SFJAZZ: Donny McCaslin Group / Antonio Sanchez Migration

In mid June, we at CatSynth were treated to a greatl concert at SFJAZZ that featured Donny McCaslin’s “Blackstar” Band and Antonio Sánchez’s group Migration. McCaslin and his quartet are perhaps best known for their collaboration with David Bowie on his final album Blackstar (which we have discussed previously), but they are a remarkable group in their own right.

Donny McCaslin
[Donny McCaslin]

Indeed, our interest in this show was not just the Bowie connection, but reviews from friends who had previously seen the Santa Cruz-born-and-raised McCaslin live and were blown away by the performance. And as soon as the band started in on their first tune, “Shake Loose” from their latest album Beyond Now, we understood why. It was thunderous, aggressive, but complex and intricate at the same time. There was an intensity, and even a bit of a punk sensibility to the way they powered through the entire set, which included additional selections from the album, a new composition by McCaslin, and “Lazarus” from Blackstar. The encore was also a Bowie song, but a surprising one: “Look Back in Anger.” There really wasn’t a bad moment in the entire set, and it went by quickly with the group’s frenetic pace and energy.

While McCaslin was front and center both visually and musically – he is rather tall as well as a very expressive performer – I was also very impressed with Jason Lindner on keyboards. He freely mixed synthesizers, classic electric piano, and acoustic grand in a performance that was solid harmonically and rhythmically, but again complex and multi-linear. Rounding out the quartet were Mark Guiliana on drums and jazz multi-instrumentalist Nate Wood on bass.

The first half of the show featured Antonio Sanchez Migration performing Sanchez’s long-form composition The Meridian Suite. While the piece has classical influences in its structure, it was unmistakably jazz, and Sanchez himself told the audience that unlike classical-music concerts, the audience was encouraged to applaud between movements and anywhere else the felt warranted such a reaction. The unusually long piece moved through several styles and textures, from very sparse modern jazz to more funky riffs, all anchored by Sanchez’s versatile and precise drumming. Some of the movements included lyrics sung by Thana Alexa. The band also featured Chaise Baird on tenor saxophone, John Escreet on keyboards, and Matt Brewer on bass.


Overall, it was a concert we were happy to have the chance to see; and I will certainly be on the lookout for McCaslin’s next appearance in the Bay Area. In the meantime, we will be enjoying his newest album.

Church of the Superserge at Robotspeak: Djll, Day, Normalien

The monthy Church of the Superserge event at Robotspeak in San Francisco has been going on five years. We at CatSynth were on hand to mark this milestone during the May show.

Musically, the highlight was a solo set by Tom Djll on modular synth and mini trumpet. It was quite musical, blending rhythms and phrases with the timbral elements, even a “melody” of sorts from the processed trumpet.

The afternoon opened with a set by Normalien, also on modular synthesizer. Some delightfully weird sounds with rhythmic elements.

And Carson Day closed things out with a forceful set that included Novation and Dave Smith instruments.

It’s always a fun afternoon at Robotspeak. Not only do I enjoy the music and technology in the performances, but also just browsing the display cases on the wall, seeing what instruments I should covet next. This little DIY synth stood out this time, especially juxtaposed between the giant vacuum tube and the WMD pedal.

We look forward to next time, and perhaps playing again soon.

Preparing for Tonight’s Show at The Lab

I have been busily preparing for tonight’s solo set at The Lab here in San Francisco. As usually happens, I initially plan to simplify the setup, but then as I work on the set musically, more instruments and equipment end up part of the rig. And this one may be one of the largest to date.

In addition to the Nord Stage (aka “The Big Red Keyboard”), there is the newly reconfigured modular synth, the Prophet 12, the Moog Mother 32, Casio SK-1, and iPad. The modular path features multiple voices, including some processing external audio from the Nord and the SK-1, respectively.

Why so big? Well, it comes out the current musical direction, which mixes jazz and funk with experimental electronics. That means a full-size keyboard is always present. And the electronics has to provide rhythmic and harmonic support in addition to timbral support. This always adds significant complexity, but provides for a richer musical experience.


Here are the details on the show, including the other acts. I am excited to have a group improv with my friends Joshua Marshall, Jaroba, and Christina Stanley. And the evening will begin with an orchestra of invented instruments from Pet The Tiger (David Samas, Tom Nunn et al.) with dance by Christina Braun. If you are in the Bay Area tonight, please consider joining us.

Thursday, June 22, 8PM
The Lab
2948 16th St SF

A special evening of funky and noisy sounds, invented instruments, whimsy, and more 😺 🎶

8:00PM Pet The Tiger Inventors Collective performs Arc Weld
8:40PM Amanda Chaudhary solo. Funky and experimental electronics
9:20PM Amanda Chaudhary with collaborators Joshua Marshall, Jaroba, and Christina Stanley

door: $5-10

Additional info on BayImproviser.

Wayne Shorter Quartet at SFJAZZ

This spring the Wayne Shorter Quartet returned to the SFJAZZ center, and we at CatSynth returned to see them.


[Wayne Shorter Quartet at SFJAZZ. Photo by Bill Evans. Via SFJAZZ on Instagram]

In addition to Mr Shorter, the quartet included Danilo Perez on piano and John Patitucci on bass. Terri Lyne Carrington sat in on drums in place of Brian Blade. Carrington is a longtime collaborator with Shorter, but she brought a very different energy to the quartet than Blade did when we saw them in 2015. The result was a more lush and melodic rhythm line that was in sharp contrast to Blade’s more minimalist rhythms. It was, however, Perez who shown brightest on this particular night with a virtuosic and athletic piano performance throughout. Perez’s long fast runs contrasted with Shorter’s very spare and minimal style as they danced around both classic and new tunes, never really presenting the heads in their entirety but hinting at them enough for many of us in the audience to pick up on what was happening. More than one tune was completely framed by Perez’s piano solos. Nonetheless, it was still Wayne Shorter holding court in the middle of the stage, each spare note from his instruments placed carefully.

Not surprisingly, it was a full house at the Miner Auditorium that evening; and the audience got what they came for in seeing a living legend of jazz but also experiencing new music at the same time. As in 2015, the quartet played new compositions in addition to older well-known tunes. It’s great to see someone of Wayne Shorter’s stature and long career continuing to break new musical ground in live performances.

CDP at the Make-Out Room, San Francisco

Today we look back at the May 1 performance by Census Designated Place (CDP) at the Make-Out Room in San Francisco, as part of the monthly Monday Make-Out series.

We were all very excited to play this show. And then things started going awry. First, our synth player Tom Djll was ill an unable to make the gig. And when we were about to go on, I found myself with cable faults and other technical issues. I had actually anticipated many things and had several redundancies, but also a few blind spots, particularly around 1/4” cables. That will not happen again. And after the anxiety of those mishaps in front of a packed room, we played on, and it turned out to be a great show. We played very well, indeed the heads of the various tunes came out as well as I have heard them, and the energy throughout was great. We even had folks dancing in the audience.

You can see a bit of our set in this clip, featuring our newest tune Marlon Brando.

CDP Marlon Brando May 1 from CatSynth on Vimeo.

We were preceded by two other bands. First was a project from our friend Lucio Menegon from New York, together with Janie Cowan on upright bass and John Hanes on drums.

Lucio Menagon Trio

Lucio’s guitar performance had a very narrative, almost storytelling quality. This was set against a mixture of idiomatic rhythms and percussive stops from Cowan and Hanes.

They were followed by a quartet featuring Anton Hatwich from Chicago together with Ben Goldberg on clarinet, Josh Smith on saxophone and Hamir Atwal on drums.

Anton Hatwich Quartet

During this time, the crowd at the Make-Out room continued to grow, and by the time we were setting up it was as crowded as I have seen there since I played there with Surplus 1980 some four years earlier. Which made the technical difficulties all the more stressful. But as stated earlier, the show ultimately went well as a trio with myself, Mark Pino on drums and Joshua Marshall on saxophones. The music was very well received by the audience and the other musicians.

Thanks to Karl Evangelista for organizing the series, Rent Romus for helping with logistics on that night, and all the folks at the Make-Out Room. Overall, it was a good show, and some important lessons learned on technical blind spots. We will get back to composing, rehearsing and preparing for next ones.

KSW Presents Means of Exchange: Program Launch

We at CatSynth have a special place in our hearts for art about our home neighborhood in San Francisco, South of Market (SOMA). Means of Exchange is a new project presented by Kearny Street Workshop that teams up artists Weston Teruya and Kimberley Arteche with local businesses in the neighborhood to create storefront artworks that highlight the history and culture of the neighborhood.

SOMA has a rich and diverse history. Long a sprawling district of warehouses and working-class houses with large streets and small alleys, it became a mecca for artists, bars, and clubs. It was a thriving center of gay culture in the city and still includes the “Leather District.” It is a center for the Filipino diaspora in San Francisco, and includes the SoMa Pilipinas historic district. In the 1980s and 1990s some of its most run-down areas were turned into the Moscone Convention Center and a hub for several museums and cultural centers. And more recently, the neighborhood has become home to many large technology companies, as well as a proliferation of luxury high-rises and not-so-luxury-but-still-expensive apartment complexes. With so many different forces at work, the neighborhood means different things to different people, and tensions and conflicts inevitably have arisen between many of the longtime residents and institutions and newcomers.

The publicly viewable artworks will celebrate many of these aspects of the neighborhood. But the history, contradictions, and conflict were also highlighted by the readers and performances and the launch event this past Friday. The evening opened with a reading by Mary Claire Amable, a Filipino-American writer who was raised in SOMA and the adjacent Tenderloin neighborhood.

Mary Claire Amable

Amable reflected on her upbringing, including the struggles and challenges faced by her immigrant parents, the small apartments where she lived that are now threatened by redevelopment, and the increasing unaffordability of the neighborhood for many longtime residences, particularly immigrants and people of color. Her story provides a different perspective on places and streets I have come to know well.

Next was a reading by Tony Robles, a longtime poet and activist in San Francisco who was a short-list nominee for poet laureate of SF 2017.

Tony Robles

Like Amable, Robles was born and raised in San Francisco, and his writing reflects on the changes in his hometown and the effect it has on his communities, on artists, and on those facing displacement. He spoke both nostalgically and somewhat cynically of San Francisco’s mythic past and of the struggles of people to survive here in the present; but he also shared writings from his visits to the Philippines, including a humorous piece about “The Province.” You can get a feel for his writing Maryam Farnaz Rostami, a San Francisco-based performance artist who has staged several solo and ensemble shows, including her latest Late Stage San Francisco.

Maryam Farnaz Rostam

Rostami also works as a designer in the architectural world, and her performance cleverly weaves that experience into laments about gentrification and displacement in the city. She decries the traditional “enforced cuteness” of San Francisco architecture, but also questions contemporary minimalism, as it applies both to design and life. She took us on a tour of The Battery, an exclusive club that popped up a few years ago and most of us loved to hate from the moment we heard about it. The descriptions of glass and metal contrast with the ugliness of the institution’s sensibilities and target clientele. But Rostami also offered notes of optimism and hope, such as ways we could organize the city more equitably and sustainability (e.g., more high-rises, but also a lot more natural space). And she did this with a heightened exaggerated style from her drag performances.

We had a large and appreciative audience for the event, full of familiar faces from the KSW community as well as newcomers. I look forward to seeing the full art project as it unfolds on the streets of my neighborhood.

Don Buchla Memorial Concerts in San Francisco

This past weekend, April 22 and 23, a series of concerts and panels took place at the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts in San Francisco. It was in the midst of a busy and event-packed weekend (including the March for Science which we have already written about), but as Don Buchla was someone that I not only admired but knew personally, it was important to be there.

Buchla lives on though his many innovative musical instruments, and a pop-up museum was set up in side room of the theater showcasing many of them.

Buchla 100 and 200 series

On the right of this photo is an example of Buchla’s iconic 200 series modular synthesizer, probably the instrument for which he is best known. On the left is the rarer 100 series, originally commissioned by electronic-music pioneers Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick of the San Francisco Tape Music Center. Neither the of these early modular series had a traditional piano-style keyboard, nor were they based traditional subtractive-synthesis architecture of oscillators, filters, and amplifiers in that order, but rather a mix of traditional synth modules with unique waveshapers, low-pass gates. The latter is probably the most recognizable as the “Bucha sound” but the variety of musical sound expression from this instruments continues to be very wide and the ethos of his work can be seen in the current renaissance of sometimes esoteric modular synthesizers. You can read more about his work and philosophy on this tribute website.

There were also some instruments I had not seen before, including the Buchla Touché and the 700 series / MIDAS.

Buchla Touche and MIDAS systems

These were more conventional in the sense of having a keyboard and a more fixed topology, but were still quite versatile in terms of their software. They certainly have a very vintage 1980s look, especially with the computer monitors and graphics.

The evening concert began with tape pieces by George Lewis and a premier of a new piece by Laurie Spiegel.

Laurie Spiegel

Spiegel’s piece had a dark but sparse quality, with discretely positioned sounds and timbres.

The live performances began with Laetitia Sonami performing on a custom gestural controller.

Her work is often focused on live movement and gesture and indeed has been an influence on my own performance practice with the theremin. But Sonami is adept at very subtle motion with seemly precise affects on the sound output.

The live performances continued with Bob Ostertag, who controlled live music and video from the center of the hall.

Ostertag’s sound is quite distinctive independent of the particular instruments in use, usually noisy and hard driving. And this performance was no exception – indeed, I was able to instantly recognize the sound as his when it started, even without being able to see him at first in the darkened space. The music however, did have dynamic range and timbral variation that gave it a narrative contour. The video was abstract, but again with a bit of an urgent quality that kept things moving forward.

Morton Subotnik’s music is in many way the opposite of Bob Ostertag’s. It is quiet and very subtle, focused on small points and details in time.

Morton Subotnik

It was spare, almost severe, but listening closely one can appreciate many of the timbral details. The changes are musical but on a different scale than one is accustomed to. The frequencies timbres are complex even while the amplitudes are low, and it is listening to these and the slight percussive elements that punctuate the music that one begins to hear how it fits together.

In between the live performances there was a tribute video for Don Buchla, featuring images as well as interviews with him. There were also cameos by a great many people I know in the electronic-music world. It was very touching, but also quite humorous, all in keeping with Don’s character.

The concert continued until late at night – in some ways, it was set up more likely a crowded nightclub or impromptu electronic-music party than a traditional concert. It was great to see it so well attended – the room was packed with people standing or sitting on the floor, but it did make focused listening a bit of a challenge at times. I was unfortunately not able to stay for the whole night, so missed a few live sets, including from friends Marielle V. Jakobsons, Tom Dimuzio, Matt Ingalls, and Richard Devine. I do hope to see them live again soon.

I also hope this is not the last event we have to celebrate the life and work of Don Buchla. I personally still feel like I have only scratched the surface of his instruments as a performer and listener.

March for Science SF, April 22, 2017

Yesterday we at CatSynth attended our local March for Science, part of a nationwide – and indeed, international – network of marches protesting the continued devaluing of science and reason in our public discourse and policy-making. From the March for Science Mission Statement

The March for Science champions robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity. We unite as a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence based policies in the public interest

People who value science have remained silent for far too long in the face of policies that ignore scientific evidence and endanger both human life and the future of our world. New policies threaten to further restrict scientists’ ability to research and communicate their findings. We face a possible future where people not only ignore scientific evidence, but seek to eliminate it entirely. Staying silent is a luxury that we can no longer afford. We must stand together and support science.

And indeed, a great many people gathered here in San Francisco to stand up for science, as can be seen in this picture, courtesy of the March for Science Facebook page.

The overhead view shows the march heading southwest on Market Street. At ground level, the march was characterized less by the density and size of the crowd, but its clever signs. To be sure, there were appropriate denunciations of Trump that would lead many to question the “nonpartisan” nature of the event, but more were just fun, smart, perhaps a bit snarky. All of which is awesome.

I must also say this was probably among the quietest of marches I have attended. Polite, perhaps even a bit introverted if a march can be described that way. There is no doubt the passion of many of the folks participating, but we do tend to be a quieter, more cerebral bunch. It lacked the exuberance of the annual Pride Parade, or even the loud vocal indignation of the Occupy protests in 2011 and 2012. For me personally, the most important message was “I can’t believe we actually are out here marching for this.” For a long time, science was well respected in public discourse (even if scientists themselves were sometimes teased). There has long been an anti-intellectual streak in American politics and discourse, but it has come to a new and dangerous level with the outright scorn and erasure of science by the angry populist movement that sees in Trump, a man proud of his own scientific illiteracy, a champion. This long predated any one person, but it’s long past time to stand up. Even nerds in lab coats have to get political in this climate.

If there was one thing that particularly bothered me about the crowd, it the relatively low representation of people of color. The lack of diversity in science, engineering and related fields is a topic of ongoing discussion. But it did make me feel a bit alienated politically and socially from the older, whiter, somewhat hippie-ish elements of crowd.

The march ended with a “science fair” in front of City Hall. It was pretty much a normal street fair, but the booths had a scientific theme to them. I was happy to see Mission Science Workshop, an organization dedicate to bringing both understanding and joy of science to one of our diverse local neighborhoods. I also saw the both of Association of Women in Science. I have to admit I quite like their hashtag/motto.

There was also a group of artists who do scientific illustrations. Among them was this pamphlet on circuit bending. I’m glad to see circuit bending making its way into the world of science education 😺

I did not stay long at the fair. It is not really my thing, especially on a cold and blustery day, and I had things to prepare for that evening. I am glad to have participated in the march, but the real questions will be what comes next.

SFCMP Performs Peter Evans and Igor Stravinsky

We continue to catch up on the many concerts we have enjoyed this year. Today we look at an intriguing performance by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players featuring Peter Evans’s Lover’s War and Igor Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat.

What made this concert unique was the way Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale) was interpolated between movements of Evan’s piece. One movement of Evans, followed by a movement of Stravinsky, back and forth, throughout the performance. The two pieces are quite different in time, style, and context. L’Histoire du Soldat is a well-known work set to a cautionary tale of ambition and hubris mixing in concert-music elements with folk styles, jazz, and klezmer. It’s a fun, sometimes bombastic piece, and even it’s darker points featuring the devil are somehow fun. Peter Evans’ contemporary piece also puts together disparate styles, but in a more abstract manner that mixes idiomatic “classical” elements with electro-acoustic improvisation, Asian classical, jazz, and more. The piece makes heavy use of improvisation, but is still quite structured around the various styles and the fragments from James Baldwin’s essay “The Creative Process.”


[Composer Peter Evans (right) with guest India Cooke (left) and ensemble-member Kyle Bruckmann (center)]

While the Stravinsky is dark and pessimistic even while it is fun, Evans’ work combined with Baldwin’s words is more optimistic. And about a century separates the two compositions. Nonetheless, they work surprising well interleaved this way. Both pieces have a very fragmented nature, and the contrasting moods help rather than hinder. In Evans’ program notes, he described his work as contrasting rather than responding to Stravinsky, and we think this is an apt description of how the concert unfolded. But it did feel like it melded in a way into something new; and the musicians, both SFCMP regulars and guest performs had a lot to do with that.


[Kyle Bruckmann with guest performers India Cooke and Nava Dunkelman]

Overall, it was a fine evening of music at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. And we enjoyed talking with performers and others at the reception afterwards. We at CatSynth look forward to continued experiments from SFCMP.

James Chance and the Contortions at the Knockout, San Francisco

James Chance and the Contortions made a rare appearance in San Francisco, and we at CatSynth were on hand at The Knockout to see it. 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. Perhaps more than most in that scene, he incorporated jazz and funk, not merely as decorative elements but foundational to the music as a whole. His music has been described as “combining the freeform playing of Ornette Coleman with the solid funk rhythm of James Brown, though filtered through a punk rock lens” [Wikipedia].

At around midnight, he took the stage with his trademark pompadour and saxophone blaring.

From the start it was a high-energy experience, especially up front near the stage where we were. The rhythm section was solid, whether playing a bouncy ska-like rhythm or the funk rhythm and details that so characterize and separate the band from others in its original scene. Every so often, Chance would break out into fancy footwork reminiscent of James Brown in between vocals that were simultaneous playful and aggressive. And the rhythm remained tight even when the horns went on long free runs, occasionally cutting out for a voice solo and keyboard hit, and then coming back in on the beat. It has been said that Chance hold his bands to a high standard of tightness and musicianship and it shows.

Another fun aspect of the set was the interplay between James Chance and Mac Gollehon on trumpet and keyboard. In additional to some classic horn-section hooks to complement the funk rhythms, Gollehon used a dynamic-filter effect on his trumpet that worked extremely well in context, turning the horn into a rhythm-section instrument playing riffs that in more conventional bands are covered by guitar.

It was a sold-out show with an enthusiastic crowd packing the small space of the Knockout, and it spans a wide age-range from those who may have seen James Chance in the 1970s and 1980s to younger people likely seeing him for the first time. And having a great time of it. We certainly did. And I draw some inspiration from the mix of funk and jazz with punk and avant-garde elements. We at CatSynth wish them well on the remainder of this west coast tour.