Faust in San Francisco

One week of musical adventures in San Francisco has taken us a bit longer than one week to share on these pages. But today we look at the final show from that week, featuring Faust at The Chapel.

Faust at The Chapel

So how exactly does one describe a band like Faust? As it says in the show description from The Chapel, ” Neither the habitus nor the music of this Hamburg group is easy to grasp.” The usual label of “krautrock” isn’t particularly descriptive, though it does orient them within the world of hard rock and experimental music coming out of Germany in the early 1970s. Many of the experimental elements around European and North American rock in that era can be found in their early albums like Faust IV. These elements were in abundance during the performance, with simple but meandering patterns mixed with a multitude of avant-garde elements. And it was all anchored by steady hands of original members Werner “Zappi” Diermaier and Jean-Hervé Péron.

There is a basic underlying hard-rock jam underpinning the music, which is then mixed with words, a variety of electronic sounds, and elements that were unique to the San Francisco show, including antiphonal vocals from the Cardew Choir and Lutra Lutra. (We have written about the Cardew Choir numerous times before on this site). The highlight of the collaborations was a final procession to the center of the crowd with large brass instruments dancing above the heads of the audience.

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This was a contrast to the beginning of the set that featured soft vocals and percussion against a film playing in the background.

Faust

Another unusual feature of the set was the use of a graphical score, projected so that it could be seen by the audience as well as the musicians. Diermaier even turned his drum set around to face the projected score.

Faust Graphical Score

This photo also illustrates one other unique element to Faust’s performance: a “knitting lady” sat at the front of the stage calmly and silently knitting throughout the set.

I also spied friend and fellow Bay Area synthesizer player Benjamin Ethan Tinker sitting in with the band, which was a fun surprise.

The show was sold out to a very appreciative audience and they were well received by longtime fans and newcomers alike. It was definitely a unique and unusual experience, but still one that felt very musical. I would not describe it at all as an evening of “noise” (not that there is anything wrong with that). They lived up to their billing as legendary purveyors of experimental avant-garde rock.


Faust was preceded by two opening acts: a solo performance by Bill Orcutt on guitar. It was a softer, but quirky take on blues guitar. Orcutt was followed by Heron Oblivion. While coming out of the milieu of “cosmic guitar music”, they did have a darker, and sometimes frantic sound. They moved back and forth between more frenetic drum and guitar, and that soft plaintive sound in alternative pop. Overall, both acts fit with the theme of the evening, adding a bit of weirdness grounded in various conventions.

Magma at the Great American Music Hall, San Francisco.

Last year we had the opportunity to see the acclaimed French band Magma on their first tour of the western US in well over a decade. But we didn’t have to wait that long for their second visit to San Francisco when they came to play the Great American Music Hall in mid March, less than a year later.

Magma

For those not familiar with Magma, the band is known for their unique combination of progressive rock, jazz fusion, and avant grade influences; and for having their own invented language for their songs: Kobaïan. Many of their classic songs tell the story of humans and aliens on a planet Kobaia and of the effort to save humankind from imminent self-destruction.

Bathed in changing monochromatic lights, the band moved through complex rhythms, odd meters, harmonies that almost but never quite resolve, and intricate vocal narratives, all with a ferocious energy that rarely let up during the entire show. Their intensity makes the quiet moments even stronger, and sometimes tense as it builds back up to the next climactic section. And the sections featuring vocal harmonies and the electronic piano can be quite luscious. And as always, drummer, founder and main composer Christian Vander held the center both geographically and musically.

Christian Vander, Magma

In addition to Vander, there were long time band members including Stella Vander, Isabelle Feuillebois and Hervé Aknin on voice. The were two new band members on guitar and electric piano, respectively, and one could tell they were having a great time. The audience, which filled the main floor as well as the balcony section of the venue, was heavy with devoted followers of the band, who clearly knew some of the lyrics in Kobaïan and the characteristic complex rhythms. But there were captivated newcomers as well (I myself have only been following the band for a couple of years). Compared to last year’s show at Slims, this performance was heavier with classic Magma songs, and perhaps more a nostalgic vibe. There were newer songs as well, including parts of a newer epic narrative separate from the original Kabaia saga. Overall it was a great evening for musicians and fans alike. We leave with Vander’s own comments on the tour:

“Magma is happy to return to the United States to play for Americans,” says Vander. “We know you are passionate, respectful and curious about music. We find you to be generous and open. It will be a joy for us to see you this year.”

I hope we met his expectations.


Magma was preceded by Helen Money, a one-woman rock performance featuring cello, voice and electronics. Her music is described as “doom metal”, a genre not usually associated with the cello, but it is a phrase that Helen Money (aka Alison Chesley) lives up to in her performance. The overall tone was dark and aggressive, but with some interesting moments combining her adept technique on the instrument with complex electronics. She did make use of looping to support the rhythm and harmony in several songs. While she shares Magma’s intensity and energy on stage, the two acts were quite contrasting, and thus this was a well selected opening act.


This was the second of three great shows we saw in the span of one week in mid March. You can read my article of the first show, featuring Esperanza Spalding here. In the coming days we will close with a report from Faust’s San Francisco show.

Esperanza Spalding: Emily D+Evolution at Mezzanine, San Francisco

Bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding is currently on tour presenting her new album Emily’s D+Evolution, and we were there to see her when she performed at the Mezzanine in San Francisco.

Esperanza Spalding

With the rhythm section laying down a driving pattern, Spalding emerged into a cloud of fog, immediately launching into one of her complex syncopated never-quite-resolving melodies. Her colorful costume with glasses and crown seemed a bit baffling at first, but it made sense in the context of the album’s “protagonist” Emily D, a fanciful alter ego. The songs weave together a non-linear narrative, but each work well individually. Many had her characteristic fast runs of notes running in counterpoint to the rhythm section; but perhaps the ones that spoke to me most strongly were the ballads like Unconditional Love and Judas. In some ways, the ballads are just slowed down and more mellifluous interpretations of her fast style.

Theatrical elements played an important part of the performance, and not only stage presence, lighting and sets. The supporting singers had roles as soloists and characters in various songs. And one in particular featured a unique element for a live jazz+rock show: puppets. A small puppet stage was rolled out for one song, with one puppet a miniature Esperanza Spalding / Emily D and the other a male character who appeared to be a figure of authority.

Books were a recurring theme, in the piece with the puppet show and as live props throughout. A bookshelf sat behind the singers, and at one point early in the set Spalding hoists one into the air.

Esperanza Spalding and book

The energy level never let up, even for the slowest, quietest songs in the performance. It thus flew by quickly. It was a sensory whirlwind, but as a jazz geek I found myself most focused on her bass playing and the rhythms and harmonies from the group as a whole.

Both levels of Mezzanine (yes, the club does match its name) were packed, which added to the dizzying effect of the performance’s theater. And one could tell most of the audience must have been as pleased to be there as we were.

This was the first of three big shows we saw over the course of a single week, and was a great start. We hope to bring reviews from the other two shortly.

LACMA: Levitated Mass, Frank Gehry, Diana Thater 

At the end of my trip to NAMM, I always try to leave time for a museum visit in Los Angeles, more often than not to LACMA. This is a somewhat belated review of this year’s visit.

Since seeing the film on the Levitated Mass, it was an absolute priority to experience the giant sculpture by Michael Heizner in person. For those unfamiliar, it is a 340-ton boulder mounted above a concrete trench. The space underneath is open and thus viewers can walk under the boulder.

Levitated Mass

It is an impressive feat of engineering (as documented in minute detail in the film), and a visually interesting conceptual piece. It is definitely one has to experience in person to understand.

Under Levitated Mass

One of the main special exhibitions at LACMA in January was a retrospective on the work of Frank Gehry. While none of his actual buildings were on display (though it would have been appropriate in the context of Levitated Mass), there were many drawings and models, group into conceptual and chronological phases of his career.

Frank Gehry installation

Many of his most famous pieces, such as Disney Hall and Guggenheim Bilbao, were on display. But also large lesser-known buildings an smaller designs, some of which were never built. In the photo above, we see a building that combines the undulating organic structures for which Gehry is famous with a more traditionally modernist linear outer structure. The model in front is quite different, and more geometric and colorful that one sees in his iconic works.

It is also fun to see the small structures and private homes. I am envious of those who could have a Gehry-designed home like this one.

Frank Gehry house design

By sheer coincidence, Frank Gehry was present that afternoon to give a talk and Q&A session. I managed to get into the overflow audience to catch part of it.

Frank Gehry

The wide-ranging discussion including a bit of his personal history, his interest in biology and particularly in fish, and his disdain for computer modeling – he agreed that it was an amazing tool, but not for visually understanding a piece of architecture. On the topic of fish, they reviewed a few purely sculptural pieces of his that were meant to represent the swimming motion of a single fish or an entire school. Though he perhaps his voice sounded a bit gruff – something which bothers me not at all – he was very much engaged with the questioners and supportive.

In the modern pavilion, it did stop to see a few familiar large installations. I enjoy walking inside of this large-scale Richard Serra sculpture and find it quite meditative. It was also interesting to contemplate its curving structure in terms of what I had just seen and heard from Frank Gehry.

Richard Serra

From the curving structure I then moved on to straight lines. This familiar light installation reflects onto the window facing Wilshire Blvd and makes for great self-portraits.

AC and light installation, LACMA

I also had a bit of fun with self portraiture in the retrospective exhibition for Diana Thater, which featured several room-sized pieces with multiple projections of moving images.

AC in Diana Thater installation

Though that was fun, the piece itself was dead serious, looking at the aftermath of war through ruined buildings.

Diana Thater

There were some pieces in the exhibition that were less dark, as in Butterflies that features both lights and video bathed in red ambient lighting.

Diana Thater, Butterfly
[Diana Thater, Untitled Videowall (Butterflies), 2008. Six video monitors, player, one fluorescent light fixture, and Lee filters . Installation Photograph, Diana Thater: The Sympathetic Imagination, Los Angeles County Museum of Art. © Diana Thater]

One doesn’t always know what to expect on a on-afternoon trip whose date is not timed to a particular exhibit, but I am never disappointed with what I encounter at LACMA, and that was true again this year.

Martha and Monica: Morton Feldman’s On Patterns in a Chromatic Field

12719352_10153950108344314_418060891337331788_oWe at CatSynth have had quite a few unique musical experiences this season. Today we look back at another of them. In early February, the duo Martha and Monica (Hadley McCarrol on piano and Monica Scott on cello) performed Morton Feldman’s Patterns in a Chromatic Field in its entirety.

“In it’s entirety” is no small thing, as the piece consists of a single continuous 90-minute movement. It’s a feat of endurance for both the listeners and performers. But McCarrol and Scott made it seem straightforward and effortless. The performance began with very sparse but unsettled harmonies, with the texture increasing but then returning to sparseness again. It was only the final third that the texture and intensity grew towards a bolder and thicker sound. All the while, the music was constantly changing, repeating a few times, leaving a bit of space, and then going on to something else. This is consistent with Feldman’s interest in sound as something ephemeral and lost, and in creating a sonic space where memory is subverted or “disoriented.” The spaces in between the sounds are important as well, given moments of reflection and mental echoes.

All of this might make the piece seem daunting to listen to, especially at the length of a typical feature film. But the combination of space and disorientation were helpful, making it more like thoughts passing in a meditative space. The anxiety in a passage builds, but then dissipates – one acknowledges it and moves on. The passage of time itself became background noise and the sounds became more spatial than temporal. This effect might be more pronounced for someone like myself who sees shapes when listening to music, but I suspect other deep listeners had analogous experiences.

Unlike Feldman’s earlier pieces, this one was fully notated using common practice notation. This would both facilitate and make more challenging the process and playing and learning such a piece, where every note makes a difference. It was overall an impressive feat of musical performance, and glad I got to spend an afternoon hearing and seeing it.

Vacuum Tree Head Live at Berkeley Arts, January 10, 2016

Vacuum Tree Head
[Photo by Christina Stanley]

On January 10, 2016, Vacuum Tree Head performed at Berkeley Arts as part of the “Hardly Strictly Personal” benefit festival curated by Mika Pontecorvo. We played a short instrumental set that featured refinements of existing songs from our previous performance as well as new compositions. You can see and hear the highlights in this video.

As you can see from these highlights, it was short and energetic, and we certainly had a lot of fun playing.

Amanda Chaudhary and Jason Berry, Vacuum Tree Head.
[Photo by Christina Stanley]

The band was led as always by Jason Berry, who also played soprano saxophone and electronics. The rest of the best included Amanda Chaudhary on Nord Stage and Moog Sub Phatty keyboards, Michael de la Cuesta on guitar and synthesizers, Rich Lesnick on saxophone and bass clarinet, Thomas Scandura on drums, and Stephen Wright on bass. Mixing, editing, and interstitial music was done at CatSynth HQ; and the animations were by J.B.

St. Louis Symphony: Olivier Messiaen “Des Canyons aux étoiles…”

At the end of January, I had the opportunity to experience a unique performance at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall by the St. Louis Symphony of Olivier Messiaen’s Des Canyons aux étoiles… (From the Canyons to the Stars). The Symphony was led by David Robertson, a noted interpreter of Messiaen’s music, and the performance featured synchronized visuals by artist Deborah O’Grady.

 Bryce Canyon National Park photographed by Deborah O'Grady. O'Grady and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson, present a multimedia performance of Des canyons aux étoiles Sunday, January 31, 2016 in Zellerbach Hall.
[ Bryce Canyon National Park photographed by Deborah O’Grady. Courtesy of Cal Performances]

Des Canyons aux étoiles… was the product of a commission by Alice Tully (of Alice Tully Hall) in the early 1970s for the US Bicentennial. Messiaen was inspired by the images of the canyons of southern Utah, including Bryce and Zion, and spent several weeks there along with his wife, the pianist Yvonne Loriod, in 1972. He was quite taken with the visual landscape as well as the soundscape, particularly the sounds of the birds. He was able to write down and interpret the bird songs as pitches of the Western tonal system, and these melodies appear throughout the piece as a unifying element. The visual landscape is less literally interpreted, though one can hear the deep tones of resonant wind through narrow openings in canyon, and the more abstract sense of awe at the open landscapes. There is also a sense of anxiety, particularly in the first few movements, that comes from Messiaen’s distinctive harmonies.

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson, perform Friday, January 29 and Sunday, January 31, 2016 in Zellerbach Hall.  (credit: Dilip Vishwanat)
[Photo by Dilip Vishwanat, courtesy of Cal Performances]

In addition to the full symphony, this piece features solos for piano and horn. In the original premier in 1974, the pianist was in fact Yvonne Loriod, who wore a dress featuring the color palette of Bryce Canyon. (I would love to see a photo of this!) For this performance in Berkeley, the solo pianist was Peter Henderson and the horn soloist was Roger Kaza. The piece also features a larger than usual percussion section, including features on xylorimba and glockenspiel, and a really cool wind machine that was unfortunately hard to see from our seats. But the real visuals were on screen in Debrah O’Grady’s photographs. While not on a click track or any forced tempo, they were clearly timed musically to elements on the piece, with a mixture of gradual fades and sharper transitions. The photos and stage were bathed in a continuously changing set of monochromatic lights, which added to the visuals of the performance.

Moonrise at Zion National Park photographed by Deborah O'Grady. O'Grady and the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, conducted by David Robertson, present a multimedia performance of Des canyons aux étoiles Sunday, January 31, 2016 in Zellerbach Hall.
[Moonrise at Zion National Park photographed by Deborah O’Grady.]

To make the visuals for this piece, O’Grady retraced Messiaen’s 1972 trip, visiting Bryce, Zion and Cedar Breaks National Monument in April of 2014 and 2015. She noted that the parks have become much more crowded in April than they were back in 1972, which made her experience quite different. As such, the interactions of humans with the environment, both positive and negative, became part of her interpretation of the work. Nonetheless, the photos remained squarely focused on the natural landscape.

The American desert southwest is perhaps my favorite natural landscape, and one I enjoy visiting whenever I get a chance to (regular readers of this site have encountered my photographs). So the combining of that landscape with Messiaen’s influential musical style was a particularly special experience. I remained quite enrapt throughout the entire 90 minute performance, which did not have an intermission. And afterwards, I find myself both inspired to do more music and to get back out to the desert.

NAMM 2016: Booth 5000, Part 2 (more modular synths)

We opened this year’s NAMM coverage with a visit to the embarrassment of riches among modular synths at Booth 5000, so it is feeding that we return there for our final article. You can read the first installment (with a separate article devoted to the new offerings from Rossum Electro-Music).

We at CatSynth are fans of Make Noise Music and their modules. This year they introduced the TEMPI.

Make Noise TEMPI

The TEMPI is a “six channel, polyphonic time-shifting clock module” that allows to create and store clock-signal arrangements using both algorithmic and manual techniques. The channels can be linked to do classic clock-divider and multiplier patterns, as well as manual entry. The divider/multiplier are continuous so can go beyond integer ratios. And it has storage for 64 6-clock configurations. I often complain about my current lack of clock sources (especially for driving the Make Noise Rene), so this would be a potential great addition.

Make Noise also released standalone synth, the 0-Coast.

Make Noise 0-Coast

Like the offerings from many manufacturers this year, the 0-coast is intended to be an integrated full synthesizer voice, complete with CV and MIDI control. As one would expect, it’s a bit more esoteric than the equivalents from Roland and Moog. The parameters remind me a bit more of a Serge or Buchla synth.

Pittsburgh Modular also released a new standalone modular system, Lifeforms.

Pittsburgh Modular Lifeforms

The Lifeforms is a single-voice unit with oscillator and Pittsburgh Modular filter plus integrated controls. It can be paired KB-1 pressure-sensitive controller to make a fully autonomous instrument. You can here a bit of my attempt to play it in this video.

@pghmodular Lifeforms in action! #namm

A video posted by CatSynth / Amanda C (@catsynth) on

The Lifeforms does seem like a rebrand. While the sound character reminds of me of existing Pittsburgh Modular synths and it retains the iconic knobs, the stenciling on the faceplates is different – the old “typewriter” look of previous modules has been replaced with a more contemporary style. The system would make a good entry to more advanced modular synthesis.

Endorphines was presenting their own colorful line of modules.

Endorphines

The heart of their system is the Furthrrrr Generator, a complex VCO reminiscent of Buchla synthesizers with its simple functions based on harmonic relationships. Similarly, the Fourierrrr module provides waveshaping using harmonic relationships. These are complemented by a serious of function and control modules, including the Shuttle Control that converts between USB, MIDI and CV. You can hear a bit of fun with their modules in this video featuring our little mascot.

WMD presented the new Aperture Filter, a full-module version of their existing Aperture Filter card for Black Market Modular’s ColourCV system.

It is described as “a variable width bandpass Butterworth filter (designed by Tyler Thompson).” You can hear a bit of this filter, along with WMD’s new Performance Mixer.

We conclude with the Haken Continuum, which was on display amonst the modular madness. Not a new instrument by any means, but one that is always fun to return and play. The control surface feels liquidy and comfortable, but familiar enough for an experienced pianist.

Amanda C on the Haken Continuum keyboard

The demo included an iPad synth with a string patch that took advantage of the Continuum’s multi-dimensional degrees of freedom. But sitting among the modular synths, one can contemplate other possibilities. To this end, Haken has introduced the CVC that allows direct analog CV control from the fingerboard without the need for a MIDI converter.

There really was a lot at the show that I couldn’t get to, or did not fit into an article. It can always be a bit overwhelming, but very rewarding. In the end, NAMM visits are always a mixture of wanting the new instruments I see, and reaffirming things I wanted from previous years. I will be working on my list…

NAMM 2016: Strymon Generalissimo

Strymon has long been known for their effects pedals, which are highly regarded. Now they have entered into the worked of Eurorack synth modules with the Generalissimo.

Strymon Generalissimo

The Generalissmo (cute name, by the way) is a four-head tape echo simulator with a range of additional features. The four delay tops can be switched on and off and independently controlled. There are also independent controls for each tap/head’s playback time. The taps each send an individual clock out, allowing one to drive a sequencer that in turn feeds into the delay unit for interesting rhythmic effects. A clock input allows this all to be controlled externally.

There are additional global controls that affect the quality of the sound, including familiar speed and feedback as well as tape age, crinkle and wow and lutter; and even a separate spring reverb control. Quite a lot in one unit. I wasn’t able to hear the tape age, crinkle and wow&flutter knobs work in the demo, though the main controls worked well and the unit sounded great. It was very smooth and the clock sync is quite a nice touch. There also a “sound-on-sound” mode that turns it into a tape loop simulator, though I wasn’t able to try that out.

An interesting question for me is what this module provides that the combination of a Make Noise Echophon and Phonogene do not (I currently own both of those). Clearly it packs more into one unit, and on the echo side has the four taps. But the clock(s) make be what set it apart musically, as well as the differences in sound characteristics. I hope to see and hear more if this module when it is released later this year.

NAMM 2016: Tracktion Biotek and Copper Reference

During a break at NAMM, a friend showed me the tag line for Biotek that described it as an “organic synthesizer.” That sounded quite intriguing, though also a bit baffling. Did it contain biological elements or designs based on organic systems? It turned out to be a new software synthesizer from Tracktion. It uses high-quality field-recordings from nature as sample sources and incorporates them into a full-featured synth architecture. The centerpiece of the synth and its user interface is a function that morphs between the natural sound and different degrees of processing from the rest of the synthesizer.

Tracktion BioTek

It is quite striking to look at. Playing with just the central control is fun. The sounds are unique, especially in the middle between fully synthesized and fully nature-sample. I had fun playing a patch based on avian sounds from the connected keyboard and found myself thinking of musical ways to combine it with analog sounds. Whether it would be a novel feature for a handful of tracks or an regular instrument is hard to say – I leave that to other musicians to explore and decide.

All during the demo of Biotek, I was listening to the sound on Tracktions new (and first) hardware interface, the Copper Reference.

Tracktion Copper Reference

As one can see in the photo above, it is gorgeous. The case is a shiny copper finish with soft edges, topped with two vacuum tubes. The vacuum tubes are part of a selectable overdrive circuit for the inputs. It also contains high-end high-sample-rate D/A and A/D converters. It sounded great in the Biotek demos, though a NAMM booth is not an environment where I can discern its character compared to others. It is definitely a boutique interface that will carry a high price tag ($5000 USD), especially for just stereo. But it is gorgeous!