Vacuum Tree Head and Moe Staiano Ensemble at The UPTOWN

Today we look back at the show featuring Vacuum Tree Head and the Moe Staiano Ensemble at The UPTOWN in Oakland. It was also the subject of our most recent episode of CatSynth TV. 

This was the most ambitious Vacuum Tree Head show to date, at least during the time I have been involved in the band.  There were ten musicians involved: Jason Berry conducting, Steve Adams (of ROVA fame) on baritone saxophone, Jason Bellenkes on various woodwinds, Amanda Chaudhary on keyboard, Richard Corny on guitar, Michael de la Cuesta on guitar and synth, Justin Markovits on drums, Joshua Marshall on saxophones, Amy X Neuburg on voice and blippo box, and John Shiurba on bass. 

Vacuum Tree Head.  Photo by Crystal Lee

The band delivered an impressive and truly dynamic performance, going through a diverse mix of styles from our current repertoire.  And that fact that the core of the lineup has stabilized means that the tunes are always getting tighter and more idiomatic, especially our “big” numbers Nubdug and EMS Deluxe – I always have a lot of fun in the latter with a big 1970s style electric-piano solo.  But this set was more than just music – it continued the band’s pattern of adding new spectacle at each show.  This time, we had a juggler, Colin Hogan, and my friend and frequent collaborator Serena Toxicat held up signs for audience participation.  The juggling was a unique moment, with Hogan tossing lighted beanbags and other objects as we played a new version of the tune Marlon Brando

Overall, I had a wonderful time playing, as I’m pretty sure the entire band did.  And we got a great response from the audience at The UPTOWN.  Next, it was time for the Moe Staiano Ensemble to take the stage.

Moe Staiano Ensemble

This was also an ambitious set, building on Moe’s previous ideas but with an even larger ensemble of guitars:  Jay Korber, William Bohrer, Melne Murphy, Damon Wood, Robin Walsh, Drew Wheeler, Bill Wolter, John Shiurba, Josh Pollock, David James, Marc Zollinger, and Karl Evangelista.  That, my friends, is a lot of guitars!  But they were also joined by Steve Lew on bass and Jeff Lievers on drums.

Moe’s large scale composition followed a classical form of three movements: a loud opening fanfare, a calm and moody second movement, and amore dynamic finale.  It featured many of the idiomatic elements I have come to know and appreciate in his compositions from my time playing in Surplus 1980, including the repetitions coming in and out of phase.  During the first movement, there was a driving eight-note patterns with phasing that created an intense but pointillated wall of sound.  The second movement, which contained slower notes and lots of open space, was exceptionally beautiful, and my favorite part of the performance.  You can hear some of it in our video.

It was a wonderful night of music in Oakland, and I was happy to be a part of it both as a performance and an audience member.  There was a fairly decent turnout, especially for a Tuesday.  It’s not every day you can get this cast of musicians on a stage at once, as both groups did, but I look forward to the next time they do.

David Pate & Steve Cohn / Manul Override / Ornettology at the Make-Out Room

As we busily prepare for the next Vacuum Tree Head show this coming Tuesday, I find myself looking back at my last show with a very different band, Manul Override earlier this month at the Make-Out Room in San Francisco.  It was the subject of a recent CatSynth TV episode.

The evening began with an improvised set featuring saxophonist David Pate with keyboardist Steve Cohn.

Then it was time for Manul Override’s debut show.  This was a new group I put together with my friend and collaborator Serena Toxicat on voice and former Surplus-1980 bandmate Melne on guitar.

We had a lot of fun on stage, and the energy spread to the audience, with dancing and meowing all around (all of our tunes had at least some connection to cats).  I was particularly happy with the opening incantation, which featured a French rendition of Serena’s ode to the goddess Bast, and our 1980s-pop-style tune “Goodnigobbles”, which also featured Serena seductively delivering lyrics and spoken words in French.  Melne had a chance to show her versatility throughout the set, including our extended funky jam in the middle of the set.  As with all new musical projects, this is a work in progress, figuring out what works for us and what doesn’t, and how to make each show better than the previous one.  But it was also fun visually, with our fashion statements, cat ears, and Melne’s lighting.

The final set featured Ornettology, a project led by guitarist and composer Myles Boisen.  As the name suggests, the group is inspired by the music of Ornette Coleman, and reimagines many of his compositions.   He was joined by a stellar cast of local musicians including Steve Adams and Phillip Greenlief on saxophones, John Haines on drums, Safa Shokrai on bass, and John Finkbeiner.

The band delivered a truly dynamic performance that featured some of Ornette Coleman’s more familiar tunes, including “Ramblin'” and “Mob Job” There were some great solos from each of the members of the group as well.  You can hear some of Philip Greenlief and Myles Boisen soloing in our video.

The last few shows I have played at the Make-Out room always have a great audience – full houses that seem to appreciate having live music, whether they came to hear the specific artists or just happened to drop by.  A few in the latter category seemed to quite enjoy our Manul-Override set, signing Serena’s leg cast (she had an unfortunate accident a couple of weeks before the show) and taking selfies with us.  It was a fun night of music all aroundl.

μHausen (micro-Hausen) 2018

Today we look back at this year’s μHausen, a “micro-festival” of experimental electronics that takes place every summer deep at a secure undisclosed location in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  It was the subject of our most recent CatSynth TV episode.

As suggested in the video, I was thinking a lot about our natural surroundings as we made music with our thoroughly artificial electronic instruments.  The trees, the air, the light, all seemed to be of a piece with the music at times.  I also thought about the fact that I had not been able to attend the last three installments.  In 2015 and 2016 I had to cancel or decline because of medical issues, and I’m not sure what happened in 2017.  But I was back now and was great to see and hear everyone.

First up was Peter Elsea, recently retired from his longtime position as a professor of electronic music at UC Santa Cruz.  On this occasion, he performed with a small rig that included a modular synthesizer and an electronic wind instrument.

Peter Elsea

His set featured tones that were timbrally rich and often noisy, but still pitched.  This worked well with the wind controller which allowed the noisy tones to swell and fade musically.  But there were also some beautiful moments of quiet pure tones that evoked the natural surroundings.

Next up was Later Days, a project featuring Wayne Jackson with his iOS-based evolutionary synth  MendelTone, which allows patches to “breed” and evolve.

There was an urgent “machine-like” quality to the music, with low drones oms mixing with high swirls of sound and various percussive hits.  Wayne is also the founder of this event and often its leader, but this year he ceded organizing duties to R Duck (of the R Duck Show), who performed next.


[Photo by Later Days (Wayne Jackson)]

The first segment of his set featured beautiful drones of processed guitar. There were quick runs, but they were absorbed into the overall sound.  Over time, the tone and structure darkened, with more complex timbres and harmonies set against slow but anxious guitar riffs.  He also teamed up with Later Days to deliver his perennial incantation featuring chocolate.  (Did I mention that we at CatSynth love chocolate?)

Next up was synthesizer virtuoso Doug Lynner, who performed on a Eurorack-based Serge modular synthesizer.


[Photo by Later Days (Wayne Jackson)]

I have long come to expect very complex and intricate sounds from Doug, often set in a very sparse texture where one can clearly hear the details.  That was certainly the case in this performance, which opened with light sounds reminiscent of birds and whale songs.  It could have come from the surrounding woods rather than the synthesizer on stage (OK, the bird sounds could have, probably not the whale sounds).  After a period of rapid modulation, the music settled into a different pattern, with a contrapuntal texture of long ascending tones reminiscent of sirens.

Lynner was followed by Paul Nicholson who had a large Korg-centric rig that included both a Minilogue, an MS-20 and an SQ-1 sequencer among other instruments.

His opening piece was more traditionally harmonic compared to the preceding sets, with slowly changing harmonic patterns that evoked late-20th-century minimalism (think Steve Reich and John Adams).  The second portion of the set featured some harsher sounds and noise centered around Nicholson’s modular synth.

Then it was time for me to take the stage.  I brought a rig that included the large 9U modular, a Casio SK-1 and my trusty Moog Theremini.


[Photo by R Duck]

As with most of my recent solo work, I select one of my more formal compositions as a point of departure.  In this case, it was “White Wine”, with the melody set against one of the SK-1’s drum beats.  This them morphed into a broken and complex break of sound and eventually to a pure improvisation with the modular and theremin, though the beats never really disappeared.  As I was when listening to the other sets, I was thinking about the natural surroundings – in my case being the “city girl” mastering my place in space and sound, even if just for a few brief minutes.

The final set featured Lemon DeGeorge on harmonica and electronics.

Lemon DeGeorge

The harmonicas (like a true player of the instrument, he had more than one) added a unique dimension to the music, and the electronics followed with long breathy tones.  The sounds appeared to build up layers upon layers into something heavy and enveloping, but never overwhelming.  Compared to Nicholson’s sounds, DeGeorge’s lone tones and patterns were thoroughly inharmonic but no less beautiful or musical.

Overall it was a fine afternoon of weird electronic music in the woods, and not just for the music itself but for the fellowship with friends who I don’t get to see that often.   I remained in the mind space of the show, the environment, and the sounds for a while on the drive back, at least until reaching I-880 and heading first into Oakland and later home to San Francisco, where I snapped back into my everyday urban life.

 

Outsound New Music Summit: CDP and Dire Wolves

While I thoroughly enjoyed every night of this year’s Outsound New Music Summit, last Friday was special because I was on stage with my own band CDP.  We shared the bill with Dire Wolves for a night of contrasting retro styles within the context of new and experimental music.

I often get asked what “CDP” stands for.  And while it does stand on its own as a name, it does come from the initials of the original three members: Chaudhary, Djll, Pino.  That’s me on keyboard and vocoder, Tom Djll (synthesizers), and Mark Pino (drums).  Joshua Marshall joined the band in 2017, bringing his technical chops and versatility on tenor and soprano saxophone.  As a road-and-map geek, it also stands for “Census Designated Place”.

CDP at the Outsound New Music Summit

We had five tunes for this concert.  Three of them were from the series I call “the jingles”, including White WineNorth Berkeley BART, and our newest song, Rambutan (it’s a fruit from Southeast Asia).  Marlon Brando and Konflict Mensch rounded out the set.  Each featured a melodic and harmonic head followed by open improvisation – no fixed solos, even listens to one another and comes in and out.  Our style is a blend of funk, fusion and experimental music reminiscent of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi and Head Hunters bands or Soft Machine 5 & 6, with a bit of 1970s Frank Zappa / George Duke mixed in.  The music is a joy to play and I’m so glad to be able to be on a stage playing it.

Amanda Chaudhary and Joshua Marshall, CDPWe got off to a somewhat shaky start with White Wine, but we settled down quickly as we headed into the improvisation section.  From that point on, things only got better with Marlon Brando and North Berkeley BART (which is always a local crowd pleaser).  Rambutan was a lot of fun, including the funky 7/4 jam and the call-and-response chant with the audience.  Mark held up the metric foundation, working with both me and Tom who took turns on the bass roll.  Tom also got some great sounds in his solos, as did Josh who moved easily between growls and mellifluous melodic runs.

Tom Djll's synth

The vocoder, a Roland VP-03, held up pretty well – in some ways, I felt the scatting went even better than the lyrics – though there is still work to do keeping the voice intelligible in the context of the full band.   I was exhausted and satisfied after the set, and look forward to doing more with our band.

You can read Mark Pino’s perspective on the set on his blog.

For the second set, Dire Wolves brought a completely different energy to the stage.  Where CDP was exuberant and even frenetic at times, Dire Wolves welcomed the audience with a mellow and inviting psychedelic sound.

Dire Wolves

[Photo by Michael Zelner]

There was a sparseness to the music, with Jeffrey Alexander (guitar + winds), Sheila Bosco (drums)Brian Lucas (bass) and Arjun Mendiratta (violin) each staking claim to a distinct orchestral space within the soundscape.  Alexander and Mendiratta had lines that melted seamlessly from one to the next; Brian Lucas’ bass was sometimes melodic.  Bosco’s drums provided a solid foundation, but she also contributed voice and other sounds to the mix.

Jeffrey Alexander Sheila Bosco

[Photos by Michael Zelner]

My mind was still processing the set we had just played, but the trance-like qualities of Dire Wolves provided a space for a soft landing and to return to a bit of balance.  Sadly, it seems this was the band’s last performance for a while, at least with the current lineup.  But I look forward to hearing more from each of these musicians in their other projects.

Both groups played to a decently sized and very appreciative audience – not the capacity crowds of the previous or following nights, but respectable.  And I got quite a bit of positive feedback from audience members after our set.  We still have one more night of the summit to cover, and then it’s onward to future events.

Voltage and Verse: Ruth Weiss/Doug Lynner/Hal Davis, Pitta of the Mind, Ramon Sender at Adobe Books

It’s been a busy season for Pitta of the Mind!  We had three shows in the span of two months, beginning with our blue set at Pro Arts and culminating with ¡Voltage and Verse! at Adobe Books in San Francisco.  You can get a taste for the show in our CatSynth TV video.

It was an honor to once again share a bill with ruth weiss.  A Holocaust survivor and founding member of the San Francisco beat poet scene in the 1950s, she is still going strong, performing and supporting local institutions and artists.

Maw Shein Win, ruth weiss, Amanda Chaudhary

We were glad to see that she is continuing her collaboration with our friend and synthesizer virtuoso Doug Lynner.  Together with log percussionist Hal Davis, they performed a set of poetry and music that simultaneously evoked earlier eras and the latest electronic experiments.  Davis’ log drum provided an expressive metronome, undulating between a trot and a gallop.  Lynner’s synthesizer lines filled in the spaces, sometimes with rhythmic appeggios and at other moments with long eerie drones.  The synthesizer timbres and phrases complemented the words in multiple ways, sometimes underpinning the narrative in the manner of a good film score, at other times emphasizing the rhythm of the words and making them into a musical whole.

ruth weiss and Doug Lynner

Our Pitta of the Mind set was part of a month-long celebration for the release of Maw Shein Win’s new book of poetry Invisible Gifts.  The book is divided into four sections based on different colors.  This works perfectly for our use of color themes in our performances.  For this night, we chose silver and performed selections from the silver section of the book.  There were some familiar poems that we have performed before, and some that were new to me.  There were a variety of styles and subjects in the words that inspired different musical backings, from jazzy electric piano (my favorite) to abstract synthesizer explorations.  I was able to reuse some of the modular patches I had developed for my recent show in Portland and make them work with the rhythm of the texts.

Pitta of the Mind

Maw and I have performed together so many times now that it has become almost second nature to realize a new set; our three shows this season went off (nearly) flawlessly, and have been among the best we have done in our nearly seven years of collaboration!  We have developed a toolset and pallete of instruments (including the Nord Stage and Prophet 12) and sounds that we can quickly turn to with each new text, which makes the process of learning new pieces both simple and fun.  I certainly hope we can keep up the momentum in the remainder of the year, even as I turn my own attention to other musical projects.

In between our set and weiss/Lynner/Davis, we were treated to a presentation by Ramon Sender.  Sender was a co-founder (along Morton Subotnick and Pauline Oliveros) of the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the early 1960s, but on this evening he regaled us with stories of his time at the Morning Star and Wheeler ranches in Sonoma County in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Morningstar, founded by Lou Gottlieb, was a radical experiment in communal living, populated by an interesting cast of characters along with folks who “commuted” between San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district and the ranch west of Sebastopol.  It only existed in its communal form for a short period of time before being shut down by Sonoma County. Sender and others then moved to the nearby property of artist Bill Wheeler, who followed Gottlieb’s lead and opened his ranch as a commune open to all.  I found myself fascinated by Sender’s stories, and would love to learn more about the history of the area and these communal experiments.

It was a fun night of music and words that lived up to its billing, and I certainly hope to have a chance to perform with everyone again.  And thanks to Benjamin Tinker and Adobe Books for hosting the event!  Please support your local bookstores and performance spaces.

[Photos not marked “catsynth.com” in this article courtesy of Maw Shein Win.]

New CatSynth TV: Hidden Sub Phatty

We have a brand-new CatSynth TV!  This one demonstrates a couple of the hidden features of the Moog Sub Phatty synthesizer.

In particular, we look at filter-topology selection and Oscillator 2 beat frequencies.  The filter selection makes the instrument much more powerful, moving between the extra crunchy 1 and 2-pole filters to the smooth 4-pole that is “quintessentially Moog”.  The beat frequency is a bit more esoteric – it maintains beating frequencies across different pitches, leading to some odd detunings in different registers.  But it can add a new timbral-metric component to compositions – something to explore in more depth.

We also look at the Editor/Librarian software from Moog, which is really handy for accessing these features as well as saving patches.

If you have not yet subscribed to our YouTube channel, please do so 😻

Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando is a controversial figure in contemporary circles, but we did some great movies a long time ago (followed by some not-so-great ones, then a couple more classics, and then some really awful ones). But his work has intertwined with many things at CatSynth over the past couple of years. Consider this cartoon by J.B. (Jason Berry), part of our extended Mensa Cat series.

Marlin Brando

We leave the joke as an exercise to the reader. 😸

There is also the tune “Marlon Brando” initially composed by Jason Berry for Vacuum Tree Head, which I redid for my own band CDP.  Here is a live performance of us playing it at the Make Out Room in San Francisco.

CDP Marlon Brando May 1 from CatSynth on Vimeo.

And finally, our friends at the Cat Museum of San Francisco shared this feline photo today.

Wordless Wednesday: Me and a Big Cat in SoHo (New York)

A rare self-portrait for Wordless Wednesday. This was taken last September in the SoHo district of lower Manhattan when we espied this large sculpture of a cat.

Pitta of the Mind, Usufruct, Alex Cruse, Murder Murder at Pro Arts

As we get ready for our next Pitta of the Mind show this Thursday, March 8, we look back at our recent show at Pro Arts in Oakland, where we were joined by Usufruct, Alex Cruse, and Murder Murder.  You can see a bit of all four groups in this recent CatSynth TV episode.

Pitta of the Mind’s color theme (we always have a color or pattern theme) for this evening was blue and featured blue-themed poems by Maw Shein Win, many from her new book Invisible Gifts.  

Pitta of the Mind
[Photo by Tom Scandura]

I used the Prophet 12 synthesizer, along with the modular system, my trusty Nord Stage, and some percussion instruments to create a musical interplay with the words as well as the space between them.

Amanda's Pitta of the Mind Setup with Prophet 12, Modular synth and Nord Stage EX

Even though we haven’t performed in a while and only had one rehearsal, I felt this was one of our strongest performances – and the feedback I got from the audience backed up that perception.  In particular, I think the poem “You Will Be With Me in a Town Called Paradise” came out particularly well, with a sultry vibe and jazzy accompaniment on electric piano.

After our set, Usufruct, the duo of Polly Moller Springhorn and Tim Walters took the stage.


[Photo by Tom Scandura]

As the word “usufruct” implies, they make use of materials for which they have usage rights beyond ownership, such as public-domain text sources.  Polly’s vocal interpretations of the texts are processed electronically by Tim using custom programs written in SuperCollider.  The end result is simultaneously dark and playful.  But beyond the text sections, I was particularly taken with the instrumental portion at the beginning, which featured bass flute live and electronically processed.

Alex Cruse brought a very different vibe and sensibility to the evening, with an electronic performance that focused on beats, loops, and hits.

There were many delightful sounds and many hard-edged industrial noise moments as well.  The vocals were deliberately obscured by heavy distortion and other processing but provided a percussive element that worked well with the rhythms.

The final set by Murder Murder was again something altogether different.  With two drummers, two horns, two electronic performers, and vocals, it was nonstop intensity from the first drum hit.

The intensity continued for several minutes and then came to a sudden close.  It was the musical equivalent of a tornado tearing through our calm evening of voice and electronics, but perhaps it was a fitting coda to the evening.

We thank Pro Arts and Sarah Lockhart for having us at this series, which has become quite a mainstay of the Oakland scene.  I hope to be back again soon with one of my other projects.  And of course, we are looking forward to our next Pitta of the Mind Show – where we will once again be joined by Usufruct – at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco on Thursday, March 8 at 8 PM.

Farewell to 2017

2017 in review

Once again, it is time for our end-of-year collage and review. So many images to choose from in such a busy 2017 that took us in so many directions at once, both outward and inward.

At the end of 2016, I was still reeling from the loss of Luna and the election.  But I did welcome Sam Sam into my life and also promised myself that I would prosper and thrive in the new terrifying Trump era.  And we did, focusing on moving forward with the things from 2016 that did go well.  Lots of new music as a solo performer, with my new band CDP, and with Vacuum Tree Head.   There are now three CatSynth-branded apps for both iOS and Android, and a fourth on the way.  We launched CatSynth TV, with 22 videos under our belt since October.  And Sam Sam has blossomed into a sassy and thoroughly spoiled cat whom we love dearly.

If there is a word of caution on the personal and professional fronts, it is perhaps that 2017 was too much.  After a strong first half of the year through July, I scaled back on live performance to focus on other priorities.  I regret that, but it was also the reality of the many things going on.  I wish the apps, blog, and video channels were progressing faster, but it’s as fast as we can go with our myriad other responsibilities.  The last couple months, while still rich with experience, have been an exercise in paring back and trying to focus on the highest priorities; and also focus on health, self-care, and well being.  These are all very challenging, but I’m grateful to have the help of loved ones.

We cannot ignore the fact that our rebound in 2017 after two difficult years took place amidst a dark pall over the country and world.  Many friends have suffered amidst the monumental forces of hurricanes, flooding, fires, and human foolishness.  The latter is most visible in the face of the current regime that continues to embarrass and threaten us.  These are things we have to be vigilant about as we move in 2018.  I do feel personally in the cross-hairs on multiple fronts, so I hope we can continue to survive and prosper as well as we did in 2017, and maybe at the end of 2018 we will look back and saw how the world became at least a slightly better place.

It is also interesting to look back to our end-of-year post from 2007, ten years ago.  It was a dark, cold time amidst major life changes – I couldn’t have imagined then what life would be like now.  Will we feel the same way in 2027?  And will there still be a CatSynth then?  Only time will tell…