The Traveling Imaginary came to New York City for a few nights in September and for a few hours the third story of a chapel became a gateway to another world. A place somewhere in the imagination of Julian Koster and The Music Tapes crew, outside of space and reality, where time stood still. A carnival full of games and cookies and music and recordings and fantastical characters and magic tricks and stories and dreams.
Since its beginnings, the band has consistently re-imagined the concert experience, and whatever form they take, they are definitely not to be missed. And, the performances are usually free of cost. For several years they’ve been doing caroling tours at Christmas time after being invited to people’s homes for a holiday gathering. They also did a tour performing their unreleased album that was a children’s story and symphony in five movements called, “2nd Imaginary Symphony for Cloudmaking.”
In 2009 and 2010, they did the “Lullabies at Bedsides” tour, in which they played shows from house to house, bedroom to bedroom, sleepover to sleepover, just before the pajama-wearing audiences went to sleep. The lullabies were usually linked to “St. Nikoli’s Wonder Wishing Game of Candles.” It defies description, save that it’s a relative of freeze tag and Koster explains that “the game, which takes place at night in a large open field, requires that players arrive with a candle in hand and wishes in mind.”
No matter the form the concert takes, the singing saw, light-up decorations and wondrous robots are always part of the set. Even just their “regular” stage show for more conventional tours includes theatrical elements of story and skits, as well as characters like the “7-Foot Tall Metronome,” the “Mechanized Organ Playing Tower,” and “Static,” the singing television.
The Traveling Imaginary had a very similar concert portion of the evening, but it was wrapped around a wonderland of full-sensory, expectation-shattering, childlike euphoria. A group of people gathered in Harlem as the minutes passed 7:30. Everyone was finally told to make their way up to the third floor and enter the room one by one. Like C.S. Lewis’ wardrobe and Lewis Carol’s magic mushrooms, the red and yellow tent was a portal into another world and the plate of cookies inside set the transformation for each person that at the very least would have their perceptions of concerts changed. Then, there was a platter of bells to ring before moving on.
The rest of the mini tents that were used as entrances were reminiscent of a haunted house, but instead of producing fear, they produced wonder. Writing about it in detail just seems to ruin the mystery, surprise and magic of it all. Suffice it to say that once everyone was in the main room, it was like a carnival or a circus. String lights hung everywhere and cut outs with characters were all about the room. A gramophone was constantly shouting “ladies and gentlemen!” with step-right-up instructions for the games and attractions. There were even prizes to be won. After everyone had a chance to play and get a photo taken with the 7-Foot Tall Metronome, everyone gathered around to play a game similar to St. Nikoli’s Wonder Wishing Game of Candles, but with a unique twist.
Following the announcement of various winners and a short cartoon viewing, the curtain fell behind us and the band immediately wobbled into the singing saws and horns of “The Dark is Singing Songs (Sleepy Time Down South).” In addition to bowed and plucked banjos, whirling organs and keyboards as well as thumping bass, they had a set of hanging pipes that they beat with mallets to produce a chorus of bells. Like a dream, the show was a whirlwind of random, whimsical nonsense. There was Static the Singing Television, there was a human gramophone, there was an appearance by Sylvio the gorilla, appearing alongside the impossibly long legged sailor-swami, there was even a giant snowman, with 7-Foot Metronome always keeping the beat. The center of all the amusements was Koster’s imaginative, heartwarming storytelling.
Toward the end of the show, after the song, “Playing ‘Evening,’” Koster explained the secret blindfold game that we all used to play as children called “Evening.” He explained that none of us remembered because our mature adult minds push out the memory the same way that our conscious minds can’t hold on to dreams. The only way that he knew about it was because it was one of his grandfather’s many stories. What followed was the greatest magic trick ever to be seen that is impossible to articulate or make sense of with any words–it kept the audience puzzled long after the show concluded.
In general, the fun, magic, mystery, beauty, warmth, life, connectedness, wonder and majesty can’t be appropriately conveyed in an article and should remain in that big red and yellow tent where we found them and where you should go to find them too. The band organized at least one spectacular each year and they are usually widely publicized on popular music outlets. The best way to find happenings is on The Music Tapes’ equally unique website, orbitinghumancircus.com.
At the end of the show everyone involved exited and exchanged words. The other main member and horn player for The Music Tapes, Robbie Cucchiaro, reminisced about the heyday of Athens, Georgia, and talked about the sad loss of the Olivia Tremor Control frontman. Theo Zumm appeared too and said he might be working on new music with his band Nana Grizol, which is also heartwarming and joyous music, and highly recommended for fans of The Music Tapes. Koster talked about his upcoming tour with Neutral Milk Hotel across the U.S. He confirmed that there would be dates in Europe in 2014 to go along with their appearance at Barcelona’s Primavera Sound festival, but he shyly wouldn’t say more.
Koster thanked everyone for coming and explained how the show had been a dream for so long and so many people worked so hard for free to create the once-in-a-lifetime experience. One of the audio recordings played during their set revealed that everyone at the show only believed that we were at a concert in New York City, but we were actually sharing a collective unconsciousness in the realm of dreams. With all of the crazy things that everyone had seen, it certainly felt like it. Thankfully, unlike playing “Evening,” it was a dream that we could all take with us.