is full of tourists, especially at this time of year, but it's very easy to see why this city holds such attraction for anyone living in North America. It's a thriving modern North American city with a lovely mix of European culture thrown in which gives it something of a unique personality!

July 13, 2009

Recording at Lofish Studios, NYC

Last week I was asked by a friend of mine if I would be interested in recording some piano backing to a song he has just written. I said, "Of course, I'd love to!", thinking he just wanted an amateur recording made by myself after I'd had a bit of time to learn the music.

In the true style of this particular friend though, he landed in New York, booked a recording studio for the next evening at 8pm and I had one hour to put the music together before we would record the session live!! So, I didn't even have time to freak out about it. Probably the best way really.

I've never been in a recording studio in my life, so it was more than a little bit intimidating showing up there armed with my laptop, headphones and a pen drive containing the music and vocals I had to work with.

Lofish studios is situated not far from where I live in midtown on the top floor of a pretty inconspicuous looking building. Ben, one of the sound engineers, led me up 6 flights of stairs to a sectioned off studio with a beautiful centrepiece Yahama grand piano gleaming under the lights, and 3 iso booths.

Truth be told, I haven't played the piano in quite a while, not having my own here in New York, so I actually felt a little nervous sitting down to play such a magnificant instrument. Ben told me that it is maintained lovingly by the owners of the studios, one of whom I actually met later in the evening and who is herself a jazz musician.

Anyway, I had about an hour of practice runs, listening to the music and transposing it to the piano and coming up with some kind of creative backdrop to the vocals. Through the plate glass, Ben gave me the nod to say we would start recording. Nerves! What made it all just seem to glide past was the absolute treat of playing the Yahama with its silky black and white keys and perfectly tuned pitch.

The end recording sounded pretty good - a couple of falterings here and there - but for a first take, not bad at all. My friend was over the moon, and I fed more off his enthusiasm than anything else. Ben gave us a CD each and sent us on our way.

I found out just this morning that Lyric Fm back in Ireland have agreed to play our recording on air, so in a couple of weeks I'm heading back to Lofish to re-record again!! I think I'm hooked!

July 12, 2009

Manhattanhenge 2009

We're all familiar with Stonehenge and the significance of the summer solstice right? But how many of us have heard of "Manhattanhenge"? I would wager not many unless you happen to be a Manhattanite! Today, 12th July, was one of two days this year when the Sun sets in exact alignment with the city grid, illuminating every cross street on the island as the sun sinks onto the horizon. As the sun sets, one can witness the golden orb sitting with its top half above the horizon line and the other half below. Manhattanhenge took place earlier this summer also on 30 May, but I only came to learn of it during this past week, and immediately my curiosity was piqued!

It is almost laughable to think that future civilisations would attach astronomical significance to the design of Manhattan's grid construction, but the ancient sites of Newgrange in Ireland and Stonehenge in England have long eeen revered as mythical, mystical places for their supposed worship of the Sun by their very design.

The 42nd street bridge here in Manhattan is apparently one of the best spots to photograph this annual phenomenon, and as luck would have it, I live on the very same street. Unfortunately, I could not (as a newbie to all this) have anticipated the crowds that would gather just outside my apartment block this evening. Instead of being there at 7 to set up my tripod and wait it out until sunset at approx. 8:30, I foolishly wandered down about 15 mins beforehand, only to be met with a sea of expectant photographers, both amateur and professional, all eager to capture this unique photo op.

Disappointed, I had no opportunity for a full-on shot of the sun setting from the desirable elevation of the 42nd street bridge. My only recourse was to stand in the middle of the busy city street below with hundreds of other hopefuls, blocking traffic and having abused hurled at me by passing taxi drivers. Nevertheless, these occasions are rare events, and I stubbornly stood my ground in the middle of the road as the golden ball slowly dropped onto the horizon at the far western end of 42nd street. I managed some semi-decent shots, but these could have been superior had I done my homework and secured my spot on time.

It's comforting to me to see that moments of wonder like this will still draw a crowd even in today's hectic, indifferent world. There are those who remain unimpressed by such things, and while I stood on 42nd street I overhead a woman passerby remark "Jesus, would you look at this. It's so American." In my mind, it seemed anything but American....there was something really unifying about it, drawing people of all walks of life together as if by some sort of magic. Sun worship in the medieval sense no longer exists it seems, but to watch this evening strangers standing together all facing towards the golden orb in the sky one would be forgiven for thinking that the practice was still alive and well.

And just to give you an idea of what a professional photographer who gets there on time can do check out this link - a great shot by Steve Kelly taken at the earlier event this year.


And a video posted on YouTube:


Cool, right!!

July 11, 2009

Some Fireworks

Unlike last year, this 4th July I found myself staying in Manhattan for the weekend and decided to make an effort to go along and watch the annual firework display. Usually, these are held over the East River. This year, however, officially marks the 400th year anniversary of Dutch explorer Henry Hudson's sailing up the river west of Manhattan, thereafter known, of course, as The Hudson, and so in a depature from tradition and in honour of this celebration the Macy's Fireworks were launched on the west side of the city this year.

Fireworks are fireworks. Seen 'em once, seem 'em all really, and this firework sequence was nothing special to write home about I have to say, but it definitely was enjoyable to make the trek across 42nd street with the hoards of other revellers. Anyone who hadn't left the city for the Hamptons that weekend seemed to be gathering for the fireworks, armed with deckchairs, food supplies, cameras and more patience than you will find the average New Yorker possessing. In order to secure a "good spot", crowds began moving en masse at around 7:00pm, a good 2 and 1/2 hours before the event was to kick off. I was among them.

On reaching Pier 81 on west 42nd street, there were a lot of cops patrolling the area, and even at that stage, barriers had been closed off to 12th ave. Using my NYIP press pass, I managed to wangle my way through to the pier area itself which put me in a good position to get some shots of the event and settled down to wait for darkness to fall.

After weeks of unseasonable rain here in NYC, the weather on the evening of the 4th was just perfect, and as the sun set in a darkening sky, it threw flashes of, yellow, pink and orange across the heavens - Nature's own far more beautiful fireworks.

As the sky finally sank from blue into indigo, the first burst of colour exploded in the night sky over New Jersey to a chorus of "ohhhs" all around. I try to nurture the child within me whenever possible, and there is certainly something about looking at fireworks that brings out that feeling of wonderment that so often seems lost to time.

I got as many firework shots as I could, although even from the pier I had some trees blocking the view in certain places. I left the camera out of focus for one or two shots to try and capture colours blurring together, like this one:

Within 40 mins it was all over and the huge crowd began to move again back towards the city and to whatever 4th July celebrations awaited them.

July 9, 2009

Another Sunset

I took these shots late in the evening at my home in Ireland. I love watching the sun set behind my favourite childhood tree. Click on the photos to enlarge.