Farewell to 2011

As has become a tradition here at CatSynth, we present our end-of-year image.


[Click to enlarge.]

It was a bit of a challenge to decide what to put in, as there were so many this time. But I think these are particularly representative. And it’s also significant that it is more colorful than previous end-of-year images.

The first few days of this year were quiet and a bit dark. That changed quickly, with tumultuous events around the world, and new experiences close to home. It’s the year I finally had a photography show, and by the end of the year I had several. There were new surprising types of performances and the costumes to go with them. I deepened my connections back in New York with friends, music, art and the landscape. And I no idea what I would have the chance to participate in something like the Occupy movement . There were many sad moments as well, with the loss of friends.

In all, 2011 has been particularly rich and productive, if sometimes a bit chaotic. If one had told me at the end of 2007 or 2008 (or 2001 for that matter) that this is what life would be like now, I would have been pleasantly surprised. There is a sense, however, that the patterns of this past year are not sustainable. This will have to be part of the plan for 2012, in particular getting organized, staying healthy and trying to make good choices. We will see how that unfolds as the new year progresses…

Happy New Year and thank you for all the support and warmth from those who read these pages!

Space Music Night at the Luggage Store Gallery, San Francisco

Earlier this month, I participated in a show at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco called Space Music Night that turned out to be quite memorable. So what exactly is “space music”? It is not straightforward to come up with a definitive answer, except that it should reflect some sense of “outer space” as one might imagine it. Or, perhaps more accurately, as people might have imagined it in the 1960s and 1970s. The music that we performed that evoke “space rock” that one might associate with early Pink Floyd or Gong, but also more freeform ambient soundscapes. The latter comes closer to ambient music one might hear on NPR’s “Hearts of Space” program but without crossing over that dangerous line into New Age. The music was certainly contemplative at times, but retained an edge to it and often veered back to rock and jam idioms, and moved back and forth between defined harmonies and more abstract timbres. The “space” effect was also heightened by having a dark room with abstract video projections by Tim Thompson.

The show was divided into two sets with four musicians each. Although many of us were familiar to one another, this was the first each each set of four played together as a group. The first set featured Matt Davignon on drum machines and effects, Kristen Miltner on electronics, Karl Evangelista on guitar, and Andrew Joron on theremin. Musically, this set had a very thick electronic texture with a soft beat from the drum machines that came in and out of presence. The electronics and heavily processed guitar provided anxious harmonies, and the theremin seemed to be narrating a space story with warbles and slides that approached the rhythm of human speech. At moments, the rhythm dropped out altogether, while at others it came closer to an extended jam. You can hear a bit of the set in the following video:

In the second set, I performed with iPad and the Dave Smith Evolver, along with David Leikam, Sheila Bosco on drums, and Steve Abbate on guitar. Perhaps it was the instrumentation of the set, or the musical leanings of the performers (including myself) towards strong rhythm, but we very quickly gelled into a steady rock jam rhythm that extended for most of the length of the set except for avery deliberate breaks. I mostly used Sunrizer on the iPad to provide ethereal harmonies to set again Leikam’s Moog Rogue and his “electric bass cello” and provide structure for melodic improvisation. This was definitely approaching the “space rock” idiom that inspired the evening.

I was quite happy with how well we able to play together despite having not played together before, and indeed a few people afterwards expressed some surprise that we hadn’t. But perhaps we will get a chance to play again.

Experi-MENTAL night at TheaterLab, New York

Today we look back at the second of my November performances in New York. This one took place at Theater Lab in Manhattan in one of the venue’s stark white studios that served as both performance venue and blank canvas. There were several now-familar faces from east coast shows, as well as new artists that I heard for the first time.

The show opened with an acoustic performance by PAS, featuring Robert L. Pepper, Amber Brien, Michael Durek and John “Vomit” Worthley with guest Carlo Altomare (one of the founders of TheaterLab) on piano. The acoustic instruments included a wide variety of percussion, strings and winds, as well as DIY combinations of objects (buckets, balloons, etc.) to produce other sounds. In this way, they played acoustic instruments as if they were synthesizers.


[PAS. (Click images to enlarge.)]

The performance moved between gradually evolving by strongly rhythmic material and more freeform noise textures, all expressive and performed with a wide dynamic range. At various times, the performers moved around the space, among the audience and up into the loft, which added a theatrical element as well as spatialization. You can see and hear for yourself in this video:

PAS live with Carlo Altomare at Experi-MENTAL Night at Theaterlab. November 26th, 2011 from PAS Music on Vimeo.

The particular combination of instruments and idiomatic playing gave portions of the performance an Asian feel (particularly at the beginning of the video), but even there the piano provides an avant-gard counterpoint and the overall texture moves to something more reminiscent of Henry Cowell before moving into a more experimental dramatic mode featuring Altomare soloing on piano and Pepper repeatedly chanting “Piano Man!” I like how they were able to move so easily between the different timbres and textures and rhythms without stopping, except of course for the silences that occurred in response to the instruction “Silence!” In all, a great set that set a confident tone for the entire evening.

Next was a duo featuring Richard Lainhart on a Buchla synthesizer and Lucio Menegon on strings and effects. They performed a live improvised set to a film by Scratch Film junkies.

The film was beautiful and mesmerizing, though I did find myself also watching the Buchla to see and hear what was happening. In general, the synth performance was subtle and blended well with the string sounds to produce an overall ambient texture, with occasional metallic and inharmonic swells. The eerie and slowly moving sound fit the abstract video, with frequently changing clips overlaid with digital effects that simulated paint and chemical treatment. At times, the harmonies and timbres seemed to approach an acoustic orchestra and choir, as one might hear in a science fiction film, while others seemed to channel the sounds of bowed metal and glass.

PAS presents Experi-MENTAL Night with a duo by Richard Lainhart and Lucio Menegon at Theaterlab from PAS Music on Vimeo.

This was followed by a trio featuring Jay Pluck on piano, Julia Violet on vocals, and Michael Durek returning, this time on theremin.


[Jay Pluck, Julia Violet, and Michael Durek. Photos by Michael Zelner. (Click to enlarge.)]

This was the most traditional and idiomatic of any set during the show. The songs were songs, quite lyrical and featuring traditional harmonies and melodic lines for voice and theremin. The introduction featured a theremin solo – Durek is quite good at getting standard pitching and phrasings from the instrument – set against gently rolling arpeggios of romantic chords on the piano. As Violet’s vocals enter, the music takes on a light cabaret feel, but the theremin backed with Mini-Kaoss Pad effects, continues to give it a somewhat otherworldly quality. The second song, which featured more major harmonies, had a bit of a 1960s rock quality to it, as if it was it was a song from a popular album rescored for piano and voice. Here the theremin had a bit of a darker tone.

After that it was time to take the stage. It was basically the same setup as a few nights earlier at the AvantElectroExpectroExtravaganza in Brooklyn, but with a few musical differences. I opened with a newly programmed piece that featured timbres based on the Bohlen 833 scale in which I could call up individual pitches and harmonics via the monome and iPad working together. The end result was a somewhat an ambient piece that was relaxed but with anxious undertones.

[Click to enlarge, if you must.]

I did reprise my Wicks Looper and Korg Monotron improvisation that had worked well at the previous performance, as well as another another piece featuring additive synthesis in which iPad-controlled tone clouds are set against short percussive tones. At the end of the set, I was joined by Robert L. Pepper from PAS for a duo improvisation featuring acoustic instruments and electronics. We started with a steady pattern on the dotara and large drum, gradually bringing in some electronic sounds controlled by the monome and other acoustic instruments and effects. Overall, we meshed very well musically despite this being our first time ever playing together! I particularly liked the moment where we were both playing string instruments, as it felt particular aligned and expressive. This gave way to a finale with dotara and drums that approached traditional folk music and a well-defined final note. You can hear the full solo and duo in this video:

Amar at TheaterLab, New York. from CatSynth on Vimeo.

The final set featured Richard Lainhart’s film The History of the Future with a live soundtrack performed by the “Orchestra of the Future”, an ad hoc ensemble featuring many of us who had performed in the previous four sets. The film featured clips and images from old educational and demonstration films featuring depictions of possible feature technologies. It’s a snapshot of “what the future used to be” in previous eras.

[Orchestra of the Future.]

The improvised soundtrack, which featured a variety of acoustic and electronic instruments, was rich in texture and dynamism and dramatic moments. Everyone did a good job of watching what was happening on the screen and listening to each other. There were moments where it seemed like the relative volumes of instruments were off, but that was a minor issue. It was a great way to end the evening (and a bit of a relief to be in the large ensemble after performing solo).

We had a decently sized audience for the show and a very positive response both during the event itself and in talking to people at the small reception afterwards. It was interesting that although this event was in New York, there were Bay Area connections both among the performers and the audience. This year has been a good one for bi-coastal collaboration and I look forward to more of it next year.

[Additional photos available at Michael Zelner’s flickr set. Additional videos available on vimeo by PAS Music and CatSynth.]

AvantElectroExpectroExtravaganza. Experimental Music Brooklyn, New York

Today we look back at the first of my two performances in New York, the appropriately named “AvantElectroExpectroExtravaganza” with a diverse collection of experimental electronic musicians. It was a small an intimate space nestled in a building in an industrial section of Brooklyn, east of Williamsburg. But we had a decently large stage and good sound reinforcement, and a small but attentive audience. And the industrial setting was one conducive to both my playing and enjoyment of art and music.

The performance began with a procession by members of the SK Orchestra improvising to sampled phrases “Hi” and “How are you doing”. For those who are not familiar with the Casia SK-1, it was a small sampling keyboard from the mid 1980s which allowed users to record and manipulate live sounds in addition to standard consumer keyboard features. The low fidelity and ease of use now makes them coveted items for many experimental electronic musicians. There were no fewer than five of them in the ensemble this evening.


[SK Orchestra. (Click image to enlarge.)]

As they sat down for the main part of the set, the sampled sounds grew more fragmented and processed, mixed with lots of dynamic swells and analog-filter-like sounds. Combined with a wide array of effects, the sounds were quick thick ranging from harmonic pads to noise to moments that could be best described as “space jam music.” I was particularly watching articulation with a Morley pedal and how it timbrally and rhythmically informed the sound. Taking advantage of the live-sampling capabilities of the SK-1, they resampled the output from the amps and PA and fed that back into the performance for a slow motion feedback loop that grew ever noisier and more forceful. The rhythms got more steady over time, with a driving beat set against the phrase “Holy Jesus!”, and eventually moved into a steady bass rhythm and pattern.

Rhythm was the main theme of the next set featuring Loop B. His theatrical and technically adept performance featured tight rhythmic patterns on found metal objects with playful choreography and beat-based electronic accompaniment. In the first piece, he performed on a large piece of metal salvaged from a vehicle with syncopated rhythms set against an electronic track. This was followed by a piece in which he donned a metal helmet, which he played against more Latin accompaniment.


[Loop B. (Click image to enlarge.)]

Other metal instruments included a wearable tube, as featured in this video clip.

And a return to the original car metal, but with a power drill.

The rhythmic character of the different pieces seemed to alternate between driving electronica and Latin elements, but this was secondary to the spectacle of the live playing. It was a unique and well-executed performance, and fun to witness. It would be interesting to hear what he could do in an ensemble setting with musicians with an equally tight sense of rhythm.

Loop B’s energetic and dynamic performance was followed by a very contrasting set by Badmitten (aka Damien Olsen). It began with eerie, ambient sounds that soon coalesced around watery elements. It gave me the sense of sitting near an alien sea shore. Pitch-bent tones were layered on top of this, and eventually noises and glitches that deliberately interrupted the ambience. A low-frequeny rhythm emerged along with a slow bass line. It seemed that music was moving from the sea to a forest.


[Badmitten. (Click image to enlarge.)]

The sounds were quite full and luscious, with guitar chords and synth pads. Over time it became darker, with modulated filter sounds and strong hits. Seemingly out of nowhere, a voice speaking in French emerged (which amused French speakers in the audience). The various sounds coalesced into a more steady monotone rhythm with minor harmonies, which started to come apart and become more chaotic. The set concluded with an electric piano solo.

It was then time to take the stage. Fortunately, we had quite a bit of time and space to set up before the show, so most everything was in place and I was able to get underway quickly after checking that the local wi-fi network between the iPad and the MacBook Pro (running Open Sound World) was working. I opened with a new version of the piece Spin Cycle / Control Freak that used the iPad in lieu of the Wacom Tablet from the original version 11 years prior. It worked quite well considering the limitations of the interface – and indeed the more rhythmic elements were easier to do in this case. This was then followed by a stereo version of the piece I composed for eight-channel surround and the dodecahedron speaker at CNMAT back in March. The timbres and expression still worked well, but I think it loses something without the advanced sound spatialization.


[Click image to enlarge.]

Perhaps the best piece of the set was the one with the simplest technology: I connected the output of the Wicks Looper to the input of the Korg Monotron for a pocket-sized but sonically intense improvisation, which you can see in the video below:

I concluded with a performance of Charmer:Firmament from my 2005 CD Aquatic.

The final set of the evening was Doom Trumpet, which did not feature a trumpet. Rather, artist David Smith performed improvised music with guitar and effects set against a video compiled from obscure science-fiction movies. I found myself focused on the visuals, and particularly liked how he opened many of the clips with a highly-processed version of the MGM lion. Musically, he layered samples and loops with live guitar performance through a variety of effects. The combination of the music and visuals (which seemed to be dated from the late 1960s through early 1980s based on costumes and hairstyles) kept things appropriately dislocated from the source material and more abstract.


[Doom Trumpet. (Click image to enlarge).]

Overall, it was a great night of music, which I was glad to be a part of. A few participants will be part of my next New York show at TheatreLab this coming Saturday, but I certainly hope to cross paths with everyone at concerts in the future.

Outsound GearExplore at Chamber Music Day

Back in mid-October, a few of us from the crew at Outsound Presents participated in Chamber Music Day at the De Young Museum in San Francisco.

There were over 140 musicians participating, with performances and demonstrations scattered around the museum. And “chamber music” was defined quite expansively to include a wide variety of instrumentation and genres, ranging from traditional classical music to experimental avant-garde ensembles and crossover groups. Our contribution was a demonstration of electronic-music gear – a mini version of “Touch the Gear Night” from the Outsound Music Summit. I primarily focused on software-based sound generation, with an iPad and a Monome connected to a MacBook running Open Sound World. Matt Davignon presented his setup featuring drum machines and effects pedals. CJ Borosque demonstrated her input-less effects change where the noise in the signal chain is the source for sound manipulation; and Rent Romus demonstrated live sound processing with a setup that included a Korg Monotron.

There was quite a large turnout overall for Chamber Music Day, and we had a lot of traffic at our demonstration table. Reactions ranged from mild curiosity to deep technical conversations. We were a particularly big hit with children, who are naturally attracted to hands-on demos and electronic gear.

[Amar Chaudhary and Matt Davignon demonstrating gear for young attendees at Chamber Music Day. Photo by Scott Chernis.]

This trio of young ladies spent a lot of time at the table exploring the various devices in great detail.

[Exploring the gear. Photo by Scott Chernis.]

They were particularly interested in the iPad. Here they are trying out the Korg iMS-20 app.

[Playing the iPad.  Photo by Scott Chernis.]

I would like to think that some of the kids (as well as a few of the adults) went off and downloaded some music-making apps for their devices and started playing. Or perhaps a casual guitarist found a new way to make sounds with his or her pedals.

Overall it was a great experience, and an opportunity for us to share what we do with musicians outside our small “new-music” community and with the general public. Thanks to the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music (SFFCM) for inviting us to participate. To find out more about Chamber Music Day and their other events and programs, please visit their website.

[All photos in this article by Scott Chernis and provided courtesy of SFFCM.]

11:11 on 11/11/11

At 11:11 on this day 11/11/11, I snapped screenshots of both the iPad and iPhone featuring Luna.

Of course, the symmetry and homogeneity of the date and time is quite attractive, and unique (at least within a given century). The number 111111 is also interesting when you decompose it into primes:

111111 = 11 * 13 * 3 * 37 * 7

I find the prime factorization quite poetic.

We can also factor the date and time together (11:11:11 on 11/11/11):

111111111111 = 11 * 13 * 3 * 37 * 7 * 101 * 9901

Note quite as poetic as the previous example, but still interesting. In particular, 9901 is interesting as the greatest prime factor for any repeating series of 12 numbers. Other related properties can be seen at the site Prime Curios.

Weekend Cat Blogging: Luna and Apple

The influence of Apple and Steve Jobs extends deep into this site and into our lives at CatSynth HQ. For today’s Weekend Cat Blogging, we look at a few of the many photos of Luna with Apple computers and devices:

This last photo is one of our many taken with the Hipstamatic app on the iPhone.  Indeed, most of the photos, even those not taken with an iPhone, are processed on a MacBook or Mac Pro.  Nearly all of the writing is done on a MacBook, and occasionally on an iPad.  The technology of Apple has become ubiquitous, even down to blogs featuring cats.


Weekend Cat Blogging #331, is hosted by pam at Sidewalk Shoes, where Smudge says Happy Fall to everyone.

Carnival of the Cats will be up tomorrow at Meowsings of an Opinionated Pussycat.

And the Friday Ark is at the modulator.

CatSynth video: IPad, TouchOSC, Buchla 200e demo.

From legionhwp on YouTube, via matrixsynth.

This is an instructional demo from the blog: Http://SynthandI.blogspot.com

The first half of this explains what is needed to connect an IPad running a midi controller App (in this case TouchOSC) to the Buchla 200e modular synthesizer. The second half of this video show a bit about the patch I made in TouchOSC and discussed the possibilities for further exploration.”

Watch for the cat at the beginning of the video.

Weekend Cat Blogging: Luna discovers iPad game for cats

I recently downloaded an iPad game for cats by Hiccup for Luna to try out. For a cat that spends a lot of time surrounded by technology, including the iPad, she is quite reluctant to touch it, so I wasn’t quite sure how she would react.

The game features a little mouse that resembles a cat toy scurrying around the screen. When the cat (or human) hits the mouse, it emits a little squeak and the player receives points; and the process repeats. That’s it – very simple. I started it up for Luna, and she immediately went to tracking the mouse intently, her little head shifting back and forth in deliberate motions. Tentatively, after a while, she started to paw at it, and eventually managed to pounce on the mouse. She seemed to be quite enjoying it, though she was still a little nervous and often backed away from the device after a pounce.

Here a brief excerpt of her first day of playing:

This is really just a little diversion for both of us to enjoy together, Luna playing with a virtual toy that draws her attention, and my taking delight in watching her do so. But this is clearly a demonstration of user engagement in the app space, for both cats and humans. Sometimes simplicity wins out.

I set up the game again in the office/studio while writing this article, and managed to get a brief iPhone video of Luna’s play. As one can see, she has gotten a bit more confident, even aggressive with it.

This does not seem to be a good game to play a small cluttered space.


Weekend Cat Blogging #321 is hosted by Pam with Coco, Patchouli and Smudge at Pam’s Sidewalk Shoes.

The Carnival of the Cats will be hosted this Sunday by CAT SMRT.

And the Friday Ark is at the modulator.

Weekend Cat Blogging will be hosted here at CatSynth next weekend, so do check then and submit your cat-related blog posts. New participants are always welcome.