Hardly Strictly Personal 2017 Day 2

We continue with our temporally reversed coverage of the Hardly Strictly Personal 2017 Festival that took place at the Finnish Kaleva Hall in Berkeley in March. Today we look at day 2.

The evening began with Oa, the voice-and-electronics duo featuring Matt Davignon and Hugh Behm-Steinberg.


Oa’s music involves the processing and manipulation of vocal sounds, often based on Hugh Behm-Steinberg’s words and voice. But on this occasion they featured vocal samples of Captain Beefheart. It was an appropriate twist given that HSP2017 is officially billed as “A Celebration of Post-Beefheart Art.”

Next up was Skullcrusher, a solo project of Phillip Everett.


Skullcrusher featured a variety of sonic implements, some processed and amplified, along with an Arturia Microbrute synthesizer. There were harsh noise elements throughout the set, but also snippets of melodic and harmonic material mixed in. Interestingly, the set elided into the next one featuring Joshua Allen on saxophone, with the two playing together in a frenetic improvisation before Skullcrusher faded out and Allen continued on his own as a solo set.

Joshua Allen

There were several solo sets featuring wind instrumentalists on this evening. Joshua Allen was followed by Jaroba, who played an exceptionally inspired set with bass clarinet and percussion.


Jaroba coaxed very subtle and intricate sounds from his instruments, but with dramatic moments as well. The dynamic range, phrasing and narrative structure made it very musical indeed. His sounds managed to remain punctuated even in the complex and bizarre acoustics of the Finnish Hall. The music also had a emotional and spiritual dimension to it, which added to the listening experience. It was a joy to hear, and we congratulated him after the set.


Next up was Dire Wolves, featuring Sheila Bosco on drums, Brian Lucas on bass, Arjun Mendiratta on violin, and Kelly Ann Nelson on voice and electronics. There was also video projection along with the music, which mixes “space music”, folk, and other elements into an undulating flow of rhythms and harmonies.

Dire Wolves

Dire Wolves was followed by Arrington de Dionyso on saxophones, part of his epic “This Saxophone Kills Fascists” tour.

Arrington de Dionyso

There is nothing subtle about the message, or the music. de Dionyso’s playing is loud, strong, frenetic, no-holds-barred. But he also had some soft moments that broke things up. While in large part a solo set, he also performed as a duo with drums, and a trio that included Rent Romus on saxophone.

Arrington de Dionyso Trio

The final set of the evening brought Voi! Maa! to the stage. This group features event-organizer Mika Pontecorvo on flute, guitar, and laptop manipulating sounds from other members of the band, which included Kersti Abrams on winds, Mark Pino on drums, Eli Pontecorvo on bass, Adrienne Pontecorvo on cello, and Jaroba sitting in on bass clarinet.

Voi! Maa!

Thet music unfolded with Mika cuing the other members of the group in various configurations, with loud hits, noise pads, but also some more subtle sounds, particular from Adrienne Pontecovero, Abrams and Jaroba. In the middle of the set, the music quieted down as Meg Pontecorvo read selections from her science-fiction writings. Overall it was a fitting close to the evening, especially as it brought the folks whose hard work made this event possible onto the stage.

There is one more day to present in this backwards progression: Day 1. We will share that in a separate article soon.

Vacuum Tree Head and More at All Tomorrow’s After Parties 2016

No sooner was I back from New York than I found myself preparing for another series of performances, this time in various groups for NextNow Present’s All Tomorrows After Parties 2016 at Berkeley Arts in the town of the same name. The three-day long festival was both a musical showcase for the community and a benefit for homeless action and support in the Bay Area. This article focuses on the first evening which featured a performance by Vacuum Tree Head.

Vacuum Tree Head
[Photo by Polly Moller]

The band is ever evolving, with a changing cast of musicians joining Jason Berry and Mike de la Cuesta. On this night the band included Amanda Chaudhary on keyboards, Justin Markovits on drums, Richard Corny on guitar, Galen Stagner on bass, and Jason Bellenkes and Joshua Marshall on horns. From just the images alone, one can tell this is a new incarnation of the band, with a well-dressed frontline coincidentally featuring “Nord red”; and a funkier, jazzier sound anchored by a tight rhythm section. You can hear our entire set in this video.

While the funky finale EMS Deluxe might be the most memorable of the set, each song was played well and had something unique to offer. This was my favorite rendition of Nubdug to date. The “Mystic Chord” and Gnostic Charms medley was our most abstract, featuring synth, a Waterphone and complex tones evolving into a driving rhythmic finish. And Hegemony Cricket opened things up with a bang. The set was well received by the audience; and I think everyone in the band that night was very happy with the performance. We hope to play together again as a unit in the not-too-distant future, so please look for updates here on CatSynth and elsewhere.

Vacuum Tree Head closed out an evening that was primary focused on music with words, although like us the first set was entirely instrumental. Joshua Allen and Rob Pumpelly combined forces in a frenetic duo.

Pumpelly / Allen Duo

Joshua Allen brought his virtuosic saxophone techniques to the performance; and between the two of them the energy never let up for the entire duration of the set. Their set reminded me a bit of the Coltrane album Interstellar Space.

Next up was Cartoon Justice, a noise-jazz project featuring Mika Pontecorvo on guitar, flute, and electronics, Kersti Abrams on winds, Mark Pino on Drums, and Elijah Pontecorvo on bass. They were joined by Meg Pontecorvo who read some of her science fiction writings.

Cartoon Justice

The music moved though a variety of sounds, but had a “space” vibe that complemented that texts. The concept brings to mind Sun Ra, though the sound was more reminiscent of Musica Elettronica Viva, a 1970s Italian improvising group that sometimes featured the likes of Steve Lacy and Frederic Rzewski. Of course, their sound is their own, particularly with Mark Pino’s unique drum style, Eli Pontecorvo’s bass bringing a bit of a rock/metal sound to the mix, Mika Pontecorvo’s electronic manipulations, and Meg Pontecorvo’s words.

Cartoon Justice was followed by Poetics of Narrative, a trio with guitar, electronics, and voice. I spied experimental writer Andrew Joron on theremin.

Poetics of Narrative

This group was fun and I liked there sound. It ranged from more noisy moments to playful songs with complex lyrics and melancholy melodies. In addition to the theremin, the performance featured accordion and other instruments among the ever-present small electronics. The combination of elements was reminiscent of the Tone Dogs and other avant-prog groups of that era. And the costuming and theatrics were a welcome addition.

Poetics of Narrative

I regret not being able to see the set by Oa, the duo of my friends Matt Davignon and Hugh Behm-Steinberg. But I know that their unique mix of electronic processing and poetry fit into the evening’s theme while taking the concept of music and words in a very different direction from the previous sets.

Overall, it was a wonderful evening of music, and in some ways I am still glowing from our Vacuum Tree Head set. We had a good and appreciative audience, and raised some good funds for the causes. We are grateful to have participated, and in particular would like to thank Mika Pontecorvo, Eli Pontecorvo and Mark Pino for all their help with both our set and the entire event.