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.

Banana Slug Synth Pic

Yes, it’s not a cat, but how often does one encounter a banana slug-and-synth picture? 😸

By Ryan Page on Facebook.

We occasionally have banana slugs that sneak into our house. Before releasing it back into the wild I let it spend a minute jamming on my synth using the touchplates on the Rene. (Please note that it was treated very gently and was allowed to crawl onto the synth rather than being picked up or pushed.)

In the 5 years I lived in Santa Cruz, I never actually had a banana slug visit HQ…

CatSynth pic: Pioneer Toraiz SP-16

From our friends at Eevo Lute Music & Technology.

A new test victim has arrived.. #pioneer #pioneerdj #davesmithinstruments #toraiz Pioneer Toraiz SP-16

We hope that human and feline enjoy their new “test victim” 😸. You can read our early take on the collaboration between Dave Smith Instruments and Pioneer on this product line in our report from NAMM 2017.

The Amy X-Perience at the Jewish Community Center, Berkeley

As we are in the middle of Passover, it seems like a good time to look back at a Jewish-themed show in which I participated earlier this year. The Amy X-Perience brought together a mix of artists in solo, duo and ensemble sets at the Jewish Community Center in Berkeley, California. The evening was curated by our friend and collaborator Amy X Neuburg.

The night began with a piece by Neuburg featuring electronics and potato chips. Yes, potato chips. Small vending-machine-sized bags were distributed to the audience, who were instructed to on cue open the bags and start chewing the (edible) contents loudly, as Neuburg manipulated the sounds and added additional musical layers.

Amy X Neuburg

I was up next. Regular readers have likely already heard part of my solo set from this show – I posted the performance of piece White Wine in this article a couple of weeks ago. I also performed a live version of my piece Donershtik (Yiddish for “Thursday”), which you can see below.

Amanda Chaudhary performing "Donershtik" at JCC East Bay from CatSynth on Vimeo.

I was quite happy with how both solo pieces came out, but the real treat was having Amy join me in a duo of my piece North Berkeley BART, humorously appropriate for the location that evening.

North Berkeley BART w/ Amy X Neuburg – JCC from CatSynth on Vimeo.

I have always been impressed with Amy’s musicianship, discipline and ability to learn songs quickly, and very much appreciated her joining me. We also performed an avant-garde rendition of the American standard All of Me later in the evening.

Amanda Chaudhary and Amy X Neuburg

Between the two of us, there was quite an impressive collection of musical electronics on stage.

My solo set was followed by Alex Kelley, a veritable one-man band on cello and electronics.

Alex Kelley

His music blended jazz, klezmer and rock influences with experimental sounds. His cello acted not only as a melodic instrument, but also as the rhythm section, with Kelley striking it like a drum at times, and recording bass lines into a live looper and then riffing on top of that. His performance was both tight and humorous and a lot of fun to watch. You can hear a little bit in this video:

Next up was Solstice: A Female Vocal Ensemble. Sadly, several members of the group were unfortunately absent that evening due to illness, but that didn’t stop the remaining trio from delivering a strong performance.

Solstice’s repertoire spans a variety of styles and languages, and their set that evening included pieces from several places. I was quite impressed with their ability so sing in so many languages.

The second half of the program brought together the various artists in different combinations. I already mentioned my duo rendition of All of Me with Amy X Neuburg. She also performed show tunes with Alex Kelley, and joined Solstice for a virtuosic rendition of an Eastern European song. And finally, all of us joined together for a rousing rendition of Mein Herr from Cabaret. It was a fun and fitting conclusion to the evening.

Second half brought many voices in many languages and showtunes #AmyXNeuburg

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All of the performances were well received by the enthusiastic full house. Thank you to Amy X Neuburg for inviting all of us to participate in this event, and to the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay for hosting! Please visit their website to find out about the many performances and other cultural programs hosted by the JCC.