Hardly Strictly Personal 2017 Day 1: Vacuum Tree Head and More

We conclude our reverse-order look at the Hardly Strictly Personal 2017 Festival that took place at the Finnish Kaleva Hall in Berkeley about two months ago. This day featured Vacuum Tree Head among several other acts.

Vacuum Tree Head
[Photo by Karen de la Cuesta]

This was among the best Vacuum Tree Head shows I have experienced since joining the band, in terms of energy and musical tightness. The rhythm section, anchored by Justin Markovits on drums and John Shiurba on bass functioned well as a unit and provided a foundation for the rest of the band. We had three horn players: Joshua Marshal, Jason Bellenkes and Richard Lesnik. Our guitar section featured Richard Corny, and Michael de la Cuesta, who also was part of the synth/keyboard section of the band with me. And Jason Berry ran the show with new tunes, new arrangements and interstitial entertainment. We will have a full video of our set soon along with a more detailed review, but for now here is a little clip courtesy of our friend Rick Rees.

As mentioned in previous articles the overarching theme of HSP2017 was “A Celebration of Post-Beefheart Art.” The first two acts of the evening took the theme quite seriously. Earspray projected videos along with Beefhart clips mixed with live improvisations.

Earspray

The group features Ann O’Rourke on electronics and video, Carlos Jennings on electronics, and Mark Pino on percussion. Mark returned in Crow Crash Radio, which also featured Brian Strang on guitar Andrew Joron on theremin along with guest Garrett Caples on vocals.

Crow Crash Radio

Like Earspray, Crow Crash Radio worked the Beefhart theme directly into the contact of their set, with Caples channeling him in his vocal sound and style as the band covered Diddy Wah Diddy and other songs. If there was one thing that didn’t work, it was not being able to hear the vocals well, though perhaps that was part of the concept.

The band performances contrasted sharply with a quiet so set by Jakob Pek on guitar. He uses extended techniques on the instrument, preparations, and electronics to create unusual soundscapes. The sound is mostly long tones and timbres, but punctuated by percussive elements as well.

Jakob Pek

The final set of the evening brought Lost Planet to the stage.

Lost Planet

This band, which features Dave Slusser on winds and electronics, Thomas Scandura on drums, and Len Paterson and Steve Clarke on guitars, mixed loud rock elements with space jazz for an energetic set. In some ways, they combined elements prominent in the previous band sets of the evening.

It was fun to play with VTH on this night and hear the other groups, as I also did with CDP on night 3. We would like to thank Mika Pontecorvo for organizing this event, as well as Elijah Ponteocorvo, Kersti Abrams, Mark Pino and everyone else who followed teared to make it a success.

Vacuum Tree Head and More at All Tomorrow’s After Parties 2016

No sooner was I back from New York than I found myself preparing for another series of performances, this time in various groups for NextNow Present’s All Tomorrows After Parties 2016 at Berkeley Arts in the town of the same name. The three-day long festival was both a musical showcase for the community and a benefit for homeless action and support in the Bay Area. This article focuses on the first evening which featured a performance by Vacuum Tree Head.

Vacuum Tree Head
[Photo by Polly Moller]

The band is ever evolving, with a changing cast of musicians joining Jason Berry and Mike de la Cuesta. On this night the band included Amanda Chaudhary on keyboards, Justin Markovits on drums, Richard Corny on guitar, Galen Stagner on bass, and Jason Bellenkes and Joshua Marshall on horns. From just the images alone, one can tell this is a new incarnation of the band, with a well-dressed frontline coincidentally featuring “Nord red”; and a funkier, jazzier sound anchored by a tight rhythm section. You can hear our entire set in this video.

While the funky finale EMS Deluxe might be the most memorable of the set, each song was played well and had something unique to offer. This was my favorite rendition of Nubdug to date. The “Mystic Chord” and Gnostic Charms medley was our most abstract, featuring synth, a Waterphone and complex tones evolving into a driving rhythmic finish. And Hegemony Cricket opened things up with a bang. The set was well received by the audience; and I think everyone in the band that night was very happy with the performance. We hope to play together again as a unit in the not-too-distant future, so please look for updates here on CatSynth and elsewhere.

Vacuum Tree Head closed out an evening that was primary focused on music with words, although like us the first set was entirely instrumental. Joshua Allen and Rob Pumpelly combined forces in a frenetic duo.

Pumpelly / Allen Duo

Joshua Allen brought his virtuosic saxophone techniques to the performance; and between the two of them the energy never let up for the entire duration of the set. Their set reminded me a bit of the Coltrane album Interstellar Space.

Next up was Cartoon Justice, a noise-jazz project featuring Mika Pontecorvo on guitar, flute, and electronics, Kersti Abrams on winds, Mark Pino on Drums, and Elijah Pontecorvo on bass. They were joined by Meg Pontecorvo who read some of her science fiction writings.

Cartoon Justice

The music moved though a variety of sounds, but had a “space” vibe that complemented that texts. The concept brings to mind Sun Ra, though the sound was more reminiscent of Musica Elettronica Viva, a 1970s Italian improvising group that sometimes featured the likes of Steve Lacy and Frederic Rzewski. Of course, their sound is their own, particularly with Mark Pino’s unique drum style, Eli Pontecorvo’s bass bringing a bit of a rock/metal sound to the mix, Mika Pontecorvo’s electronic manipulations, and Meg Pontecorvo’s words.

Cartoon Justice was followed by Poetics of Narrative, a trio with guitar, electronics, and voice. I spied experimental writer Andrew Joron on theremin.

Poetics of Narrative

This group was fun and I liked there sound. It ranged from more noisy moments to playful songs with complex lyrics and melancholy melodies. In addition to the theremin, the performance featured accordion and other instruments among the ever-present small electronics. The combination of elements was reminiscent of the Tone Dogs and other avant-prog groups of that era. And the costuming and theatrics were a welcome addition.

Poetics of Narrative

I regret not being able to see the set by Oa, the duo of my friends Matt Davignon and Hugh Behm-Steinberg. But I know that their unique mix of electronic processing and poetry fit into the evening’s theme while taking the concept of music and words in a very different direction from the previous sets.

Overall, it was a wonderful evening of music, and in some ways I am still glowing from our Vacuum Tree Head set. We had a good and appreciative audience, and raised some good funds for the causes. We are grateful to have participated, and in particular would like to thank Mika Pontecorvo, Eli Pontecorvo and Mark Pino for all their help with both our set and the entire event.

Space Music Night at the Luggage Store Gallery, San Francisco

Earlier this month, I participated in a show at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco called Space Music Night that turned out to be quite memorable. So what exactly is “space music”? It is not straightforward to come up with a definitive answer, except that it should reflect some sense of “outer space” as one might imagine it. Or, perhaps more accurately, as people might have imagined it in the 1960s and 1970s. The music that we performed that evoke “space rock” that one might associate with early Pink Floyd or Gong, but also more freeform ambient soundscapes. The latter comes closer to ambient music one might hear on NPR’s “Hearts of Space” program but without crossing over that dangerous line into New Age. The music was certainly contemplative at times, but retained an edge to it and often veered back to rock and jam idioms, and moved back and forth between defined harmonies and more abstract timbres. The “space” effect was also heightened by having a dark room with abstract video projections by Tim Thompson.

The show was divided into two sets with four musicians each. Although many of us were familiar to one another, this was the first each each set of four played together as a group. The first set featured Matt Davignon on drum machines and effects, Kristen Miltner on electronics, Karl Evangelista on guitar, and Andrew Joron on theremin. Musically, this set had a very thick electronic texture with a soft beat from the drum machines that came in and out of presence. The electronics and heavily processed guitar provided anxious harmonies, and the theremin seemed to be narrating a space story with warbles and slides that approached the rhythm of human speech. At moments, the rhythm dropped out altogether, while at others it came closer to an extended jam. You can hear a bit of the set in the following video:

In the second set, I performed with iPad and the Dave Smith Evolver, along with David Leikam, Sheila Bosco on drums, and Steve Abbate on guitar. Perhaps it was the instrumentation of the set, or the musical leanings of the performers (including myself) towards strong rhythm, but we very quickly gelled into a steady rock jam rhythm that extended for most of the length of the set except for avery deliberate breaks. I mostly used Sunrizer on the iPad to provide ethereal harmonies to set again Leikam’s Moog Rogue and his “electric bass cello” and provide structure for melodic improvisation. This was definitely approaching the “space rock” idiom that inspired the evening.

I was quite happy with how well we able to play together despite having not played together before, and indeed a few people afterwards expressed some surprise that we hadn’t. But perhaps we will get a chance to play again.

2010 DroneShift – Long Nights Moon Concert

Two weeks ago, I participated in the 2010 edition of the Droneshift at the Luggage Store Gallery here in San Francisco.
The Droneshift has become an annual event, though this year it was part of the Full-Moon Concert Series, approximately coincident with the Long Nights Moon.

Droneshift is a collaborative concert of improvised drone music. Between 15 and 25 musicians will gather to contribute to a continuous 2 hour drone, each adding their acoustic or electronic instruments here and there, and weaving their sounds together to create gradually shifting tapestries of music. The performance will most likely shift back and forth from completely acoustic music to electric ambiance and post-industrial noise.

Basically, the two hour performance is one continuous ever-changing sound. No individual notes, rests, phrases, breaks, etc. That doesn’t mean it is at all monotonous – there are continuous changes in timbre, dynamics and expression, both within individual parts as various musicians enter and exit the sound.


[Rachel Wood-Rome, Rent Romus. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. (Click images to enlarge.)]

There were actually close to (if not more than) 30 performers participating this year. The performers were arranged along periphery of the gallery with the audience situated in the middle looking outward. So between the audience and musicians, things got quite crowded. I was able to stake out some chair space for myself my minimalist setup:

I just had the iPad and an amplifier, and I was primarily running the Smule Magic Fiddle throughout my allotted time. It is a good instrument for droning, as one can linger on the strings pretty much forever, and play subtle pitch and dynamic changes. It’s easy to gradually fade out, and then fade in very slowly another pitch, which will change the overall sound of the performance without causing a distinct note break.

Because the nature of overall drone sound and the large number of participants, it was often difficult to focus on what any one other musician was playing. I mostly shifted between focusing on my own part and getting lost in the overall sound, which was quite meditative at times. I was able to take in some details, such as Matt Davignon’s distinctive glass-vase performance:


[Matt Davignon. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. (Click image to enlarge.)]

David Michalak’s Omnichord and Joe McMahon’s plastic-tube “didgeridoo” were also quite distinctive (particularly because they were sitting near me):


[David Michalak, Joe McMahon. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. (Click images to enlarge.)]

I was sitting across from Adam Fong on upright bass. There were moments when I took cues from him and other string players to re-enter the mix on Magic Fiddle. I was also trying to take cues from purely electronic musicians, such as Kristen Miltner on laptop or Andrew Joron’s theremin:


[Adam Fong, Kristen Miltner. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. (Click images to enlarge.)]

Overall, the instrumentation was quite varied and there was a balance between winds, strings, percussion and electronic, although there were a few moments were it seemed some low-frequency analog electronics were overpowering everything else. It was interesting to hear how the textures and orchestration evolved. Sometimes similar instruments (e.g., strings) would cluster together, sometimes the texture became more scratchy and granular with lots of noise elements – something which is pushing the boundaries of what might be considered a continuous “drone” sound. At times, traditional harmonies emerged, e.g., minor or diminished chords, while at other times the timbres themselves were purely inharmonic. There were very sparse sections with only one or two participants, and others that seemed to include much of the ensemble. All of these elements just happen organically, based on how the musicians hear one another and are inspired to layer on their own parts.


[Ron Heglin, Aurora Josephson. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. (Click images to enlarge.)]

You can listen to a ten-minute excerpt of the full performance in this video, courtesy of Matt Davignon:

As one can hear, the emergency vehicles that inevitably come down Market Street with sirens blaring during Luggage Store Gallery shows became part of the overall tapestry in this performance.

My personal sense of the performance as being meditative, perhaps even more so than previous Droneshifts, was echoed by members of the audience with whom I had spoken.

In addition to reflecting on the music, I would like to call out the photography of Peter B Kaars, which is featured in this article Those who have followed my own interest in photography know I tend to like very sharp, high-contrast black-and-white images. Additionally the monochrome fits with the full-moon theme and overall quality of the music they document. I wish I had space for more, or to call out more individual musicians. A full list of performers appears below:

Tom Bickley – wind controller
CJ Borosque – trumpet
Bob Boster – processed voice
Amar Chaudhary – iThings
Matt Davignon – wine glasses/vessels
Tony Dryer – bass
Adam Fong – bass
Phillip Greenlief – sax/clarinet
Ron Heglin – trombone/trumpet
Jeff Hobbs – bass, clarinet or violin
Travis Johns – electronics
Andrew Joron – theremin
Aurora Josephson – voice
Sebastian Krawczuk – bass
David Leikam – Moog rogue synthesizer
Cheryl Leonard – viola
Brian Lucas – electric bass / tapes
Melissa Margolis – accordion
Bob Marsh – voice
Marianne McDonald – didgeridoo
Chad McKinney – supercollider/guitar
Joe McMahon – didgeridoo
David Michalak – Omnichord
Kristin Miltner – laptop
Ann O’Rourke – bowed cymbal
Ferrara Brain Pan – sopranino saxophone
Rent Romus – sax/tapes
Ellery Royston – harp w/effects
Lx Rudis – electronics
Mark Soden – trumpet
Moe! Staiano – guitar
Errol Stewart – guitar
Lena Strayhorn – tsaaj plaim / wind wand
Zachary Watkins – electronics
Rachel Wood-Rome – french horn
Michael Zelner – analog monophonic synthesizer, iPod Touch

Ivy Room Experimental Improv Hootenany, November 16

Last Monday, I performed again the experimental improv “Hootenanny” at the Ivy Room in Albany, CA. This is always a fun series to participate in or attend. It starts a little later at 9PM, and is set in a rather plush bar that makes a great setting for drinks and experimental music.

Free Rein. Photo by Michael Zelner

The evening opened with Free Rein, consisting of Andrew Joron (percussion, theremin), Joseph Noble (woodwinds) and Brian Lucas (guitar).  They began with Joron playing a bowed metal percussion instrument and Noble on flute.  The bowed instrument had discrete pitches and the music was quite tonal and repetitive, almost hypnotic. They were joined after a while by Lucas on guitar, and together weaved between pentatonic and chromic sounds that were sometimes quite lush, and other times sparse. Joron switched the theremin at some point during the set, and there was a particularly interesting duo of theremin and pennywhistle.

Free Rein gave way to The Lords of Outland with CJ “Reaven” Borosque (electronics), Philip Everett (drums), Ray Scheaffer (bass), and Rent Romus (alto saxophone).  There sound was loud, fast, dramatic, with many of the standard idioms from free jazz, run of fast notes (particularly from Romus on sax), squeaks, and loud hits.  It was interesting to have the electronic noises set against the jazz sounds.

Lords of Outland.  Photo by Michael Zelner.

Lords of Outland. Photo by Michael Zelner.

The set was very energetic and seemed to go by fast, and I had to keep track of time lest I miss the start for the set that I was curating.  On cue, as they faded out, we began to fade in.

Photo by Michael Zelner

Photo by Michael Zelner

The set I curated included myself on electronics, Brandan Landis on prepared guitar, Beau Casey on violin and David Slusser on saxophone and the Slussomatic. As usual, I began by ringing one of my prayer bowls, which was answered by the metallic sounds of the prepared guitar and the violin, followed by the Kaos Pad and Evolver, and then the Slussomatic.  None of us have played together as a group before, but I was happy with the way we able to play off one another.  There were a couple of moments that particularly stood out for me, such as a rhythmic ostinato that emerged organically and I then reinforced; we went on with that pattern for a while, adding accents and syncopations; towards the end, the full ensemble played a series of loud and dramatic swells (anchored by a noise patch on the Evolver) that brought the set to a close…

Elizabeth Torres with Cansafis Foote. Photo by CatSynth.

…which segued to the next set featuring Elizabeth Torres on tenor sax, with Cansafis Foote on baritone sax and Mario Silva on trumpet.  The set began with Torres and Foote as a duo, moving between very synchronous playing in which the two saxophones acted as one instrument, and Torres’ improvising freely against a driving but ever-changing rhythm provided by Foote.    The duo was then joined by Silva, again moving back and forth between more free improvisation and rhythmic sections.

Thanks again to Lucio Menegon for hosting the series and Suki O’kane for being “virtual Lucio” on this particular night.