Idris Ackamoor Quartet, Amanda Chaudhary, IMA, Voicehandler. Second Act SF

Today we look back at a memorable show I played in a couple of weeks ago at Second Act here in San Francisco. Four acts each brought a different style of performance, instrumentation and experimentation to the stage.

First up was IMA, an electro-acoustic duo featuring Nava Dunkelman and Jeanie-Aprille Tang.

Nava Dunkelman and Jeanie-Aprille Tang

Their sound blends the noisier edges of percussion with a range of electronic sources, including loops, samples, and percussive hits that complement the acoustic sources. It was a loud and intense affair, but with quiet sections. Dunkelman also used her voice during the performance as another instrument.

Then it was time to take the stage. This was another set featuring Moog Theremini and analog modular synthesizer. The color theme for this performance was blue.

Amanda Chaudhary with Moog Theremini
[Photo by Tom Djll]

As with many of these electronic improvisation sets, it starts off very structured and then moves in different directions based on the audience, room, instrument behavior and inspiration. You can see the full performance in this video.

Amanda Chaudhary at Second Act from CatSynth on Vimeo.

Overall I was quite pleased with the performance and the audience reaction.

Next up was Voicehandler, a duo of Danishta Rivero and Jacob Felix Heule.

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Their sound was a bit more subtle than the previous acts. It featured Rivero on extended vocal techniques with a water-based electro-acoustic instrument of her own invention, the Hydrophonium; and Heule on extended percussion techniques that were often subtle and precise before veering into more energetic territory.

The final act was a quartet led by Idris Ackamoor featuring Mark Heshima Williams on bass, Bob Marshall in drums, and David Molina on guitar and laptop with Ableton Live!

Idris Ackamoor Quartet

Several of the musicians and musical pieces were familiar from Ackamoor’s renowned “afro-futurist” group The Pyramids. Indeed, the performance followed a similar structure with both a rhythmic entry and recessional. The rhythm section of Williams and Marshall was solid and perfect for some of the funkier grooves; and Ackamoor managed to move effortlessly between roles as horn-player and solo tap-dancing. It was interesting to hear David Molina and his guitar+electronic work, which I have heard before as a solo project, blended into this context.

Idris Ackamoor

All together it was a good show from all four groups, a diverse range of music. The large audience seem drawn to all the acts even if they initially came following one. And it’s great to see spaces like Second Act continuing to host shows like this in San Francisco. I hope to play there again sometime soon.

Getting Ready for “Play Ball!”, Arc Gallery

“Play Ball!” at Arc Gallery and Studios is a multimedia show about women’s passion for baseball bringing together artists Amanda Chaudhary, Mido Lee and Priscilla Otani. The installation was a true collaboration brought together our respective talents in physical object making, electronics, software, sound, and photography.

One of the more challenging aspects was the interactive sound installation, which was to be installed a series of columns representing the bases on a standard baseball diamond. Four sound sets were composed based on field recordings made at Bay Area games and installed on an Arduino-based system for playback. The electronics included the Arduino itself, a Wave Shield from Adafruit for sound playback, and several motion sensors.

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The sensors and main electronics package were installed in spheres made from baseball scorecards.

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Programming the devices, installing them into the physical space, and then testing and debugging was an incremental, iterative, and at times grueling process. But through repeated efforts and understanding the interaction of sensors, wiring, and our software code we ultimately made it work.

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[Photos by Priscilla Otani]

Within the final installation, viewers can explore the bases and the surrounding life-size images representing the diversity of women at baseball games. As viewers pass by individual bases, different sounds will be triggered, creating an immersive sound, space, and visual experience.

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“Play Ball!” opens at Arc Gallery and Studios on Friday, April 3. In keeping with the theme, traditional stadium fare (including hot dogs and peanuts) will be served.

2014: Transition and Turbulence

CatSynth 2014 in Review
[Click to enlarge.]

Once again, it’s time for our traditional end-of-the-year image at CatSynth. 2014 was a year like no other for us: transition, turbulence, complexity, controversy, beauty. Luna turned 10, and is enjoying the life of a mature but very spoiled house cat. And for me, the year began with a profound change that is still reverberating. Some things stayed remarkably constant, as one can see from themes in the words and images here. But others changed in ways I was not prepared for. Changes in my music, my personality and identity, my friendships and relationships, and my professional life. But in the end I learned the importance of speaking one’s truth. It comes with tremendous risks, but with potential great rewards. So what this means is that even more big changes are likely in store for 2015, especially in music, work, and the pages of this website.

The blog did suffer a bit amidst all the tumult of this past year, but we are reinvigorating it for 2015. There is the new look and feel – one of our truths – and more posts and channels coming. Thank you for being part of this year with us, and looking forward to the next!

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.

Ambient-Chaos, Ode To Steengo (Amanda Chaudhary / Polly Moller), Spectrum, New York

This past week Polly Moller and I brought our duo Ode to Steengo to Spectrum in New York, part of a rich night of experimental acoustic and electronic music in the Ambient-Chaos series.

The evening began with an acoustic brass duo featuring Torben Snekkestad on trumpet with David Whitwell on trombone.

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The two engaged in a very musical exploration of the extended timbres of these instruments. Indeed, I was quite captivated by the sounds of Whitwell’s drones and multiphonics, which sounded more like my Minimoog than a concert brass instrument. His use of a single-reed mouthpiece within the trombone’s mouthpiece was likely part of how he achieved these sounds. The pair also included sections with percussive pops and very quiet tones.

The duo was followed by the Jazzfakers, featuring Robbert Pepper on violin and electronics, David Tamura on saxophone and electronics, Raphael Zwyer on bass and Steve Orbach on drums.

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Before they start playing, they look like they could be a conventional jazz quartet, but once they start one realizes they are anything but that. Their energetic performance flowed between free improvisation, electronic noise, and more familiar rhythmic and harmonic hooks. What started as a thick noise drone quickly moved to frenetic fast-moving notes from all four performers, and then hit textures in between. They are also a lot of fun to watch.

And then it was time for us to take the stage. Ode to Steengo is a piece based on spoetry (spam poetry) derived from Harry Harrison’s “Stainless Steel Rat” series. Polly Moller and I performed it several times as an electro-acoustic duo in 2008 and 2009, and then later in our band Reconnaissance Fly. We have since reprised the piece as a duo a few times. We jokingly called this version “Steengo takes Manhattan.”

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[Photo by BC]

This performance was quite sparse, both in comparison to previous instances and to the Jazzfakers’ set that preceded us. But we were able to get quite a few interesting textures, some liquidy sounds from the analog modular controlled by the Moog Theremini, Polly’s flute and chanter, and a bit of live processing with a rather temperamental analog filter. As always, we try to bring a bit of wit and irreverence to our experimental music. You can here our full performance on this video.

Amanda Polly duo at Spetrum, 11-24-2014 from CatSynth on Vimeo.

Overall, it went well. We had a great time performing and we received a warm response from our New York audience.

We were followed by alphamale, a solo electronic-and-viola project.

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Her set started off as a thick drone of electronics. After a time, she began to incorporate the viola as well. Overall the texture remained one of long tones and ambient sounds. It was once again a contrast to our set and the others that preceded us, and quite pretty to listen to. At times it had a dark sound – it is hard to discern if the melancholy was truly in the sound or part of a built-in set of expectations around the viola. Nonetheless, it was nice to see someone using this instrument in a solo electronic setting.

The final set of the evening featured Rawmean, another solo set, this time with guitar and electronics.

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Very quickly, it was clear that this was more of a beat-and-grove set, with thick layers of guitar. The guitar work was interesting in that he was doing quick staccato motions but producing thick droning chord pads via the connected effects. The grooves and rhythmic patterns were fun, veering between straight 4/4 rhythms and the occasional odd times. Overall, the texture did remain quite constant, with a steady stream of beats that periodically changed. As I sometimes have suggested in these reviews, some sets that contain otherwise engaging material are better when shorter, and I think this was one of those instances.

Five sets in an evening is a lot, but overall we kept things moving. We had a good turnout for the first three sets, with a bit tapering off for the last two. But it was a diverse and rewarding evening of new music, and we were grateful to be a part of it. Thanks to my friends Robert Pepper (PAS) and Mike Durek (The Use) for putting this show together, and as always to Glenn Cornett of Spectrum for providing this venue for new and visiting avant-garde musicians.

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!

Reconnaissance Fly with Hay Fever and The Sibleys at The Palms

Today we look at the first of Reconnaissance Fly’s recent shows in the high desert of southern California near Joshua Tree. This show took place at The Palms in Wonder Valley, California. Wonder Valley is an odd place east of the town of Twentynine Palms. Wonder Valley is a community of sorts, but not really a town in its own right (indeed, I’m still trying to figure out what exactly Wonder Valley is). But the Palms is a destination for locals and others and often features live music.

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The evening opened with The Sibleys, which featured Laura Sibley on guitar/vocals and James Sibley on drums. They also happen to be the owners and operators of The Palms.

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Their original songs could be described as energetic rock-and-roll, with fun lyrics – I think many of us went away remembering “Black Kawasaki, I feel lucky…” And Laura Sibleys strumming and solos pushed the music forward. They were definitely a favorite among the local crowd, some of whom could be seen dancing.

Next up was Hay Fever, featuring Emily Hay on flute and vocals with Wayne Peet on various keyboards, and Steuart Liebig on bass and effects.

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Hay Fever is an improvising group, with a continuous ever-changing stream of music that spans the entire set. There were many moments that would fit into a “space music” show, with drones and arpeggios, but also more intense sections with vocals and playing, and very sparse moments leading back into a thick fog of sound. Liebig’s bass playing added some particularly interesting textures to the rest of the group’s sound.

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Then it was time for us, Reconnaissance Fly, to take the stage.

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We did a set that featured several of our tracks from the album, as well as some of the newer songs. Particularly when we got to the funkier tunes like Itzirktna or the harder rock sounds heads and ears from the bar turned in our direction. It may not have been our tightest performance, but we had a lot of fun and presented with energy.

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Overall, it was quite an experience to play at The Palms, perhaps a bit surreal given the desert surroundings and activity around us. We certainly hope to come back again some time.

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.

Amanda Chaudhary
[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.