Soundtracks at SFMOMA

Greetings, and happy third night of Hannukah! Today we look at the Soundtracks exhibition currently on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) through the end of the year. It is also the subject of our most recent CatSynth TV episode.

The exhibition explores the intersection of sound, visualization, and space, and features over 20 artists. There are a variety of interpretations and methods of making sound, from acoustic to mechanical to electronic. None of the sound installations are overpowering, but many do arrest ones attention. Upon arriving at the 7th floor for the exhibition, one is created by Anri Sala’s Moth in B-Flat, which features a mechanically triggered snare drum hanging inverted from the ceiling.

Anri Sala - Moth in B-Flat, 2015
[Anri Sala. Moth in B-Flat (2015_]

The electro-mechanical theme continues with O Grivo’s Cantilena, which includes several motorized sound-making sculptures primary made of wood.

O Grivo - Cantilena, 2017
[O Grivo. Cantilena (2017)]

These were fun to watch, and I found myself wanting to make one myself (we shall see if that actually occurs).

Simplicity reigned in Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s clinamen v.3. A large shallow pool of water contained floating ceramic bowls. The frequent collisions of the bowls created a music that was very captivating.

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot - clinamen v.3, 2012–ongoing
[Céleste Boursier-Mougenot. clinamen v.3 (2012–ongoing)]

This piece was deeply calming, and I found myself zeroing in on groups of bowls as they collided and separated to form rhythms and harmonies.

Ambient soundscapes were also the heart of an installation by Brian Eno, New Urban Spaces Series #4: “Compact Forest Proposal,”, with a darker tone and more complex technology.

Brian Eno - New Urban Spaces Series #4: “Compact Forest Proposal,” 2001
[Brian Eno.New Urban Spaces Series #4: “Compact Forest Proposal” (2001)]

One is free to wander the darkened space amidst the moving columns of LED lights. Every once in a while, the light increases and one gets glimpses of shadowy figures on the wall. The sounds ranged from small percussive synth hits to trumpets to electronic noise.

Electronic noise was also at the heart of Christina Kubisch’s installation Cloud. Kubish’s work explores sonification of data and electricity. The mass of red electrical wires emits electromagnetic radiation, which was interpreted as sound using customized headphone devices.

[Christina Kubisch. Cloud (2011/2017)]

Of all the installations, this was the among the most challenging to take in sensually or to document. I love the concept, and I think it really needs an extended period of time alone to experience fully.

From the large to the small. We had fun with Sphere Packing by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, which featured several spherical speaker arrays made from those ubiquitous white Apple earbuds.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer - Sphere Packing, 2013 and 2014
[Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. Sphere Packing (2013 and 2014)]

Each was playing a different selection of classical music from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, rearranged and diffused asynchronously through the speakers. Lozano-Hemmer also had an installation Last Breath that included a recording of breathing by the late Pauline Oliveros.

We conclude with another project visualized as a sphere. Lyota Yagi’s Sound sphere featured a sphere wrapped in cassette tape that freely rotated and revolved. Customized pickups rendered the sound from the tape, which is chopped, looped and distorted based on the chaotic motion of the sphere.

Lyota Yagi - Sound Sphere, 2011
[Lyota Yagi. Sound Sphere (2011)]

All of these pieces were inspiring for my own work, as I want to do more sound installation in the coming year. There were more in the main the exhibit and spread around the museum, but beyond what I can cover in this article. We do encourage you to check out our video to hear how some of these pieces sound. And if you are in the Bay Area, we strongly recommend checking the exhibition out before it closes on January 1, 2018.

Outsound & VAMP Present A Holiday Pop-Up Benefit Show

Recently, John Lee, the creator of donated a portion of his extensive record collection to Outsound. And our friends at VAMP are helping us sell them to fund our continuing mission of promoting new music in the Bay Area and beyond. To launch this effort, Outsound held a benefit concert at VAMP on December 1.

I performed a solo set with my trusty Nord Stage EX, modular synth, and Casio SK-1.

Amanda Chaudhary setup for show with Nord and modular

As with most of my current solo performances, I try to combine both idiomatic jazz and funk elements with more experimental electronics. I opened with White Wine (instrumental) with the extended solo section morphing into a more free-form electro-acoustic improvisation that also included the garrahand drum. It moved from sections of disco and bossa nova rhythms to noise to complex harmonies from the drum and Make Noise Echopon module. It was a fun set with an appreciative audience of both attendees and record-store patrons.

Amanda Chaudhary

After my set, Tri-Cornered Tent Show took stage. Anchored by bandleader Philip Everett on clarinet and electronics and Ray Schaeffer on bass, the band explored a variety of sounds and styles from noisy electronics and percussion to R&B grooves to psychedelic serenades featuring Valentina O on vocals. Anthony Flores rounded out the band on drums.

Tri-Cornered Tent Show

It was interesting to see how both sets explored the intersection of avant-garde electronic and acoustic sounds with more familiar idioms. Soul, funk, and R&B were present in both sets, but then we each veered off in different directions. Between us, we might have covered many of the genres in VAMP’s record bins!

It was a fine night of music and fellowship, and it’s great to see an independent (and idiosyncratic) store like VAMP flourishing in downtown Oakland. You can find out more about them here. And please visit Outsound’s website to find out about upcoming programs and how you can help support our work bring new music to our community.

Arma Agharta and Song & Dance Trio, Luggage Store Gallery, San Francisco

Today we look back at the recent show featuring Song & Dance Trio and Lithuanian sound-and-performance artist Arma Agharta at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco. It was the subject of a recent episode of CatSynth TV.

I have seen the members of Song & Dance Trio, Karl Evangelista (guitar), Jordan Glenn (drums) and Cory Wright (baritone saxophone) many times before in many musical contexts, but this was the first time I saw them as a trio. As one can hear in the video, they mixed complex virtuosic avant-garde performance with familiar jazz idioms. And they made it work. There was a strong rhythmic sense throughout the set, with the musicians moving freely between a relaxed shuffle and frenetic staccato runs. The familiar jazz figures sprinkled throughout were fun, but the more experimental interludes were a palette cleanser that made the grooves stand out more strongly.

[Song & Dance Trio (Evangelista, Glenn, Wright)]

Next up was a solo performance by Arma Agharta, a Lithuanian sound-performance-artist who was kicking off the west-coast swing of his United States tour. I didn’t know quite what to expect, even after looking at his interesting setup with a mixture of sound-making objects and electronic instruments.

[Arma Agharta’s colorful electro-acoustic rig]

And then he took the stage wearing a large pointed had and colorful robe. Things started quietly but very quickly turned to a loud, frenzy of sound, movement, and vocals.

[Calm and anything-but-calm moments with Arma Agharta]

This was one of the most physically and sonically intense solo performances I have seen in a while, and the energy was nonstop for most of the duration, with just a few ebbs and pauses. An endurance test for performer and audience alike. I haven’t heard anything quite like it, and it is hard to do justice either in written or video form. The intense sounds were from many layers of electronics, including recorded sounds played at high volume along with Arma Agharta’s own powerful voice howling, bellowing, and other vocalizations.

It was interesting to see such different performances in the same show and to assemble them into a single 3-minute video. But it worked both live and recorded. We wish Arma Agharta well on his next tour (last we saw he was in Turkey) and hope to hear more from him. We, of course, will continue to follow Evangelista, Glenn, and Wright on their musical adventures here in the Bay Area.

Elliott Sharp, Tania Chen + Wobbly, Euphotic at Canessa Gallery

Today we look back at last week’s show at Canessa Gallery in San Francisco, featuring Elliott Sharp, Tania Chen + Wobbly, and Euphotic. This show was the subject of CatSynth TV Episode 8, and you can see and hear a bit of each set.

We were quite pleased to see Elliott Sharp. We saw him back in the 1990s, but it’s been a while since he made it to the Bay Area.

Elliott Sharp

He has a unique and idiosyncratic sound, with fast runs, harmonics, and extended techniques, along with electronics. The electronics, which appeared to include some looping, sampling, and delay, did not overpower his guitar playing, and the individual gestures, from frenetic fingerpicking to expressive scratches, came through strongly. Although his style is unusual, it is still quite melodic and harmonic, something that comes out particularly in a solo-performance setting.

The evening opened with Euphotic, a trio project featuring Tom Djll (electronics, trumpet), Cheryl Leonard (instruments from natural found objects) and Bryan Day (invented instruments).

Euphotic (Day, Djll, Leonard)

The sound was subtle and detailed, with a lot of short sounds clustering like schools of fish. Djll’s electronics bridged the space between Cheryl Leonard’s organic sounds and Bryan Day’s more chiseled electro-acoustic creations. There was also a quality in Day’s performance that foreshadowed Elliott Sharp’s sound and style later in the evening.

Euphotic was followed by a duo featuring Tania Chen on electronics, voice and found objects, with Wobbly (aka Jon Leidecker) on electronics. He had an array of iPads linked together.

Tania Chen + Wobbly

The performance centered around “Feasibility Study”, an episode of the television show Outer Limits, slowed down beyond recognition. Chen’s vocals and found-object performance featured material and ideas from the episode, including chomping on biscuits and pop rocks to represent the rock-like aliens in the video. She also performed a melodic section on an iPad, which complemented Leidecker’s complex electronic processing. His sounds were slower and more undulating, providing an eerie setting for the overall performance.

We had a great time at this show, as did the rest of the audience that filled Canessa Gallery to capacity. We look forward to more interesting music from these artists and from this venue. And thanks to Bryan Day for continuing to host this series.

Outsound New Music Summit: Usufruct and Evil Genius

The concert portion of the Outsound New Music Summit opened on Tuesday with performances by Usufruct and Evil Genius. The groups both have unique and fun names, but offered up quite different performances and aesthetics. But they both included instruments that I feel are under-utilized in contemporary music: bass flute and tuba.

Bass flute and tuba

Usufruct is the duo project of Polly Moller on voice, flute and bass flute; and Tim Walters on electronics (specifically, software processing using custom SuperCollider programs). The word usufruct means “the right of the people to harvest the fruits of common property”, a concept which is reflected in the duo’s use of found texts and musical materials from the public domain, modified and reassembled in new and surprising ways.

Usufruct.  Polly Moller and Tim Walters

The music unfolded with a sparse texture that featured single broken lines on flutes and voice interspersed with electronics. Some of the electronic sounds could be readily traced to their sources from Moller’s performance, but others were more obscure. There was often a rather deep and ominous quality to many of the electronic sounds. The texts were interpreted in short bursts that often hid the original sources, although an early section was clearly from some legal document – it almost seemed like it was defining and proscribing punishments for treason. The sections of text from the Star Spangled Banner in the later portion of the set was much clearer, even when broken up. It’s hard to imagine that these texts were not chosen with our current political milieu in mind.

Polly Moller
[Polly Moller on bass flute. Photo]

The bass flute is an instrument ripe for electronic processing, and the segments in which it was featured included both harmonized and delayed accompaniment as well as hits and noisier elements derived from extended techniques. Overall, Usufruct’s performance was dark, a bit foreboding, but simultaneously quite clever and playful, as fitting the personalities and aesthetics of the artists.

Calling your band “Evil Genius” sets very high expectations. There were no diabolical death rays, but the Los-Angeles-based trio features Stefan Kac on tuba, Max Kutner on guitar, and Michael “Bonepocket” Lockwood on drums; and performed an energetic an imaginative experimental jazz set.

Evil Genius
[Evil Genius. Photo]

Kac’s tuba anchored the group musically. At times he was a bassist, providing solid rhythmic foundation alongside Lockwood’s whimsical and frenetic drumming. But he also made the tuba a melodic instrument at times. Kutner’s sometimes harmonic and sometimes percussive guitar hovered above the other elements. I appreciated the rhythmic grounding of the trio, even as they punctuated it with dry noisier sections. The music freely mixed experimental sounds and rock idioms with their jazz foundation. It has brash, it was hard, but it was also meticulous and filled with softer moments. And they left room for empty space and sparse elements before returning to a driving funky vibe. Quite a variety from what is structurally a “power trio.” The set was divided into several discreet compositions, with all members of the band contributing. So, are they “evil”? Not at all. Indeed, I was quite impressed with the group musically, and I did pick up a copy of their debut CD at the show and look forward to listening to it.

Overall it was a strong start to this year’s Summit concerts. We will bring you the remaining three nights as they unfold.

Outsound New Music Summit: Touch the Gear

The 2017 Outsound New Music Summit kicked off this Sunday with the annual Touch the Gear event. As always, there were several musicians and instrument-makers were on hand to demonstrate their setups or inventions.


Above we see Alphastare demonstrating his setup for processing of synthesized and recorded sounds that he uses in his live shows. Below, CDP bandmate Tom Djll shows his analog modular synthesizer setup with sundry external boxes for expressive control of sound.

Tom Djll

I opted to show my modular synth as well this year, along with the Moog Theremini.

CatSynth setup at Touch the Gear, with Modular and Moog Theremini

The theremin is always a popular item at this event.

Kim Nucci demonstrated some custom modules alongside a Korg MS-20 mini and a DIY metal instrument with sensors.

Kim Nucci

I have always found metal plus electronics a musically interesting combination.

Among the more unusual and surprising instruments this year was Dania Luck’s musical chessboard. It contained sensors for the magnetic chess pieces, with each square of the board triggering a different synthesizer in a SuperCollider patch.

Dania Luck.  Chess board and SuperCollider patch.

This wasn’t the only SuperCollider program being shown, as our friend Tim Walters demonstrated his patch and controller setup. It is the setup he will use as part of Usufruct in the opening concert for the Summit.

Tim Walters.  SuperCollider and controller.

Tim Thompson was on hand with the latest incarnation of his electronic-music instrument, the Space Palette Pro.

Tim Thompson.  Space Palette Pro
[Tim Thompson demonstrates the Space Palette Pro to Outsound director Rent Romus.]

It uses the same software as previous versions of the Space Palette, but with a new more compact interface based on new touch-sensitive pads from Sensel Morph. These pads are quite impressive in both response and feel, and we at CatSynth will definitely be looking into them.

Not all the demos included electronics. There were several acoustic instruments demonstrated by the Pet the Tiger collective (David Samas, Ian Saxton, Tom Nunn, Derek Drudge), including this beautiful kalimba tuned to 31edo.

Kalimba with 31edo tuning.  Pet the Tiger

I would love to write a piece for it one of these days. There was also a large metalophone with a deep resonant tone, interesting tuning, and some satellite “bass” notes.

Pet the Tiger.  Metalophone.

Back inside the hall, Motoko Honda demonstrated a network of electronic devices processing voice, along with a fun circuit-bent instrument.

Motoko Honda

Matt Davignon brought his setup for expressive manipulation and processing of samples and other pre-recorded sound materials.

Matt Davignon

We would also like to thank Matt for his efforts organizing this event every year! We would also like to thank the folks at VAMP for co-presenting and bringing a pop-up shop of records and sundry vintage and musical items.

It was a fun afternoon as always, and it was great to see families in attendance. And there were multiple things to inspire me musically and technologically. We will see where that goes. Next up, the concerts…

Church of the Superserge at Robotspeak: Djll, Day, Normalien

The monthy Church of the Superserge event at Robotspeak in San Francisco has been going on five years. We at CatSynth were on hand to mark this milestone during the May show.

Musically, the highlight was a solo set by Tom Djll on modular synth and mini trumpet. It was quite musical, blending rhythms and phrases with the timbral elements, even a “melody” of sorts from the processed trumpet.

The afternoon opened with a set by Normalien, also on modular synthesizer. Some delightfully weird sounds with rhythmic elements.

And Carson Day closed things out with a forceful set that included Novation and Dave Smith instruments.

It’s always a fun afternoon at Robotspeak. Not only do I enjoy the music and technology in the performances, but also just browsing the display cases on the wall, seeing what instruments I should covet next. This little DIY synth stood out this time, especially juxtaposed between the giant vacuum tube and the WMD pedal.

We look forward to next time, and perhaps playing again soon.

Outsound Summit Benefit Drive and Ze Bib!

The annual Outsound New Music Summit is less than a month away. We at CatSynth are looking forward to participating in Touch the Gear and enjoying four nights of concerts, especially after having to sit out last year’s summit entirely. You can see the full lineup and schedule at the website.

We attended the annual benefit dinner for the Summit earlier this month at the Finnish Kaleva Hall in Berkeley, California. In addition to good food and good friends, we were treated to a live performance by Ze Bib, a duo featuring Shanna Sordahl on cello and electronics and Robert Lopez on percussion.

The music featured sparse textures that blended Lopez’s percussion worth Sordahl’s electronics, as well as more rhythmic and forceful sections laying cello, electronics and drums. We are grateful that they shared their music with us for this event.

While the dinner is over, the fund drive for the summit continues. You can find out more information on how to donate here. And if you are the Bay Area, we encourage you to attend one or more of the Summit programs at the Community Music Center in San Francisco, July 23-29.

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.

CDP at the Make-Out Room, San Francisco

Today we look back at the May 1 performance by Census Designated Place (CDP) at the Make-Out Room in San Francisco, as part of the monthly Monday Make-Out series.

We were all very excited to play this show. And then things started going awry. First, our synth player Tom Djll was ill an unable to make the gig. And when we were about to go on, I found myself with cable faults and other technical issues. I had actually anticipated many things and had several redundancies, but also a few blind spots, particularly around 1/4” cables. That will not happen again. And after the anxiety of those mishaps in front of a packed room, we played on, and it turned out to be a great show. We played very well, indeed the heads of the various tunes came out as well as I have heard them, and the energy throughout was great. We even had folks dancing in the audience.

You can see a bit of our set in this clip, featuring our newest tune Marlon Brando.

CDP Marlon Brando May 1 from CatSynth on Vimeo.

We were preceded by two other bands. First was a project from our friend Lucio Menegon from New York, together with Janie Cowan on upright bass and John Hanes on drums.

Lucio Menagon Trio

Lucio’s guitar performance had a very narrative, almost storytelling quality. This was set against a mixture of idiomatic rhythms and percussive stops from Cowan and Hanes.

They were followed by a quartet featuring Anton Hatwich from Chicago together with Ben Goldberg on clarinet, Josh Smith on saxophone and Hamir Atwal on drums.

Anton Hatwich Quartet

During this time, the crowd at the Make-Out room continued to grow, and by the time we were setting up it was as crowded as I have seen there since I played there with Surplus 1980 some four years earlier. Which made the technical difficulties all the more stressful. But as stated earlier, the show ultimately went well as a trio with myself, Mark Pino on drums and Joshua Marshall on saxophones. The music was very well received by the audience and the other musicians.

Thanks to Karl Evangelista for organizing the series, Rent Romus for helping with logistics on that night, and all the folks at the Make-Out Room. Overall, it was a good show, and some important lessons learned on technical blind spots. We will get back to composing, rehearsing and preparing for next ones.