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.

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!

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APAture 2014 Visual Arts Showcase

Kearny Street Workshop’s APAture 2014 festival opened last Friday with its visual arts showcase at Arc Gallery. The show featured a diverse collection of works in different media by emerging Bay Area artists.

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Although there were quite a few pieces in the show, the gallery presentation was clean and spacious, which always makes it more inviting to spend time with art. There was also a good balance of three-dimensional pieces in the show, so that it wasn’t confined to the walls.

Situated in the center of the main gallery was a set of stoneware heads by featured artist Victoria Jang.

Victoria Jang

The heads appear artificial, identical fabrications reminiscent of characters in anime. But they were each hand sculpted from a traditional process of stoneware and glaze and contain visible flaws. The glaze accentuates the flaws and brings them out for the viewer.

Another sculptural piece that made strong use of the space was Marya Krogstad’s Stone Hills. This visually simple piece was a bringing together of many elements, including bell heather plants, concrete blocks, mirrors, and homemade telescope.

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Nancy Otto’s large abacus with hand-blown glass beads in visually inviting in itself. But as one gets closer, one realizes the beads each bear a headline related to the effects of climate change.

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It is a bit of a mystery how the form of this ancient computing device and climate change are related.

There were also several video installations in the exhibition, including this rather captivating and colorful video performance by Laura Kim.

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Kim places herself in a space filled with basic colors and shapes, taking on the poses and expressions common in popular music videos and live performance. The geometric quality made it fit well as a contrast with the more organic and soft sculptural works. It was also just plain fun to watch.

Another work that was fun but also very meticulously crafted was Yuki Maruyama’s sticker drawings. One first sees a large nebulous field of small red dots, but as one gets closer one can see that each is an individual drawing in itself.

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The small nature of each drawing and the somewhat comical or suggestive quality in many of them invites the viewer to keep looking at them one by one, and indeed to come back a few times during a visit to the exhibition.

There were of course more traditional two-dimensional hanging works as well, including this watercolor by Cathy Lu entitled Girls Playing (float), a riff on the theme of “boys playing” common in traditional Chinese art.

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A darker and more tragic tone is present in Lana Dandan’s digitally processed photographs depicting buildings in Beirut, Lebanon, bearing scars from that’s country’s civil war.

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Despite the emotional tone, I did find myself drawn to the beauty of the buildings themselves, simple modern forms in concrete.

The mathematical concepts and processes in Vincent Yin’s ink-on-paper works also caught my attention. Yin attempts to answer the question “what does probability look like” by representing numerical data with drops in different ratios of color.

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It is interesting to step back and look at the whole rather than the individual elements.

There are more works at the show beyond what I am able to cover. I recommend stopping by to see it at Arc Studios, 1246 Folsom Street in San Francisco, before it closes this weekend.

As a final disclosure, although I have covered quite a few of Kearny Street Workshop’s programs in the past here on CatSynth, this is the first time I am doing so since joining the organizations board of directors. It’s an exciting role to take on, but I do plan to continue providing reports on APAture and other events.

Outsound New Music Summit: Jill Burton Trio, Obstreperous Doves, Emergency String (X)tet

The 2014 Outsound New Music Summit concluded with a night of improvising ensembles, including a couple of very memorable performances.

The evening being with the Obstreperous Doves, a project by Bill Noertker that brought together Nava Dunkelman, Christina Stanley, Karl Evangelista, and Dave Mihaly in an exploration of assertive and complex improvisation.

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[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

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[Photos by Michael Zelner]

Besides giving us a chance to use the word “obstreperous” – and it is indeed a fine word – the ensemble allowed the talents of all five artists to blend while still letting them each have a voice. Christina Stanley provided noisy and harmonic violin sounds as well as her voice, including a strange but amusing story layered on top of pieces. Nava Dunkelman offered up a wealth of percussive sounds that also sang at times. Karl Evangelista was in usual form with his intense and intricate guitar playing. The group lived up to its name with lots of noisy percussive sections, but also moments of more harmonic jazz phrases, and quiet instances as well.

The Obstreperous Doves were followed by the Bob Marsh’s ensemble the Emergency String (X)tet. They premiered a Terrascore by Marsh composed for his 70th birthday.

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[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

A terrascore is “a musical geobiographic representation of an individual.” In this case it focused on locations significant to Marsh’s artistic life: his home town of Detroit, Chicago, Berkeley and San Francisco. The ensemble improvised with Marsh conducting from a score based on geographical information from these places, along with field recordings that he made. I’m pretty sure I recognized the one that represented the area around the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco. The other members of the ensemble included Mia Bella D’Augelli, Jeff Hobbs,
Christina Stanley (pulling double-duty on this night), David Michalak, Doug Carroll, and Kanoko Nishi-Smith.

The final performance was a trio that brought together vocalist Jill Burton with Tim Perkis on electronics and Doug Carroll (also pulling double-duty) on cello. This was a first-time collaboration by the three of them. The result very captivating performance. It started with a very mysterious and haunting solo by Jill Burton, who then demonstrated the range of her extended vocal techniques blending with Perkis’ liquidy electronic sounds and Carroll’s scratchy percussive cello. It was also a theatrical performance, with expressive gestures and movement by Burton coupled with Carroll’s cello antics, sometimes turning the instrument backwards or upside down. But all along with a sonically beautiful and varied experience, that contained the right amount of silence amidst the energy of the sounds.

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[Photo by Michael Zelnzer]

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[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

It was a very strong finale to this year’s summit, and it was interesting to compare and contrast the book ends of the Jill Burton trio with Pitta of the Mind from the opening. It was probably among the best years overall since I started attending this event in 2008; and I look forward to what comes next year.

Outsound New Music Summit: Deconstruction Orchestra and Rakin-Parker/Pearce Duo

We continue our reports from the Outsound New Music Summit with the concert on Friday, August 1. This evening featured two very contrasting sets, both in composition and volume.

The first set featured the duo of Teddy Rakin-Parker and Daniel Pearce. They performed new works by composer Renee Baker that were commissioned for the Outsound Summit.

Rakin-Parker/Pearce Duo

Baker’s compositions “use a wide range of graphics and cued micro-improvisations as a means to denote the various developmental stages of our planet’s evolution.” Musically, the result was a mixture of subtle sounds, often low in volume, with occasional bursts of energy and percussive elements. The latter worked particularly well for this duo, with the cello becoming a percussion instrument alongside the drums.

If the initial set was subtle and focused on details, the second set was the complete opposite. Joshua Allen’s Deconstruction Orchestra was a loud event with no fewer than 22 instrumentalists on stage.

Joshua Allen's Deconstruction Orchestra

The ensemble performed The Structure of Sound and Space, an original deconstructivist-inspired suite of cell structure game compositions. Allen conducted the group through gestures and a series of instructions on sheets of paper. The piece and the ensemble were described in advance as being “cathartic”. That characteristic was hard to discern, but they certainly were loud. It seemed that most of the ensemble was playing at the same time, creating a very thick, intense and sometimes chaotic texture; though there were points where subgroups performed and there were several solos by ensemble members. It was certainly a spectacle that had to be experienced live.

The full ensemble featured Aaron Bennett, Sam Flores, Vinny Golia, John Ingle, Matt Ingalls, Josh Marshall, Dave Slusser, Rent Romus, Cory Wright, Peter Bonos, CJ Borosque, Matt Gaspari, Ron Heglin, Jeff Hobbs, George Moore, Matt Streich, John Finkbeiner, Henry Kaiser, Lisa Mezzacappa, Timothy Orr, and William Winant.

Overall, this was a somewhat shorter program than the other nights, but it packed quite a punch.

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Outsound New Music Summit: Guitar Night!

The 2014 Outsound New Music Summit continued last Thursday with night featuring guitars, and only guitars. This was an unusual curation for a concert of new music, and generated some lively and amusing discussion during the pre-concert Q&A.

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The concert itself opened with a solo set by Henry Kaiser. He performed on an instrument that he had never used before, or even plugged into an amplifier before the set began.

Henry Kaiser
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

He opened with a simple piece directly into the amp that was quite pretty, with lots of harmonic and melodic sounds punctuated by percussive moments. But it was when he added his effects that things because more interesting, with very lush sounds and intricate patterns of delays and loops – not the simple looping harmonies one often hears but complex textures reminiscent of improvising ensembles.

Next up was a duo featuring Sacramento-based guitarists Ross Hammond and Amy Reed.

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[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

Their set featured a wide range of sounds and styles, some quite idiomatic drawing on the artists’ blues and folk roots, some much more experimental with extended sounds techniques, and some quite noisy. Particularly memorable moments includes drones that were interrupted by higher scratchier sounds, and the final acoustic traditional song sung by Reed.

Hammond and Reed were followed by another duo, John Finkbeiner and Noah Phillips. At once one could tell theirs would be a different sound, heavier and a bit more aggressive.

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[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

There was a lot of fast playing and use of percussive and prepared techniques. The music never really settled down, which I suspect was the intention. I liked a lot of the electrical and “beyond guitar” sounds they were able to achieve.

The final set was also a duo, this time bringing Houston-based Sandy Ewen together with Jakob Pek. From the start, this was the most avant-garde of the sets, with both performers placing the guitars in their laps, and bowing or striking the instruments.

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[Photos: PeterBKaars.com.]

This was a beautiful and captivating set, with dramatic changes in texture and technique. There mere many long tones but also moments that were very sparse and quiet. They kept the listeners on edge with strange and eerie sounds combining guitar strings with rubber balls, steel wool and other elements, but their gentle intensity also kept us drawn into the performance for the entire duration.

Overall, it was an interesting night, with quite a range of music from a single instrument. All of the artists took us far beyond the typical stereotypes and expectations of the guitar and showed us a lot more of what it can do in the right hands.

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Outsound New Music Summit: PoetryFreqs

The concert series of the Pitta of the Mind, my duo with Maw Shein Win got things going with a set of poetry and electronic music on the themes of abstract art and cinematic distance. Our color theme for the evening was red and black.

Pitta of the Mind at Outsound Music Summit
[Photo by Annabelle Port.]

It was our longest set to date, but also our best so far, with a variety of sounds to match the words and tight transitions between poems. It was also the most complex technically, with the Prophet 12, analog modular, Moog Theremini, iPad, and Nord Stage EX all running at once.

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[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

Maw Shein Win
[Photo by Annabelle Port.]

We performed confidently and playfully and we got a great audience response. And the color theme went well with the blue set and lighting courtesy Travin McKain.

We were followed by first-ever performance by Ruth Weiss, one of the original Beat poets, with master analog synthesizer artist Doug Lynner as well as Hal Davis on log.

Doug Lynner, Ruth Weiss, Hal Davis
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

Log may seem like an odd instrumentation, but Davis made it work well with Ruth Weiss’ recitations, and Lynner managed to create sounds on the Mystery Serge modular that sometimes mimicked the percussive resonance of the log and at other times complimented it with more lush tones. He was also able to hit loud or noisy moments in between the words. Ruth Weiss was sharp and witty in her readings, moving from her work in the 1950s and 1960s to more recent compositions. Although the trio had only met once before, they seemed very comfortable performing together and it made for a fun and exciting set. This was something that will likely never be repeated, so we were privileged to have witnessed it.

The final set brought together Zachary James Watkins on electronics and Marshall Trammell on percussion with poet and voice artist Amber McZeal.

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[Photos: PeterBKaars.com.]

The music began slowly, with calm but textured percussion and electronic sounds combined with McZeal on didgeridoo. The drone built up to more intense textures, with noise and thick electronics, Trammell’s intense drumming, and McZeal’s voice, which was at times beautiful and melodic singing, and other times dramatic and confident speech. The text for this set was very sparse compared to the previous sets, more like a third instrument than poetry set to music.

Overall, this was a great start to the Summit concerts with three strong performances (I admit I am biased about the first one). We had a great turnout as well, filling all the seats in the concert hall at the Community Music Center. It set a high bar for the next nights.