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.

SF Sympony Performs John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary

In February, the San Francisco Symphony performed The Gospel According to the Other Mary by composer John Adams with libretto by Peter Sellars. The event was part of the celebration of Adams’ 70th birthday.

John Adams
[Photo courtesy of San Francisco Symphony]

The Gospel According to the Other Mary is a monumental opus, over two hours in length and featuring a full orchestra, chorus, and staging with the principal singers. The orchestra also included some additional interesting instruments, including this large collection of gongs.

As implied by the name, the libretto is drawn heavily from the New Testament, specifically the story of Mary and Martha of Bethany whose brother Lazarus is raised from the dead by Jesus. But it also incorporates many other modernist elements. The story moves back and forth between the Biblical setting and a more contemporary setting, weaving in scenes of women protesting as part of Cesar Chavez’s farmworkers’ strikes, and Mary witnessing a fellow inmate in jail suffering through a painful drug withdrawal. The setting of Mary and Martha’s home is depicted as a women’s shelter that would not be out of place in any large American city. And the milieu surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion is a modern urban uprising, complete with police sirens.

Another unusual element in this telling of the story is that Jesus is never specifically shown on stage as a character, although he is sometimes represented by a trio of tenors who also act as something akin to a Greek chorus. The full symphony chorus meanwhile acts as a tertiary level of narration, with Biblical quotes, Latin phrases, and more contemporary sources in English and Spanish. All of this makes for a complex setting around the main characters on stage: Mary (Kelly O’Connor), Martha (Tamara Mumford) and Lazarus (Jay Hunter Morris). Mary is the central character – she is listed as “Mary Magdalene” in the program although biblically she is not the same character as Mary of Bethany – introducing the piece and then reappearing frequently with long arias and monologues. Martha is the solid rock providing structure but also her own story running the shelter and caring for her sister and brother. Both women are portrayed as major “fan girls” of Jesus, excited when he comes to town, but each in their own way. Lazarus comes across as a bit of a skeptic and in one scene questions and challenges the somewhat amorphous Jesus.

The simplicity and familiarity of the central story combined with the complexity of the visual and sonic setting make for a compelling performance – even those who cynically eye-roll at “yet another musical setting of Biblical texts” should be impressed by this work. It is also a departure from earlier compositions by John Adams – he is best known for his minimalist works, similar to that of Steve Reich but with a softer tone and west-coast source materials. But there is nothing soft about this piece. It is dark, angry, anguished at times, especially during Mary’s multiple scenes of personal anguish and confusion as well as the tense scenes leading up to the crucifixion. The modern elements blend effortlessly with the biblical elements and help to bring home to brutality and harshness in both contexts.

The two-hour-plus length did seem a bit daunting at first (there was an intermission between acts), but it actually went quite quickly as were were wrapped up in the many aspects of the performance. Overall, it was a great experience and I am glad we were on hand for it. As this is Adams’ 70th birthday year, we are looking forward to hearing more performances of his music, new and old.

SFJAZZ Honors Zakir Hussain

Just before departing for NAMM back in January, we had the opportunity to attend the SFJAZZ Gala honoring Zakih Hussain with a lifetime achievement award.

One of the unexpected guests of the evening was a torrential rain that peaked just as we were arriving. This video from our Instagram gives a small taste.

Crazy rain for #sfjazzgala ☔️

A post shared by CatSynth / Amanda C (@catsynth) on

But inside it was warm, the drinks were flowing, the music was as expected. We had seats in the bleachers which provided an excellent view of the stage. And the backs of the musicians, including the maestro himself.

You can see a much better view of Zakir Hussain performing with saxophonist John Handy is the Instagram photo from SFJAZZ.

It was a sweet and delightfully simple jam, which capped an evening of performances featuring the SFJazz Collective, saxophonists Joe Lovano and Joshua Redman, guitarist Bill Frisell, vocalist Mary Stallings, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, and drummer Cindy Blackman-Santana.

The award presentation itself was preceded by a tribute video made by Hussain’s daughters, which highlighted his genius as a musician and rhythmic master as well as his good humor and down-to-earth nature as a person. This was also apparent in his remarks upon accepting the award. (The same could not be said for the verbose and pretentious introduction by Mickey Hart.)

After the presentation, it was time to party, with more music and dancing filling the hall.

We didn’t stay too late because I was off to NAMM the next morning, but I am glad to have braved the storm to celebrate a great musician.