Martha and Monica: Morton Feldman’s On Patterns in a Chromatic Field

12719352_10153950108344314_418060891337331788_oWe at CatSynth have had quite a few unique musical experiences this season. Today we look back at another of them. In early February, the duo Martha and Monica (Hadley McCarrol on piano and Monica Scott on cello) performed Morton Feldman’s Patterns in a Chromatic Field in its entirety.

“In it’s entirety” is no small thing, as the piece consists of a single continuous 90-minute movement. It’s a feat of endurance for both the listeners and performers. But McCarrol and Scott made it seem straightforward and effortless. The performance began with very sparse but unsettled harmonies, with the texture increasing but then returning to sparseness again. It was only the final third that the texture and intensity grew towards a bolder and thicker sound. All the while, the music was constantly changing, repeating a few times, leaving a bit of space, and then going on to something else. This is consistent with Feldman’s interest in sound as something ephemeral and lost, and in creating a sonic space where memory is subverted or “disoriented.” The spaces in between the sounds are important as well, given moments of reflection and mental echoes.

All of this might make the piece seem daunting to listen to, especially at the length of a typical feature film. But the combination of space and disorientation were helpful, making it more like thoughts passing in a meditative space. The anxiety in a passage builds, but then dissipates – one acknowledges it and moves on. The passage of time itself became background noise and the sounds became more spatial than temporal. This effect might be more pronounced for someone like myself who sees shapes when listening to music, but I suspect other deep listeners had analogous experiences.

Unlike Feldman’s earlier pieces, this one was fully notated using common practice notation. This would both facilitate and make more challenging the process and playing and learning such a piece, where every note makes a difference. It was overall an impressive feat of musical performance, and glad I got to spend an afternoon hearing and seeing it.

Vacuum Tree Head Live at Berkeley Arts, January 10, 2016

Vacuum Tree Head
[Photo by Christina Stanley]

On January 10, 2016, Vacuum Tree Head performed at Berkeley Arts as part of the “Hardly Strictly Personal” benefit festival curated by Mika Pontecorvo. We played a short instrumental set that featured refinements of existing songs from our previous performance as well as new compositions. You can see and hear the highlights in this video.

As you can see from these highlights, it was short and energetic, and we certainly had a lot of fun playing.

Amanda Chaudhary and Jason Berry, Vacuum Tree Head.
[Photo by Christina Stanley]

The band was led as always by Jason Berry, who also played soprano saxophone and electronics. The rest of the best included Amanda Chaudhary on Nord Stage and Moog Sub Phatty keyboards, Michael de la Cuesta on guitar and synthesizers, Rich Lesnick on saxophone and bass clarinet, Thomas Scandura on drums, and Stephen Wright on bass. Mixing, editing, and interstitial music was done at CatSynth HQ; and the animations were by J.B.

St. Louis Symphony: Olivier Messiaen “Des Canyons aux étoiles…”

At the end of January, I had the opportunity to experience a unique performance at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall by the St. Louis Symphony of Olivier Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux étoiles… (From the Canyons to the Stars). The Symphony was led by David Robertson, a noted interpreter of Messiaen’s music, and the performance featured synchronized visuals by artist Deborah O’Grady.

 Bryce Canyon National Park photographed by Deborah O'Grady. O'Grady and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson, present a multimedia performance of Des canyons aux étoiles Sunday, January 31, 2016 in Zellerbach Hall.
[ Bryce Canyon National Park photographed by Deborah O’Grady. Courtesy of Cal Performances]

Des Canyons aux étoiles… was the product of a commission by Alice Tully (of Alice Tully Hall) in the early 1970s for the US Bicentennial. Messiaen was inspired by the images of the canyons of southern Utah, including Bryce and Zion, and spent several weeks there along with his wife, the pianist Yvonne Loriod, in 1972. He was quite taken with the visual landscape as well as the soundscape, particularly the sounds of the birds. He was able to write down and interpret the bird songs as pitches of the Western tonal system, and these melodies appear throughout the piece as a unifying element. The visual landscape is less literally interpreted, though one can hear the deep tones of resonant wind through narrow openings in canyon, and the more abstract sense of awe at the open landscapes. There is also a sense of anxiety, particularly in the first few movements, that comes from Messiaen’s distinctive harmonies.

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson, perform Friday, January 29 and Sunday, January 31, 2016 in Zellerbach Hall.  (credit: Dilip Vishwanat)
[Photo by Dilip Vishwanat, courtesy of Cal Performances]

In addition to the full symphony, this piece features solos for piano and horn. In the original premier in 1974, the pianist was in fact Yvonne Loriod, who wore a dress featuring the color palette of Bryce Canyon. (I would love to see a photo of this!) For this performance in Berkeley, the solo pianist was Peter Henderson and the horn soloist was Roger Kaza. The piece also features a larger than usual percussion section, including features on xylorimba and glockenspiel, and a really cool wind machine that was unfortunately hard to see from our seats. But the real visuals were on screen in Debrah O’Grady’s photographs. While not on a click track or any forced tempo, they were clearly timed musically to elements on the piece, with a mixture of gradual fades and sharper transitions. The photos and stage were bathed in a continuously changing set of monochromatic lights, which added to the visuals of the performance.

Moonrise at Zion National Park photographed by Deborah O'Grady. O'Grady and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson, present a multimedia performance of Des canyons aux étoiles Sunday, January 31, 2016 in Zellerbach Hall.
[Moonrise at Zion National Park photographed by Deborah O’Grady.]

To make the visuals for this piece, O’Grady retraced Messiaen’s 1972 trip, visiting Bryce, Zion and Cedar Breaks National Monument in April of 2014 and 2015. She noted that the parks have become much more crowded in April than they were back in 1972, which made her experience quite different. As such, the interactions of humans with the environment, both positive and negative, became part of her interpretation of the work. Nonetheless, the photos remained squarely focused on the natural landscape.

The American desert southwest is perhaps my favorite natural landscape, and one I enjoy visiting whenever I get a chance to (regular readers of this site have encountered my photographs). So the combining of that landscape with Messiaen’s influential musical style was a particularly special experience. I remained quite enrapt throughout the entire 90 minute performance, which did not have an intermission. And afterwards, I find myself both inspired to do more music and to get back out to the desert.

NAMM 2016: Moog!

Moog cartoon

We at CatSynth love Moog Music and their instruments. I already own 4 of them (MiniMoog, Sub Phatty, Theremini, Animoog). And now I find myself coveting their newest addition, the Moog Mother-32.

Moog Mother 32

The Mother-32 is a small tabletop unit that is also compatible physically and electronically with Eurorack modular systems. It has a single oscillator (plus a noise source), but it’s common to see them combined into sets of two or three – Moog provides enclosures that facilitate such configurations. It of course has a Moog ladder filter, switchable between high pass and low pass. And it has a 32-step sequencer and extensive options for CV patching and external input. The instrument is configured so that no patching is necessary to start playing. But the real power is integrating into a larger system with other synth modules or external gear. Indeed, the audio-rate control and extensive patching are the mainthings that make this a worthwhile addition even for those who have Moog keyboard synthesizers, along with the high-pass filter. I find myself comparing it utility-wise to Tom Oberheim’s SEM module, though these are very different instruments sonically.

The Moog both featured quite a few demos and performances, and I got to see a few from artists I quite respect and admire. In this video, we hear a bit of Bana Haffer using the Mother-32 and other gear.

Erika also performed on multiple Mother-32 units, along with her own external sequencer.

As one can see from these videos, there was a bit of a tropical and desert theme to the booth. Indeed, it was set up as “Moog Island” with a mix of warm-weather themes. All the instruments were arranged around a central island only inches above the floor, with visitors sitting on yoga pads to play the instruments.

Moog Island

The idea was presumably (in addition to being cute) to give users more focused time with the instruments without distraction. It unfortunately made it difficult and uncomfortable for those of us who wear skirts or dresses at the NAMM show. But it was nonetheless still fun to play the new instruments and see the performers.

Boulez and Bowie

In the span of just one week at the start of this new year, we lost two musical heroes (whose names, coincidentally, both begin with “B”). Pierre Boulez and David Bowie may seem worlds apart musically and stylistically, but they both had strong influences on where my own music and performance has gone especially in the last few years.

By Joost Evers / Anefo (Nationaal Archief) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Joost Evers / Anefo (Nationaal Archief) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I am most familiar with Boulez not as a composer but as the founding director and god father of IRCAM in Paris; and as a renowned conductor. One fun memory of the latter involves one of his recordings conducting Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia. It was a favorite of mine, and when I got the chance to present it to Berio for an autograph, he declared his dislike of the recording, but signed my CD atop Boulez’ face. As a figure who loomed large in the world of avant-garde music, and then electronic music, he certainly evoked strong opinions from others. There is no doubting the influence of his leadership at IRCAM in both my electronic-music composition and research, even as I disagree with aspects of the institution’s culture, such as strict control and division of music and technology research. But it’s worth stepping back and looking at Boulez as a composer. His masterpiece Répons combines electronics with an acoustic chamber ensemble in ways that make the electronics disappear at times. It also has a very visual quality to it, evoking a complex film scene or theatre piece.

By k_tjaaa (Flickr: David Bowie Mural) [<a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0">CC BY 2.0</a>], <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADavid_Bowie_Mural.jpg">via Wikimedia Commons</a>

By k_tjaaa (Flickr: David Bowie Mural) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The theatrical is one of many ways David Bowie’s influence comes into the picture, along with the use of gender experimentation and constant stylistic reinvention. His gender-fluid and sometimes overtly feminine presentations on stage were “transgressive” for the time, but have certainly impacted many of us and made space for our own expression in music and in person. It set an example for me to be able to first come out on stage and then eventually in person. In addition to gender, Bowie’s onstage persona gave freedom to be decadent and glamorous, something which many styles of music seem to lack. Now when I perform Boulez-influenced music, it is definitely with Bowie-influenced staging and theatrics. And of course the costuming.

But David Bowie was himself a talented musician and writer. In the same ferment of the 1970s in which he developed his personae, he also pushed the use of synthesizers and electronics in music that was still referred to as “Rock”. His song Subterraneans is a prime example of both technology (ARP synthesizers, backwards bass guitar) and theatrics in his music, as illustrated in this tribute video.

The album that includes this song, Low, was preceded by Station to Station, one of my favorites for its funk influence, including the song Stay. The funk and soul sound of this album, along with his more unambiguously masculine persona in the album art (at least to my sensibilities), exemplify his ability to change and reinvent quickly from one project to the next. It’s the album I have returned to primarily after the announcement of his death on Sunday night. But I do want to close with one if his most hauntingly beautiful songs: Drowned Girl is one again something different altogether.

Farewell to 2015: Annus Asper

Farewell to 2015
[Click to enlarge.]

2015 was a rough year. There is no other way to put it. We looked over the precipice at some of the worst possibilities becoming reality. But we came through. Luna stared down an extremely dire diagnosis and is once again thriving. For that I am truly grateful. I rebounded strongly from my own health issues as well. And there were many other beautiful moments this year, a few of which are included in our graphic.

This was a year of many endings as well, most notably in the personal and musical domains. But new doors are opening for 2016 as a result, and there are some new projects and opportunities for which I am excited. 2015 left a lot of questions unanswered, some of which are also depicted in the graphic and some of which are beyond the scope of this site.

So we are excited for 2016, but also extremely anxious and apprehensive. There are more big challenges coming up; and if I have learned anything, it is that I have no idea how things will ultimately turn out. It’s just a matter of doing things one at a time incrementally – but also continuing even more than ever to speak my truths and accept the risks and consequences that come with doing so.

Meanwhile, we at CatSynth will continue to do what we do here, bring music, art, culture and cats to the world. Thank you for all your support in 2015, and especially all your support for Luna and me. We are truly humbled and look forward to sharing this new year whatever it brings.

Music by Lindsay Cooper, Mills College

Earlier this month, the Mills College music department dedicated an entire concert to the music of Lindsay Cooper. It was an extraordinary event, not only for bringing her work together in one setting, but for the cast of talented musicians who made up the ensemble.

Ensemble performing the music of Lindsay Cooper
[Ensemble performing the music of Lindsay Cooper]

Lindsay Cooper is perhaps best known for work with the experimental rock group Henry Cow, but her musical career spans a variety of other styles and disciplines before and after. And while her instrumental first love remained the bassoon, she also played many other wind instruments, and had a very distinctive haunting voice that could be heard on many of Henry Cow’s recordings. Her compositions, including her time with the band and her later projects including News from Babel up to her retirement while suffering from MS, are not often heard in concert calls. The concert on this evening was a step towards rectifying that.

Musically the concert was a high-speed tour through Cooper’s music. Many of the pieces were short an energetic. Some carried the energy and rhythm of experimental rock, with driving lines on keyboard, guitar and drums; others were quite abstract with longer sounds. There was an anxiety and restlessness that permeated the music, with a need to move forward, sometimes almost tumbling. It was also full of intricate details and contrapuntal lines, which were brought out especially in the horn parts. There were moments which had the grand style and fast-moving details of a classic film score, particularly reminiscent of a closing “The End” from a film for which the ending may not have felt quite so final.

Evelyn Davis, Kate McLoughlin, Fred Frith
[Evelyn Davis, Kate McLoughlin, Fred Frith]

The main ensemble featured two of Cooper’s longtime collaborators, Fred Frith (guitar, keyboard) and Zeena Parkins (harp). Rounding out the ensemble was a group of familiar faces in Steve Admans, Rachel Austin, Beth Custer, Evelyn Davis, Jordan Glenn, Jason Hoopes, Kasy Knudsen, Kate McLoughlin, Emily Packard, and Andy Strain; with Miles Boisen on sound. The performances felt easy and flawless (no doubt the result of countless rehearsals), and with a relatively light texture despite the ensemble’s size. The concert’s sole departure was a performance by the Rova Sax Quartet of Face in the Crowd, a piece they had commissioned from Cooper in 1996. Judging from her biography and the date, it may have been one of her last compositions.

Rova Saxophone Quartet
[Rova Saxophone Quartet]

In addition to the performers on stage, the audience too was a cast of familiar faces and influential musicians from the Bay Area music scene. It seems that Lindsay Cooper had quite an influence on artists her; and thus this was a concert not to be missed. I am glad that I was able to be there.

MoMA: Pollock, Picasso, and Making Music Modern

No visit to New York is complete without a stop to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Today we look back at three exhibitions that stood out during my most recent trip.

7.1968
[Jackson Pollock (American, 1912-1956). One: Number 31, 1950. 1950. Oil and enamel paint on canvas, 8′ 10″ x 17′ 5 5/8″ (269.5 x 530.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Sidney and Harriet Janis Collection Fund (by exchange), 1968. © 2015 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York]

Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey, 1934–1954 is a small but powerful exhibition tracing the artists’ career and development using pieces from MoMA’s extensive collection. There were of course the massive drip paintings such as the iconic One: Number 31, 1950, but also quite of few of his earlier works from the 1930s and 1940s that while abstract made extensive and overt use of mythological and folk elements. Indeed, one can even see figures in some of the earlier pieces.

428.1980
[Jackson Pollock (American, 1912-1956). Stenographic Figure. c. 1942. Oil on linen, 40 x 56” (101.6 x 142.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mr. and Mrs. Walter Bareiss Fund, 1980 © 2015 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York]

One of the earliest paintings was quite reminiscent of Míro, another favorite of mine.

Seeing the works side by side in the compact two-room exhibit, it is easier to see the connections between the earlier and later works. Although the techniques and ideas are radically different, some of the shapes and other elements can be similar at times. Densely packed canvases with layered curving forms of color abound throughout his work.

One of the treats of this exhibition (which I don’t recall from the huge 1999 retrospective) were some of Pollock’s lesser-known drawings, sketches, and prints. Many of them date from the 1930s and 1940s, so have more in common with his paintings of those decades. But seeing Pollock writ small is in itself interesting given his association with paintings of monumental scale.

12.1958
[Jackson Pollock (American, 1912-1956). Untitled (Animals and Figures). 1942. Gouache and ink on paper, 22 ½ x 29 7/8” (57.1 x 76 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Mr. and Mrs. Donald B. Straus Fund, 1958 © 2015 Pollock-Krasner Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York]

Jackson Pollock ink on paper
[Jackson Pollock. Untitled.1950. Ink on paper. The Joan and Lester Avnet Collection]

The exhibition was just opening at the time (indeed, we saw it as part of a members’ preview), and will remain on display through March 13, 2016.


Picasso Sculpture is a large and comprehensive survey of the artists’ sculptural works. While primarily known for his painting, Picasso was quite a prolific sculptor, and his sculptures can be seen as three-dimensional projections of his unique and instantly recognizable style of painting.

649.1983
[Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973)
Bull. Cannes, c. 1958.
Plywood, tree branch, nails, and screws. 46 1/8 x 56 3/4 x 4 1/8″ (117.2 x 144.1 x 10.5 cm).
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Jacqueline Picasso in honor of the Museum’s continuous
commitment to Pablo Picasso’s art.
© 2015 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
]

In pieces like Bull, shown above, one can see the direct analogs to his cubist paintings. His figurative sculptures also often feature bulbous and exaggerated interpretations of the human body. Some of them border on caricature, with others are graceful and almost abstract.

MoMA - Pablo Picasso Sculpture 2015
[Installation view of Picasso Sculpture. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, September 14, 2015–February 7, 2016. © 2015 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Pablo Enriquez]

The curving forms in both his human and animal were quite a contrast to the linear forms of the New York City skyline.

Picasso Sculpture
[Pablo Picasso, Spanish, 1881–1973
Maquette for Richard J. Daley Center Sculpture
1964
Simulated and oxidized welded steel
41 1/4 x 27 1/2 x 19″ (104.8 x 69.9 x 48.3 cm)
The Art Institute of Chicago. Gift of Pablo Picasso
]

There were several pieces that I recognized from my visit to the Musée Picasso in Paris, including this absolutely darling sculpture of a cat.

Picasso Cat

The exhibition, which covers all of the fifth floor of the museum, will be on display through February 7, 2016.


The exhibition on display in the design gallery was particularly appropriate for our interests at CatSynth. Making Music Modern: Design for Ear and Eye brought together a large collection of aesthetically beautiful objects used for both the creation and enjoyment of music.

Perhaps the simplest way to stage such an exhibit would be a linear progression of designs from earlier record players to iPods, but instead this exhibit branches off in multiple directions at once. We do see several of Dieter Rams’ iconic music players and a particularly beautiful and modernist radio by Michael Rabinowitz released in 1942 – and of course an iPod.

205.1958
[Dieter Rams, Hans Gugelot. Radio-Phonograph (model SK 4/10). 1956. Painted metal, wood, and plastic, 9 1/2 x 23 x 11 1/2″ (24.1 x 58.4 x 29.2 cm). Mfr.: Braun AG, Frankfurt, Germany. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the manufacturer]

But we also see more esoteric musical instruments that blend art, design and technology, such as Joe Jones’ Mechanical Flux Orchestra, as well as the more mundane Fender Stratocaster.

Joe Jones.  Mechanical Flux Orchestra
[Joe Jones. Mechanical Flux Orchestra. c 1964. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Gilbert and Lila Silverman Fluxus Collection Gift 2266.2008]

Through the exhibit are music posters, showing distinctive designs of different eras. Brightly colored posters of the 1960s are featured along with gritty black-and-white posters for New York City punk shows in the 1970s. There are also objects that are more purely art than functional design. Among those that straddle that divide are the Chamber Works: Architectural Meditations on Themes from Heraclitus from architect Daniel Libeskind.

2376.2001.4

[Daniel Libeskind. Sheet from the folio Chamber Works: Architectural Meditations on Themes from Heraclitus. 1983. Ink on paper, 22 3/8 x 30 1/4″ (56.8 x 76.8 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Andrew Cogan and Rob Beyer Purchase Funds © 2014 Daniel Libeskind]

I would love to “play” one of these pieces some day.

One of the more perplexing objects in the exhibit was the Scopitone, a 1950s behemoth that could select, play and rewind up to 36 short films produced for songs by European and American artists. It was in essence a jukebox for the forerunners of modern music videos.

Scopitone

[Scopitone 1963 16mm jukebox The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Film Study Center Special Collections F2007.4]

The Scopitone, never really caught on, but perhaps it was ahead of its time, with a medium more suited to small form factors and Internet distribution, i.e., YouTube.

There was so much in this exhibit that I would love to post all of it, but I think it’s best to see it in person. It will remain on display through January 18, 2016. And for those who can’t see it, I recommend a visit to the exhibition’s