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The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2021

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SEPT 2021 Issue
The Miraculous The Miraculous: New York

66. (Brownsville, Midtown Manhattan, Tribeca)

The New York years of this “sound artist” as he sometimes calls himself (declining the monikers “musician” or “composer”) begin in Brooklyn, the borough of his birth. He remembers how when he went to high school he was advised, “Don’t tell them you’re from Brooklyn, they will think you’re an idiot.” Musically gifted and growing up in a Jewish community in the Brownsville neighborhood, he begins to sing in synagogue choirs, often during services that run for hours at a time.

When he is 11 he comes home from school one day to find all his stuffed-animal toys gone. His mother tells him he is too old for such things. He is heartbroken, but a little while later the family is driving to Rockaway Beach when their car gets a flat tire. As his father opens the trunk for the spare the boy sees all his stuffed animals. So does his mother. “I told you to throw those things away! Why are they here?” she shouts at his father, who answers, “When I tried to throw them away, they started to talk to me, ‘Don’t throw us away!’” His mother throws them out a second time; his father dies three months later.

As a teenager he accompanies poets and singers (especially a ukulele player known for his striking falsetto) on bongos and congas in Manhattan cafes and nightclubs. When he and his mother move to a one-room apartment in Upper Manhattan and he starts attending LaGuardia High School for Music and Art his horizons expand. One day his girlfriend tells him that Saint Thomas’s Episcopal Church on the corner West 53th Street and Fifth Avenue is looking for someone to play their 26 carillon bells every day around 5 PM. Despite being Jewish (a fact he doesn’t actually disclose), Saint Thomas’s hires him as a carillonneur. For 15 minutes every day he performs traditional hymns, but before and after that, ensconced in the church’s bell tower, he is free to improvise, creating sonorities he is sure have never been heard from church bells. The church is next to the Museum of Modern Art so that people in the museum’s sculpture garden can hear his music. Avant-garde musicians—among them one who dresses like a Viking and another whose droning viola playing has made a weird rock band even weirder—from around the city begin showing up at the church to hear his performances. When the church tries to get rid of their experimental carillonneur, a powerful CBS executive, whose office is close by and who has fallen in love with the strange sounds issuing from the belltower, makes it clear that he would be very upset if the young bell player were to be fired. He keeps his job for seven years, playing to what he estimates are 20,000 people a day, bathing pedestrians on Fifth Avenue “in all kinds of dissonance, consonance, resonance.”

Eventually he establishes himself in a loft on North Moore a few blocks below Canal Street. The building is a former spice warehouse. There, in a space still suffused with exotic aromas, he performs lengthy pieces, usually on piano, in which a few notes or chords are repeated for so long (five-hour performances are not unusual) and are played with such force that the keyboard is sometimes left marked with blood from his battered hands. But music is not his only passion: he begins to collect stuffed animals—especially bears—that he piles onto his piano or arranges into art installations. Frustrated because even after decades he can’t make a living from music, he becomes more active in the artworld. He leaves New York for Europe where many people respond to his assemblies of stuffed animals – he prefers that they be called “deities” rather than “stuffed animals”—and in 1987, a 20-foot-high, three-headed bear he has made is prominently featured in a prestigious exhibition in Germany. Alas, the giant bear is destroyed not long afterwards in a mysterious warehouse fire at the same time that his German gallery goes bankrupt, which leads to a significant part of his stuffed-animal collection being impounded for several years.

Two decades later, after he has been rediscovered by a new generation of artists and musicians and built a collection of some 18,000 plush deities, he is given a solo exhibition at a major New York museum, which he titles “Bear Mitzvah in Meshugahland,” a nod to the fact that the Teddy Bear was invented in Brooklyn not far from his old neighborhood by a pair of Russian Jewish immigrants whose original home in Belarus was a mile away from his mother’s birthplace. As recognition for all his activities begins to spread, he laughingly observes, "It's been a 50-year search to find a place in the world for an avant-garde, soft toy worshipping Quasimodo."

(Charlemagne Palestine [born Chaim Moshe Tzadik Palestine], Tiny Tim [born Herbert Butros Khaury], Moondog [born Louis Thomas Hardin], John Cale, Rose and Morris Michtom)


Raphael Rubinstein

Raphael Rubinstein is the author of The Miraculous (Paper Monument, 2014) and A Geniza (Granary Books, 2015). He is currently writing a book about the Jewish-Egyptian writer Edmond Jabès. A Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Houston School of Art, he divides his time between Houston and New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2021

All Issues