Expanded Strangelet at oakuff

Last night I performed with Expanded Strangelet at the Oakland Underground Film Festival. The Expanded Strangelet was described as “Lucio Menagon’s peripatetic ensemble with Suki O’kane, Michael Zellner, Jonathan Segel, John Hanes, Amar Chaudhary, and Allen Whitman.”

This was a combined “music jam” and “projectionist jam”, with several improvised video and film projections on the screen, a free-form piece that followed the more formal screenings earlier in the evening. The screen was filled with several changing images projected from different angles:

It was particularly interesting in the context of the theatre itself. This was one of those classic cavernous movie theaters with stylized art-deco details, but with very contemporary abstract lighting in deep blues, reds and violets, as can be seen on the right side of the image above.

It was in this context that we set up on the floor of the theater and made music. Basically, the performance was a collection of bleeps and bloops, noises, glitches, loops, crashes and snippets of melody and harmony here and there. Nonetheless, it was all musically done with phrasing and dynamics, loosely “conducted” with ongoing whispered directions from Suki O’kane.

In order to keep things light, I bright a very small setup, consisting of red Korg Kaos Pad, an iPhone now loaded with multiple software synthesizers, a circuit-bend instrument with photovoltaic modulation, along with a small mixer and amplifier.

As expected, it was difficult to pay attention to the screen during the performance, while attempting to manage the instruments and listen to the other performers. Fortunately, I did get to see the first half of the projectionist jam with another group providing the music: POD BLOTZ (Suzy Poling) and lazyboy (Bruce Anderson, Dale Sophiea and Gregory Hagan). The combination of images, sounds and environment combining old and new elements, noises and images, was quite captivating.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the beer from Linden Street Brewery. I particularly liked the stout.

Hypnagogia, Climate Theater

Hypnagogia defines the state between sleeping and waking: the state in which our dreams can seem more real to us than the waking world, and which, depending upon the nature of our dreams, our limbo-selves seek to flee, or to sustain.

My primarily mission in attending Hypnagogia at the Climate Theater was to see the performance of The Flip Quartet by Polly Moller, as I will be part of upcoming performance of the piece in July. The performance featured Karl Evangelista, Jason Hoopes, Thomas Scandura and Bill Wolter. The Flip Quartet is a composition for four improvisers who move between four stations representing the cardinal directions (north, east, south, west) and the four medieval elements: earth, air, fire, water. Each station had a variety of instruments and sound-making objects to represent elements.

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“Earth” had drums, stones, and blocks. “Air” included various wind instruments and shakers. “Fire” featured metal instruments and electric instruments (keyboard, electric guitar, etc.). And “Water” included water-filled containers, but also acoustic string instruments – this was the only association I had a difficult time figuring out, with my own interpretation being “standing waves.” Each section of the piece starts with the performers “flipping” a timer. When the time runs out, they stop and move on to the next station.

The audience sat in the middle of the theatre, with half the seats facing one pair of elements and half facing the others. Since there were two performances, I got a chance to see and hear the piece from “both sides.” Musically, the piece unfolded as ever changing harmonies of the different objects, often very discrete and percussive, along with many theatrical moments such as attempting to balance on the “earth” elements on the head of a drum. My favorite moment musically was the combination of the Asian pipe (shown one of the photos above), lute, shakers and thunder tube.

The other musical performance was Philip Greenlief performing a solo work The Fourth World. The piece is based on Hopi conception of time and the Fourth World from Hopi mythology, and is a solo performance featuring Greenlief’s expressive and virtuosic saxophone playing. I am always impressed with his multiphonics, which he manages to make seem as easy to play as standard tones. Spatially, this performance was the opposite of The Flip Quartet, with the audience seated in a circle facing inward and creating a more intimate space.

In addition to the featured live musical performances, there were visual art pieces, installations, and media and performance art. Sean Clute, Jessica Gomula and Gina Clark presented a “video action painting and performance” entitled Slippery Dreams 2009.

Live video of the drawings being created were projected onto the screens, and I believe also used to control the sound that was generated.

Louis Rawlins presented the installation Sleep Patterns, set up as a bedroom or sitting room where one could relax and touch the ball of yarn on the table.

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The string (which included conductive thread) was used to generate sounds in response to the viewers interactions. Presumably, one could interact with this piece while asleep.

The were several video pieces of varying subject and quality. I did like Vanessa Woods’ What the Water Saw, a short film that originally was shot on 16mm/35mm film and transferred to video. It was meant to mimic ocean with the distortion of images through water, as represented by the intense layering and deep colors of the film. After looking at Woods’ website, I think I might have been more interested in some of her black-and-white films. Rebekah May’s Celestial Cadence for video on five iPod Touches was an interesting visual in itself, with its arrangement of abstract color and shape patterns:

Among the purely visual works that caught my attention was the undulating Circulation III by Julia Anne Goodman, a mobile work that was created from junk mail (and there is certainly plenty of that around); also Klea McKenna’s Taxonomy of My Brother’s Garden from Center of Gravity:

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Finally, as it was quite stuffy inside the theatre and gallery on this rather warm night, there was the welcome retreat to the rooftop, where VoxMaids performed rhythmic and traditional-sounding music for drums, accordion and voices against projections of astronomical objects. Alternatively, one could look at a real astronomical object, the moon, on this rather clear night.


This weekend is marks Pride 2009 here in San Francisco, and while the parade and other events here were huge (and occasionally over the top) as always, I found myself thinking of the much smaller, but nonetheless significant event I saw during Pride week in Shanghai on June 8.

I had the chance to attend the opening night event, which took place at a large bar in the French Concession district of Shanghai. There was a good mixture of both native Chinese and expats; of course, the attendance was a couple hundred rather than hundreds of thousands. But one must think about the significance of having an event like this in China, which is still a relatively conservative country and where gatherings of any sort can be complicated.

The open night featured screenings of two documentaries. The first was a film from Singapore entitled “Autopsy” which follows the filmmaker Loo Ziham’s dialogue with his mother about his sexuality. Following that was a documentary “Queer China”, a rather stylized look at the history of homosexuality and LGBT issues in China. The film interspersed images from traditional Chinese art and literature with historical footage from early years of the Peoples Republic, but focused primarily on relatively contemporary interviews. Those interviewed ranged from a young man who nearly committed suicide over his sexual orientation to an older man (I think he was in his 80s) discussing sexuality in rather open terms. Because of the way the room was set up, it was sometimes difficult to see the English subtitles, so I did miss some of what people were saying. One thing I was able to gather from the film was that much of the progress in terms of recognition and getting groups organized and sanctioned came under the heading of AIDS prevention – the one young woman interviewed noted the irony that AIDS was not a big issue for everyone.

In any case, it was quite interesting to see such an event in another country. And I leave wondering if Chinese can go out and take the cultural risk of participating in such an event, why does it have to remain “hidden” for people here in certain ethnic groups?

Cats of Tokyo

“He wrote me that in the suburbs of Tokyo there is a temple consecrated to cats. I wish I could convey to you the simplicity—the lack of affectation—of this couple who had come to place an inscribed wooden slat in the cat cemetery so their cat Tora would be protected. No she wasn’t dead, only run away. But on the day of her death no one would know how to pray for her, how to intercede with death so that he would call her by her right name. So they had to come there, both of them, under the rain, to perform the rite that would repair the web of time where it had been broken.”

I remembered this scene from Chris Marker’s film Sans Soleil of the temple in the suburbs of Tokyo that was dedicated to cats, and when I knew that I was in fact going to be in Tokyo for a couple of days, I decided I would find this temple. It is in fact the Gotoku-ji Temple in the Setagaya ward in the western suburbs of Tokyo.

It really was tucked away in a relatively quiet residential neighborhood, easily missed if one did not know where to find the gate. The temple grounds were very quiet, with very few visitors other than myself.

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There is a small building near the large tower in the photo above. I believe it is a side temple of sorts. Behind it is a set of shelves containing hundreds of maneki nekos, or beckoning cats, left as offerings. Indeed, Gotoku-ji claims to be the birthplace of the popular cat figurines.

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This was definitely the temple from Sans Soleil, I had succeeded in finding it. And having come this far, I spent a little time to linger in this small, quiet place.

Gotoku-ji is not the only site that claims to be the birthplace of the maneki neko. In Akasuka, not far from the famed Senso-ji temple, is the Imado Shrine.

Like Gotoku-ji, the shrine was tucked away in an alley in a quiet residential neighborhood. It was quite small, but had enough space for gardens, trees and statues leading up to the main building:

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Inside on the altar is a pair of large cats:

The one on the left has spots and is the male cat, while the one on the right is the female cat, and together the lucky cats of Imado are supposed bring good fortune to couples or those seeking love. Images of the pair of cats can be found throughout the shrine:

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The wooden plaques tied below the image of the cats contain wishes left by visitors. This is a common practice at temples and shrines, but it was specifically here that I chose to leave such a wish myself. Another common practice is selecting a fortune from a box near the shrine – at the Imado temple, each fortune comes with a tiny cat figure. I did get one of these, and of course a few ceramic cats from both Imado and Gotoku-ji.

One cannot help but think a little bit about spiritual things after visiting spiritual places, and a coincidence that occurred soon after leaving Imado contributed. Heading back south towards the Senso-ji temple, I saw a small narrow park, really a stone path lined with trees, and decided to walk in that direction. About halfway, a saw a woman with an open cat carrier, and inside was a black cat with green eyes!

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Although we had almost no words in common except basic greetings and “neko”, I was able to express my appreciation of her cat, and showed photos of Luna. “Lady?”, she asked in English. I nodded. She pointed to her own cat and smiled “Boy!”

The symbol of the cat is ubiquitous in Tokyo, spiritually as well as commercially:

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In the image above, we see a shop carrying not only an impressive array of maneki neko, but some examples of Japan’s other famous feline symbol, Hello Kitty. I have approximately zero interest in Hello Kitty, but during my trip I did build up a small collection of maneki neko, of which a subset are shown below:

Included are one of the simple ceramics from Gotoku-ji, the tiny cat that came with the fortune at Imado, and a couple of black cats that I found.

Beyond the black cat in the park, I did not see very many live cats during my short visit. Apparently, this is an issue from Japanese ailurophiles as well. There are now several cat cafes around Tokyo, where for a fee one can spend an hour or so interacting with the cafe’s very friendly (and very clean) cats. I did see a cat cafe in Akiabara (an area which will be the focus of one of our next articles), but I did not have time to check it out. However, Akiabara, the center of electronics and anime in Tokyo, will itself be the topic of an upcoming article here at CatSynth.

Berkeley, Pacific Film Archive, Le Bonheur

I actually don’t get back to the Berkeley campus or its surroundings very often, and when I do, it’s usually on the north side where my graduate-school life centered: the computer-science or computer-music centers, the winding roads of the hills, or the “gourmet ghetto.” It’s pretty rare that I find myself on Telegraph Avenue or along the south side of campus, as I did this time. It seemed like very little has changed, many of the shops, restaurants and institutions along the street are still there, many of the buildings look the same. But it did seem a bit cleaner.

While in Berkeley, I saw a screening of Agnès Varda’s film Le Bonheur at the Pacific Film Archive.

It basically a film about a young family living a Paris suburb and leading a life that seems so overly perfect that something bad clearly is going to happen. In this case, it is the husband and father François beginning an affair with another woman. As the affair progresses, the film, whose its rich colors and classical soundtrack do seem to resonate “happiness”, very gradually begins to feel a bit unsettling, and eventually a bit creepy.

Even as it is a film about a particular set of circumstances and events that happen to a family, it is also very much a film about colors. Each scene seems to focus on a specific color. The initial scene of the family on a picnic in the countryside is all yellow, and the family’s (somewhat small and cramped) apartment is blue. In each of these scenes, everything matches the primary color, from the flowers to the background light to the clothing worn by the family. This is particularly apparent with yellow and blue dresses of Therese, the wife and mother (and coincidentally, a dressmaker). She reprises these colors throughout the film, they seem to represent the “happy” aspect of the family. By contrast The scenes with mistress Émilie, particularly those in her apartment, are stark white, with only sparse adornment such as movie posters on the wall. The colors also change with the seasons over the course of the film, from yellow in spring to bright green in summer, to muted orange and brown in the autumn.

Before the film, I did take a quick trip through the Berkeley Art Museum. Although they did have interesting exhibitions – Mario García Torres’ multimedia installation focusing on ruined buildings on a Greek Island that once housed modernist performances and installations, and an eclectic assortment from the permanent collection – it was in some ways overshadowed by the building itself, with its large space and oddly angled concrete balconies.

Perhaps the thing that makes visiting Berkeley most different now is that I am living in San Francisco, so the trip is now going from a large city to a medium-sized college town and then back at night. It’s not good or bad per se, it’s just different, and coming home to the city at the end of the day (instead of the trip in the middle) has become quite familiar, and comforting.

Weekend Cat Blogging and more: Happy Tail

This weekend's theme for the Bad Kitty Cat Festival of Chaos is “tails and toes”. And we know that Luna has quite a talent for posing her tail:

…even while simply resting:

The “crook in her tail” is actually pointing out towards the camera.

Watch this video (originally posted at Luna's Catster page) as Luna swings her tail:

Weekend Cat Blogging #122 is being hosted by Astrid and the “cat boys” Kashim and Othello. That “nip beer” concept sounds pretty good to me.

The Bad Kitty Cat Festival of Chaos is being held at This, That and The Other Thing, where we expect to see other “happy tails.” UPDATE: the round-up is posted, and features a slide-show video with background music – I believe the technical term is “finger snapping.” Check it out.

Carnival of the Cats will be hosted this Sunday by StrangeRanger. And of course Friday Ark #159 is at the modulator.

"Trailer" for Obama NYC Rally

Watch this “movie trailer” for Barack Obama’s rally last week in New York:

The rally may have come and gone, but the video is still quite funny, as the viewer comments suggest – and in that dry sort of way I appreciate most.

But the real reason I’m posting this is to shamelessly but honestly take credit for the music. Yes, I cranked out this orchestral “film score” piece using E-MU Emulator X2 and Modern Symphonic Orchestra in just a couple of days. Most of the effort is in the back and forth that always happens when working on film or video, but I’m very pleased with the result.

With almost 7000 views as of this writing, it might be my most “heard” piece of music. And it joins a small collection of pieces I have done for (other people’s) film and video, including the East Bloc Call To Prayer, and Neptune: Prelude to Xi. You can hear some other of my film or film-ready music here or at myspace.

And if you need music for your film or video project, drop me a line. . 😉

Code 46 / "With All Her Heart"

Our friend jellypizza posted this wonderful video of Taboo from 1997, peeking out from inside a drawer.

I haven't embedded the video, but I do encourage readers to go see it (you can click on the photo or the “related link” below). In a way, it is also a posthumous “CatSynth Video” for Taboo, featuring the very ambiet/electronic/synthetic track “Mother” from the soundtrack of the award-winning film Code 46. (The soundtrack is also available at iTunes .) I really thought it added something to the video, giving what was already a very sweet moment a unique quality. Of course, one would expect music from a soundtrack to work well with video, but it's still interesting how well it worked given the stark contrast to the actual film.

I had not heard of Code 46 before JellyPizza's recommendation, but did get a chance to see it last week. The ambient music is a backdrop to a tale in the near future where technology is more advanced but still very recognizeable. In the film, the world seems to be separated into a very high-tech “inside” world that includes major developed cities (e.g., in Asia, Europe, North America, etc.) and “outside.” People carry genetic IDs and bio-tech permits to travel. Additionally, the goverment or governments of the “inside” have genetically driven limits on who can and cannot have children together. This is all meant to sound very sinister, I'm sure, but I think the folks in this near-future world might have a point on the reproduction/population issue. And the world painted by the visuals and the music seems very inviting, both futuristic and very familiar at the same time. There is also an interesting take on fusion among “inside” languages (e.g., English, Chinese, Spanish).

Check out the soundtrack or the movie if you have a chance, and then re-watch Taboo's video.

New Podcast: KraftiM – IkoNO, from Requiems for a Submerged City

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Keeping with our recognition of the 2nd anniversary of Katrina, we present another selection from the album Requiems for a Submerged City, “An electronic tribute to the City of New Orleans and its people – to those who survived Katrina and to those who didn't.” The album is released via the great Internet Archive.

Tonight, we present the track “IkoNO” by KraftiM:

KraftiM's track is a personal, loving tribute to the soul of New Orleans, pulsating with rhythms and echoes of the sweet soul music he once grew to love. Sounds of wind and water mix to this carnival-like electronic potpourri as a natural part of the environment and its atmosphere, but at the same time casting a dark shadow over the passionate and creative spirit of the city and its soul.

In addition to being a tribute, this is a great album musically that would strongly recommend for anyone who appreciates electronic music. I am also going to try and find other releases by the artists who participated.

Interlude: Art and Music in a Time of Discontent

&lWe take a moment out of Weekend Cat Blogging to share some thoughts on art and music in a time when not only we at CatSynth, but many of our friends seem to be having a difficult time. It truly appears to be a “Summer of Discontent.”

Well-intentioned friends have often suggested turning to music, “you can turn your angst into a great punk-rock ballad” or “channel your energy to finishing that album”, or something else similar. Of course, that's not how such things work. For me, music is best created in a state of dispassion, or contentment. Despite the stereotypes of “the artist”, I have always found it difficult to make music in a state of discontent, such as anxiety or unhappiness. In such times, we at CatSynth often turn to writing and film as our preferred forms of art:

Not just any film will do in a time of discontent. The avant-garde shorts with which Luna poses above, are thinking films, all detail, and best suited to a more content and thoughtful mood. The work of Brakhage, previously discussed on CatSynth, contains numerous examples as well. Similarly, the music from my album Aquatic is really suited for either a very relaxed or thoughtful state of mind. The tradition of “modern classical” from the 20th century fits here. Some of the most extreme “noise” music, or academic computer music, fits in this category as well. One must listen an appreciate the details of different sounds, timbres, harmonies, phrases. In film, it's about the images. Those who are looking for overall structure of melody or narrative are likely to be disappointed. And while I find much to appreciate in this category of film and music, I find it best to experience when happy, contented, and unencumbered by anxieties.

On the other extreme are the films that move one to passion through the story or the characters. Dramas, comedies, sci-fi classics, of varying technical quality, but that one nonetheless loves. Musically, this is the domain of the best dance music, disco, techno/electronica, latin/salsa. Melodic classical and jazz falls into this category as well (this would be most of the well known classical composers, e.g. Bach, Beethoven, etc., and the jazz greats in the “Ken Burns documentary” sense). In such music, one doesn't focus on the individual details, though might take delight in a particular phrase or lick. Things have a melodic structure, a chord pattern and familiar cadences, such as 12-bar or 16-bar blues, or the familiar harmonic structures of classical music. Sometimes, a memorable tune. This is film and music for “feeling”, and in the case of dance music, passion and motion, almost like a drug.

In a time of discontent, I often turn to a third category of “dispassionate” film and music. The recently discussed work of Antonioni (and to a lesser degree Bergman) fits into this category. I would put David Lynch here as well. More akin to the modernist visual art I favor, these are films you just watch, and forget whether you like/dislike the characters, or whether they make narrative sense. That is unimportant. “Filmmakers films”, perhaps.

Similarly, I would identify examples of “musicians music”, where one gets lost in the listening or creation process. On the more experimental/electronic/noise side, I would put the some of the “improvisations” I have done for synths like the Evolver or Octave CAT. It's easy to get lost, but also easy to keep going.

But such music need not be so experimental, and indeed some of the examples are the so-called “two-chord jams.” While not always strictly two chords, they usually follow a pattern that stays very close to the original “tonic” chord. A one-four-one-four pattern works particularly well:

One of the best known examples of a two-chord jam using this minor mode (or dorian mode in western music theory), is Herbie Hancock's classic “Chameleon” as heard on his 1970s Head Hunters album. The synth and bass patterns just keep going on for ever, back and forth between one and four, until the “end phrase” that can really come in at any point, or not at all. Additionally, there are the free solos on the Arp Odyssey that are completely unencumbered by harmonic/melodic structure, while the rhythm players can continue the main pattern. There is an even better version of the synth solo to be heard on the live album Flood (if one is lucky enough to actually find a copy).

The reason such a jam works is that it really is only “one chord,” structurally speaking. It never leaves the tonic, in a since, no strong “dominant chord” to ever break up the continuity into harmonic structures, cadences, etc. This is the sort of thing that drives music theorists (and some modern-western-music purists) crazy. Even though the have a term for it: ostenato. But like I said earlier, this is really “musician's music.”

The effect can be hypnotic for both performer and listener alike. Such single-harmony patterns are also invaluable for online jamming, such in the Ninjam sessions presented in June. With all performers at various time delays, but still metrically in sync, the single harmony allows everyone to continue to play together. At the same time however, one is free to get lost.

I recently came across some more examples of still of music in Tony Allen's 1970s Afro-beat classics “Progress” the aptly named “Afro Disco Beat.” Many examples were also to be found Afro-beat of the 1970s (more so than contemporary versions), the Ethiopiques recording reviewed at CatSynth, and the extended solos in James Brown's brief stint with the Original JBs in 1970-1971. In many of these examples, the horns and voices fit perfectly into the continuous pattern, with hits or short phrases, rather than attempting to be melodic.

In a more contemporary electronic context, this effect and discipline can be “trance” music such as some of the tracks on the recently-reviewed John B recording. More dance-oriented music is less dispassionate and more likely to “push listeners' buttons,” and thus really falls into the earlier category.

So why bring this all up now? Well, the Tony Allen tracks from the 1970s and others have been the perfect kind of music for this time of discontent, dispassionate but still drawing one in, even to jam alongside the recordings. And I do see patterns to be drawn between these jam pieces, the free “noise-improv” and the detached films described above.

And finally, I think this type of music is the answer to “why don't go make music now” – getting away from passions and anxieties, rather than making some vain attempt to express them. And as such, is probably the key to revisiting and completing my album 2 1/2. Indeed, I think I might be able to further use the “three categories of appreciation,” thinking, moving and detached, as a way to better organize the existing tracks of the album and create the missing elements.

We will have to see if any of that actually works. But for now, just keep getting lost…