I participated in quite a few performances in 2014, with a lot of challenges and memorable experiences along the way. But there was perhaps none quite as unique or purely fun as my solo set in the window gallery of Artists’ Television Access (ATA). It was part of a month-long program called Almost Public/Semi-Exposed, a “series of installed performances ranging from movement to musical, ritual to reenactment, interactive to endurance.”
[Photo by David Samas]
My performance, entitled “CatSynth in the Window”, was a solo with Moog theremini, analog modular, full cat-print costume and body movement. The theremin was a controller for various sound-generated modules, including the Metasonix R54 and Benjolin by Rob Hordjik. And at three hours with just one break, it was among the longest continuous performances I have done.
[Photo by David Samas]
Immediately I know this was going to be a great experience. The window was my stage, and the city bustling by on Valencia Street was my audience. Many walked by with just a curious glance. Some stopped to listen for a few minutes. Others stayed a while, contacting friends to come check it out. One little girl called me a witch.
Sonically, the performance was relatively sparse, with usually no more than two sound sources at once. Motion and gesture were an central part of the performance, as was interacting with the people on the street. Here is a video excerpt.
[Video by Claire Bain]
Although I was inside the window, the sound was being broadcast through a speaker in the entryway of ATA to the outside so that people could clearly hear as they walked by. One unexpected challenge was the jazz band practicing inside the main ATA space. But I made the most of it using my skills as a jazz pianist and riffing off the standards they were playing. The audience interaction was among the most rewarding parts of the event, matching the gestures and motions suggested by people outside. For an extended period of time, one of the neighborhood’s icons Diamond Dave was completely enthralled by the performance and interacting with me.
In this next video, you can see a bit of our impromptu “duo”, as well as some of my attempts to play against the jazz ensemble.
[Video by David Samas]
The performance was an endurance test, physically and mentally, but it was an incredibly rewarding experience and I hope to be able to do it again, perhaps bringing to different venues and cities. It was interesting to see how a diverse flow of people choose to observe or interact. Indeed it was a mutual coming together at times, quite democratic and independent compared to a traditional concert setting. I would also like to think it was a positive contribution to the ATA site itself and to life along Valencia Street. I like how vibrant the street and neighborhood is, but providing a little weirdness and unusual performance brings back a bit of San Francisco’s long history of unique culture back.
A big thank you to Ariel Zaccheo and Tessa Siddle for curating this event, and to the folks at Artists’ Television Access for providing us the time, space and support.
“They Will Have Been So Beautiful”, a collaboration between Amy X Neuburg and the Paul Dresher Ensemble, premiered a little over a week ago at U.C. Berkeley’s Zellerbach Playhouse. It was an event I was happy to have attended, as it lived up to its future-perfect-tense name.
“They Will Have Been So Beautiful” was actually ten pieces by ten different composers, all inspired by Diane Arbus’ “stunningly poetic 1963 Guggenheim grant application titled American Rites, Manners and Customs“. Each composer selected a photograph or series of images that spoke and him or her and to use as the inspiration for the music. The performance featured Neuburg on voice and electronics, with members of the Paul Dresher Ensemble and guest performer John Schott on guitar.
The evening opened with Pamela Z’s piece 17 Reasons Why based on a photograph by Donald Swearingen. It began in a fashion very typical of Neuburg’s solo work where she layers looped and processed live recordings of her voice to create thick textures. There is always a precision to her performance that makes it work live, and I can only imagine the challenge in getting the full ensemble to match it as tightly as they did.
Lisa Bielawa’s Ego Sum was a much sparser piece, featuring text overheard in “transient public spaces”, such as the New York City Subway. The accompanying photographs featured people coming and going on a bench in a subway station in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn (I know the station). It would be easy to dismiss the piece as “hipster” for its concept and visual setting, but in my case it made me feel a little homesick even though I was just in New York a couple of weeks earlier.
Paul Dresher’s own contribution, A Picture Screen Stands in Solitude, was perhaps the most poignant of the evening. It featured two photographs: Richard Misrach’s image an abandoned drive-in theater near Las Vegas by , and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photo of an empty movie palace in Encinitas, California. The text was from an essay by a young man named Michael Nelson named incarcerated in San Quentin for murder, written for a prison course named “Contemporary Issues in Photography.” The images themselves were quite powerful, and very much in the themes of urban decay and sparse built spaces that are featured in many of the photography reviews here on CatSynth. But Nelson’s words are make it emotionally strong. His observations are very detailed and articulate, and also quite melancholy on the subject of forgotten places (and in turn forgotten people). The music was extremely sparse in keeping with the photos, and did not get in the way of Nelson’s words.
Ken Ueno’s piece Secret Meridian, features the composers’ own photographs of the meridian lines in two churches in Italy. It was perhaps the most abstract of the evening, both in its theme and the composition itself. The words felt secondary to me and I found myself focused on the electronic resonance sounds and impressive solos from John Schott on electric guitar and Gene Reffkin on electronic drums.
The song cycle concluded with Amy X Neuburg’s composition Is It Conflict-Free and Were Any Animals
Harmed in the Making of It?. From the start it was pretty obvious this was going to be a more humorous piece, with frequent references to the oft-used punchline “no animals were harmed in the making of this”. And Neuburg didn’t disappoint in that regard, using her distinctive mixture of operatic vocals, musical theater, and clear comedic lines. The piece did have a serious origin, using a photograph of a snowy mountain in Wyoming and the loss of wild winter spaces as the point of departure, but then veering into the absurd including the above lines and images of herself in the bathtub. She deftly managed to put all these elements together into a poetic and theatrical whole.
[Photo by Moe! Staiano.]
Five other pieces rounded out the evening, with composers Fred Frith, Guillermo Galindo, Carla Kihlstedt, Jay Cloidt, and Conrad Cummings. I regret not being able to write about all of them, as each contributed something to the whole of this event. The entire evening was well performed and choreographed between music, projection and lighting, and made for a quite impressive experience. Congratulations are in order to everyone involved in this multi-year project.
Perhaps the strength and intensity of this concert made it even more surreal to exit to the reality of protests in Berkeley on the precipice of a violent confrontation only a few minutes later that evening. Certainly not a planned juxtaposition, but a powerful one.
This past week Polly Moller and I brought our duo Ode to Steengo to Spectrum in New York, part of a rich night of experimental acoustic and electronic music in the Ambient-Chaos series.
The evening began with an acoustic brass duo featuring Torben Snekkestad on trumpet with David Whitwell on trombone.
The two engaged in a very musical exploration of the extended timbres of these instruments. Indeed, I was quite captivated by the sounds of Whitwell’s drones and multiphonics, which sounded more like my Minimoog than a concert brass instrument. His use of a single-reed mouthpiece within the trombone’s mouthpiece was likely part of how he achieved these sounds. The pair also included sections with percussive pops and very quiet tones.
The duo was followed by the Jazzfakers, featuring Robbert Pepper on violin and electronics, David Tamura on saxophone and electronics, Raphael Zwyer on bass and Steve Orbach on drums.
Before they start playing, they look like they could be a conventional jazz quartet, but once they start one realizes they are anything but that. Their energetic performance flowed between free improvisation, electronic noise, and more familiar rhythmic and harmonic hooks. What started as a thick noise drone quickly moved to frenetic fast-moving notes from all four performers, and then hit textures in between. They are also a lot of fun to watch.
And then it was time for us to take the stage. Ode to Steengo is a piece based on spoetry (spam poetry) derived from Harry Harrison’s “Stainless Steel Rat” series. Polly Moller and I performed it several times as an electro-acoustic duo in 2008 and 2009, and then later in our band Reconnaissance Fly. We have since reprised the piece as a duo a few times. We jokingly called this version “Steengo takes Manhattan.”
[Photo by BC]
This performance was quite sparse, both in comparison to previous instances and to the Jazzfakers’ set that preceded us. But we were able to get quite a few interesting textures, some liquidy sounds from the analog modular controlled by the Moog Theremini, Polly’s flute and chanter, and a bit of live processing with a rather temperamental analog filter. As always, we try to bring a bit of wit and irreverence to our experimental music. You can here our full performance on this video.
Overall, it went well. We had a great time performing and we received a warm response from our New York audience.
We were followed by alphamale, a solo electronic-and-viola project.
Her set started off as a thick drone of electronics. After a time, she began to incorporate the viola as well. Overall the texture remained one of long tones and ambient sounds. It was once again a contrast to our set and the others that preceded us, and quite pretty to listen to. At times it had a dark sound – it is hard to discern if the melancholy was truly in the sound or part of a built-in set of expectations around the viola. Nonetheless, it was nice to see someone using this instrument in a solo electronic setting.
The final set of the evening featured Rawmean, another solo set, this time with guitar and electronics.
Very quickly, it was clear that this was more of a beat-and-grove set, with thick layers of guitar. The guitar work was interesting in that he was doing quick staccato motions but producing thick droning chord pads via the connected effects. The grooves and rhythmic patterns were fun, veering between straight 4/4 rhythms and the occasional odd times. Overall, the texture did remain quite constant, with a steady stream of beats that periodically changed. As I sometimes have suggested in these reviews, some sets that contain otherwise engaging material are better when shorter, and I think this was one of those instances.
Five sets in an evening is a lot, but overall we kept things moving. We had a good turnout for the first three sets, with a bit tapering off for the last two. But it was a diverse and rewarding evening of new music, and we were grateful to be a part of it. Thanks to my friends Robert Pepper (PAS) and Mike Durek (The Use) for putting this show together, and as always to Glenn Cornett of Spectrum for providing this venue for new and visiting avant-garde musicians.
This year marks the centennial of the birth of Sun Ra, an artist whom we at CatSynth quite admire. There have been many tributes this year, and Reconnaissance Fly was fortunate to have played in one of them this past Wednesday.
“Friendly Galaxies”-Celebrating Sun Ra at 100 was “a celebration of the cosmic musical force of Sun Ra and his legacy….bands,beer,the sounds of joy!!! universal convergence” at the Center for New Music here in San Francisco. It featured three groups who combined his music and poetry with their own artistry. We even had Saturn cookies!
And Reconnaissance Fly was up first! We definitely got into the theme of the evening, with otherworldly and science-fiction themes. And our set included two of Sun Ra’s pieces from the album Lanquidity: the title track and Where Pathways Meet.
We also included selections from our own music that matched the sound and vibe including Itzirktna and Undeciphered. You can hear our performance of Undeciphered in this video.
Overall, this was one of our better-performed shows, and we received a great response from the audience.
We were followed by Electropoetic Coffee, a music-and-poetry duo featuring Ross Hammond and NSAA.
As usual, Hammond’s guitar work was virtuosic and filled with lush and complex moments. I am pretty sure the poetry and spoken featured some of Sun Ra’s own writings, a topic that was part of the groups introduction. It was interesting to hear the combination of words and music. At times they came together strongly, at others seemed to drift a bit in different direction. Overall, I did like the performance and how it fit into the evening. But I do think would have been stronger if it was shorter – I don’t think the 45 minute duration served them well and it would have been better to keep it compact and energetic.
The final set was a special group for the evening, the UBU RA BIG BAND. It featured Joe Lasquo on piano and electronics, with Jon Raskin, Steve Adams, Lisa Mezzacappa, John Hanes, Myles Boisen, Aaron Bennett, Dan Plonsey, and David Slusser, along with a vocal team that included Katt Atchley.
This was truly a treat to hear. These are of course all top-notch musicians who can hit the appropriate sounds and rhythms for jazz as well as dive into free-improvisation. Their arrangements of Sun Ra’s compositions were tight and energetic, and just fun to listen to. And this band really grooved, in that funk/jazz/fusion way that I adore. One of my favorites was the final piece, UFO, a straight-ahead disco tune from 1979. I wanted that one to keep going.
Overall, this was a fun show and a joyous celebration, and something I think we were all proud to be a part of. We had a full house, all of which seemed to be very much in the moment as well. Certainly a memorable night and a fitting tribute. A special thanks to Jan Michaels for organizing this event and to the Center for New Music for hosting us!
Today we look at the first of Reconnaissance Fly’s recent shows in the high desert of southern California near Joshua Tree. This show took place at The Palms in Wonder Valley, California. Wonder Valley is an odd place east of the town of Twentynine Palms. Wonder Valley is a community of sorts, but not really a town in its own right (indeed, I’m still trying to figure out what exactly Wonder Valley is). But the Palms is a destination for locals and others and often features live music.
The evening opened with The Sibleys, which featured Laura Sibley on guitar/vocals and James Sibley on drums. They also happen to be the owners and operators of The Palms.
Their original songs could be described as energetic rock-and-roll, with fun lyrics – I think many of us went away remembering “Black Kawasaki, I feel lucky…” And Laura Sibleys strumming and solos pushed the music forward. They were definitely a favorite among the local crowd, some of whom could be seen dancing.
Next up was Hay Fever, featuring Emily Hay on flute and vocals with Wayne Peet on various keyboards, and Steuart Liebig on bass and effects.
Hay Fever is an improvising group, with a continuous ever-changing stream of music that spans the entire set. There were many moments that would fit into a “space music” show, with drones and arpeggios, but also more intense sections with vocals and playing, and very sparse moments leading back into a thick fog of sound. Liebig’s bass playing added some particularly interesting textures to the rest of the group’s sound.
Then it was time for us, Reconnaissance Fly, to take the stage.
We did a set that featured several of our tracks from the album, as well as some of the newer songs. Particularly when we got to the funkier tunes like Itzirktna or the harder rock sounds heads and ears from the bar turned in our direction. It may not have been our tightest performance, but we had a lot of fun and presented with energy.
Overall, it was quite an experience to play at The Palms, perhaps a bit surreal given the desert surroundings and activity around us. We certainly hope to come back again some time.
I was very shocked and saddened to hear that David Wessel, Director of the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT), passed away suddenly on October 13. There have been quite a few thoughtful and strong tributes written in the past few days. Mine is more focused on our personal connection and his influences on my work and interests.
When I came to CNMAT in the mid 1990s, David Wessel was already well established in our small but growing community of academic music with computers. He had already made major influences in the field including timbre spaces and software for real-time musical performance. His focus, both in his own work, and those whom he guided, was on expressive musical performance. Through his introduction, I began working on research that included both of these influences. Along with Adrian Freed, Matt Wright, and others, we embarked are a run of successful research projects and publications, several of which remain influential.
As part of my thesis work, he and I did a version of his groundbreaking piece Antony, which features hundreds of moving partials in frequency space using my OSW software. I am hoping to resurrect the software for that in the coming weeks, but until now this video gives a sense of what this piece is about.
I did also have a chance to work on musical composition and performance at CNMAT. I was quite influenced and inspired by Wessel’s work with controllers and real-time synthesis, especially in ways that preserved the physical embodiment of performance – physical gestures mapped intuitively to musical sounds and ideas, rather than sitting behind a laptop. Although my music and performance style has evolved in very different directions since then, the principle of physical gestures guiding technology for music that he championed has remained a core part of my electronic music.
We got to attend many conferences together, including several years of the International Computer Music Conference (ICMC), where he was always ready to include me and others in social gatherings with colleagues from all over the world – he seemed to know everyone in the field. The beer, wine, and spirits often flowed freely, as did the conversation, veering from personal to deeply intellectual ideas in mathematics or psychology. This picture below was taken in Barcelona in 2005, and also includes Roberto Morales and Clarence Barlow.
In addition to attending these conferences, he continued to support my participation in musical and research activities and remain a part of the community, most notably sponsoring me for a prestigious Regents’ Lecturer spot in 2011. He had joined the faculty and advisory board of Berkeley’s ParLab for research in advanced parallel computing, and part of the appointment was to give talks and work with students there, but he also made sure that it included the chance to give a solo concert at CNMAT. I still recall the glowing and generous introduction he made for me at the start of the evening. Indeed I was deeply touched by it. I had the chance to return the favor early this year when I introduced him for a panel at the Bone Flute to Auto Tune conference at Berkeley. It was the last time I saw and spoke with him in person.
The entire community around CNMAT and the greater community he touched have been mourning the passing of David Wessel, as well as celebrating is personal, artistic and technological influences. There will be events to remember and celebrate his life over the next month, and I hope to be there for some of them.
Yes, this is not a cat-and-synth pic, but it is definitely cat-and-music, and too adorable not to post. Via Facebook.
Not strictly a cat-and-synth picture, but definitely a cat and musical instruments :). Submitted by ⓉⒺⒸⒽℕ⌽▃ⒾⒹ●⒞⒪⒨ via Twitter @catsynth.
“Ready to go for the jam session …”
Submitted by Damien Olsen via our Facebook page.
“I am Oliver, I appreciate any form of Art but my favorite one is probably music..”
We think Oliver has excellent taste in music!