Preparing for Tonight’s Show at The Lab

I have been busily preparing for tonight’s solo set at The Lab here in San Francisco. As usually happens, I initially plan to simplify the setup, but then as I work on the set musically, more instruments and equipment end up part of the rig. And this one may be one of the largest to date.

In addition to the Nord Stage (aka “The Big Red Keyboard”), there is the newly reconfigured modular synth, the Prophet 12, the Moog Mother 32, Casio SK-1, and iPad. The modular path features multiple voices, including some processing external audio from the Nord and the SK-1, respectively.

Why so big? Well, it comes out the current musical direction, which mixes jazz and funk with experimental electronics. That means a full-size keyboard is always present. And the electronics has to provide rhythmic and harmonic support in addition to timbral support. This always adds significant complexity, but provides for a richer musical experience.


Here are the details on the show, including the other acts. I am excited to have a group improv with my friends Joshua Marshall, Jaroba, and Christina Stanley. And the evening will begin with an orchestra of invented instruments from Pet The Tiger (David Samas, Tom Nunn et al.) with dance by Christina Braun. If you are in the Bay Area tonight, please consider joining us.

Thursday, June 22, 8PM
The Lab
2948 16th St SF

A special evening of funky and noisy sounds, invented instruments, whimsy, and more 😺 🎶

8:00PM Pet The Tiger Inventors Collective performs Arc Weld
8:40PM Amanda Chaudhary solo. Funky and experimental electronics
9:20PM Amanda Chaudhary with collaborators Joshua Marshall, Jaroba, and Christina Stanley

door: $5-10

Additional info on BayImproviser.

Optical Sounds: Dementia (Frith, Custer, Stanley)

Optical Sounds is a monthly series at the Center For New Music in San Francisco, curated by Tania Chen with Benjamin Ethan Tinker featuring live improvisation to soundless films. We had the opportunity to attend the most recent installment, which featured a trio of Fred Frith, Beth Custer and Christina Stanley interpreting the 1955 dialogue-less film “Dementia” by John Parker.

DementiaWe at CatSynth often enjoy unusual films, but “Dementia” is weird even among weird films, though the Variety description “May be the strangest film ever offered for theatrical release” seems a bit hyperbolic. The film follows the inner thoughts and actions of a woman as she wanders through dark corners of Los Angeles with even darker characters, while recalling violent events of her childhood. The film is part psychological thriller, part film noir, and part surrealist experiment, constantly jumping between the tropes of all three.

The original soundtrack featured music by George Antheil and a section with Shorty Rogers and his band who also appeared in the film. For this performance however, the original soundtrack was absent with Frith, Custer and Stanley providing the music. The constantly-changing nature of the film was reflected in the music, with eerie vocals by Beth Custer, percussive hits by Custer and Fred Frith, and a mixture of processed violin and analog synthesizer by Stanley. Overall, the music was energetic, with moments of chaos, but also some mellower pads by Stanley on synth. They did blend some film-score tropes into the performance, such as eerie sounds for the internal memories and thoughts of the main character, tense bits of sound for the dark streets of the city, and jazzy cabaret style riffs for the night-club scenes – the latter were definitely my favorite parts of the music.

The dialog-less nature of the film does facilitate such an improvised score, but the oddness of its structure must have made it challenging. But the trio pulled it off. I am glad to have been able to attend the performance and look forward to more in this series.

Outsound New Music Summit: Jill Burton Trio, Obstreperous Doves, Emergency String (X)tet

The 2014 Outsound New Music Summit concluded with a night of improvising ensembles, including a couple of very memorable performances.

The evening being with the Obstreperous Doves, a project by Bill Noertker that brought together Nava Dunkelman, Christina Stanley, Karl Evangelista, and Dave Mihaly in an exploration of assertive and complex improvisation.

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[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

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[Photos by Michael Zelner]

Besides giving us a chance to use the word “obstreperous” – and it is indeed a fine word – the ensemble allowed the talents of all five artists to blend while still letting them each have a voice. Christina Stanley provided noisy and harmonic violin sounds as well as her voice, including a strange but amusing story layered on top of pieces. Nava Dunkelman offered up a wealth of percussive sounds that also sang at times. Karl Evangelista was in usual form with his intense and intricate guitar playing. The group lived up to its name with lots of noisy percussive sections, but also moments of more harmonic jazz phrases, and quiet instances as well.

The Obstreperous Doves were followed by the Bob Marsh’s ensemble the Emergency String (X)tet. They premiered a Terrascore by Marsh composed for his 70th birthday.

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[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

A terrascore is “a musical geobiographic representation of an individual.” In this case it focused on locations significant to Marsh’s artistic life: his home town of Detroit, Chicago, Berkeley and San Francisco. The ensemble improvised with Marsh conducting from a score based on geographical information from these places, along with field recordings that he made. I’m pretty sure I recognized the one that represented the area around the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco. The other members of the ensemble included Mia Bella D’Augelli, Jeff Hobbs,
Christina Stanley (pulling double-duty on this night), David Michalak, Doug Carroll, and Kanoko Nishi-Smith.

The final performance was a trio that brought together vocalist Jill Burton with Tim Perkis on electronics and Doug Carroll (also pulling double-duty) on cello. This was a first-time collaboration by the three of them. The result very captivating performance. It started with a very mysterious and haunting solo by Jill Burton, who then demonstrated the range of her extended vocal techniques blending with Perkis’ liquidy electronic sounds and Carroll’s scratchy percussive cello. It was also a theatrical performance, with expressive gestures and movement by Burton coupled with Carroll’s cello antics, sometimes turning the instrument backwards or upside down. But all along with a sonically beautiful and varied experience, that contained the right amount of silence amidst the energy of the sounds.

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[Photo by Michael Zelnzer]

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[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

It was a very strong finale to this year’s summit, and it was interesting to compare and contrast the book ends of the Jill Burton trio with Pitta of the Mind from the opening. It was probably among the best years overall since I started attending this event in 2008; and I look forward to what comes next year.

San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF): Celebrating John Cage

Today we review the opening concert of the Thirteenth Annual San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF). The concert was a tribute to John Cage on his centennial (one of many) and took place at SFMOMA. It specifically featured four of his conceptual pieces with chance processes or novel instrumentation.

The main included a performance of Cage’s Score Without Parts on SFMOMA’s rooftop terrace, conducted by Gino Robair with texts by Tom Djll. The performance was in conjunction with the opening of the museum’s intriguing minimalist design exhibition Field Conditions. There were even hors d’oeuvres served on tiles from one of the pieces in the exhibit. Unfortunately, because of another commitment I only arrived at the tail end of the performance, so I did not hear enough to reasonably review it.


[sfSoundGroup. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The main concert opened with members of sfSoundGroup performing Cartridge Music. This is the same piece that concluded the Music of Changes: Variation VIII concert a few weeks earlier, and featured the same personnel: Matthew Goodheart, Kyle Bruckmann, Matt Ingalls, and Tom Dambly. However, I felt that this was a stronger performance. Some of this may have been the staging and the sound support, but it also seemed that the cues for various elements were crisper and tighter, and the selection of sounds to use with the contact mics (i.e,, “catridges”) was more focused and suited to the structure of the piece. As in all music, practice and review from earlier performances helps.

This was followed by a performance of Cage’s most famous work, 4’33”. Normally, the piece is for a single pianist, but this particular performance featured a laptop ensemble. After all, it is a festival of electronic music.


[4’33” performed with laptops. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The performers (mostly members of SFEMF’s steering committee) sat in silence, as required by the score of the piece, with a few motions here and there. The audience mostly listened respectfully as well, I only noticed a few deliberate comments at soft volume. Thus, it was a successfully executed performance of the piece. I hope none of the laptops crashed.

The score for Fontana Mix, which is itself a work of art with curving lines and randomly distributed points, is actually a tool for generating other pieces. Aria is one such piece that Cage himself generated. For this performance, Fontana Mix with electronic sounds and Aria for voice were layered on top of one another, with Daniel Steffey and Christina Stanley performing the layers on electronics and voice, respectively.


[Daniel Steffey and Christina Stanley. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

My least favorite performance of a Cage composition was a boring and long version of Fontana Mix, so I had a little bit of trepidation. But this realization by Steffey and Stanley was vibrant and dynamic. Stanley’s vocals moved between numerous styles of singing (e.g., classical, popular, cabaret) and languages, punctuated by percussive strikes on found objects. Steffey’s foundation of electronic timbres was strong as well, with a lot of variation that left room for the vocals. Using these elements, they were able to realize genuine musical phrases and structure with a sense of narrative from the abstract scores.

The final performance of the evening was a realization of Variations II by Guillermo Galindo that featured a mariachi band. A mariachi band performing John Cage is certainly unusual, but in truth no different from any other interpretation of his scores with open instrumentation. For this performance, a four-piece group Mariachi Nueva Generación with traditional costumes and instrumentation, including violin, trumpet, the distinctive large guitarrón mexicano, and guitar.


[Mariachi Nueva GeneraciónPhoto: PeterBKaars.com.a]

Like Fontana Mix, Variations II is based on graphical elements that are combined to form instances of the composition. Specifically in this case, the interpreter combines lines and dots that represent musical elements that can then be notated for the performers. The result in this instance was a very sparse texture. The musicians would often play a single or pair of disjoint notes surrounded by periods of silence. There were only a few moments where multiple members of the ensemble played at the same time. The texture is a familiar one from realizations of Cage’s indeterminate pieces, but the overall experience with the band was a novel one.

The musical performance was preceded by a video with documentation and commentary produced by Jen Cohen. The video had some fun moments, with befuddled Mills professors reacting to the idea of a mariachi band performing Cage, and allusions to the graphical elements of the Variations II score. It didn’t feel like it was necessary to the experience of the performance. Nonetheless, Galindo considered it an “inseparable part of the piece and one doesn’t exist without the other.”

Overall, it was a strong opening concert for the festival, and it was quite well attended.

Outsound Music Summit: The Composers’ Muse

The Outsound Music Summit continued with The Composers Muse, a night of new compositions by three noted Bay Area composers. They were participants in the Composers’ Forum that I moderated earlier in the week, where they gave tantalizing descriptions of their work. On this evening, we finally got to hear what they were talking about.

The concert opened with the Skadi Quartet performing compositions by Christina Stanley, who also is the first violist for the quartet. Her compositions were based on large abstract oil paintings that were placed center stage, with members of ensemble arrayed to either side.


[Christina Stanley and Skadi Quartet. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

As someone interested in visual art as well as music, I was quite intrigued by this piece, and how the composer wanted the performers to interpret the visual work. Stanley had very specific instructions for performers in each piece for how to perform the score. In the first piece, Put it On, performers were to move visually from the focal point just to the lower right of center and move outwards, with different shapes corresponding to very specific sounds and modes of playing. You can see a close-up of the score at Stanley’s website. Within this structure, the music began with short notes and then moved to longer bow strokes, jaggedly moving up and down in pitch. My visual and aural senses focused on the straight-line character of both the score and the music. At one point, the performers diverged into different textures, with staccato notes against longer lines and glissandi that then melted into a single harmony. There were also elements of noise and percussive scraping, harmonics, and quite a bit of empty space in the sound. The piece concluded with a large and more traditional flourish.

The second piece was a duo of Stanley and cellist Crystal Pascucci. The score for this piece was more sparse with curving lines, and these qualities were reflected in the music as well. It started with harmonics and other high, airy tones. Overall, it was more melodic, but with some pizzicato tones as well. Gradually, the cello became lower and filled out the harmony, which seemed almost folk-music-like at times. There other elements such as sliding harmonics, but overall it still fit with the visual imagery of the score.

The next set featured a solo piece written and performed by Matthew Goodheart for piano and metal percussion. Gongs and cymbals were placed at various spots around the hall, including in the balcony. A small transducer was attached to each of the instruments so that it could be excited by electronically generated sounds.


[Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The sounds used to excite the metal percussion were created by analyzing the partials and spectra of such instruments, a process that was part of his research involving “recursive physical object electro-acoustics” at the Center for New Music and Audio Technologies (CNMAT). The acoustic and spectral properties of these sounds also informed Goodheart’s live piano performance during the piece.


[Matthew Goodheart. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The music that resulted was unusual and exceptionally beautiful. It began with high ethereal harmonics coming from the cymbals and gong spreading across the hall, and then high notes from the piano to match. The piano and some of the harmonics featured in the metal percussion gave the music an air of anxiety even while it was calming. As the harmonics grew thicker, the timbre grew more metallic and at moments took on the quality of water pouring. The music became more active, deeper harmonics and a few tones that sounded like flutes and clarinets alongside the metallic resonances. Again, Goodheat’s piano matched the changes in timbre as he moved into lower registers. Some of the sounds from the cymbals became more disjointed, sounding like tops, and after a loud gong hit the texture of the music grew thicker and more inharmonic. Then all at once it stopped leaving a single resonance. It looked like Goodheart was playing inside the piano as well with various objects, though it was hard to tell from where I was sitting. There were various percussive sounds and something that reminded me of my cat scratching, and then piano became more harmonic and tonal again with rather plaintive chords. There were more high frequencies and electronic swells broadcast through the cymbals, and a finale with a single repeated note on the piano. Overall, the performance was one of the most memorable experiences of the summit.

The concert concluded with John Shiurba’s large-scale composition 9:9. The number 9 permeated the structure and concept of the piece. There were nine performers and nine movements; and the piece employed a nine-note scale and nine different styles of notation all derived in one way or another from newspapers – there was standard notation along with text and graphics, some of which were taken directly from newspaper clips. Shiurba described his use of newspaper elements as a “celebration and/or elegy for the old-fashioned print medium.”


[John Shiurba 9:9. Photo: PeterBKaars.com.]

The movements were bounded by vocal interpretations of cryptograms from the New York times. The encrypted text was sung by Polly Moller, who had to work through challenging clusters of consonants. The decrypted solutions, which often featured corny or trite phrases, were sung by Hadley McCarroll in a more melodic style. Within this structure, each movement began with a solo by one of the nine performers, with a couple of other instruments gradually joining in, and finally the entire ensemble. Each of the solo sections had a very different character, representing both the performer and his or her instrument. Ava Mendoza’s strong articulation on acoustic guitar stood out, and Polly Moller’s solo on bass flute sounded quite familiar from Reconnaissance Fly pieces. The piano solo by Hadley McCarroll was quite aggressive, as was the bass clarinet solo by Matt Ingalls. There were interesting moments in the ensemble playing as well, such as a big minor chord and a section that more jazz or cabaret-like. Other sections were extremely quiet. The final movement featured a percussion solo by Gino Robair on a variety of instruments and implements, which mirrored the introduction to the piece. Other members of the ensemble included Philip Greenlief on clarinet, Monica Scott on cello, Scott Walton on bass, and Sarah Wilner on violin.

This was a very successful concert for the Outsound Music Summit, and not only musically. We had a full house at the Community Music Center, and I am pretty sure we set a record for paid attendance. There was certainly a lot of Outsound, curator Polly Moller, the composers and performers to be proud of.

Outsound Music Summit: Touch the Gear and Composers’ Forum

The 2012 Outsound Music Summit began this Sunday with the annual Touch the Gear Expo. Visitors have a chance to see and try out the equipment used by musicians and sound artists. Although we had fewer presenters this year, we had a variety of instruments and devices, and a fairly sizable crowd of visitors.

In the above image, we see Matt Davignon presenting effects pedals driven using a Casio keyboard, and Joe Lasquo presenting laptop-based programs with Max/MSP.

One of the fun aspects of Touch the Gear is getting one’s hands on instruments that one only sees on stage. For me, one of those opportunities came when I got to play the Arp 2600 that Benjamin Ethan Tinker brought to the event. It was only a little over a week earlier that I heard him play it at the Luggage Store Gallery.

But it there is the discovery of new and never-before seen musical creations. The most unusual for me was this creation by Omer Gal:

The organic head-like element contained several mechanical and optical sensors that one could touch or put ones hands near to affect the sound. A second part of the installation included a mechanical “robot” that played a set of strings with a pickup. The performer can affect the operation of the robot and the sound through electronic controls.

Other unusual electro-acoustic instruments were presented by Walter Funk and Dan Ake. Walter Funk’s metallic instrument called Ulysses offered opportunities to explore different resonances and timbres through sheets of metal, rods and springs arrayed throughout its body. Dan Ake’s invention was a series of gridded metal inside a large wooden box, than one could excite with a variety of objects, such as bows, rods and a glove with long wooden fingertips.

I was presenting at this event as well. I always try to bring something a little different each year. This year, I decided to go with two ends of the technology spectrum: an iPad running Animoog and iMS-20, and a Eurorack modular system with a Metasonx R53, Make Noise Echophon, Malekko Heavy Industry Anti-Oscillator, and several others. Both technologies caught people’s attention, with some more excited about the analog modular system with its physical knobs and cables, and others gravitating towards the iPad.

Andrew Wayne presented a very tangible set of objects containing unpopped popcorn kernels in aluminum trays and other contains, augmented with contact microphones and electronic effects. He assembled his own contact mics to use with these acoustic sources.

Other participants included CJ Borosque with an Alesis Air, Laurie Amat with vocal and ambient sources into a Line 6, and a surface by April-Jeanie Tang with rubber-ball mallets. Through contact miss, the action of the rubber mallets and the surface and transmitted to effects processors for a deep, haunting sound. Tom Duff presented a series of software processes that could be randomly controlled from a MIDI controller. Despite the randomness, it was quite expressive after playing with it and dialing in on particular processes.  He also had a couple of critters from Bleep Labs.

Long-time participants Tom Nunn and David Michalak were back again with the most recent incarnations of the sketch box. You can read an interview with Tun Nunn and discussion of his musical inventions here on CatSynth.

And finally, Bob Marsh was back with his intriguing and “charismatic” metal creations.

I do tend to gravitate towards metallic sounds when looking for new material, something which seems to be common among those who are looking for invention and discovery in musical sound.


On Monday night, the summit continued with the Composers Symposium, a panel discussion featuring four of the composers in this year’s festival: John Shiurba, Christina Stanley, Benjamin Ethan Tinker, and Matthew Goodheart were on hand to discuss their work. And as a first this year, I acted as the moderator for the evening. It was a great experience, and I did not have to do very much besides seeding the discussion with a few questions. From those starting points, a lively discussion ensued among the composers as well as dialog with the audience. We talked about the role of notation in each of the composers’ music, such as Stanley’s use of paintings as her scores and Shiurba’s use of graphical elements derived from print newspapers (a major theme of his piece this year); and the dual role that these artists played as both composers and performers. One of the things that made this panel work was the variety of musical disciplines, styles and backgrounds among the participants, as well as the interest that the audience brought to the discussion with their numerous questions. Everyone had criticisms of the terms “new music” and “experimental music” that are often used as blanket designations for the music featured in the summit and indeed much of the music reviewed here on CatSynth, but that was to be expected. The two hours of the discussion went by rather quickly, and I’d like to think everyone on the panel and in the audience found the experience enjoyable and illuminating. I would definitely like to do more of these at events in the future.