Outsound New Music Summit: Tim Thompson and Pet the Tiger

Musical innovation can arise from pushing the boundaries of traditional musical instruments or inventing entirely new instruments.  The opening concert of the 2018 Outsound New Music Summit featured two groups whose work falls squarely in the latter category.

Tim Thompson is a longtime innovator in the space of expressive control of music using custom hardware and software.  His latest creation is the Space Palette Pro, a panel with four highly sensitive touchpads that control sound and visuals via MIDI.  You can hear Tim’s explanation of his invention in this video:

The Space Palette Pro is an evolutionary step from the original Space Palette, which allowed users to move their hands through holes in a large panel to drive music and visuals via a Kinect motion sensor.  The newer incarnation is smaller in size and replaces the space with pads, but in many ways uses the same principles of three-dimension gestural control.  Indeed, much of the software from the original was repurposed for the new version.  But the Pro is definitely more of a performance instrument, rather than a “casual instrument”, as Thompson explained both in the video and at the concert.

Musically, his performance was a series of several movements that segued from one to the next.  Each had its own sonic and visual palette which Thompson performed in real time.  So in a sense, this was an improvised performance, but one that was constrained by the sound, visuals, and patterns in each section.

Tim Thompson Space Palette Pro

The first section was soft with spare graphics, while the second was more pointed and percussive with geometric shapes.  Further movements featured lush timbres and graphics, and popular-music idioms with synthesizers and electronic drums.  Many of the segments were “quantized” to fixed scales and harmonies (as well as rhythms), though Thompson could introduce new pitches and scales into the mix using a MIDI keyboard, along for more melodic and harmonic variety.

The focus during the performance was squarely on the screen and the live visuals.  These were beautiful and captivating.  I would have liked to be able to see more of the performer and the instrument as well, as it was for me an important part of the set.

The second set brought us (mostly) out of the electronic world and back into the realm of acoustic musical instruments, albeit instruments of unique design.  Pet the Tiger is a Bay Area collective of musical instrument inventors.  Their recent work has centered around a set of instruments that use strict harmonic-series tuning.  Together the instruments and musicians comprise a “harmonic-series gamelan.”  You can see a demonstration of some of their instruments in this video.

The music is anchored by the harmonic compass, a set of metallophones designed and built by Stephen Parris and commissioned by group director David Samas.  However, there were a wide variety of instruments, including string and wind instruments by Bart Hopkin and Peter Whitehead, and even a series of meticulously tuned loose plastic tubes.

Pet the Tiger

Peter Whitehead

For this concert, the ensemble performed an interpretation of the fairies’ subplot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which includes many of the plays most memorable lines (including Puck’s final soliloquy).  The text was subdivided into several songs, and they were indeed songs with melody and harmony, albeit in the slightly alien world of the harmonic series, which can be simultaneously soothing and anticipatory at the same time – it always feels like it is waiting to go to the next note.  The songs were in a variety of styles and alternately song by Samas, Hopkin, and Whitehead.  The instruments and their playing gets most of the attention, but I think the singing deserves praise as well.  All three have great singing voices, and working in an alternate tuning is no small feat.  I was particularly impressed with Bart Hopkin’s return to his songwriting roots, singing against a harmonically tuned guitar of his own making. And David Samas’ voice is always rich and sonorous.  I have known this group and its members for several years now, and I have watched not only the instruments grow in precision and sophistication, but also musicianship in putting together an entire performance like this.  The audience were very clear in their appreciation and approval as well.

In all, it was a beautiful night of music and instrumental innovation.  We conclude with an exchange that occurred during the pre-show question-and-answer session when Outsound director Rent Romus asked the performers “why bother with the complexity of creating entirely new instruments?”  I found Bart Hopkin’s answer quite memorable.

There are a lot of reasons to stick with conventional instruments. You could write a pretty convincing paper on why to stick with convention instruments including ones you might not normally think of…When you work with conventional instruments and you write for it, you can simply hand someone the score because there are trained musicians who can keep one eye on the score, one eye on the conductor, and “another eye” playing the instrument. They don’t have to look at their hands. There are a million advantages you wouldn’t even think of to working with conventional instruments.  BUT, you know, with unconventional instruments you find musical territory you probably wouldn’t have found otherwise.  And that really makes it worthwhile.

We at CatSynth agree and look forward to more unconventional musical territory in the future.

Outsound New Music Summit: The Breath Courses Through Us

This past Monday, the Outsound New Music Summit featured a screening of The Breath Courses Through Us, a documentary by Alan Roth about the New York Art Quartet.  From the Outsound Summit website:

The Breath Courses Through Us” (2013) is a documentary film about the early 1960s avant-garde jazz group, the New York Art Quartet. The film focuses on the group’s 35-year reunion, while reaching back through their recollections of their foundations and innovative musical ideas. The year 2014 is the 50th anniversary of this group, and a revolutionary period in jazz music, which declared its existence in the October Revolution in Jazz, in October 1964. “The Breath Courses Through Us” mirrors the newly open improvisationary style of “free jazz” that subverted the traditional structure of jazz. Unfolding in free time and enveloped in their music, the film helps the viewer better understand the human element of the creative process, by focusing on their interactions in the present.

It was an interesting experience on multiple levels, as the structure of the documentary mirrors that of our musician- and band-focused CatSynth TV episodes, but on a larger scale.  It weaves interviews with members of the ensemble with archival footage, live performances from the early 2000s, and even scenes from a casual dinner among the members of the group discussing their music and plans for their reunion in 1999.  In many ways, the latter is the foundation for the history and interviews, and we keep returning to the dinner throughout the film.

It was an interesting experience on multiple levels, as the structure of the documentary mirrors that of our musician- and band-focused CatSynth TV episodes, but on a larger scale.  It weaves interviews with members of the ensemble with archival footage, live performances from the early 2000s, and even scenes from a casual dinner among the members of the group discussing their music and plans for their reunion in 1999.  In many ways, the latter is the foundation for the history and interviews, and we keep returning to the dinner throughout the film.

Musically, it connects the current scene of free and avant-garde jazz to the creative foment of 1960s New York.  We hear from the founding members: John Tchicai, Roswell Rudd, and Milford Graves, along with one of the original bassists Reggie Workman and poet Amiri Baraka.  The five reunited for the early 2000s concerts as well as the documentary.  We get to hear their distinct personalities.  Tchicai brings a serious and brooding discipline, Rudd an exuberance and enthusiasm for playing, and Graves his quirky and humorous character. Workman was one of three bassists that performed with the group during its brief existence in 1964 and 1965; Baraka often read poems to the quartet’s improvisations, including his famous “Black Dada Nihilismus”, parts of which are included in the documentary.  It seemed like an improbable coming together that depended on a series of coincidences and connections, but together they informed a style and practice of music that was “revolutionary” in its time, and still in many ways sounds fresh.

Although the documentary has been out for a few years now, this was its first public screening on the west coast.  Hopefully, this will lead to future screenings.  Even immersed as I have been in the music influenced by the New York Art Quartet, I was not as familiar with them as I should be.  I think it will be a valuable experience for those who perform and listen to free jazz, as well as though who are new to it.

More information on the film, including screenings, can be found at the official website.

Wordless Wednesday: Sutro Baths Ruins at Lands End

The ruins of the Sutro Baths at Lands End on the western edge of San Francisco.

Quite a few of our recent Wordless Wednesdays have focused on the western parts of the city.  Here are some previous posts:

Wordless Wednesday: Orizaba

Wordless Wednesday: Lake Merced Abstraction

Wordless Wednesday: Windmill (Golden Gate Park)

In addition, there is our video and article about Lake Merced.

The Making of Lake Merced

Today we talk about Lake Merced, as well as the recent video we made featuring it.

Lake Merced is located in the southwestern corner of San Francisco, in the vicinity of the SF Zoo and SF State University.

Lake Merced in San Francisco

Despite its odd shape and the fact that it borders three golf courses, it is actually a natural lake.  It is fed primarily by an underground spring.  In the 19th century, the lake briefly had an outlet to the ocean, approximately where the Great Highway breaks off from Skyline Boulevard, just south of the zoo.  The outlet is long gone, but the lake’s ecosystem retains some of its saltwater heritage among the fish and other wildlife that inhabit it. Lake Merced and its surrounding park remain one of the last and largest natural spaces left in the city (in spite of the golf courses), and is home to a variety of plant and animal life.  On the day I visited to shoot video, I encountered this egret.

But it is definitely an urban natural space, with sounds and sights from the surrounding city mixing with nature.  I am particularly fond of this view looking east over the lake to some apartment buildings.  It brings to mind Flushing Meadows in the New York City borough of Queens.

I have been spending more time in the western neighborhoods of San Francisco of late, and Lake Merced is one of the spots I revisit.  This is what inspired me to make it the subject of a CatSynth TV video, complete with original synthesizer music.

Here is see the final post-production on the video in Pro Tools.  Front and center is Tracktion’s BioTek software synthesizer, which I reviewed during NAMM 2016.  It was among the primary instruments used in this video where I blended its mix of natural and traditional-synthesizer sounds with the sounds of the field video.

I also made extensive use of the 4ms Spectral Multiband Resonator and Epoch Modular Benjolin (designed by Rob Hordjik).  They both have very elemental sounds that resemble air and water.  The Benjolin is chaotic by design, and a small turn of a knob can change it from liquidy to screeching, so it’s sometimes a challenge to get a good recording that fits the concept of the music.  The SMR is a lot of fun to play, especially using alternate tunings and changing the spread and morph parameters.  A clock is used to constantly shift the bands.

 

Rounding out the sound palette were the Arturia MiniBrute 2Mimimoog Model D, and Metasonix R53 vacuum-tube waveshaper and ring modulator.

The Moog Model D, the MiniBrute and several of the modules make cameos during the video, as does Sam Sam.  Watch the video all the way through to spot her 😺

This was a fun video to shoot and put together, something a bit more creative and abstract than our usual demos or live-show reports.  I have more of these waiting in the queue to be made…

 

Wordless Wednesday: Independence Day

The flag we see every day out the window from CatSynth HQ.  We wish all our fellow Americans a happy 4th of July (Independence Day)!

(Shot on an iPhone using Hipstamatic Lisbon Pack)

Wordless Wednesday: Orizaba

South on Orizaba Ave

Looking south on Orizaba Avenue in southwestern San Francisco from Lakeview and Ashton Mini Park.  You can read more about our visit to this spot in this article.

Lakeview and Ashton Mini Park, San Francisco

Many years ago, I noticed a small rock that appeared to be in the middle of the street at the top of a hill in the Ingleside neighborhood of San Francisco.  I also noticed it a few times while traveling on BART.  Turns out it is, in fact, an official San Francisco Park, the Lakeview and Ashton Mini Park.


[Click to enlarge]

It really is just a speck of undeveloped land on the crest of a hill in the middle of Ingleside, a largely residential neighborhood wedged between I-280 and CA 1 (19th Avenue).

From the official San Francisco Parks guide:

This rocky outcrop is part of a ridge of sandstone in the Merced and Ingleside Heights neighborhoods. While the park is very small, its grassy and rocky slopes are home to a variety of native plant species, including buckwheat, dudleya, farewell-to-spring, coast onion, and soap plant. This diversity of plants means there are flowers in bloom at Lakeview/Ashton Mini Park through most of the spring and summer. This wide window of flower availability provides a crucial long-term food source for many local butterflies and other insects. In 2003, a locally rare arboreal salamander was found hiding amongst the rocks. This relatively large brown salamander, four inches long when mature, has a whitish belly that in juveniles is darker and covered with light-blue spots. Arboreal salamanders have tails that are well adapted for grasping branches to help climb trees.

A couple of weeks ago, I decided to go check finally it out up close.  I made my way up the steep incline of Orizaba Avenue to the park, which also marks the ends of Shields and Lakeview Streets.

Orizaba Ave and Shields Street

As I had recalled from when I first noticed it, the park is dominated by a large mound of rock surrounded by tall scrub grass.  But there is a path through the grass to the top of the rock.

Path in Lakeview and Ashton Mini Park

And from the top of this rock is a fantastic and perhaps underappreciated view of the southwestern section of San Francisco.  Looking north along Orizaba, we see a wide swath of western San Francisco, including Forest Hill, Golden Gate Heights, and Mount Davidson (the highest natural point in the city).  We also see the iconic Sutro Tower peeking out from behind.

Looking northward

Looking south, we see the Ingleside and Sunnyside neighborhoods, bisected by I-280 and BART.  Beyond are the hills of Daly City and San Bruno mountain.

Looking South

The Pacific Ocean is visible in the distance to the west.  Closer by within Ingleside is another, larger park, with a copse of trees on top.

I did not visit the other park on this day.

This was a lovely spot, and I lingered there for quite a while despite the chill in the air.  It was, however, not entirely immune from the current problems of San Francisco, with a few signs of recent homeless and drug-use activity.  But overall, it was clean and quiet.  I will come back when I find myself in the vicinity again.

The western neighborhoods of the city still have a lot of secrets to offer, and I am eager to discover them.

 

UnPopular Electronics (Robair + Djll), Lx Rudis, Franck Martin at Robotspeak

It’s been a little while since we last attended Church of Thee Super Serge at Robotspeak in San Francisco, but we made a point of going this past weekend.  For those who have not been there or read our past reviews, it’s an almost-ever-month show on a Saturday afternoon with live hardware-synthesizer performances.  As the name suggests, some acts do include Serge synthesizers, but it is not required, and a wide variety of instruments are used.  All three sets are featured in our most recent CatSynth TV episode.

The first set featured Lx Rudis performing on an Oberheim Xpander, a somewhat underappreciated instrument from the 1980s.

Lx Rudis on Oberheim Xpander

At its heart, the Xpander is a 6 voice analog synthesizer, but with a complex array of digital controls that can be programmed and applied independently to each voice.  Lx Rudis took full advantage of these, especially the LFOs and lag generators, to create subtle and minimal metric patterns.  He constantly moved voices in and out, configuring them on the fly, in a way that was very expressive and musical.  I particularly liked the sections which had staccato rhythmic textures against slowly moving timbres deliberately out of sync with one another.

Next up was Franck Martin, who performed a solo set on a modular synthesizer with several standalone instruments.

Franck Martin

Martin’s setup included a Moog Subharmonicon, which he built while attending Moogfest this year (we at CatSynth are a bit envious), as well as a DFAM (Drummer From Another Mother).  There were also additional voices provided by Braids and Plaits modules from Mutable Instruments that he could bring in and out using a touch-plate interface.  The result was a slowly changing beat pattern with an eerie inharmonic voicing and gentle undulation.

The final set featured our friends Gino Robair and Tom Djll teaming up as the brilliantly named Unpopular Electronics.

They had a wide variety of gear, including Serge panels in addition to Eurorack modules and standalone instruments from Bugbrand and others.  In addition, Gino had an interesting small case that included touchpads.

The music was frenetic and intense, an avalanche of pops and hits and loud cloudlike tone clusters.  And there were trumpet sounds entering into the mix at various points.  But there was an exquisite detail to the madness with changes among the different instruments and sounds, and musical pauses and rests before the pair dived back into the frenzy.  There were also many moments of humor and not just Djll’s book about why there aren’t any Zeppelin-style airships in the United States.

In between sets, it’s fun to browse around Robotspeak and see what’s for sale, or on display in the big glass case.

It’s also quite dangerous, as I am often tempted to leave with another module or instrument.  On this occasion, I exercised restraint, but probably not next time…

Denny Denny Breakfast at the Luggage Store Gallery, San Francisco

A couple of weeks ago we saw a fun and intriguing performance by Denny Denny Breakfast at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco.  It was the subject of a recent CatSynth TV.

Denny Denny Breakfast is an ensemble project led by Robert Woods-LaDue.  The personnel changes per event, but on this occasion, it included Sarah Dionne Woods-LaDue (dance),  Mark Clifford (vibraphone), Crystal Pascucci (cell0), Jordan Glenn (drums), David Young (keyboard), Max Judelson (upright bass), and Rent Romus (alto saxophone).  They had recorded an album together in December 2017 and the mix of improvisations and noted sections informed the live performance at the Luggage Store.

Several of the parts were improvised once again, but others were relatively fixed, including the final piece that was a note-for-note transcription of an improvisation from the recording sessions.  There was also a piece originally conceived while the group was playing in the Finnish Hall in Berkeley but did not make it onto the album.  It was a simple concept of repeated patterns slowly changing in speed between two groups of performs, creating a phase pattern in the acoustic space.  The Finnish Hall has very unique acoustics, and so does the third floor of the Luggage Store Gallery, making it an ideal location to recreate the piece.  Throughout there was a large variation in the music between pieces, ranging from melodic and theatrical to noisy and percussive, to minimal with large amounts of empty space.  Each of these styles and textures left room for the dancers Sarah and Robert Woods-LaDue to be front and center.

We were happy to have been introduced to Woods-LaDue’s work, and are enjoying his recordings as well.  There is a wide variation in style among the different albums, but that will be a topic for another review in the not-too-distant future.

Wordless Wednesday: Lake Merced Abstraction

Lake Merced

Lake Merced in the southwest corner of San Francisco.  Hipstamatic photo with a multi-exposure lens.