Matzoh Man Returns for Passover 2017!

As dusk approaches and we at CatSynth prepare for the start of Passover, we present the Matzoh Man, now in full HD video!

For those who are not familiar with the tune, it is a version of Dayenu, which is song at many seders, including ours growing up. You can find out more here.

Chag Sameach! / !חג פסח שמח

The Disintegration of Thought

There is a particular and peculiar state of mind that for a long time I have named the disintegration of thought. It occurs in periods of mental drowsiness, but not when falling asleep, and is characterized by thoughts becoming less coherent. One can start out with a coherent statement like “I need to clean the studio” but it will manifest only halfway before turning to nonsense, such as “I need to clean the…there goes a fish on the road next to the green eight” – not a real example, it is really hard to mimic the specific type of partial nonsense that occurs, or to remember it. Usually there is not much in the way of visualization involved. It is almost entirely thoughts consisting of words, and maybe a little bit of abstract imagery such as slowly changing colors or patterns. It does, however, involve detachment from sensory input and the external environment.

While this state can occur when sleep deprived or extremely bored, it is more interesting as a tool to manage stress or anxiety. It is particularly useful for the kind of low-level but constant anxiety associated with being trapped in a place or situation or being overstimulated – for example, spending large amount of time in the large open-floor-plan offices of tech companies over the past seven years or so. Even completely fun and positive things like NAMM can leave me very drained by the late afternoon, not so much anxious but socially exhausted. In such states, I find the best thing to do is find a quiet, safe, and solitary space, lie down or recline, and just let go of any control over thoughts. More often than not, the “disintegration of thoughts” will follow naturally, as the words become more jumbled and nonsensical, and the outside world fades. But I do not for asleep, nor do I try to. Sometimes gentle external stimuli, like the patterned noise of the freeway near CatSynth HQ, or a cat purring contentedly on my chest, can facilitate entry.

This state of being internal and having non-cohesive thoughts turns out to be incredibly pleasurable and relaxing. Perhaps even better than external drugs or alcohol for that purpose. In a sense, it is liberating, not unlike an empty stretch of desert road, even though I have retreated entirely inside my mind. It has become an almost daily practice, especially on days where there is much overstimulation. Interestingly, however, I can’t access it at night when trying to sleep.

driving through the desert

It also appears to be somewhat associated with meditation, but not the highly concentrated type where one focus on a specific word or thought or a strict pattern of breathing, and I can’t experience the state sitting upright (lest my back become the focus of my thoughts). But a deliberate act of “letting go” or deep relaxation does work, as long as one doesn’t fall asleep in the process.

So, this state of consciousness must have a name, right? Well, that is not entirely clear, the closest phenomenon I can find is hypnagogia.

Hypnagogia is the experience of the transitional state from wakefulness to sleep: the hypnagogic state of consciousness, during the onset of sleep. Mental phenomena that occur during this “threshold consciousness” phase include lucid thought, lucid dreaming, hallucinations, and sleep paralysis. [Wikipedia]

Or perhaps a specific subset of hypnagogic phenomena. As described above, there is very little in the way of visions or auditory input, mostly just words and thoughts. So the cognitive aspects without the sensations. And there is also in my experience no correlation with creative thinking as documented in numerous cases; except of course for the fact the diminishing stress leads to greater creativity for me (perhaps for others it is the opposite).

One description of hypnogogia that particularly stuck with me is “REM intrusions into waking state”, as described in this paper. It also describes interaction with the Default Mode Network (DMN). The DMN is discussed in much contemporary psychology, but one particular aspect makes is seen relevant to this discussion.

The default mode network is most commonly shown to be active when a person is not focused on the outside world and the brain is at wakeful rest, such as during daydreaming and mind-wandering. [reference via Wikipedia]

The biological and psychological details, although quite interesting, are beyond my current skills to fully understand and discuss. But I am certainly intrigued to understand it more, even as I continue to explore and practice this “disintegration of thought.” I also invite those with their own knowledge an experience to share in the comments below.

Vacuum Tree Head and Census Designated Place at HSP2017

It’s been a busy musical time for us at CatSynth. Last week I performed a solo set and collaborative pieces with Amy X Neuburg at the Jewish Community Center in Berkeley. This weekend, I have two more performances, again in Berkeley, as part of Hardly Strictly Personal 2017. It’s a three-day event featuring a wide range of experimental and adventurous music, and benefits EarthJustice and the Homeless Action Center. You can see the full updated schedule, as well as ticket and location info here.

Vacuum Tree Head will be playing tonight, and my fusion/experimental project Census Designated Place (CDP) will be playing on Sunday. I have been busily preparing to make my debut on the Roland VP-03 Vocoder in both bands. Needless to say, between that and the various everyday tasks of an adult in San Francisco, we haven’t had as much opportunity to post here. Regular (?) CatSynth pics and more resume next week.

NAMM 2017 Apocrypha and Final Thoughts

In this article, we go over a few remaining items from NAMM, and share some final thoughts as well.

The DATA module from Mordax takes the trend of built-in displays to another level. The large color screen displays a variety of functions, including oscilloscope, tuner , waveform generator and clock. It also has quite a few utility signal functions. It seems like quite the useful item for a medium or large modular system. Plus it looks great!

It’s a common problem with modular synthesizer systems to end up with 2hp empty and nothing to fill it with, except maybe a branded plate. 2hp quite literally fills this niche with a large selection of functional modules exactly 2hp wide.

We could all use extra multiples, or another envelope generator, or VCA. But their 2hp offerings include oscillators and filters. We could see these in various cases to get some handy functionality when needed.

Delptronics has made quite a few modules for percussion synthesis as well as for complex triggering of other modules. Their product line has grown; and we were particularly curious about the new spring module an its electro-acoustic possibilities.

We are always curious to see what 4ms has to offer, as the Spectral Multiband Filter has become one of our favorite modules for a variety of musical purposes. Their new offerings this year included a sampler module and tappable delay, which are shown in the upper right of the following photo.

There was of course more at the modular super booth and in the neighboring booths beyond what we have been able to cover this year. It will be inevitable that some products and manufactures don’t get mentioned in the blog, though we do have more on our Instagram feed during the show. We will have to figure out if there are any logistical changes we might want to try next year in order to see more while still remaining authentic and having the fun time at NAMM that we always do.


The trip home, despite the pouring rain and flooding in the LA Basin, ultimately turned out to be a pleasant one. I suppose I had a bit of a glow from the show, and full of ideas on how to move forward musically and personally in the challenging times ahead.

Even with the literal rainstorms outside and the dark pall cast by the political situation, inside the convention center we were all able to be ourselves and follow our passions for music and music technology. That doesn’t mean that outside reality didn’t intrude. It was impossible not to despair a bit on inauguration day; and by contrast Saturday with the Women’s Marches gave a bit of optimism. Mostly, I just kept doing what I came to NAMM to do. We hope you have enjoyed following our coverage, and we’ll be back doing it again next year barring some world-changing catastrophe (which unfortunately could happen).

NAMM 2017: Moog Music Tribute to Synthesizer Pioneers

This year our friends at Moog Music, Inc. had a very different sort of booth. Instead of the usual array of gear for demonstration, the space was bare and stark, with a simple kiosk and a wall dedicated to the many synthesizer players and innovators we lost in 2016.

It was a rough year for the synthesizer community. Among those we lost were Pauline Oliveros and Don Buchla, both of whom were memorialized here on CatSynth and whom I had known in person. There were also images and statements for Keith Emerson, Bernie Worrell, Isao Tomita, and Jean-Jaques Perrey.

Visitors were invited to wander the space in contemplation or with a mix of music from the artists on classic Walkmans. Visitors could also leave social media tributes to one or more artists and have an opportunity to win one of several current Moog instruments, including a Werkstatt, Mother-32 and even a new Model D.

We didn’t win, but were very touched by the way Moog used their space to pay tribute to the many heroes we lost in 2016. It was a unique and moving experience at this year’s NAMM show.

Farewell to 2016: Annus Horribilis

2015 may have been a difficult year, but 2016 was a true annus horribilis. It was a year of loss. The graphic only represents a subset that we elegized in 2016 here on CatSynth. Some were personal, some were heroes, some symbolic. There were many deaths. A dark illiberal populist pall has been cast over the country and the world. But most of all, I am still grieving for the loss of our beloved Luna.

How does one keep going after a year like this? The answer I give to friends who have asked that question in the past is that we have no choice. Surviving is what we do, until that day when we don’t.

To be fair, there were many good things this year. Much good music and art that we have written about; career and personal life are much better now than they were a year ago as well. And we look forward to many adventures with our new cat Sam Sam in the coming years.

It’s hard to know what will come to in 2017. It’s a prime number, which brings us a modicum of joy. A see quite a bit of anxiety ahead, but also things to look forward to, including in January. We shall see…

Welcome Samantha!

Samantha

We at CatSynth are excited to introduce the newest member of our family. Samantha, aka “Sam Sam”, came to live with us one week ago today.

Samantha comes to us via our friends Michael de la Cuesta (of Vacuum Tree Head and Karen de la Cuesta. She has had a challenging few years, with multiple moves – she is well traveled throughout California – and the death of her long-time human followed by the move by her subsequent human into assisted living. I hope she can have a happy and stable life her at CatSynth HQ. She’s still a bit nervous from all the changes, but she is starting to come out more; and has shown herself to be a very sweet and affectionate cat.

She has been thoroughly exploring CatSynth HQ and finding her own places. Here we see her posing among the artworks on the staircase.

It will take a little time for to fully adjust to life her, but we think she is going to be happy. So please join us welcoming Sam Sam!

Thoughts on the Oakland Ghost Ship fire

Long time readers may know that fire is among my biggest fears. I fear fire in every rickety wooden space where I go to play or hear music. Most are fairly safe, with alarms, sprinklers and clear corridors. And even in those few cases where there weren’t, my attention shifted to the music, fellowship and always had a wonderful time. That’s why we go. It’s what we do, it’s what we love. We, artists, have no choice but to create and participate. It could have been any of us.

Oakland warehouse fire
[By Janna487 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

By last count, the fire at the Ghost Ship in Oakland on December 2 claimed 36 lives. We at CatSynth send our thoughts and condolences to their families and close friends. I was worried for many dear friends who might have been there. They fortunately have all checked in safe in the week since, but they are grieving deeply in the aftermath for their friends who were lost. I feel for them, and try my best to remember those who perished with whom I crossed paths like Cherushii (aka Chelsea Dolan), Cash Askew, and others. But this is not my story. It is the story of my friends who knew them best. The personal remembrances they have posted are not mine to share. I did find this article helpful in understanding the victims better. Their stories are another reminder that it could have been any of us.

As we grieve, we in the arts community brace for a round of crackdowns on spaces, from both authorities and landlords. Ghost Ship was an outlier – most spaces while operating in the margins do more often than not operate with a concern for safety and cleanliness and civility. These are the spaces that are now under attack – it’s starting to happen beyond Oakland, with reports from New York, Denver, and here in SF. My own neighborhood in San Francisco was a warren of old factory buildings and warehouses that contained a thriving underground scene in the 1980s at a time when I just a kid in New York buying a first synth. I saw the waning days of that scene, with some of the last large artist-studio buildings being displaced in the past couple of years to make way for offices and condos. Fire is not necessary for authorities to displace artists, but it can certainly make it easier. But even the most safety-minded among us can’t compete easily in places when both the powerful and the populists do not value artists. New York has done better. The grim artists’ spaces of the lower east side may have long given way to boutiques, restaurants, and other upscale spaces but artists are still colonizing spaces and they have “paths to legality.” If authorities here want to help safety in a way that doesn’t show contempt for artists, a similar system of support for bringing things up to code and then operating would be useful as well.

Although I maybe starting to “age out” of some of the underground spaces of the Bay Area – even if my spirit wants to be there, my body and mind are not as enthusiastic – I still cherish many of my past experiences both as a performer and an attendee. My first time out and about in the world as Amanda was at a large warehouse space in West Oakland in 2011, and shortly afterwards I performed at a very nice space in an old factory in East Oakland as her. Some of my early shows in the mid 2000s at underground spaces in San Francisco were very informative for my solo practice today – a few of them even written up here on CatSynth, but I hesitate to link directly to them as authorities may use them in their crackdowns.

This is already a perilous time for those of us in marginalized communities, such as people of color and LGBTQ individuals. Coming together to create and enjoy, even in the edges of society, is one way we cope and thrive; and now we have to fear that may become more challenging as well. So some will forced further out to the edges. And another tragedy will happen.

It could have been any of us.