NAMM 2017: Moog Music Tribute to Synthesizer Pioneers

This year our friends at Moog Music, Inc. had a very different sort of booth. Instead of the usual array of gear for demonstration, the space was bare and stark, with a simple kiosk and a wall dedicated to the many synthesizer players and innovators we lost in 2016.

It was a rough year for the synthesizer community. Among those we lost were Pauline Oliveros and Don Buchla, both of whom were memorialized here on CatSynth and whom I had known in person. There were also images and statements for Keith Emerson, Bernie Worrell, Isao Tomita, and Jean-Jaques Perrey.

Visitors were invited to wander the space in contemplation or with a mix of music from the artists on classic Walkmans. Visitors could also leave social media tributes to one or more artists and have an opportunity to win one of several current Moog instruments, including a Werkstatt, Mother-32 and even a new Model D.

We didn’t win, but were very touched by the way Moog used their space to pay tribute to the many heroes we lost in 2016. It was a unique and moving experience at this year’s NAMM show.

NAMM 2017: Percussa AudioCubes and Synthtor System 8

I have long been fascinated by Percussa’s AudioCube controllers. In fact, I have a pair of them that I use in live performance. Now Percussa introduces the Synthtor System 8 wireless controller and modular synthesis system.

The Synthor System 8 consist of a wireless controller and hub for use with the cubes and a digital modular synthesizer. The synth engine contains many of the features one would expect including oscillators, filters, waveshapers, and samplers. It runs on a dedicated ARM chipset running Linux, though it only runs the synth and thus avoids the performance and stability issues we all know from general purpose computer systems. It also supports a variety of I/O for connecting to other gear and to a computer workstation for recording.

You can see and hear a bit of the AudioCubes and Synthtor System 8 in action in this video.

The REMOTE (the controller/hub) is quite an intriguing addition in itself, allowing one to use the cubes without a computer thus reducing setup complexity.

Percussa is a very small independent company consisting of two members: Bert Schiettecatte and Celine Van Damme. Both are very nice and have been supportive of CatSynth and of the musicians who use their instruments.

You can find out more about Percussa and their offerings at their website.

NAMM 2017: Erica Synths, LZX, Sputnik, Roland, And More

There are multiple superbooths of modular synth makers this year. We visited the first (and smaller) of the two this afternoon.

The folks at Erica Synths have a new DIY kit inspired by the legendary Soviet synth Polyvoks.

It’s a raw but sonically rich instrument and we at CatSynth could see using it. They have also updated their flagship black series.

We would be remiss if we didn’t also show their adorable logo 😺.

One thing we have observed this year is that many module makers have upped their game when it comes to visual design. We saw that with the Erica Synths offerings, but with others as well. Consider this Euclidean Circles from vpme.de:

The Charcot Circles is a collaboration of Studio Electronics and eowave. It is a rather complex and enigmatic module providing sequencing and CV with non-linear processing.

The round designs are reminiscent of Buchla synthesizers, which of course brings us to Sputnik Modular which produces Buchla-inspired “west coast synthesis” modules.

LZX Modular is all about the visuals, as their modules process video rather than audio. They have several new offerings, including an LCD display module and an all-in-one starter. You can see a little bit in this video.

New video modules from LZX. #namm #namm2017

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

The both also featured Roland’s AIRA series, including the System-8. The setup featured remakes of some classic Roland modules that we reported about last year in addition to the “plug-out” system.

It is interesting that Roland has moved its display of these instruments from their main area at NAMM to the modular-synth booths. It would seem they know their audience.

Finally, we have new offerings from Industrial Music Electronics, formerly known as The Harvestman. They still have the same characteristic orange knob style.

Among there new modules are the Argos Bleak, a CV processer, the Bionic Lester mk II, a capacitor filter; and our favorite name-wise, the Contempt, a dyamics processor.

Modular manufacturers haven’t lost their edge even as the industry matures.

NAMM 2017: Elektron Digitakt and Analog Heat

We begin our real NAMM 2017 coverage with offerings from Elektron. Many folks in our community have been anticipating the Digitakt.

The Digitalk is a compact unit combining a drum synth engine, multitrack sequencer with both MIDI and audio capabilities, and sampler. This will be very handy for those who work with those classes of instrument and want a quick and easy set up. While we weren’t able to hear it today, the demo case had a rather interesting video background.

Also on display was the Analog Heat, billed as both an “audio enhancer” and “audio destroyer”.

We were able to play this one. The different preset settings were quite diverse and would add to live performance, given a good sound system. The equalizer and filter sections were interesting to play with as well. They had a clean sound that didn’t muddy the source. Unless of course you want it to. Then it can become the audio destroyer that is is billed as. This is clearly intended as the last in a chain for live use, a final stage before the PA or amp.

Thoughts on the Oakland Ghost Ship fire

Long time readers may know that fire is among my biggest fears. I fear fire in every rickety wooden space where I go to play or hear music. Most are fairly safe, with alarms, sprinklers and clear corridors. And even in those few cases where there weren’t, my attention shifted to the music, fellowship and always had a wonderful time. That’s why we go. It’s what we do, it’s what we love. We, artists, have no choice but to create and participate. It could have been any of us.

Oakland warehouse fire
[By Janna487 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

By last count, the fire at the Ghost Ship in Oakland on December 2 claimed 36 lives. We at CatSynth send our thoughts and condolences to their families and close friends. I was worried for many dear friends who might have been there. They fortunately have all checked in safe in the week since, but they are grieving deeply in the aftermath for their friends who were lost. I feel for them, and try my best to remember those who perished with whom I crossed paths like Cherushii (aka Chelsea Dolan), Cash Askew, and others. But this is not my story. It is the story of my friends who knew them best. The personal remembrances they have posted are not mine to share. I did find this article helpful in understanding the victims better. Their stories are another reminder that it could have been any of us.

As we grieve, we in the arts community brace for a round of crackdowns on spaces, from both authorities and landlords. Ghost Ship was an outlier – most spaces while operating in the margins do more often than not operate with a concern for safety and cleanliness and civility. These are the spaces that are now under attack – it’s starting to happen beyond Oakland, with reports from New York, Denver, and here in SF. My own neighborhood in San Francisco was a warren of old factory buildings and warehouses that contained a thriving underground scene in the 1980s at a time when I just a kid in New York buying a first synth. I saw the waning days of that scene, with some of the last large artist-studio buildings being displaced in the past couple of years to make way for offices and condos. Fire is not necessary for authorities to displace artists, but it can certainly make it easier. But even the most safety-minded among us can’t compete easily in places when both the powerful and the populists do not value artists. New York has done better. The grim artists’ spaces of the lower east side may have long given way to boutiques, restaurants, and other upscale spaces but artists are still colonizing spaces and they have “paths to legality.” If authorities here want to help safety in a way that doesn’t show contempt for artists, a similar system of support for bringing things up to code and then operating would be useful as well.

Although I maybe starting to “age out” of some of the underground spaces of the Bay Area – even if my spirit wants to be there, my body and mind are not as enthusiastic – I still cherish many of my past experiences both as a performer and an attendee. My first time out and about in the world as Amanda was at a large warehouse space in West Oakland in 2011, and shortly afterwards I performed at a very nice space in an old factory in East Oakland as her. Some of my early shows in the mid 2000s at underground spaces in San Francisco were very informative for my solo practice today – a few of them even written up here on CatSynth, but I hesitate to link directly to them as authorities may use them in their crackdowns.

This is already a perilous time for those of us in marginalized communities, such as people of color and LGBTQ individuals. Coming together to create and enjoy, even in the edges of society, is one way we cope and thrive; and now we have to fear that may become more challenging as well. So some will forced further out to the edges. And another tragedy will happen.

It could have been any of us.

RIP Pauline Oliveros (1932-2016)

We have lost yet another musical hero this year. Pauline Oliveros, composer, innovator and pioneer of the concept of “Deep Listening”, passed away on November 25.

Pauline Oliveros
[Photo by Pinar Temiz via flickr. Available via Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)]

Her influence over the decades in experimental electronic composition and rethinking our relationship with sound cannot be underestimated. She was one of the founders of the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the 1960s. The following video features her composition Bye bye butterfly, a title that seems very apt with her passing. It was composed during her time with the center and features two HP oscillators among other elements.

Although an electronic composition, one can hear and sense the sounds that would become important in Deep Listening, looking for and finding joy in small details and the sounds in between other sounds. The beating patterns and other elements in this electronic piece were certainly present in performances of Heart Chant that I participated in with the Cardew Choir. She coined the term “Deep Listening” in the late 1980s, and went on to found the Deep Listening Institute. I should let her describe the meaning and origins of the term in this video.

Oliveros and I intersected on multiple occasions, both in person and through her music. However, it is clear that she even more profoundly touched many of my friends and colleagues who are mourning her passing with a multitude of personal memories. We at CatSynth extend our condolences do them, as well as to Pauline Oliveros’ family.

SFEMF Night 3: Arcane Device, Thea Farhadian, Alessandro Bosetti

Today we look at the third night of the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF), which took place on September 10 at the Brava Theater in San Francisco.

The evening opened with a set by Alessandro Bosetti, who performs with spoken-word vocals and electronics.

Alessandro Bosetti
[Photo by Pamela Z]

His texts are not traditionally lyrical, indeed they can be awkward or even absurd at times, or parts of imperfect translations. But he challenges himself and the audience to find the musicality within them. Most of what the audience hears are that result from the live electronic processing. The language remains audible, but it is transformed in a complex mixture of inharmonicity, noise and other types of musical sound. The performance was intense – and must have been physically exhausting for Bosetti, who is known for his work on radio.

While Bosetti’s set was intense and frenetic, Thea Farhadian’s performance was something altogether different. She performed a set featuring violin and live electronics.

Thea Farhadian
[Photo by Pamela Z]

Without straying into too-conventional territory, Farhadian’s sounds were lyrical and haunting. The harmonic qualities of violin were of course featured, but also the percussive sounds, which when combined with the electronic processing created rhythm and motion to the piece. Although there was no visual element other than the performer herself, the music had a visual quality, with long curving lines like brush strokes with thick paint punctuated by dots.

The final performance featured Arcane Device (aka David Lee Myers) on modular synthesizer with live generated visuals.

Arcane Device

He is known his creation of music from feedback and other noise sources, and so we were expecting a noise-centered performance. And we weren’t disappointed. But it was really the visuals that made this experience unique. The output of the synthesizer was fed into a special two-dimensional oscilloscope that was projected behind the performer. At first it was small, squished round elements as the sound started simply, but quickly grew complex creating chaotic textures that matched the sound. This was indeed a fun set to both watch and hear.

Overall it was a good night for this year’s SFEMF. And it was well attended. Other obligations kept we away from nights 2 and 4 this year, but I am looking forward to the festival’s return next year.

SFEMF 2016: IMA and Gen Ken Montgomery

Today we look back at the 2016 San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, which concluded two weeks ago. The opening night took place at the Kanbar Forum of Exploratorium here in San Francisco. The large rounded space featured an immersive multichannel speaker system designed by Meyer Sound, and both acts that day took full advantage of this.

The evening opened with a set by IMA, the electro-­percussion duo of Nava Dunkelman and Jeanie Aprille Tang (aka Amma Ateria). They performed with an array of percussion instruments and live interactive electronics.

IMA at SFEMF 2016

Their sounds range from quite sparse to large clouds, often mixing in bits of vocals with the heavily metallic percussion. For this set, they played with space as well, spinning sounds around the room using the speaker array. There were moments when the individual sounds could be heard as a single point in space, others that were on the edge of a noise wall. I also appreciate that their sets are quite embodied, not simply standing on stage behind their gear but moving around as the sound and space suggest.

The second set featured Conrad Schnitzler’s Cassette CONcert, performed by New York musician Gen Ken Montgomery. Cassette CONcerts are boxed sets of cassettes that Schnitzler composed with the intent that others could perform and listen without his presence. Montgomery has become a primary interpreter of these pieces, “conducting” the eight-channel work on a variety of speaker systems. It fit quite well in the space, which was darkened except for projections on the main screen.

Gen Ken Montgomery

In many ways is the opposite of IMA’s set, completely disembodied, with long stretches of sound, and made from pre-recorded materials. One could even call it sculptural or a sonic painting. But it fit quite well in the context of the SFEMF concert and was a fitting second act to this first night.

Overall, it was a good start to this year’s festival, and a more casual setting ahead of the next three concerts to come. We will have more to share on those in an upcoming article.

Amanda Chaudhary Solo Set at Second Act, San Francisco

We pick up our reports from the epic musical month that was June.

Amanda Chaudhary at Second Act

On June 15, I performed a brand new solo set at Second Act in San Francisco, part of a monthly evening of experimental electronic music. It was a bringing together of my more experimental electronic work with the jazz and funk direction my music. The modular and Moog Theremini were featured heavily, but so were the Moog Sub Phatty as my “left hand” bass, and of course the Nord Stage, aka “The Big Red Keyboard”. I also used a Casio SK-1 extensively. You can hear the entire set in this video.

Amanda at Second Act June 2016 from CatSynth on Vimeo.

I thought it went quite well musically. I like how the funk bass worked with the Sub Phatty and Phonogene on the modular. The venue was full, and I got an enthusiastic response from the audience. I don’t think they were expecting this level of jazz and funk, but seemed to really appreciate it. I will definitely continue working in this direction in future solo sets.


The concert began with a noise set by Passions Nouveau, who performed with synthesizers and sundry electronics.

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The set unfolded as a single continuous soundscape, with noise pads and drones, but occasional loud swells and complex details.

I was followed by bran(…)pos. It had been a few years since I shared a bill with him, but has excited to hear what he had come up with recently. As per his pervious appearances, he performed inside a tent onto which a mixture of live and processed video was projected.

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And once again the performance centered around the use of his face and voice visually and sonically. But the instrumental accompaniment was a new direction, mixing sounds from the turn of the 20th century with pitched synthesizers and beats. It was a very polished and complex sound overall, bringing a tightness to his unique style of performance and presentation.

Overall, it was a great performance, and I was happy to be a part of it. Performing at Second Act is always a great time, and I would like extend my thanks to the folks who continue to make this venue and series work for the musical community.

CDP and Lingua Incognita Session at All Tomorrow’s After Parties

Last week we reported on the the first night of NextNow Presents All Tomorrow’s After Parties that featured a performance by Vacuum Tree Head. Today we look at the next night of that festival, which took place on June 4 in Berkeley.

CDP Trio

That event marked the debut of one of my new bands, Census Designated Place (or CDP). For this set, I was joined by Mark Pino on drums and Rent Romus on alto sax. The concept for this group is to combine my increased focus on jazz and funk with experimental sounds and ideas. We did two compositions of mine, plus an improvisation based on a graphical score painted by Mark. You can see and hear our full performance in this video.

CDP at Berkeley Arts, June 2016 from CatSynth on Vimeo.

Overall I was quite pleased with the set, and we all had a lot of fun. There is still some work to do tightening up the tunes (particularly White Wine), but that will come with time and practice. We were at our best with the rhythmic and idiomatic improvisation sections in all three pieces, especially the straight-eighth jazz and “disco” sections. And Rent did a tremendous job sitting in with the group, bringing a unique sound and style that I hope to continue in future performances.

All three of us also participated in the Lingua Incognita Session a project conceived by Mika Pontecorvo that also debuted at this event. The large ensemble featured two bassists (Eli Pontecorvo and Robert Kehlmann ), two drummers (Mark Pino and Aaron Levin, four wind players (Rent Romus, Kersti Abrams, Jaroba and Joshua Marshal, trumpet (Tony Passarell), keyboard (myself), and experimental electronics (Jack Hertz).

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This was quite a cast of characters to put together in a single group, let alone a purely improvisational group that had not rehearsed together before. And it could have pure cacophony, but everyone did their part to make this work. We started with a concept based on A Love Supreme, with different performers moving in and out of the texture, which moved between sections of rhythmic jamming and more abstract tones. I know I had a lot of fun, as did others, and we hope to do this again sometime.


The day began quite a bit earlier with Shiva X, which featured Tony Passarell on tenor saxophone and Robert Kehlmann – both of whom were part of the Lingua Incognito set – along with Jim Frink on drums.

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This group has some conceptual similarities with CDP, combining noisy elements with steady rhythmic drums and bass, but with a more freeform upper layer provided by Passarell’s saxophone. My favorite moments were when things converged on a groove.

Shiva X was followed by Trois Chapeaux. The group featured Jaroba, Kevin Corcoran and Jorge Bachmann (with regular member Tania Chen absent on this occasion).

Trois Chapeaux

This was a much more abstract sound, combining both small electronics and acoustic elements along with Bachmann on modular synth. Recognizable sounds and fragments came in and out of focus throughout the set, while clouds of noise and complexity coalesced and then dissipated.

Jack Hertz was next with a solo electronic performance. Sitting alone and unassuming at the from the room, he brought forth a variety of sounds from synthesizers, recordings, and other sources into a continuous force of music and noise. There were some soft but still delightfully crunchy moments in there as well.

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The following set shifted from electronic to acoustic, but in such a way that many of the same sonic elements were preserved. There is probably few acoustic duos that sound as “electronic” as T.D. Skatchit, featuring Tom Nunn and David Michalak on sketch boxes.

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The sounds of the sketch box are quite unique, and particularly tuned with the musicians who play it the moment. But there is still a tremendous variety.

Then it was time for Reconnaissance Fly, featuring the new lineup that now includes Brett Carson on keyboards along with Polly Moller (flute, guitar, voice), Tim Walters (bass), Rich Lesnick (winds) and Larry-the-O (drums).

Reconnaissance Fly

The played a variety familiar tunes from the band’s catalog, including a couple from the first album, the recent regular rotation, and a couple of brand new songs. The overall sound of the group has coalesced into something that has strong jazz elements also quite whimsical and esoteric.


After CDP was v’Maa, a “drone band based upon Sami shamanism and spider mythology” (as described on Mark Pino’s blog). The group featured video and music with Mika Pontecorvo, Eli Pontecorvo, Kersti Abrams and Mark Pino. They were joined on this occasion by Lau Nau on voice.

v'Maa

After the intensity of many of the previous sets (including CDP), there was a more subdued quality, a bit more floating and meditative. The swells and ebbs in the overall texture worked will with the changes in the video; and it was a great way to relax musically after performing.

Next up was the “Bill Wolter Project”, featuring Bill Wolter on guitar, Moe! Staiano on percussion, Ivor Holloway on horns, and Ron Gruesbeck on synth.

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The entire set, which was shrouded in mystery ahead of the evening, focused on made-up tunings anchored by Bill on fretless guitar. The music unfolded truly as an experiment, as the performers moved in out of various sounds within the confines of the new tuning.

The Bill Wolter Project was followed by Earspray, featuring Ann O’Rourke, Carlos Jennings and Mark Pino, who is definitely the hardest working man in the new music scene.

Earspray

The set was a full explosion of noise, lights and video, made more stark by the performers’ lab coats. The sounds were a mixture of samples, synthesis and drums.

The final set of the evening was Tri-Cornered Tent Show. The current line-up for band features Philip Everett, Ray Shaeffer, Anthony Flores and Valentina O.

Tri Cornered Tent Show

As with previous times I have heard the group, there was a foundation of explosive electronics and drum phases and free improvisation that moved between disparate rhythms and melodic lines. And there is a theatricality to the performance. But this performance with Valentina O was more cabaret style with humor and a certain intimacy. Between vocals, drum hits, and electronic sounds from Everett there were bits of quiet and silence perfectly timed for the theater of of the set.

This was an exhausting day of music, both as a performer and an audience member, but a rewarding one. I’m glad we stayed around for the entire day to hear everyone and the wide variety of sounds and styles. Thanks again to Mika Pontecorvo and Eli Pontecovro for putting on this evening, bring together so many musicians for a good cause.