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.

Jean-Michel Jarre at the Greek Theatre, Berkeley

This past Friday, we at CatSynth had the chance to see electronic-music pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre perform live at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley, California. It was part of his ambitious “Electronic World Tour”, which includes his first North American tour in…well, a long time.

jean-Michel Jarre on stage

Jarre is perhaps best known for his innovative albums in the 1970s and 1980s, blending electronics and idiomatic music without veering too much into the dreaded New Age world; and for putting on live concerts that are truly spectacles. He did not disappoint in that regard, with a massive sound and light setup that included three sheets of LEDs, banks of lasers, and a three-piece ensemble that would make any synth nerd very envious. The lights were mesmerizing and captivating at times.

LED light patterns

Jean-Michel Jarre in lights

Robots

When the lasers were operative, it was sometimes most interesting to turn away from the stage and look into the crowd; and towards the back of the theatre and the trees behind it, where undulating patters of warm-colored lights danced among the leaves that were barely visible in the night sky.

Lasers across the Greek Theatre

Jarre’s music has long included rhythmic elements (often shunned by contemporaries in the academic electronic-music world), which made him a major influence for techno, electronica, and EDM genres. But his current performance fully embraces the contemporary EDM aesthetic, with intense pulsing beats, as well as a performance style with stomping and pointing as one sees with younger electronic performers and many DJs. Perhaps even a little macho. However, not only does he do it better, it is on a much grander scale. Even assuming much of the sound and visuals are sequenced, the complexity to pull this off cannot be underestimated. And Jarre’s performance was quite physical, often jumping and sometimes coming out in front to perform on keytar.

Jarre on keytar, musicians on vocoder

It was nonetheless an ensemble performance, with his fellow musicians providing live electronic drums as well as vocoder-based harmonies.

The concert, which lasted about 90 minutes, included some of his classic works such as selections from Oxygene, but with the newer EDM sound as described above. He also presented newer pieces, including a collaboration with Edward Snowden that mixed Jarre’s music with clips of Snowden’s statements. The piece was very well received by the Berkeley audience.

One of my favorite moments and one of the most technically challenging – even Jarre himself joked that it may not work – was when he stepped forward to play a giant light harp consisting of towering green lasers.

Jean-Michel Jarre Light Harp

It went off flawlessly – or at least it looked and sounded that way from the audience perspective.

I am glad I was able to be there for this event, as it doesn’t happen often. Having seen this performance, it is leading to go back and review some of his classic recordings as well; and draw inspiration for my next electronic-music adventures.

Hardly Strictly Personal 2017 Day 3: CDP and More

We finally catch up on the remaining show report in our backlog: the Hardly Strictly Personal 2017 Festival that took place at the Finnish Kaleva Hall in Berkeley about two months ago. We will be presenting it out of order, with Day 3 first. This day featured my band CDP (Census Designated Place) among many other artists.

We had our full four-member lineup for this event, including myself, Tom Djll on synthesizers, Joshua Marshall on saxophones, and Mark Pino on drums. We played three tunes with extended improvisation sections. The energy on stage was great, and the music just seemed to flow. This was the band and style of performance I always wanted. You can here a bit in these two videos, featuring our tunes White Wine and North Berkeley BART.

CDP Playing White Wine at Finnish Kaleva Hall from CatSynth on Vimeo.

CDP "Playing North Berkeley BART" at Finnish Kaleva Hall from CatSynth on Vimeo.

Mark and I form the rhythm section, where I lay down vamps over his solid drums. The interplay of Tom and Josh on melody and open solos wasn’t planned per se, but adds a lot to the sound of the group. We got a great reception from the audience, and definitely looked forward to our future shows.

The evening opened with Alphastare performing a solo electronic set.

There were a lot of interesting timbres that I liked, some quite thick and noisy, that were woven into a narrative.

We were on second, and then followed by United Separatists, featuring Drew Wheeler on guitar and Timothy Orr on drums.

The instrumentation can sometimes be treacherous in an experimental-music setting, but I like what I’ve heard from this duo whenever I have heard them. There is phrasing, punctuation and space that gives it a captivating feel. Sometimes Orr’s drums are the melodic instrument and Wheeler’s guitar is the percussion. This photo of Wheeler framed by Moog Theremini (not mine) and a water phone was a fun coincidence.

Next up was ebolabuddha with their unique combination of black metal and improvised literary readings.

In addition to the musicians on stage, including Eli Pontecorvo on bass, Mark Pino on drums, Plague, Tom Weeks, Lorenzo Arreguin and Steve Jong, there always a wide selection of books scattered about. Members of the band read from them at various points, but the audience is encouraged to participate as well.

An ebolabuddha performance is always an intense experience but it was even more so in the Finnish Hall with its delightfully bizarre acoustics and the friendly audience. Here is Mark having a quintessential “ebolabuddha moment.”

They were followed by Double-A Posture Palace , a trio featuring Andrew Barnes Jamieson on keyboard and voice, Joshua Marshall returning on saxophones, and Aaron Levin on drums.

It was a quieter set (especially in comparison to what preceded it), but the gentle piano sounds in the opening belied the extremely clever and snarky nature of what was unfolding, as Jamieson sang an ode to performing experimental music that simultaneously celebrated it and pointed out some of the musical shortcomings that many of us discuss only privately. It was truly funny and ingenious, and I congratulate all three members of the set on this performance.

The final set of the evening, and of the festival as a whole, featured the latest incarnation of Instagon is an ever changing set of musicians, never the same. For this version, project creator Lob was joined by Rent Romus on saxophone, Hannah Glass on violin, Leland Vandermuelen on guitar, and Mark Pino on drums – Mark once again demonstrating why I refer to him as the “hardest working man in the new music scene.”

Overall the third day of the festival went well and showcased a variety of music. I am glad that CDP played early so I could relax and enjoy the sense of accomplishment while listening to the subsequent sets. The festival is a fundraiser for EarthJustice and the Homeless Action Center, both fine causes that many of us stage are proud to support. I would also like to give a special thanks to Mika Pontecorvo for organizing the event, and to Eli Pontecorvo, Kersti Abrams, Rent Romus and others who worked hard to make it happen.

Don Buchla Memorial Concerts in San Francisco

This past weekend, April 22 and 23, a series of concerts and panels took place at the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts in San Francisco. It was in the midst of a busy and event-packed weekend (including the March for Science which we have already written about), but as Don Buchla was someone that I not only admired but knew personally, it was important to be there.

Buchla lives on though his many innovative musical instruments, and a pop-up museum was set up in side room of the theater showcasing many of them.

Buchla 100 and 200 series

On the right of this photo is an example of Buchla’s iconic 200 series modular synthesizer, probably the instrument for which he is best known. On the left is the rarer 100 series, originally commissioned by electronic-music pioneers Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick of the San Francisco Tape Music Center. Neither the of these early modular series had a traditional piano-style keyboard, nor were they based traditional subtractive-synthesis architecture of oscillators, filters, and amplifiers in that order, but rather a mix of traditional synth modules with unique waveshapers, low-pass gates. The latter is probably the most recognizable as the “Bucha sound” but the variety of musical sound expression from this instruments continues to be very wide and the ethos of his work can be seen in the current renaissance of sometimes esoteric modular synthesizers. You can read more about his work and philosophy on this tribute website.

There were also some instruments I had not seen before, including the Buchla Touché and the 700 series / MIDAS.

Buchla Touche and MIDAS systems

These were more conventional in the sense of having a keyboard and a more fixed topology, but were still quite versatile in terms of their software. They certainly have a very vintage 1980s look, especially with the computer monitors and graphics.

The evening concert began with tape pieces by George Lewis and a premier of a new piece by Laurie Spiegel.

Laurie Spiegel

Spiegel’s piece had a dark but sparse quality, with discretely positioned sounds and timbres.

The live performances began with Laetitia Sonami performing on a custom gestural controller.

Her work is often focused on live movement and gesture and indeed has been an influence on my own performance practice with the theremin. But Sonami is adept at very subtle motion with seemly precise affects on the sound output.

The live performances continued with Bob Ostertag, who controlled live music and video from the center of the hall.

Ostertag’s sound is quite distinctive independent of the particular instruments in use, usually noisy and hard driving. And this performance was no exception – indeed, I was able to instantly recognize the sound as his when it started, even without being able to see him at first in the darkened space. The music however, did have dynamic range and timbral variation that gave it a narrative contour. The video was abstract, but again with a bit of an urgent quality that kept things moving forward.

Morton Subotnik’s music is in many way the opposite of Bob Ostertag’s. It is quiet and very subtle, focused on small points and details in time.

Morton Subotnik

It was spare, almost severe, but listening closely one can appreciate many of the timbral details. The changes are musical but on a different scale than one is accustomed to. The frequencies timbres are complex even while the amplitudes are low, and it is listening to these and the slight percussive elements that punctuate the music that one begins to hear how it fits together.

In between the live performances there was a tribute video for Don Buchla, featuring images as well as interviews with him. There were also cameos by a great many people I know in the electronic-music world. It was very touching, but also quite humorous, all in keeping with Don’s character.

The concert continued until late at night – in some ways, it was set up more likely a crowded nightclub or impromptu electronic-music party than a traditional concert. It was great to see it so well attended – the room was packed with people standing or sitting on the floor, but it did make focused listening a bit of a challenge at times. I was unfortunately not able to stay for the whole night, so missed a few live sets, including from friends Marielle V. Jakobsons, Tom Dimuzio, Matt Ingalls, and Richard Devine. I do hope to see them live again soon.

I also hope this is not the last event we have to celebrate the life and work of Don Buchla. I personally still feel like I have only scratched the surface of his instruments as a performer and listener.

The Amy X-Perience at the Jewish Community Center, Berkeley

As we are in the middle of Passover, it seems like a good time to look back at a Jewish-themed show in which I participated earlier this year. The Amy X-Perience brought together a mix of artists in solo, duo and ensemble sets at the Jewish Community Center in Berkeley, California. The evening was curated by our friend and collaborator Amy X Neuburg.

The night began with a piece by Neuburg featuring electronics and potato chips. Yes, potato chips. Small vending-machine-sized bags were distributed to the audience, who were instructed to on cue open the bags and start chewing the (edible) contents loudly, as Neuburg manipulated the sounds and added additional musical layers.

Amy X Neuburg

I was up next. Regular readers have likely already heard part of my solo set from this show – I posted the performance of piece White Wine in this article a couple of weeks ago. I also performed a live version of my piece Donershtik (Yiddish for “Thursday”), which you can see below.

Amanda Chaudhary performing "Donershtik" at JCC East Bay from CatSynth on Vimeo.

I was quite happy with how both solo pieces came out, but the real treat was having Amy join me in a duo of my piece North Berkeley BART, humorously appropriate for the location that evening.

North Berkeley BART w/ Amy X Neuburg – JCC from CatSynth on Vimeo.

I have always been impressed with Amy’s musicianship, discipline and ability to learn songs quickly, and very much appreciated her joining me. We also performed an avant-garde rendition of the American standard All of Me later in the evening.

Amanda Chaudhary and Amy X Neuburg

Between the two of us, there was quite an impressive collection of musical electronics on stage.

My solo set was followed by Alex Kelley, a veritable one-man band on cello and electronics.

Alex Kelley

His music blended jazz, klezmer and rock influences with experimental sounds. His cello acted not only as a melodic instrument, but also as the rhythm section, with Kelley striking it like a drum at times, and recording bass lines into a live looper and then riffing on top of that. His performance was both tight and humorous and a lot of fun to watch. You can hear a little bit in this video:

Next up was Solstice: A Female Vocal Ensemble. Sadly, several members of the group were unfortunately absent that evening due to illness, but that didn’t stop the remaining trio from delivering a strong performance.

Solstice’s repertoire spans a variety of styles and languages, and their set that evening included pieces from several places. I was quite impressed with their ability so sing in so many languages.

The second half of the program brought together the various artists in different combinations. I already mentioned my duo rendition of All of Me with Amy X Neuburg. She also performed show tunes with Alex Kelley, and joined Solstice for a virtuosic rendition of an Eastern European song. And finally, all of us joined together for a rousing rendition of Mein Herr from Cabaret. It was a fun and fitting conclusion to the evening.

Second half brought many voices in many languages and showtunes #AmyXNeuburg

A post shared by @exej on

All of the performances were well received by the enthusiastic full house. Thank you to Amy X Neuburg for inviting all of us to participate in this event, and to the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay for hosting! Please visit their website to find out about the many performances and other cultural programs hosted by the JCC.

Pi Day Composition Redux

It’s a bit of an on-again-off-again tradition on Pi Day (3-14 in the United States) to share my composition based on the digits of Pi.

It was based on the binary digits rather than decimal digits of Pi, which seemed more universal and also more logical to work with. It uses stretched impulses and square waves for the sounds themselves. At least that is what I recall. It was written in 2011. It’s probably time to revisit the concept with a new piece…

NAMM 2017 Apocrypha and Final Thoughts

In this article, we go over a few remaining items from NAMM, and share some final thoughts as well.

The DATA module from Mordax takes the trend of built-in displays to another level. The large color screen displays a variety of functions, including oscilloscope, tuner , waveform generator and clock. It also has quite a few utility signal functions. It seems like quite the useful item for a medium or large modular system. Plus it looks great!

It’s a common problem with modular synthesizer systems to end up with 2hp empty and nothing to fill it with, except maybe a branded plate. 2hp quite literally fills this niche with a large selection of functional modules exactly 2hp wide.

We could all use extra multiples, or another envelope generator, or VCA. But their 2hp offerings include oscillators and filters. We could see these in various cases to get some handy functionality when needed.

Delptronics has made quite a few modules for percussion synthesis as well as for complex triggering of other modules. Their product line has grown; and we were particularly curious about the new spring module an its electro-acoustic possibilities.

We are always curious to see what 4ms has to offer, as the Spectral Multiband Filter has become one of our favorite modules for a variety of musical purposes. Their new offerings this year included a sampler module and tappable delay, which are shown in the upper right of the following photo.

There was of course more at the modular super booth and in the neighboring booths beyond what we have been able to cover this year. It will be inevitable that some products and manufactures don’t get mentioned in the blog, though we do have more on our Instagram feed during the show. We will have to figure out if there are any logistical changes we might want to try next year in order to see more while still remaining authentic and having the fun time at NAMM that we always do.


The trip home, despite the pouring rain and flooding in the LA Basin, ultimately turned out to be a pleasant one. I suppose I had a bit of a glow from the show, and full of ideas on how to move forward musically and personally in the challenging times ahead.

Even with the literal rainstorms outside and the dark pall cast by the political situation, inside the convention center we were all able to be ourselves and follow our passions for music and music technology. That doesn’t mean that outside reality didn’t intrude. It was impossible not to despair a bit on inauguration day; and by contrast Saturday with the Women’s Marches gave a bit of optimism. Mostly, I just kept doing what I came to NAMM to do. We hope you have enjoyed following our coverage, and we’ll be back doing it again next year barring some world-changing catastrophe (which unfortunately could happen).

NAMM 2017: Qu-Bit Electronix

Our friends at Qu-Bit Electronix have quite a few new modules this year, as well as a refresh of their overall design.

The heart of the new modules is Rhythm, a multichannel pattern generator with real-time control over variations. Together with the Wave multi-sampler and Chord four-voice oscillator, the new set forms an autonomous instrument in itself. But the Nano Rand is still our favorite 😉

You can see the entire suite of Qu-Bit Electronix modules inside a bubble in this video.

New Qu-bit modules in a bubble. #namm2017 #namm

A video posted by CatSynth / Amanda C (@catsynth) on

You can find out more about Qu-Bit Electronix offerings here.

NAMM 2017: Bitwig Studio and BASTL Instruments

Music software maker Bitwig teamed up with modular-synthesizer maker BASTL Instruments as booth featuring hardware and software together. Bitwig’s new Studio software was running on a YUGE Microsoft Surface tablet and controlling a special BASTL modular system.

We wrote about BASTL Instruments last year, in particular about their modules that allow external sensors and actuators to be used with modular synthesizers and their unique “wooden” design for the faceplates. Bitwig Studio is a bit of a new discovery for us. It has many of the features and characteristics of Ableton Live!, but with its own more modular architecture for instruments and compatibility with Linux in addition to Windows and macOS. You can see a bit of these systems working together in our video.

So the question is whether Bitwig Studio is a reasonable alternative to Ableton Live! – for us, it would probably occupy the same functions as Live!: a secondary DAW to use with Pro Tools for performance elements, and a software hub for live performance. The demo suggests that it could do those functions, but whether or not it would a better option or not is unclear. In particular, Max/MSP integration would be missed. But it does have a powerful scripting system.

For BASTL Instruments, we are still most intrigued by their rich offering of external I/O beyond traditional musical instruments, along with their percussion synthesizers. The combination of this with a touchscreen DAW like Bitwig Studio opens up some new possibilities…