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.

Ellsworth Kelly (1923-2015)

We lost another of our art heroes yesterday. Ellsworth Kelly, known for his iconic works composed of color fields, passed away.

Luna with Ellsworth Kelly book

The above photo features the catalog from his large-scale solo show at SFMOMA in 2002-2003. The exhibition was a bright spot, both aesthetically and emotionally, in an otherwise depressing period of time and made quite an impression. I kept intersecting with his work during my numerous art adventures in California. His paintings featured large color fields, sometimes combined together into a single whole, while other times separated, as in Blue Green Black Red (1996) on display as part of the Fisher Collection at SFMOMA. I had the opportunity to see a large retrospective of his prints and paintings at LACMA in Los Angeles a couple of years ago. This, too, was revelatory as it showed other aspects of his work, including black-and-white pieces and connections of his abstract style to nature.


[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]


[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

 

It is still, however, the color fields that I most instantly recognized as his.


[Installation view. Ellsworth Kelly: Prints and Paintings. January 22-April 22, 2012. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Photo (c) 2012 Museum Associates/LACMA]

Kelly himself resisted being described as “abstract” or “minimal” or any other label that intersected with his career.  But I think this statement quoted in the New York Times obituary describes his art very well, and is a fitting conclusion.

“My paintings don’t represent objects,” he said in 1996. “They are objects themselves and fragmented perceptions of things.”

 

San Francisco SPCA Holiday Windows

One of our favorite holiday traditions in San Francisco continues to be the holiday windows at Macy’s flagship store on Union Square featuring adoptable pets from the SF SPCA. It’s hard not to melt a bit looking at the pets in the windows, located at the corner of Stockton and O’Farrell, waiting for their new homes.

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Of course, the cats were mostly doing what cats do best.

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I believe this trio are litter mates.

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All of the animals are available for adoption, and one can schedule visit time to meet them just as one would at the main SF SPCA shelter. At the time I visited, there were only kittens. I do hope to see more adult cats, who often have a tougher time getting adopted. When I turned back to photograph on adorable black kitten, her space had a sign saying she was taking a break to visit with a potential family. I certainly hope it worked out for her.

You can find out more about the SF SPCA / Macy’s Holiday Windows at this site, including information on visiting and donating. I’m sure I’ll be back at least once before it closes on January 3.

CatSynth: The App! 2.0 for iOS is released!

We at CatSynth are excited to announce the release of the 2.0 version of our iOS app knows as CatSynth: The App!. It has a redesigned modernist interface for browsing and reading articles. And the biggest change is that you can now record and share performances with the built-in Mystery Synths!

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If you already have the app (thanks!), we strongly recommend that you update to the new version. If not, we encourage you to give it a try. And for our friends on Android, we hope to have a 2.x version in the not-too-distant future.

Fun with Stats: Countries that still have Monarchies

On this Independence Day here in the U.S., a country which has been a continuous republic for over 200 years, we thought it would fun to look at the countries that still have monarchies in 2015.  Most are constitutional monarchies with a limited or ceremonial role, but it still begs the question of why bother with such an expensive and anachronistic institution?

Brunei Absolute monarchy
Oman Absolute monarchy
Qatar Absolute monarchy
Saudi Arabia Absolute monarchy
Swaziland Absolute monarchy
Vatican City Absolute monarchy
Andorra Constitutional monarchy
Antigua and Barbuda Constitutional monarchy
Australia Constitutional monarchy
The Bahamas Constitutional monarchy
Bahrain Constitutional monarchy
Barbados Constitutional monarchy
Belgium Constitutional monarchy
Belize Constitutional monarchy
Bhutan Constitutional monarchy
Cambodia Constitutional monarchy
Canada Constitutional monarchy
Denmark Constitutional monarchy
Grenada Constitutional monarchy
Jamaica Constitutional monarchy
Japan Constitutional monarchy
Jordan Constitutional monarchy
Kuwait Constitutional monarchy
Lesotho Constitutional monarchy
Liechtenstein Constitutional monarchy
Luxembourg Constitutional monarchy
Malaysia Constitutional monarchy
Monaco Constitutional monarchy
Morocco Constitutional monarchy
Netherlands Constitutional monarchy
New Zealand Constitutional monarchy
Norway Constitutional monarchy
Papua New Guinea Constitutional monarchy
Saint Kitts and Nevis Constitutional monarchy
Saint Lucia Constitutional monarchy
Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Constitutional monarchy
Solomon Islands Constitutional monarchy
Spain Constitutional monarchy
Sweden Constitutional monarchy
Tonga Constitutional monarchy
Tuvalu Constitutional monarchy
United Arab Emirates Constitutional monarchy
United Kingdom Constitutional monarchy

Beyond actual countries, monarchies and hereditary rulers continue to be a fixture in the fantasy-novel genre, many of which are directly influences by Tolkein’s rather conservative Middle Earth.  Most perplexing of all, however, is the obsession of some Americans with British royalty, the dynasty of the country we declared independence from 239 years ago today.