Friendly Galaxies: Celebrating Sun Ra at 100

This year marks the centennial of the birth of Sun Ra, an artist whom we at CatSynth quite admire. There have been many tributes this year, and Reconnaissance Fly was fortunate to have played in one of them this past Wednesday.

“Friendly Galaxies”-Celebrating Sun Ra at 100 was “a celebration of the cosmic musical force of Sun Ra and his legacy….bands,beer,the sounds of joy!!! universal convergence” at the Center for New Music here in San Francisco. It featured three groups who combined his music and poetry with their own artistry. We even had Saturn cookies!


And Reconnaissance Fly was up first! We definitely got into the theme of the evening, with otherworldly and science-fiction themes. And our set included two of Sun Ra’s pieces from the album Lanquidity: the title track and Where Pathways Meet.



We also included selections from our own music that matched the sound and vibe including Itzirktna and Undeciphered. You can hear our performance of Undeciphered in this video.

Overall, this was one of our better-performed shows, and we received a great response from the audience.

We were followed by Electropoetic Coffee, a music-and-poetry duo featuring Ross Hammond and NSAA.


As usual, Hammond’s guitar work was virtuosic and filled with lush and complex moments. I am pretty sure the poetry and spoken featured some of Sun Ra’s own writings, a topic that was part of the groups introduction. It was interesting to hear the combination of words and music. At times they came together strongly, at others seemed to drift a bit in different direction. Overall, I did like the performance and how it fit into the evening. But I do think would have been stronger if it was shorter – I don’t think the 45 minute duration served them well and it would have been better to keep it compact and energetic.

The final set was a special group for the evening, the UBU RA BIG BAND. It featured Joe Lasquo on piano and electronics, with Jon Raskin, Steve Adams, Lisa Mezzacappa, John Hanes, Myles Boisen, Aaron Bennett, Dan Plonsey, and David Slusser, along with a vocal team that included Katt Atchley.


This was truly a treat to hear. These are of course all top-notch musicians who can hit the appropriate sounds and rhythms for jazz as well as dive into free-improvisation. Their arrangements of Sun Ra’s compositions were tight and energetic, and just fun to listen to. And this band really grooved, in that funk/jazz/fusion way that I adore. One of my favorites was the final piece, UFO, a straight-ahead disco tune from 1979. I wanted that one to keep going.

Overall, this was a fun show and a joyous celebration, and something I think we were all proud to be a part of. We had a full house, all of which seemed to be very much in the moment as well. Certainly a memorable night and a fitting tribute. A special thanks to Jan Michaels for organizing this event and to the Center for New Music for hosting us!

Outsound Music Summit: Vibration Hackers

The second concert of this year’s Outsound Music Summit, entitled “Vibration Hackers”, featured electronic musical experimentations from Stanford’s CCRMA and beyond. It was a sharp contrast to the previous night in both tone and medium, but had quite a bit to offer.

The concert opened with #MAX, a collaboration by Caitlin Denny on visuals, Nicole Ginelli on audio, and Dmitri Svistula on software development. It was based on the ubiquitous concept of the hashtag as popularized by Twitter. Audience members typed in suggested terms on a terminal set up in the hall. The terms we then projected on the screen and used to search online for videos, audio and textual materials to inform the unfolding performance. Denny used found videos as part of her projection, while Ginelli interpreted results with processed vocals.


The idea was intriguing. I would have liked to see more explicit connection between the source terms and audio/video output – perhaps it was a result of the projection onto the distorting curtain instead of a flat surface, but the connection wasn’t always clear. It would have also been fun to allow audience members to input terms from their mobile phones via Twitter. But I applaud the effort to experiment artistically with social networking infrastructure and look forward to seeing future versions of the piece.

Next was a set of fixed-media pieces by Fernando Lopez-Lezcano, collectively called Knock Knock…anybody there? Lopez-Lezcano is a master of composition that uses advanced sound spatialization as an integral element, and these pieces presented a “journey through a 3D soundscape”.


The result was a captivating immersive and otherworldly experience with moving sounds based on voices, sometimes quite intelligible, sometimes manipulated into abstract wiggling sounds that spun around the space. There was also a section of pop piano that was appropriately jarring in the context which gave way to a thicker enveloping sound and then fades to a series of whispers scattered in the far corners of the space. The team from CCRMA brought an advanced multichannel system to realize this and other pieces, and the technology plus the expert calibration made a big different in the experience. Even from the side of the hall, I was able to get much of the surround effect.

The next performance featured Ritwik Banerji and Joe Lasquo with “Improvising Agents”, artificial-intellgience software entities that listen to, interpret, and the produce their own music in response. Banerji and Lasquo each brought their own backgrounds to the development of their unique agents, with Banerji “attempting to decolonize musician-computer interaction based not he possibilities that a computer is already intelligent” and Lasquo applying his expertise in AI and natural language processing to musical improvisation. They were joined by Warren Stringer who provided a visual background to the performance.

Joe Lasquo and Ritwik Banerji

As a humorous demonstration of their technology, the performance opened with a demo of two chatbots attempting to converse with one another, with rather absurd results. This served as the point of departure for the first piece, which combined manipulation of the chatbot audio with other sounds while Banerji and Lasquo provided counterpoint on saxophone and piano, respectively. The next two pieces, which used more abstract material, were stronger, with deep sounds set against the human performances and undulating geometric video elements. The final piece was even more organic, with subtle timbres and changes that came in waves, and more abstract video.

This was followed by Understatements (2009-2010), a fixed-media piece by Ilya Rostovtsev. The piece was based on acoustic instruments that Rostovtsev recorded and then manipulated electronically.

Ilya Rostovtsev

It began with the familiar sound of pizzicato strings, that gave way to scrapes and then longer pad-like sounds. Other moments were more otherworldly, including extremely low tones that gradually increased in volume. The final section featured bell sounds that seemingly came out of nowhere but coalesced into something quite serene.

The final performance featured the CCRMA Ensemble, which included Roberto Morales-Manzanares on flute, voice and his “Escamol” interactive system, Chris Chafe on celletto, John Granzow on daxophone and Rob Hamilton on resonance guitar. Musical creations were a major part of this set. Chris Chafe’s celletto is essentially a cello striped down to its essential structure and augmented for electro-acoustic performance. The saxophone is based on a bowed wooden element where the sound is generated from friction. The Escamol system employed a variety of controllers, including at one point a Wii.

CCRMA Ensemble

The set unfolded as a single long improvisation. It began with bell sounds, followed by other sustained tones mixed with percussive sounds and long guitar tones. The texture became more dense with guitar and shaker sounds circling the room. The celletto and daxophone joined in, adding scraping textures, and then bowing sounds against whistles. In addition to the effects, there were more idiomatic moments with bowed celletto and traditional flute techniques This was truly an experimental virtuosic performance, with strong phrasing, textural changes and a balance of musical surprises.

I was happy to see such a strong presence for experimental electronic technologies in this year’s Summit. And there was more electronics to come the following evening, with a very different feel.

Outsound Music Summit: Touch the Gear and Composers’ Forum

The 2012 Outsound Music Summit began this Sunday with the annual Touch the Gear Expo. Visitors have a chance to see and try out the equipment used by musicians and sound artists. Although we had fewer presenters this year, we had a variety of instruments and devices, and a fairly sizable crowd of visitors.

In the above image, we see Matt Davignon presenting effects pedals driven using a Casio keyboard, and Joe Lasquo presenting laptop-based programs with Max/MSP.

One of the fun aspects of Touch the Gear is getting one’s hands on instruments that one only sees on stage. For me, one of those opportunities came when I got to play the Arp 2600 that Benjamin Ethan Tinker brought to the event. It was only a little over a week earlier that I heard him play it at the Luggage Store Gallery.

But it there is the discovery of new and never-before seen musical creations. The most unusual for me was this creation by Omer Gal:

The organic head-like element contained several mechanical and optical sensors that one could touch or put ones hands near to affect the sound. A second part of the installation included a mechanical “robot” that played a set of strings with a pickup. The performer can affect the operation of the robot and the sound through electronic controls.

Other unusual electro-acoustic instruments were presented by Walter Funk and Dan Ake. Walter Funk’s metallic instrument called Ulysses offered opportunities to explore different resonances and timbres through sheets of metal, rods and springs arrayed throughout its body. Dan Ake’s invention was a series of gridded metal inside a large wooden box, than one could excite with a variety of objects, such as bows, rods and a glove with long wooden fingertips.

I was presenting at this event as well. I always try to bring something a little different each year. This year, I decided to go with two ends of the technology spectrum: an iPad running Animoog and iMS-20, and a Eurorack modular system with a Metasonx R53, Make Noise Echophon, Malekko Heavy Industry Anti-Oscillator, and several others. Both technologies caught people’s attention, with some more excited about the analog modular system with its physical knobs and cables, and others gravitating towards the iPad.

Andrew Wayne presented a very tangible set of objects containing unpopped popcorn kernels in aluminum trays and other contains, augmented with contact microphones and electronic effects. He assembled his own contact mics to use with these acoustic sources.

Other participants included CJ Borosque with an Alesis Air, Laurie Amat with vocal and ambient sources into a Line 6, and a surface by April-Jeanie Tang with rubber-ball mallets. Through contact miss, the action of the rubber mallets and the surface and transmitted to effects processors for a deep, haunting sound. Tom Duff presented a series of software processes that could be randomly controlled from a MIDI controller. Despite the randomness, it was quite expressive after playing with it and dialing in on particular processes.  He also had a couple of critters from Bleep Labs.

Long-time participants Tom Nunn and David Michalak were back again with the most recent incarnations of the sketch box. You can read an interview with Tun Nunn and discussion of his musical inventions here on CatSynth.

And finally, Bob Marsh was back with his intriguing and “charismatic” metal creations.

I do tend to gravitate towards metallic sounds when looking for new material, something which seems to be common among those who are looking for invention and discovery in musical sound.

On Monday night, the summit continued with the Composers Symposium, a panel discussion featuring four of the composers in this year’s festival: John Shiurba, Christina Stanley, Benjamin Ethan Tinker, and Matthew Goodheart were on hand to discuss their work. And as a first this year, I acted as the moderator for the evening. It was a great experience, and I did not have to do very much besides seeding the discussion with a few questions. From those starting points, a lively discussion ensued among the composers as well as dialog with the audience. We talked about the role of notation in each of the composers’ music, such as Stanley’s use of paintings as her scores and Shiurba’s use of graphical elements derived from print newspapers (a major theme of his piece this year); and the dual role that these artists played as both composers and performers. One of the things that made this panel work was the variety of musical disciplines, styles and backgrounds among the participants, as well as the interest that the audience brought to the discussion with their numerous questions. Everyone had criticisms of the terms “new music” and “experimental music” that are often used as blanket designations for the music featured in the summit and indeed much of the music reviewed here on CatSynth, but that was to be expected. The two hours of the discussion went by rather quickly, and I’d like to think everyone on the panel and in the audience found the experience enjoyable and illuminating. I would definitely like to do more of these at events in the future.