Pet the Tiger in Golden Gate Park

Today we look back at the recent performance by Pet the Tiger invented instrument collective in Golden Gate Park. It was part of a series hosted by Dan Gottwald featuring invented-instrument performances in the tunnel near the Conservatory of Flowers. You can see and hear excerpts from the concert this CatSynth TV video.

The centerpiece of the performance was the harmonic-series gamelan, a set of instruments that employ tuning based exclusively on the harmonic series. This leads to just-intonation relationships among pitches, but not necessarily those of conventional Western twelve-tone music. The results are haunting and exquisite. This is especially true of the 5-octave metallophone demonstrated by David Samas in the video, and played by Samas and others in the concert.

There was also a large kalimba-like instrument performed primarily by Samas and Derek Drudge, and a large instrument created and played by Bart Hopkin.

In addition to the metallophones, there were various wind instruments. Peter Whitehead played an instrument that resembled a longitudinal bass flute, and whirling tubes, all of which also conformed to the harmonic series.

There was also a stringed instrument performed by Ian Saxton.

Harmonic series relationships are well known to be very pleasant to the ear, and there was an overall pleasing tone to the music, amplified by the acoustic properties of the tunnel, the lighting and the fellowship of performers and audience. In addition to the long meditative pieces, there were sections combining music with anxious dystopian poetry, and even a rendition of George Harrison’s “Within You Without You” from Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Overall, it was a lovely and poignant evening, with the light show from the Conservatory of Flowers in the distance and a warm friendly atmosphere in the tunnel that mitigated the approaching chill of the night in Golden Gate Park. The series is over for the season, but we do expect to hear more of Pet the Tiger and these inventor-musicians in the near future.

Elliott Sharp, Tania Chen + Wobbly, Euphotic at Canessa Gallery

Today we look back at last week’s show at Canessa Gallery in San Francisco, featuring Elliott Sharp, Tania Chen + Wobbly, and Euphotic. This show was the subject of CatSynth TV Episode 8, and you can see and hear a bit of each set.

We were quite pleased to see Elliott Sharp. We saw him back in the 1990s, but it’s been a while since he made it to the Bay Area.

Elliott Sharp

He has a unique and idiosyncratic sound, with fast runs, harmonics, and extended techniques, along with electronics. The electronics, which appeared to include some looping, sampling, and delay, did not overpower his guitar playing, and the individual gestures, from frenetic fingerpicking to expressive scratches, came through strongly. Although his style is unusual, it is still quite melodic and harmonic, something that comes out particularly in a solo-performance setting.

The evening opened with Euphotic, a trio project featuring Tom Djll (electronics, trumpet), Cheryl Leonard (instruments from natural found objects) and Bryan Day (invented instruments).

Euphotic (Day, Djll, Leonard)

The sound was subtle and detailed, with a lot of short sounds clustering like schools of fish. Djll’s electronics bridged the space between Cheryl Leonard’s organic sounds and Bryan Day’s more chiseled electro-acoustic creations. There was also a quality in Day’s performance that foreshadowed Elliott Sharp’s sound and style later in the evening.

Euphotic was followed by a duo featuring Tania Chen on electronics, voice and found objects, with Wobbly (aka Jon Leidecker) on electronics. He had an array of iPads linked together.

Tania Chen + Wobbly

The performance centered around “Feasibility Study”, an episode of the television show Outer Limits, slowed down beyond recognition. Chen’s vocals and found-object performance featured material and ideas from the episode, including chomping on biscuits and pop rocks to represent the rock-like aliens in the video. She also performed a melodic section on an iPad, which complemented Leidecker’s complex electronic processing. His sounds were slower and more undulating, providing an eerie setting for the overall performance.

We had a great time at this show, as did the rest of the audience that filled Canessa Gallery to capacity. We look forward to more interesting music from these artists and from this venue. And thanks to Bryan Day for continuing to host this series.

CatSynth TV Episode 1: Sahba Sizdahkhani & PC Muñoz / Karl Evangelista Duo

We proudly present the inaugural episode of CatSynth TV!

This first episode visits the Luggage Store Gallery for the regular Thursday night new-music series. This particular evening had two intriguing and performative sets: a solo for santour and drums by Sahba Sizdahkhani and a duo by PC Muñoz and Karl Evangelista on percussion/electronics and guitar, respectively.

Sizdahkhani’s set was a thing of beauty, with layered loops from the santour providing a rich harmonic and rhythmic background. The drums in many ways functioned as the melodic instrument, with expressive phrasing of the rhythms and textures. Muñoz and Evangelista had some powerful jams in odd-time meters, along with some more subdued moments featuring pedals and Muñoz on Korg Delay Monotron and spoken word.

CatSynth TV is not replacing our long-form articles, but rather a complementary offering. Please do subscribe to our new channel to catch more installments. There is another coming this week 😺

Yom Kippur 2017, Meditations and Reflections

Star of David

Fast, reflect, and question. These are our personal mandates on Yom Kippur this 5778 (2017). Fasting is pretty self-explanatory – I don’t do it every year, but this year it feels important to do so. Sam Sam does not have to fast. The questioning centers around “what does it mean to be Jewish in this time and place”, an especially complicated and treacherous question for those of us who are secular Jews. Yom Kippur is described in Leviticus, the one book of the Torah that I have not been able to get through in its entirety (mostly because it’s extremely dense and about as riveting as the phone book). But I still celebrate independent of that, based on heritage and family tradition. You are a Jew if your mother is a Jew, end of story. I extend this rule to my cats.

Sam Sam enjoys a snack on Yom Kippur
[Sam Sam is exempt from fasting]

For an excellent read on the topic of secular Jews on Yom Kippur, especially secular Jews committed to activism and social justice, please read this article by Dania Rajendra [Full disclosure: Dania is my sister-in-law.]. For me, part of my plan for this holiday was to compose a track based on sounds from a short-wave-radio synth module an, idea I formulated during a reflective moment last night.


[Cover image taken during Yom Kippur 2016, see this article.]

The track was recorded as a meditation of sorts, getting into a heightened, focused state while turning the knobs of the Eowave short-wave module, tuning into stations that aren’t there. The other “master” of the track was the Wiard/Richter Noisering, which I let control the Rossum Electro-Music Morpheus module. Both focus on chance and working with elements very much outside my control. I also did not want to spend much time outside the meditation-recording process itself. There is no editing save for some tapering at the beginning and end of the track and the obligatory EQ and compression.

I am both doing too much, and too little at the same time. I can’t save all the shelter cats; I can help everyone suffering through one disaster after another in North America and Carribean. But I can try to make a little bit of a difference in each. When I focus on all things “CatSynth”, sometimes my music suffers – I’m overdue booking new gigs for my band CDP and I do feel a need to atone for that. In short, the challenge in 5778 and beyond is to find a way of doing all the things that matter most while minimizing time and resources on the things that don’t. No easy task for someone who tends to say “yes” to everything, hates to disappoint others, and has a difficult time letting go of things. But that last one is another aspect of this holiday, and so it is as good a time to begin as any…

Psychic TV and Moira Scar, The Independent, San Francisco

By Jason Berry and Amanda Chaudhary

L’Shana Tova! To start the new year off in a sweet way, we headed down to The Independent on Divisadero in San Francisco to check out Moira Scar and Psychic TV.  The Independent, as we soon learned, is housed on the site of the former Kennel Club. We were quite pleased to run into quite a few friends amongst the audience from various communities, including the local experimental and electronic music scenes, and Kearny Street Workshop.

First up was Moira Scar. We saw them about a year ago, and they have continued their musical growth into something most weird and wonderful.  The always visually captivating group is headed by Roxy Monoxide (guitar, saxophone, vocals) and LuLu Gamma Ray (synth, vocals)together with Monica Ramos and Aimee Schott on bass and drums, respectively.

Moira Scar

With a sound that hearkened back, to these reporters at least, to the great synth-punk bands of yesterday – Tubeway Army, leavened with a dash of 45 Grave – we enjoyed their energetic set. Some elements of spiky, Crimson-style prog seemed to be peeking into their new sound. We counted a 15-beat riff (subdivided 4, 3, 4, 4) and quite liked the way tenor saxophone worked in their sound.  Did we mention that the band’s presentation and stagecraft were top-notch? We’ll be keeping an ear out for more of this group.

After a brief intermission, Psychic TV took to the stage.

Psychic TV

We will admit a bit of uncertainty on our behalf on how this would turn out. The last time we saw PTV, in the late 90s shortly after the release of Trip Reset, they were, shall we say, less-than-inspired, and certainly unrehearsed. Genesis P-Orridge disbanded the group shortly thereafter for a time. This was the new, improved PTV we saw, or PTV3 as they are now billing themselves. Just as each edition of the band is driven along by the primary composer and musical director (Alex Ferguson, Fred Giannelli, Larry Thrasher), this edition is piloted by drummer and graphic designer Edly O’Dowd. His aesthetic is something new for PTV; gone are the rambling improvisations and sound collages of days past, replaced with a tight, solid band sound. The group focused on material from the recently-reissued albums A Pagan Day and Allegory and Self, starting with a guitar-and-voice rendition of the classic tune “Translucent Carriages”, originally by Pearls Before Swine, before moving onto “She Was Surprised / New Sexuality”, “Just Like Arcadia”, and others. Genesis stuck close to the script, reading the lyrics from a music stand.

The band delivered, and the crowd loved it! We headed back to CatSynth HQ satisfied and exhausted, still worn out from our recent return from NYC. But, more about that soon….

James Chance and The Contortions, Seaport Music Festival, New York

This past weekend marked the 15th annual Seaport Music Festival at the South Street Seaport in New York, and we at CatSynth were there on Sunday afternoon to see James Chance and The Contortions.

James Chance and the Contortions

For those who are not familiar with James Chance, he was an icon in the New York post-punk and “No Wave” scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s. This is actually the second time we have seen him and his band, including collaborators Mac Gollehon on trumpet and valve trombone, Eric Klaastad, and Richard Dworkin on drums, in 2017, the previous being at the Knockout in Francisco in March.

For the Seaport show, they were joined by Chris Cochrane on guitar and Robert Aaron filling out the horn section on tenor saxophone.  The San Francisco performance was great, but this performance was even better.  There were the tight funky rhythms with blaring saxophone and trumpet lines along with Chance’s fancy footwork and intense stage presence that channeled James Brown, but the band as a whole was more of an imaginative musical whole.  Cochrane seemed more in tune with the rest of the band and shined on slower tune “Jaded” with a cool Robert-Fripp-like countermelody using an e-bow.  The combined horns of Gollehon and Aaron brought out the jazz and funk elements that separated James Chance from others in the No Wave scene.  And Klaastad was full and powerful on eight-string bass.

The energy of the performance fit well with the setting.  It was a beautiful late-summer day, with the Brooklyn Bridge and waterfront bathed in golden-hour sunlight, matched by Chance’s yellow blazer and trademark pompadour.

James Chance

It was also special to see him performing in New York, given his long history in the local music scene.  Later on walking in the West Village, we espied this old poster advertising one of his shows from the early 1980s on the wall of the former Bleecker Street Records (sadly, now a Starbucks).

James White and the Blacks

We would be remiss if we did not also mention the other bands we saw at the Seaport Music Festival.  The Contortions were preceded by Wolfmanhattan Project, a supergroup featuring Kid Congo Powers, Mick Collins (Dirtbombs/Gories), and Bob Bert (Sonic Youth).  They played to a quite enthusiastic audience.  The Nude Party combined sounds of hard rock scene of 1970s New York with a Southern edge from their hometown in North Carolina.  And Martin Rev (formerly of Suicide) played an energetic solo set on keyboards with backing rhythms from a variety of sources, including classic soul such as the Ohio Players.  A fine day of music on the waterfront.

[Jason Berry contributed to this article.]

Henry Kaiser Quartet Plays Steve Lacy at Piedmont Pianos

On an extraordinarily hot Saturday evening in Oakland, we and several others kept cool both physically and musically at Piedmont Pianos. The occasion was a concert of music by Steve Lacy, as interpreted by an ensemble organized by guitarist Henry Kaiser with saxophonist Bruce Ackley.

Steve Lacy is a visionary but often under appreciated musician in avant-garde jazz. He was a prolific composer especially in the 1970s with his sextet and is an influence on many of the musicians were regularly see and perform with. (You can see Jason Berry’s tribute comic to Steve Lacy in an earlier post.) Bruce Ackley and Henry Kaiser have long been interpreters of Lacy’s music. Ackley and other founding members of Rova shared a deep interest in Lacy, and connected with him in both Berkeley and Paris, ultimately recording their own album of his work in 1983. They teamed up with Kaiser for performances of Lacy’s Saxophone Special in the early 2000s and ultimately recorded the piece together with Kyle Bruckman. More recently, Kaiser and Ackley have put together a group to perform the music from The Wire, which included Tania Chen on piano, Danielle DeGruttola on cello, Andrea Centazzo on percussion, and Michael Manring on bass. The performance on this evening featured a subset of this group featuring Ackley, Kaiser, Chen, and DeGruttola.

Henry Kaiser Quartet

The concert featured many pieces from The Wire as well as a few others, and demonstrated the breadth of Steve Lacy’s composition from the brightly melodic “Hemline” (dedicated to Janis Joplin) to the extremely percussive and avant-garde “The Owl” (dedicated to Anton Webern), which featured Tania Chen and Kaiser blending the extended acoustic techniques of their respective instruments.

Henry Kaiser, Tania Chen, Robert Ackley

Even at its most percussive and noisy, Lacy’s music is quite melodic and structured. Indeed, many of the pieces were intended as songs, specifically songs for the voice of Irene Aebi. The melodies often revolved around simple repeating motifs, as in “Bound” (dedicated to Irene Aebi). On some pieces, including “Deadline”, DeGruttola and Kaiser acted as a string-based rhythm section, providing a foundation for the soprano-sax to interpret the melody and the piano to fill the space in between. Other moments provided lush harmonies, with Kaiser playing long pitch-bent chords on guitar and Chen playing frenetic harmonic fragments on piano. The energy can be intense at times, but then slower and haunting as in “Clouds”. Although structured, there is a lot of room for improvisation in the music, and the ensemble had great on stage chemistry for listening and playing off of one another, leaving empty space, and allowing Lacy’s original ideas to come out even as the performers added their own. The performance also included the title track from The Wire, “Twain”, “Ecstasy” and more.

This was my first visit to Piedmont Pianos. It is a large, friendly, and inviting space, dedicated entirely to the piano. Many were rather impressive, both in terms of their quality as instruments as well as their sticker prices, including the gorgeous Fazioli grand that Tania Chen played for the concert. However, I found myself most captivated by this remake of a 1930s Bluthne PH Piano, which is a work of visual as well as sonic art.  It is based on a design by noted Danish architect and inventor Poul Henningsen.

1931 PH Piano

We look forward to seeing more shows at Piedmont Pianos now that we have discovered it, and of course upcoming shows for all the musicians involved in this evening. Nor is this our last word on the music of Steve Lacy.

CatSynth Pic: John Cage with Losa Rinpoche

Merce Cunningham John Cage tribute

A tribute to John Cage on his birthday (September 5), by the Merce Cunningham Trust.  The photo is courtesy of the John Cage Trust.

John Cage’s beloved black cat was named Losa Rinpoche.  From the John Cage Trust (on his 101st birthday in 2013):

John Cage had a very close relationship with his second black cat, Losa.  (His first black cat, Skookum, was tragically set loose on the streets of New York by a well-meaning worker on the roof. John was so bereft, Andy Culver told him we were going to have to send him back to Zen School.) One of their favorite games together was for John to put Losa under a cardboard box.  Losa would then move around the loft, the box on his back, weirdly animated.  I was horrified the first time I saw him do this. “He must be scared!” I cried. John just laughed. He said Losa liked it, and, furthermore, his new name was now Losa Rinpoche Taxi Cab.  Of course, Losa would, after a time, simply shrug the box off, look disdainfully at us both, and calmly walk away.

Steely Dan: My Old School 1973 – RIP Walter Becker

On the news of Walter Becker’s passing, we post this classic live performance of Steely Dan.

Steely Dan seems to be one of those bands that elicit strong emotions, people seem to love them or love to hate them. While I had a soft spot for a long time that I had to occasionally defend, there had faded into the background until Aja became part of the rotation of albums I listened to during my recovery last summer. This was a deeper listening beneath the slick production to hear the chord progressions and the dark but clever lyrics. And as I write more lyrics in my music, I hear the influence of their words.

I do get the sense that the polarizing reaction to Steely Dan does tend to cleave along similar lines to other musical divisions of the 1970s, most notoriously the anti-disco crusaders from the hard rock world. But that is a story for another time…

Mulatu Astatke w/ Meklit at The UC Theatre

We at CatSynth have long admired the music of Ethiopia from the 1960s and 1970s, with its blending of traditional rhythms and scales with funk, soul, and jazz. And there are few names as synonymous with Ethiopian jazz, or “Ethio-jazz” as Mulatu Astatke. Astatke developed his Ethio-jazz sound while studying in the U.K. and the United States, playing alongside with jazz and Latin artists, including many from Cuba, Venezuela and elsewhere. He combined the melodies and harmonies of Ethiopia with rhythms and instrumentations from his Western training and collaborations, along with his own unique complex system of poly-rhythms. There is also a strong element of funk is some of his work. The bulk of his groundbreaking recordings were made in the late 1960s and early 1970s during the “golden age” of Ethiopian music. After the fall of the Ethiopian Empire and the coup that brought a brutal new regime to power, the thriving music scene in Addis Ababa faded and these recordings fell into obscurity. But they were later prized by record collectors and eventually found a wider audience through reissues and inclusion in the French Éthiopiques series of records in the 1990s. Indeed, that was how he first came to my attention. Since then, Astatke and his music have had a renaissance, with frequent collaborations with musicians around the world, such as his 2008 recording with London based jazz/funk band The Heliocentrics and others. When we learned that he was coming to the U.C. Theater in Berkeley this summer, we know we had to be there.

The evening began with a set by Meklit, an Ethiopian-American musician, songwriter, and bandleader based in San Francisco.

Meklit

Like Astatke, Meklit combined jazz and Ethiopian influences in her soulful and energetic performance. Indeed, she was open about the influence of “Dr. Mulatu” on her own music and waxed poetic on being able to open for him in the concert. Meklit’s voice and movement were backed by a band that featured both a drum set and frame drum tupan, along with horns and bass. The result was continuous energy and rhythm that flowed from one composition to another, even when the tempo was slower. The group performed compositions from Meklit’s latest album The People Move and the Music Moves To as well as her earlier compositions and some more traditional tunes.

Meklit and band

And then it was time for the maestro himself to take the stage.

Mulatu Astatke

Mulatu Astatke

Mulatu began on his signature instrument, the vibraphone, with fast runs in his unique tonality that were picked up by the horn players. But he also played electric piano and drums during the set. The rhythms were intricate and often poly-rhythmic or contrapuntal, with lilting triple time and odd times that propelled the music forward. The harmonies had a dark color but still delivered with energy and exuberance. This was music to dance to, and many members of the audience did (including Meklit who was dancing in the aisle not far from our seat). There was a mixture of newer compositions (I thought I heard at least one familiar tune from his work with the Heliocentrics) as well as classic 1970s compositions. The band was solid and deft at Astatke’s complex rhythms and fit with his more recent work that includes musicians from host countries.

Mulatu Astatke, Jason Lindner, and other band members

We did espy Jason Lindner on keyboards, including synthesizers and electric piano. We had previously seen him with Donny McCaslin a couple of months ago. He brought a similar sense of harmony and tight playing across instruments to this performance. He had a command of the complex rhythms and also provided the lush electric-piano sounds that I quite enjoyed in Astatke’s classic recordings.

It was a wonderful and unique night of music, and the audience at the sold-out concert showed their appreciation for it. And having now seen Mulatu Astatke perform live, I will be hearing his recordings in a new light.