Faust in San Francisco

One week of musical adventures in San Francisco has taken us a bit longer than one week to share on these pages. But today we look at the final show from that week, featuring Faust at The Chapel.

Faust at The Chapel

So how exactly does one describe a band like Faust? As it says in the show description from The Chapel, ” Neither the habitus nor the music of this Hamburg group is easy to grasp.” The usual label of “krautrock” isn’t particularly descriptive, though it does orient them within the world of hard rock and experimental music coming out of Germany in the early 1970s. Many of the experimental elements around European and North American rock in that era can be found in their early albums like Faust IV. These elements were in abundance during the performance, with simple but meandering patterns mixed with a multitude of avant-garde elements. And it was all anchored by steady hands of original members Werner “Zappi” Diermaier and Jean-Hervé Péron.

There is a basic underlying hard-rock jam underpinning the music, which is then mixed with words, a variety of electronic sounds, and elements that were unique to the San Francisco show, including antiphonal vocals from the Cardew Choir and Lutra Lutra. (We have written about the Cardew Choir numerous times before on this site). The highlight of the collaborations was a final procession to the center of the crowd with large brass instruments dancing above the heads of the audience.

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This was a contrast to the beginning of the set that featured soft vocals and percussion against a film playing in the background.

Faust

Another unusual feature of the set was the use of a graphical score, projected so that it could be seen by the audience as well as the musicians. Diermaier even turned his drum set around to face the projected score.

Faust Graphical Score

This photo also illustrates one other unique element to Faust’s performance: a “knitting lady” sat at the front of the stage calmly and silently knitting throughout the set.

I also spied friend and fellow Bay Area synthesizer player Benjamin Ethan Tinker sitting in with the band, which was a fun surprise.

The show was sold out to a very appreciative audience and they were well received by longtime fans and newcomers alike. It was definitely a unique and unusual experience, but still one that felt very musical. I would not describe it at all as an evening of “noise” (not that there is anything wrong with that). They lived up to their billing as legendary purveyors of experimental avant-garde rock.


Faust was preceded by two opening acts: a solo performance by Bill Orcutt on guitar. It was a softer, but quirky take on blues guitar. Orcutt was followed by Heron Oblivion. While coming out of the milieu of “cosmic guitar music”, they did have a darker, and sometimes frantic sound. They moved back and forth between more frenetic drum and guitar, and that soft plaintive sound in alternative pop. Overall, both acts fit with the theme of the evening, adding a bit of weirdness grounded in various conventions.

Martha and Monica: Morton Feldman’s On Patterns in a Chromatic Field

12719352_10153950108344314_418060891337331788_oWe at CatSynth have had quite a few unique musical experiences this season. Today we look back at another of them. In early February, the duo Martha and Monica (Hadley McCarrol on piano and Monica Scott on cello) performed Morton Feldman’s Patterns in a Chromatic Field in its entirety.

“In it’s entirety” is no small thing, as the piece consists of a single continuous 90-minute movement. It’s a feat of endurance for both the listeners and performers. But McCarrol and Scott made it seem straightforward and effortless. The performance began with very sparse but unsettled harmonies, with the texture increasing but then returning to sparseness again. It was only the final third that the texture and intensity grew towards a bolder and thicker sound. All the while, the music was constantly changing, repeating a few times, leaving a bit of space, and then going on to something else. This is consistent with Feldman’s interest in sound as something ephemeral and lost, and in creating a sonic space where memory is subverted or “disoriented.” The spaces in between the sounds are important as well, given moments of reflection and mental echoes.

All of this might make the piece seem daunting to listen to, especially at the length of a typical feature film. But the combination of space and disorientation were helpful, making it more like thoughts passing in a meditative space. The anxiety in a passage builds, but then dissipates – one acknowledges it and moves on. The passage of time itself became background noise and the sounds became more spatial than temporal. This effect might be more pronounced for someone like myself who sees shapes when listening to music, but I suspect other deep listeners had analogous experiences.

Unlike Feldman’s earlier pieces, this one was fully notated using common practice notation. This would both facilitate and make more challenging the process and playing and learning such a piece, where every note makes a difference. It was overall an impressive feat of musical performance, and glad I got to spend an afternoon hearing and seeing it.

Vacuum Tree Head Live at Berkeley Arts, January 10, 2016

Vacuum Tree Head
[Photo by Christina Stanley]

On January 10, 2016, Vacuum Tree Head performed at Berkeley Arts as part of the “Hardly Strictly Personal” benefit festival curated by Mika Pontecorvo. We played a short instrumental set that featured refinements of existing songs from our previous performance as well as new compositions. You can see and hear the highlights in this video.

As you can see from these highlights, it was short and energetic, and we certainly had a lot of fun playing.

Amanda Chaudhary and Jason Berry, Vacuum Tree Head.
[Photo by Christina Stanley]

The band was led as always by Jason Berry, who also played soprano saxophone and electronics. The rest of the best included Amanda Chaudhary on Nord Stage and Moog Sub Phatty keyboards, Michael de la Cuesta on guitar and synthesizers, Rich Lesnick on saxophone and bass clarinet, Thomas Scandura on drums, and Stephen Wright on bass. Mixing, editing, and interstitial music was done at CatSynth HQ; and the animations were by J.B.

Boulez and Bowie

In the span of just one week at the start of this new year, we lost two musical heroes (whose names, coincidentally, both begin with “B”). Pierre Boulez and David Bowie may seem worlds apart musically and stylistically, but they both had strong influences on where my own music and performance has gone especially in the last few years.

By Joost Evers / Anefo (Nationaal Archief) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Joost Evers / Anefo (Nationaal Archief) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I am most familiar with Boulez not as a composer but as the founding director and god father of IRCAM in Paris; and as a renowned conductor. One fun memory of the latter involves one of his recordings conducting Luciano Berio’s Sinfonia. It was a favorite of mine, and when I got the chance to present it to Berio for an autograph, he declared his dislike of the recording, but signed my CD atop Boulez’ face. As a figure who loomed large in the world of avant-garde music, and then electronic music, he certainly evoked strong opinions from others. There is no doubting the influence of his leadership at IRCAM in both my electronic-music composition and research, even as I disagree with aspects of the institution’s culture, such as strict control and division of music and technology research. But it’s worth stepping back and looking at Boulez as a composer. His masterpiece Répons combines electronics with an acoustic chamber ensemble in ways that make the electronics disappear at times. It also has a very visual quality to it, evoking a complex film scene or theatre piece.

By k_tjaaa (Flickr: David Bowie Mural) [<a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0">CC BY 2.0</a>], <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ADavid_Bowie_Mural.jpg">via Wikimedia Commons</a>

By k_tjaaa (Flickr: David Bowie Mural) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The theatrical is one of many ways David Bowie’s influence comes into the picture, along with the use of gender experimentation and constant stylistic reinvention. His gender-fluid and sometimes overtly feminine presentations on stage were “transgressive” for the time, but have certainly impacted many of us and made space for our own expression in music and in person. It set an example for me to be able to first come out on stage and then eventually in person. In addition to gender, Bowie’s onstage persona gave freedom to be decadent and glamorous, something which many styles of music seem to lack. Now when I perform Boulez-influenced music, it is definitely with Bowie-influenced staging and theatrics. And of course the costuming.

But David Bowie was himself a talented musician and writer. In the same ferment of the 1970s in which he developed his personae, he also pushed the use of synthesizers and electronics in music that was still referred to as “Rock”. His song Subterraneans is a prime example of both technology (ARP synthesizers, backwards bass guitar) and theatrics in his music, as illustrated in this tribute video.

The album that includes this song, Low, was preceded by Station to Station, one of my favorites for its funk influence, including the song Stay. The funk and soul sound of this album, along with his more unambiguously masculine persona in the album art (at least to my sensibilities), exemplify his ability to change and reinvent quickly from one project to the next. It’s the album I have returned to primarily after the announcement of his death on Sunday night. But I do want to close with one if his most hauntingly beautiful songs: Drowned Girl is one again something different altogether.

Music by Lindsay Cooper, Mills College

Earlier this month, the Mills College music department dedicated an entire concert to the music of Lindsay Cooper. It was an extraordinary event, not only for bringing her work together in one setting, but for the cast of talented musicians who made up the ensemble.

Ensemble performing the music of Lindsay Cooper
[Ensemble performing the music of Lindsay Cooper]

Lindsay Cooper is perhaps best known for work with the experimental rock group Henry Cow, but her musical career spans a variety of other styles and disciplines before and after. And while her instrumental first love remained the bassoon, she also played many other wind instruments, and had a very distinctive haunting voice that could be heard on many of Henry Cow’s recordings. Her compositions, including her time with the band and her later projects including News from Babel up to her retirement while suffering from MS, are not often heard in concert calls. The concert on this evening was a step towards rectifying that.

Musically the concert was a high-speed tour through Cooper’s music. Many of the pieces were short an energetic. Some carried the energy and rhythm of experimental rock, with driving lines on keyboard, guitar and drums; others were quite abstract with longer sounds. There was an anxiety and restlessness that permeated the music, with a need to move forward, sometimes almost tumbling. It was also full of intricate details and contrapuntal lines, which were brought out especially in the horn parts. There were moments which had the grand style and fast-moving details of a classic film score, particularly reminiscent of a closing “The End” from a film for which the ending may not have felt quite so final.

Evelyn Davis, Kate McLoughlin, Fred Frith
[Evelyn Davis, Kate McLoughlin, Fred Frith]

The main ensemble featured two of Cooper’s longtime collaborators, Fred Frith (guitar, keyboard) and Zeena Parkins (harp). Rounding out the ensemble was a group of familiar faces in Steve Admans, Rachel Austin, Beth Custer, Evelyn Davis, Jordan Glenn, Jason Hoopes, Kasy Knudsen, Kate McLoughlin, Emily Packard, and Andy Strain; with Miles Boisen on sound. The performances felt easy and flawless (no doubt the result of countless rehearsals), and with a relatively light texture despite the ensemble’s size. The concert’s sole departure was a performance by the Rova Sax Quartet of Face in the Crowd, a piece they had commissioned from Cooper in 1996. Judging from her biography and the date, it may have been one of her last compositions.

Rova Saxophone Quartet
[Rova Saxophone Quartet]

In addition to the performers on stage, the audience too was a cast of familiar faces and influential musicians from the Bay Area music scene. It seems that Lindsay Cooper had quite an influence on artists her; and thus this was a concert not to be missed. I am glad that I was able to be there.

New False Gods &The Xman, LSG Creative Music Series

It’s been a while since I have been able to attend Outsound’s regular weekly music series at the Luggage Store Gallery, but I was finally able to do so a week ago. The show featured two very different sets focused on electronics.

First up was the New False Gods, a “supergroup” of sorts featuring Eli Pontecorvo , Jack Hertz, Doug Lynner, Tom Djll, and R Duck.

New False Gods

I am quite familiar with all the artists and count them all as friends, but this is the first time I heard them together as this unit. Musically, this was an improvised set, but Jack Hertz’s rhythmic percussion helped provide a structural foundation for the other sounds, which varied from sparse and light to thick noisy pads. Doug Lynner provided intricate sounds on his Serge modular, and Tom Djll had an intriguing setup with trumpet driving a modular synth.

Doug Lynner, Tom Djll

Next up was Charles Xavier, aka The Xman performing a solo set with electronics and small sound makers. The central instrument in his setup was a malletKAT, an electronic MIDI mallet percussion instrument.

The Xman (Charles Xavier)

The Xman was musically quite different from the New False Gods. In addition to presenting a series of composed pieces as opposed to a set-length improvisation, his music was centered on standard tonal pitches, albeit sometimes in more atonal arrangements. There was a gentle and playful quality to many of the pieces.

Overall, it was a good night to come back to the series. Hopefully it won’t be so long before I attend again.

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.

SFEMF: Aqulaqutaqu, Doug Lynner, Olivia Black

Today we look back at the final concert of the 2015 San Francisco Electronic Music Festival. The program featured artists – some familiar, some new – exploring different aspects of electronic music, both aurally and visually.

The evening opened with AQULAQUTAQU, a “fractal alien operetta” by Kevin Blechdom (aka Kristin Grace Erickson) in collaboration with Madison Heying, Matthew Galvin and David Kant.

AQULAQUTAQU
[Photo: peterbkaars.com]

The operetta, complete with visuals, costumes, and dance, follows the story of two scientists on the planet AQULAQUTAQU, whose discoveries run afoul of the theocratic rulers of the planet (at a level Earth’s contemporary theocrats could only dream of) and end up feeling the planet for Earth. During the story, one of the scientists presents the story of Ladle Rat Rotten Hut, a corruption of Little Red Riding Hood complete with images of vague homophones to the words of the story, and a larger-than-life wolf costume. The journey to Earth sets a very different tone from the sections on the homeworld, and the finale in which the arrivals on Earth have a dance party (with the wolf joining in) was fun and reminded me of 1960’s tropes where everyone comes out and dances in the middle or end of a show.

The next set was a solo performance by Doug Lynner on his original Serge modular synthesizer along with a Cyndustries Zeroscillator.

Doug Lynner

We have frequently chronicled Doug Lynner and his virtuosic performances here on CatSynth, and they are always impressive, sometimes quite subtle and intricate before breaking out into louder noisier sections. This one was a bit different, focusing more on beats and harmonies that approached traditional Western music, perhaps even a bit towards electronica. Of course it was all done with the same instrumentation as his more abstract performances – the Serge modulars tend to have simple functions like slopes that are combined into more complex signals, so it likely takes a bit to assemble something as rhythmic and harmonic as this performance was.

The final set featured a piece by Olivia Block titled Aberration of Light. Originally composed for a live cinema piece, it was presented here as a four-channel realization in a darkened hall. The one minimalist visual element was a single cone of light striking fog (emitted from a machine offstage).

Olivia Block
[Photo: peterbkaars.com]

The piece and the visual was meditative. One could focus on just the sounds and the interaction with the room, which forms another instrument of the piece, but I did find myself focused on the light cone as I am often drawn to minimalist visual elements. It also gave the performance a more mysterious quality than would have been present if the room was entirely dark.

Overall it was a solid show and thought Block’s piece was a great ending to the festival. Because of many circumstances beyond the scope of this article, this final show of SFEMF was the only one I was able to attend the year. I am glad I was able to make it, and looking forward to next year’s festival.

UBRADIO SALON 399: Alien Artifact

UBRadio Salon 399

Last weekend Polly Moller and I joined the hosts at UBRadio Salon for two hours of live experimental electronic improvisation. UBRadio Salon is a project by the folks who brought us Big City Orchestra UBIUBI and we excited to have the opportunity to play on their 399th consecutive weekly show.

Polly Moller and Amanda Chaudhary at UBRadio Salon

We began with a version of our improv piece Ode to Steengo, with Polly on voice, bass flute and guitar, and I performed on modular synth and Moog Theremini. It became a quartet with electronics, and DIY sonic objects. Overall it was one of the best versions of this piece we have done! We immediately sequed into an extended coda with abstract improvisation. The second set was open improvisation as well, with Polly providing vocals and narratives throughout. In between were clips from National Lampoon radio broadcasts as well as bits of the original Stainless Steel Rats series, on which the spam text of Ode to Steengo is based.

You can hear the show in its entirely via this archive.

Thanks to our hosts Ninah Pixie and DAs for having us on the show. I look forward to their upcoming 400th episode, and we certainly hope to come back and play again.

Outsound New Music Summit: Vision Music 

The final night of the Outsound New Music Summit featured three sets combining music with visuals. The room was dark, with all illumination coming from the visuals on the screen and the sonic elements abstractly arrayed around them.

The evening opened with Mika Pontecorvo’s project Bridge of Crows performing an improvised set to a segment Pontecorvo’s film The Bedouin Poet of Mars: The Last Poet.

Mika Pontecorvo
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

The film’s story is a bleak tale of a poet who is the last survivor of a once-thriving civilization on Mars, searching for a home for himself and the last surviving plant. He sees the results of several self-destructive civilizations on his journey. Despite the dark subject matter, the visuals themselves were lively and abstract at times, with lots of interesting visual and image processing.

Bedouin Poets of Mars : The Last Poet

The music moved in and out of a variety of textures and dynamic levels, though the focus remained on the visuals throughout. Joining the regular ensemble was Bob Marsh, wearing one of his trademark suits and performing on a string instrument made from a tree.

Bob Marsh
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

One disadvantage of the darkened environment was that I did not get to see much of Marsh or his instrument, which I would have liked to. Rounding out the ensemble were Kersti Abrams on winds, Elijah Pontecorvo on electric bass, Greg Baker on electronics, hydrophone and clarinet, Mark Pino on percussion, and Mariko Miyakawa on vocals.

Next up was Tender Buttons, a trio featuring Tania Chen on small instruments, with Gino Robair and Tom Djil on analog modular synthesizers. The trio performed sounds against live interactive video by Bill Thibault.

Tender Buttons
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

The set was anchored by Chen’s piano, which ranged from intricate and complex to loud and aggressive, augmented by small toy instruments. The piano interlaced with Thibault’s abstract visuals, which started out simply but grew more complex over the course of the set. Throughout, the visuals displayed words from Gertrude Stein’s poem Tender Buttons, but were increasingly mixed with the more complex elements.

Tender Buttons
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

Robair and Djll provided a variety of adept sounds from modular synthesizers and circuit-bent electronics to complement the piano and video.

The final set featured live interactive video by Bill Hsu with James Fei on reeds and Gino Robair returning on percussion.

James Fei with Bill Hsu visuals
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

I am quite from the minimalist quality in Bill Hsu’s visuals. The began with very simple geometric elements, but soon hope added a bit of controlled chaos that led to very organic elements on the screen.

Bill Hsu visuals

Befitting the visuals, the music in this set was more sparse, with moments of quiet and loud solo bursts from Robair and Fei. Robair percussion worked best with the early geometric elements, and Fei’s complex runs on saxophone worked well with the more organic visuals.

I enjoy sets that integrate visuals and music into a single unit. It can sometimes be a challenge to take everything in, much less write about it afterwards. But I hope this gives a little insight into the evening. It was a good closing concert for this years Summit, and was appreciated by those who came only that night as well as the loyal audience members who were there most or all days. This concludes the 2015 Outsound New Music Summit, and I look forward to its return next year.