Outsound New Music Summit: Electro-Plate

The third night of the Outsound New Music Summit featured three sets that spanned a wide range of electronic music history, from analog modular synthesizers to digital laptops and an eclectic mix of technologies in between.

First up was a “power trio” on Serge Modular synthesizers featuring LX Rudis, Doug Lynner and Dmitri SFC.

Serge synthesizer trio
[Photo PeterBKaars.com.]

I have heard all three perform of Serge synthesizers before, but never together in this way. The result combined their very different performance styles, with intricate and meticulous musical details from Doug Lynner and driving beats from Dmitri SFC. There were also a variety of drones, noise hits and other sonic elements throughout the performance, which consisted of a single 40-minute improvisation.

Next up Instagon with edition 684 of Lob’s long-running project. This all-electronic mixer set featured Andrew Wayne, Tim White, Thomas Dimuzio, Marc Schneider, Mark Pino and Jack Hertz.

Instagon
[Photo PeterBKaars.com.]

As with most Instagon mixer sets, each of the performed improvised freely in his instruments, with Lob conducting and sculpting the performance in real time on a mixer. The result is at times chaotic and cacophonic, but appropriately so and mixed with sparser moments where the details of a particular playing were brought out. One of the unifying elements was recorded text that appeared at various times before being obscured beneath the noise.

The final set was a digital laptop trio featuring Thea Farhadian, Aaron Oppenheim and Tim Perkis. This was an ensemble formed specifically for this concert.

Thea Farhadian, Tim Perkis, Aaron Oppenheim
[Photo PeterBKaars.com.]

For a while it was rather common to see musicians performing solo or in ensembles exclusively with laptops and digital-processing software. It seems to be less common at the moment with the resurgence of hardware synthesizers, and it is becoming more common to see electronic musicians including analog synthesizers like the classic Serge modulars from the first set. This transition is something I have myself participated in as a performing electronic musician. But the trio on this night reminded me of some of the unique sounds that digital systems can create, with access to samples, jumps, and signal processing that takes advantage of artifacts and computation, such as FM and granular synthesis. There was also more subtlety in the music for this set, with some very quiet moments. Unlike the previous sets, this one was broken up into a few distinct compositions.

Overall, it was interesting to hear the different strains of disciplines within electronic music juxtaposed as they were on this evening. Perhaps an interesting follow up would be to pair a modular synth performer with a digital laptop performer in a future concert.

Weekend Cat Blogging: The Messy Desk

Luna sits in the command chair of our office/studio. Our common tools of late, the laptop, the Eurorack modular, and coffee mug sit nearby. The stack of CDs was for our recent radio show. This is of course the spot where most CatSynth posts originate as well.

The desk is quite a mess at the moment, which I don’t particularly like, but I haven’t had much time to remedy. I feel far more creative and relaxed in a clean space, but in this busy month we will do the best we can.


Weekend Cat Blogging #373 is hosted by Pam at Sidewalk Shoes.

Carnival of the Cats will be hosted this Sunday by When Cats Attack!

And the Friday Ark is at the modulator.

Omega Sound Fix, Alfa Art Gallery

Today we look back the Omega Sound Fix Festival, which took place at the Alfa Art Gallery in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The festival spanned two days, Saturday, November 20 and Sunday, November 21, and I was myself scheduled to perform on the second night. (You can read an earlier article about my preparations for the event here.)

As with other events this year, I was live tweeting during the performance @catsynth, using the tag #omegasoundfix. Additionally, PAS has posted videos from the first night of the event, several of which are included below.

After a brief trip to lower Manhattan on Saturday, I headed across the river via the Lincoln Tunnel (which the iPhone assured me had the least traffic of any crossing) and south on the New Jersey Turnpike towards New Brunswick. It was comforting to finally arrive at Alfa Art Gallery after the long trip and come in out of the cold air to the abstract electronic sounds. I arrived in time to hear the second half of Richard Lainhart’s set (I wish I had arrived in time to hear the whole thing). You can see part of Lainhart’s performance below:

Richard Lainhart live at Alfa Art Gallery (Part II) for the Omega Sound Fix Festival from PAS on Vimeo.

I had not arrived in time to hear Lainhart’s introduction in which he explained that piece was by the renowned 20th Century composer Oliver Messaien – a 1937 piece Oraison that was was one of the early pieces written purely for electronic instruments. It was later adapted for acoustic instruments as part of Messaien’s “Quartet for the End of Time”, composed while he was in a German prisoner-of-war camp in 1941. Lainhart’s arrangement of the piece uses the Haken Continuum with a Buchla synthesizer. The music starts out very quiet and melancholy, like a mournful piece of acoustic chamber music. But one can hear the timbral details, suble pitch changes and effects that make it unmistakably electronic. Every so often, there is strong feedback in the sound, but it remains very expressive within the context of the piece. The harmonies move between minor and very anxious augmented. It feels very much like piece of music for a dramatic film, set in forlorn ruins or a desert approaching dusk.

Lainhart then joined Philippe Petit for the next set. I would characterize Petit’s performance as “virtuosic experimental turntable”, as that was the primary instrument he was using (along with a laptop) to generate his sounds that were at once very natural and very constructed. The set began with Lainhart playing long bowed tones on the vibraphone set again Petit’s liquidy granular sounds, scratches, low rumbles and anxious harmonies. There was a strong contrast between the more ethereal and natural timbres, and the lower-frequency and louder machine noises. Petit’s sounds moved from more natural and machine towards snippets from other recordings with bits of distorted harmony, and urban city-like environments. It then changes over to turntable effects, pops and skips and speed changes, and gets noiser and more agressive. Lainhart’s bowed vibraphone provides a constant dreamlike quality against Petit’s changing textures.

Philippe Petit collaborates with Richard Lainhart live at Alfa Art Gallery for the Omega Sound Fix Festival from PAS on Vimeo.

At some point during the set, the duo were joined by a guitarist to form a trio. [Note if anyone can provide me the guitarist’s name, please let me know!] The trio with guitar began scratch and percussive, but became more tonal over time. There is a section which I referred to as the “thud march”, which electrical pops forming a march-like rhythm with other turntable effects filling in the space in between. The rhythm breaks apart after while, with the electronic pops continuing in a more chaotic pattern, and scratching and percussive effects on the guitar providing a counterpoint. Quiet inharmonic synthesizer pads can be heard in the background. The set drew to a large close, starting with a quiet turntable solo and then into a big finish, with loud howling wind-like sounds, and dark harmonies.

They were followed by PAS (Post Abortion Stress). Petit remained on stage and joined regular group members Michael Durek, Robert L Pepper and John “Vomit” Worthley and guest saxophonist Dave Tamura.


[Click image to enlarge.]

The set began with a very simple pentatonic sequence. On top of this, Worthley played a bowed waterphone waterphone, and Durek soon joined on thermin with a melodic line. Tamura’s saxophone provided a strong counterpoint to the other elements, alternating between very expressive jazz-like lines and a “skronking”. There were moments where the saxophone and thermin seemed to respond to each other, melodically and harmonically. At some point, the original pentatonic pattern cut out, and the music centered around saxophone, theremin and electronic violin. This was followed by a purely electronic section with dark analog sounds and driving electronic drums. Pepper repeatedly slammed his electronic violin against the table, while Tamura played fast runs on the saxophone. Another interesting moment was Pepper using a standard fishing rod as an instrument (perhaps the first time I have seen that), set against synthesizers, guitar and saxophone. Gradually the music gets louder and more insistent, with driving percussive guitar, loud saxophone, and synthesizer sweeps, howls and sound effects in the background. Below is a video of PAS’ entire performance.

PAS live at Alfa Art Gallery with Dave Tamura & Philippe Petit from PAS on Vimeo.


The Sunday program began with blithe (doll). The performance combined acoustic drums as a foundation with live electronics and voice. I particularly liked the combination of loungy Latin rhythm and harmony in one piece with eerie electronic sounds and Phrygian vocal melodies that permeated much of the set. There were sections that were more “spacelike” with analog square waves and loud hits. Overall, the slow rhythms and melodies were reminiscent of goth or darker electronic club music.


[Click image to enlarge.]

This was a fun set to watch and listen too, and the band drew a relatively large crowd. I guess that should be surprising given that the band is local, and husband-and-wife duo of James and Lisa Woodley were well known from the previous band.

Blithe (doll) was followed by Borne (aka Scott Vizioli). He created a large dramatic and very visual soundscapes. Although his sounds included ambient, environmental and noise-based material, there was also a somewhat unsettling minor harmony that seemed to be just under the surface. Nonetheless the overall sound it was quite meditative, and easy to get lost in the soundspace. Over time, a beat emerged, very sparse and minimalist with metallic sounds. It gradually became stronger and more drum-like, with ethereal bell sounds in the background. I also recalled a single sample of a dishwasher (or something that sounded like a dishwasher) towards the end.

Next up was Octant, which could be described as a band consisting of one human and several robots. The electromechanical robots play acoustic instruments (drums, etc.) while the human member of the band, Matthew Steinke performs on lead vocals.

This was a unique set to watch. My focus was definitely on the robotic performance, but I was also listening to the music itself, which reminded of 1960s British rock with lots of chromatic chord changes. (@catsynth It’s not every day I see retro rock music performed by robots #omegasoundfix ). In order to get a rock rhythm feel, the timing among the robots needs to be well controlled – too much jitter or drift between machines and the musical quality is lost. Octant seems to have that down from a musical and technological perspective. Among the individual songs were “Bowl of Blood”, and another that was introduced by Steinke as being a “song about my cat.”


[Click image to enlarge.]
Octant was followed by Ezekiel Honig. As stated in the program notes, “He concentrates on his idiosyncratic brand of emotively warm electronic-acoustic music.” The set began with sounds that evoked water as well as machinery. I was able to hear that we was making extensive use of looping, although as he states he is “using the loop as more of a tool than a rule” and elements come and go freely outside the context of strict looping. A strong heartbeat sound emerged, and then later other elements joined to form a calm rolling pattern. At one point a strong major 7th harmony emerged. The beating changed sublty over time, as did the implied harmonies, which became more minor. Towards the end, the sounds seemed to focus on voices in the distance and other evidence of everyday human activity.

I had to begin setting up for my set after this, but I was able to part of Trinitron, the musical project of local artist Mark Weinberg. More so than Honig’s set, Trinitron’s performance was very focused on looping of processed electric guitar. Weinberg sat with his guitar in the middle of a circle of candles, and began to layer different lines and effects on top of one another. The resulting sounds from were alternately harmonic and gritty or noisy. Overall, his performance had an ambient dream-like quality to it.

Then it was time for me to play. I started the set with one of the “Big Band Remotes”, old radio broadcasts of big band shows made in the 1930s and 1940s. In particular, I used a recording of Count Basie and the Blue Note in Chicago, under the control of the monome so that I could start, stop and jump to different sections at will. I immediately segued from the final note to the Chinese prayer bowl and a similar metallic resonance on the Evolver synthesizer. After a while, I attempted to add the Smule Ocarina to the mix, though attempting to induce feedback from the speakers was a little more unstable than I had hoped. The second piece involved live sampling and looping of several of my Indian and Chinese folk instruments, including the newly acquired dotara, the gopichand, and Chinese temple blocks. Once again, this was under control of the monome. The piece transitioned to more electronic sounds, otherworldly crashing waves and loud resonances, and into a meditative solo using a guzheng app on the iPad. You can see a video of the first two pieces below:

Amar Chaudhary at Omega Sound Fix (Part 1) from CatSynth on Vimeo.

I then performed 月伸1, the video piece featuring Luna that I did at the Quickening Moon concert in February. In this instance, I did not have the Octave CAT synthesizer, but instead used the Smule Magic Fiddle and Korg iMS-20 on the iPad as the main electronic instruments, along with the Bebot app, a simple synthesizer on the laptop controlled by the monome, and the Evolver. I liked the new iPad apps for improvising against the video, it gave it a different musical quality from the premiere performance, though not as different as one might suspect. The video projection was a challenge – it covered the entire back wall, and I found myself standing “inside” the images, sometimes next to a gigantic projection of Luna. The effect of the projection against the artwork was also quite interesting visually. You can see this performance in the video below:

Amar Chaudhary at Omega Sound Fix (Part 2) from CatSynth on Vimeo.

My performance was the last of the evening, and of the festival. Overall, I thought it was a great experience, both as a performer and audience-member. Thanks to Michael Durek and Mark Weinberg for organizing this event, and to the Alfa Art Gallery for hosting.

2010 San Francisco Electronic Music Festival

A few weeks ago I attended two performances at the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival. I did live tweets at the time, and now present a more detailed and reflective account.

The performances took place at the Brava Theater in the Mission District. There was also a satellite event at the de Young Museum which unfortunately I was not able to attend.

The festival opened with a piece by Benjamin Bracken. The stage was set with a series of guitars each facing its own amplifier. The guitars were excited (i.e., made to resonate) by “a process of using feedback of specific sets of harmonic partials.”

[Benjamin Bracken. Piece for Unplayed Guitars.]

The piece began with a low rumble and drones. The sound grew denser, sometimes forming a minor harmony, and other times distinct beating patterns were audible between the long tones. Later on, the drones became higher in pitch and more “anxious” sounding and were mixed with other sounds, including something that sounded like metal objects being rubbed against one another, or bowed strings. The sound gradually became louder and more all encompassing, sometimes resolving back into a single harmony or pitch, and sometimes into a series of perfect intervals, along with some more more metallic and bowed sounds.

[John Chowning.  Photo by Michael Zelner.  (Click to enlarge)]

Bracken was immediately followed by John Chowning, who came out to talk to the audience before his set began. Many readers are undoubtedly familiar with Chowning as a pioneer in sound synthesis,and his invention of modern FM synthesis. But Chowning is also an accomplished composer and his pieces are quite beautiful. Turenas made extensive use of both FM synthesis and his early work moving sound sources in 360-degree sound space. Indeed the piece seemed to be composed of tiny particles of sound that seemed both natural and synthetic at the same time, and which were moving very strongly around in space.

[John Chowning’s stria.  Photo by Michael Zelner.  (Click to enlarge)]

Chowning’s second piece stria was originally composed and presented in 1977 at IRCAM in Paris. It is based on the golden ratio, which plays a strong role in mathematics, visual art and also how we perceive narrative in music as well as storytelling. Chowning took this a step further by basing the ratios of frequencies in the sounds themselves on the golden ratio, and using a 13-note scale to express the resulting timbres. While this results in sounds that seem inharmonic (or “clangorous” as the program notes describe it), it also provides a certain order to the piece. The music was accompanied by a visual that should the spectral composition of the piece, as well as the golden section in the temporal development (bringing it back to its traditional application in narrative.)

[Maureen Chowning in Voices v.2. Photo by Michael Zelner. (Click to enlarge)]

The third piece was a more recent composition Voices v.2, and featured soprano Maureen Chowning on voice. Pitches from her voice were tracked by a program written in Max/MSP and used to control FM synthesized sounds that are then remixer the voice and spatialized into the auditorium.

As Maureen Chowning was singing the piece, the Max/MSP program plus the score were projected onto the screen behind her, where the audience could see the efforts of John Chowning cajoling the program into behaving itself in real time.

The final set featured another pioneer in synthesis, Don Buchla, who continues to mahis Buchla analog synthesizers to this day. He was joined by Alessandro Cortini (aka “blindoldfreak”), who may be familiar to readers for his sonoio project.

[Don Buchla and Alessandro Cortini.  Photos by Michael Zelner.  (Click to enlarge)]

They began the set with a piece for “dueling Buchlas” by Cortini entitled Everything Ends Here. It opened with low notes and filtered analog drones, followed by sounds that were more windy and wispy before becoming more defined. There was a pattern with suspending major harmonies, then loud noises, moments of massive distortion, and then very low “sub bass” tones.

The next piece, Buchla’s En Plein Vol began as a standard piece for percussionist (Joel Davel) with a marimba, cymbals, temple blocks, gongs and other conventional instruments. At some point during the performance, Cortini wandered onto the stage. He lingered nearby, and then very conspicuously walked off with one of the temple blocks. He and Nannick Bonnel continued to come by and remove instruments. However, as each item was pilfered, Davel continued to play the same sound in the empty space, as if it was still there. This trick was likely accomplished by using synthesized sounds controlled by a Buchla Lightning. The piece continued in comical fashion until all the instruments and eventually the performer himself were removed from the stage.

Buchla and Cortini returned to the stage in full Carnaval attire. Buchla set in motion a pattern with a frantic jumping rhythm and an out-of-tune sequence of soft analog waves. Gradually, the music became more percussive and rhythmic, and on the screen were scenes of Carnaval percussionists. A parade of masked performers began to descend into the theater from the back, often stopping to “play” with the audience (I’m pretty certain it was Gino Robair who had a little fun with me as I attempted to “live tweet” what was unfolding). The music became a combination of synthetic drumming sounds, whistles and noisemakers. After a few rounds that did truly resemble a mini Carnaval parade, the performers ascended to the stage and formed a large semi-circle for the final piece Parabolic Trajectories.

The performers all donned large comical sunglasses – which did elicit a bit of laughter from the audience. Buchla then started up the main instrument for this piece, an old fashioned popcorn maker. As the performance drew to a close, randomized percussive sound (and mildly burnt odor) of the popcorn filled the theater.


I also attended the Saturday performance, this time as a volunteer usher. In between my ushering duties (which mostly consisted of holding a really cool flashlight and occasionally asking someone not to bring their food or drink into the theater), I was able to see and hear the full show.

Joseph Hammer opened the program with Road Less Traveled, An improvisation-based composition featuring sound loops and other found sonic material. The intention was to build in a senepse motion and narrative with the changing sound palette, a “journey with uncertainty as thr goal.” Musically, the loops at the beginning were more folk-rock samples (which in a tweet I suggested required the medical gloves that Hammer was wearing.) Over time, the source material incorporated more funk and classic R&B, which worked better for me.

Stephan Mathieu performed an extended version of Alvin Lucier’s Music with Magnetic Strings, in which the strings of an Ottavino Virginal, a small Renaissance clavier, were set into vibration by five electromagnets. The result was a sound image that was at once very Tarkington and simple, but also full of complex details such as beating patterns between sustained tones. There were also plucked strong sounds (at least as far I was able to discern) and also an ebow placed on top of the strings at one point in the piece. The very minimal structure and sound of this set may have been a challenge for some listeners. For me, I think I was in just the right mood to be receptive to something like this where I could completely defocus.

The final performance of the evening and of the festival was by Caroliner Rainbow.  The group describes itself as “an Industrial Bluegrass/Experimental/Noise conceptual art Costume Rock band.”  I am still not entirely sure what “industral bluegrass” is, but the aural and visual experience is certainly unique.  The first thing one notices is the large and elaborate stage set.

[Caroliner Rainbow]

The colors, shapes and textures seemed to be somewhere between psychedelic and urban graffiti, with bright fluorescent hues. For some of the performers, it was challenging to tell where the set ended and the costumes began, until one saw the performers’ motions, which ranged from standard performance gestures (e.g., guitars, drums) to odd back-and-forth rocking. The performers and stage did seem to function as a single entity.

Musically, the performance was something between noise and experimental punk rock, with big flourishes of piano, organ, drums, guitar and electronic noises. These seemed to come in bursts rather than as a single long phrase. Some friends of mine had seen them perform years ago, with one of the more memorable moments between a squeaking fiddle – this was present in this performance in between some of the other sounds and gestures.

After the festival concluded, there was still the challenge of dismantling such a large set. We close with a few of the staff and volunteers getting started:

[Post SFEMF.  (Click image to enlarge)]

Outsound New Music Summit: Touch the Gear

This is the first of two articles about the Outsound New Music Summit, which took place last week here in San Francisco.

The first night was the Touch the Gear Expo in which the public is invited to try out the musical instruments and equipment of a number of artists from the festival as well as other Outsound events. It was a respectably sized turnout, with a large number of visitors.


[Click to enlarge]

I brought the venerable Wacom Graphics Tablet and PC laptop running Open Sound World for people to play.


[click to enlarge]

It often gets attention during performances, and did so at this hands-on event as well. Because it uses familiar gestures in a visually intuitive way, many people were able to start right away experimenting with it making music with phrasing and articulation. I provided a simple example using FM synthesis as well as chance for people to play a phrase from my piece Charmer:Firmament (which uses additive synthesis).

Tom Duff also demonstrated his own custom software in combination with a controller, in this case an M-Audio drum-pad array. One thing we observed in his demo was how much computing power is available on a contemporary machine, like a Macbook Pro, and that for many live electronic-music applications there is more than enough. But somehow, many applications seem to grow to fit the available space, especially in our domain.

There were several demonstrations that were decidedly more low-tech, involving minimal or in some cases no electronics. Steven Baker presented a collection of resonant dustbins with contact microphones.


[Photograph by Jennifer Chu. Click to enlarge.]

The dustbins were arranged in such a way as to allow two performers to face each other for interactive performance.

I enjoyed getting to try out the hand-cranked instruments of the Crank Ensemble:


[Click to enlarge]

Basically, one turns the crank which creates a mechanical loop of sounds based on the particular instrument’s materials. I have seen the Crank Ensemble perform on a few occasions, but never got to play one of the instruments myself.

I also finally got to try out Tom Nunn’s skatch boxes, which I had seen at the Skronkathon as well as “Tuesdays at Toms”.


[Click to enlarge]

The body of the instrument is a cardboard box, and one plays it by running a comb over the various metal and plastic elements attached to the box. I spent a few minutes exploring the sounds and textures running different combs over the elements, including other combs. It was very playable and expressive, I could definitely make use of one of these!

Another variation on the theme of amplified acoustic objects was Cheryl Leonard’s demonstration in which one could play sand, water, wood, and other natural elements:

Returning now to electronics, and a different kind of “elemental music.” CJ Borosque presented her use of analog effects boxes with no formal input. Analog circuits do have some low-level noise, which is what she is using as a source for feedback, resonance, distortion and other effects. Ferrara Brain Pan demonstrated an analog oscillator than can handle very low frequencies (i.e., less than 1Hz!).

There are also several other live-performance electronics demonstrations. Bob Marsh presented the Alesis Air Synth (no longer in production). Performers pass their hand over the domed surface to manipulate sounds. Similar to the tablet, this is a very intuitive and rich interface. Rick Walker demonstrated a new powerful instrument for recording and controlling multiple live loops, with the ability to manipulate rhythm and meter. I look forward to hearing him use it in a full performance soon. Thomas Dimuzio showed a full rig for live electronics performance, that I believe he used at the electronics-oriented concert the following week.

Wordless Wednesday: LSG show setup, May 2008

Some views of the massive setup for the show at the Luggage Store Gallery earlier this month.

Preparing for tomorrow's performance

Well, the first big solo show since moving to the city is nearly upon us. And it's a big one, at least in terms of the setup and preparation. Indeed, this is the largest and most complex setup I have used for a live show in quite a while, with both Mac and PC laptops, the tablet, MIDI keyboard, the Evolver synth, and the Proteus 2000 module. And of course the rather byzantine wiring and signal routing to keep it all together.

In the photo, one can see not only the equipment, but a couple of the acoustic instruments I will be playing including the ektar and the gopichand.

Why such a complex setup? Well, I wanted to a variety of pieces for this performance, combining both the newer simplified performances (such as those I did last year on tour with Polly Moller and Company), with some of the older more complex works. I also wanted to play the tablet, which I haven't done in a while, and it only runs on the older PC laptop; and include a couple of pieces from the CD, including Chimera and a variation on Xi. I was a little bit concerned about pulling out the old laptop for this performance, but after some effort it's running decently, and it's great to be able to blend elements from my older performances with the more recent ones. And in truth some of the older pieces are more fun to play, such as Chimera on the tablet, and the patch that responds to live drumming (officially called “drummer boy”).

Luna has of course had to make her presence felt during the rehearsals, as you can see here.

After a shaky start, the program has come together quite nicely in the last few days, and I am now looking forward to performing tomorrow.

For those interested, the time and location is:

Thursday, May 8, 8PM
Luggage Store Gallery
1007 Market St.
@ 6th Street
San Francisco, California

More details can be found here.

WW: Luna inspects the equipment

Luna CatSynth Pic: running the studio

Luna sits at the controls of the studio here at CatSynth HQ.

Please visit Andrée at meeyauw for more Cats on Tuesday.

Hosting Carnival of the Cats #189

NOTE: The round-up will be posted sometime Sunday night (US Pacific time)

We at CatSynth are excited to be hosting this weekend's Carnival of the Cats!

We welcome all feline blog submissions for the Carnival. To participate, use the handy submission form, or contact us.


And don't forget this weekend's other cat events. Weekend Cat Blogging #126 is at Chey?s Place. The Bad Kitty Cats Festival of Chaos is back home at the Bad Kitty Cats. And of course Friday Ark #163 has boarded at the modulator.