Serge Modular 40 Year Reunion Concert

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Today we look back a unique event that took place a few weeks ago. To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the modular synthesizer system created by Serge Tcherepnin, fans, inventors, early adopters and virtuosi of these instruments got together at The Lab in San Francisco for an evening of music, gear spotting, and fellowship.

I arrived just in time to see Slope114, the duo of Elise Gargalikis and Dmitri SFC. Elise’s voice beautifully floated over the beats coming from the massive modular. There were quite a few groovy patterns and refrains in the mix.

Slope 114

I should also point out that they were key in organizing the event (and in helping introduce me to this community), so extra kudos for them.

Next up was LX Rudis, another frequent performer of Serge modulars. His was a much noisier, abstract performance compared to Slope114, but with lots of interesting sounds.

One of the earliest users of the Serge synthesizer was Will Jackson, who brought it on an anti-whaling voyage with Greenpeace in the 1970s. He related the story of the trip, including their encounter with a Soviet whaling ship, and shared with us some of the music he composed for and with the whales.

Next up was the virtuoso himself Doug Lynner. He did not disappoint, with a complex solo performance with subtle elements and precisely tuned patches.

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The music is defies simple description, it is slow, evolving, beautiful, ethereal. it is best to just listen to his sit in this video:

Jill Fraser was on hand to perform with her large Serge synthesizer setup along with some more contemporary electronics. Well known for her work in film and commercial music, her performance came across as more abstract in this instance.

The final act of the evening featured a trio, bringing together Paul Young with Gino Robair on drums and Richard Marriott on trombone.

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I jokingly referred to them as the “Serge house band” for the evening, but they killed it with an energetic jazzy set, especially one disco-infused jam of which I was particularly fond.

I regret not being able to list every act in this report, there were quite a few and they all brought something different to the event. And there was quite a large audience in attendance, overflowing the seats. We certainly except to hear more from many of these artists soon.

NAMM: Dave Smith Instruments and Sequential Prophet 6

Our first stop at NAMM 2015 was Dave Smith Instruments. And they certainly had big news, with both the acquisition of the legendary Sequential Circuits (aka “SEQUENTIAL”) brand name and their first instrument under the new name, the Prophet 6.

We were able to talk with Dave Smith himself about the “new old name” and the new instrument.

The Prophet 6 itself is quite a sight. It includes the industrial design, lettering and other features from the Prophet V, and includes custom component based VCOs and analog filters.

Sequential Prophet 6

It has a rich sound that ranges from the lusciousness of the Prophet 12 to the nastiness of the Evolver, though it doesn’t really do the same things as either of those instruments. As described in the video, it doesn’t have the complexity and feature set of the Prophet 12, but it’s not intended to. It is it’s own creature, and probably best as a lead synth used in conjunction with others. And it was definitely fun to play.

Amanda tries out the Prophet 6

It does appear that both the Dave Smith Instruments and Sequential brands will be used on future offerings, which we look forward to seeing and hearing.

2014: Transition and Turbulence

CatSynth 2014 in Review
[Click to enlarge.]

Once again, it’s time for our traditional end-of-the-year image at CatSynth. 2014 was a year like no other for us: transition, turbulence, complexity, controversy, beauty. Luna turned 10, and is enjoying the life of a mature but very spoiled house cat. And for me, the year began with a profound change that is still reverberating. Some things stayed remarkably constant, as one can see from themes in the words and images here. But others changed in ways I was not prepared for. Changes in my music, my personality and identity, my friendships and relationships, and my professional life. But in the end I learned the importance of speaking one’s truth. It comes with tremendous risks, but with potential great rewards. So what this means is that even more big changes are likely in store for 2015, especially in music, work, and the pages of this website.

The blog did suffer a bit amidst all the tumult of this past year, but we are reinvigorating it for 2015. There is the new look and feel – one of our truths – and more posts and channels coming. Thank you for being part of this year with us, and looking forward to the next!

CatSynth in the Window, Artists’ Television Access

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.”

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[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.

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[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.

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[Photo by David Samas. Click to enlarge.]

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: Amy X Neuburg with Paul Dresher Ensemble

“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.

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[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.

Ambient-Chaos, Ode To Steengo (Amanda Chaudhary / Polly Moller), Spectrum, New York

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.

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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.

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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.”

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[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.

Amanda Polly duo at Spetrum, 11-24-2014 from CatSynth on Vimeo.

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.

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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.

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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.

Friendly Galaxies: Celebrating Sun Ra at 100

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Reconnaissance Fly with Hay Fever and The Sibleys at The Palms

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Then it was time for us, Reconnaissance Fly, to take the stage.

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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.

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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.