Oakland Underground Film Festival Summer Salon

Last Friday, I participated in the Expanded Strangelet Minus One ensemble at the Oakland Underground Film Festival’s Summer Salon.

The event took place in the cavernous space that used to be a Barnes and Noble in Jack London Square in Oakland. There was a large screening area as well as several installations arranged around the space. The most captivating installation was Tracey Snelling’s Bordertown. She created a series of models at different scales that one might see in a small town in rural California. The scales range from life size in the “Maria” ice cream cart to a miniature commercial strip with detailed buildings. The entire model fits on a large table, but when photographed up close, one loses the sense of scale and the town seems like it could be a life-size model. One could spend quite a bit of time examining all the details, the buildings, the objects inside of them, and signs on the sides.



[Tracey Snelling, installation views. Photos by CatSynth (click to enlarge)]

[Tracey Snelling, installation view.  Photo by Michael Zelner (click to enlarge).]

Several of the pieces incorporate video, such as the “El Diablo Inn” with videos playing in each of the rooms. The larger apartment building had movies playing in each of the windows, and videos of scenes from U.S.-Mexican border were projected onto a full-size screen behind the installation.

Although Snelling’s installation captures a small border town rather than a large urban area, some of the elements that she focuses on, such as industrial buildings and somewhat seedy spaces are similar to those that drive my current interests in urban photography. Urban photography was, however, the central focus of Idan Levin’s photography, which included scenes of colorful city buildings in Japan, industral lots and highway overpasses. As he states, “I prowl the streets at night, seeking a unique vantage point from which I can capture an alternate view of the world…”. He describes this view “prying, mysterious, lonely, and sometimes resembling a sci-fi post-apocalyptic cinematic scene.”

[Idan Levin, Tokyo Scape #1]

Only a few of his images were on display, but I encourage readers to visit his online portfolio.

Michelle Lewis-King’s installation featured projected video onto two cut-outs of female figures.


[Michelle Lewis-King, installation view. Photo by CatSynth (click to enlarge).]

The combination of the video and the empty space of each figure made it seem like both the adult woman on the left and the young girl on the right were present in the environment of the video.

The Expanded Strangelet is an electronic improvisation group founded by Lucio Menagon. He was not with us for this performance, hence the “minus one.” But we did have myself, Matt Davignon, Wayne Grimm, John Hanes, Suki O’Kane, Jonathan Segel, and Michael Zelner. I have played with them before at last year’s Oakland Underground Film Festival, and once again I had my minimal setup if iPhone and Korg Kaoss Pad.

[Expanded Strangelet Minus One.  Photos by Michael Zelner (click to enlarge).]

With Suko O’Kane conducting, we performed an improvised set of exactly 45 minutes, with various duos and solos, and sections with low drones and high staccato elements to provide some texture and an arc.

During the performance, we also projected videos onto the wall, and floor, and even onto people who walked by. We projected my video of Luna from the Quickening Moon Concert onto the floor, and at times it was appeared on the clothes of people nearby:



[Click images to enlarge.]

Our performance was preceded by a pair of bands from Bay Area Girls Rock Camp, including the band Poison Apple Pie. The local nonprofit program “aims to empower girls through music education, promoting an environment that fosters self-confidence, creativity and teamwork.”

There were numerous short firms and videos shown as well, including work by the Cinepimps and others.

[Cinepimps.  Photo by Michael Zelner (click to enlarge).]

Please visit the event site for a full rundown.

Matthew Sperry Festival: Tag Team Trio Shift

Last Thursday I attended and performed in the Tag Team Trio Shift at the Luggage Store Gallery. This event was part of the Eighth Annual Matthew Sperry Memorial Festival, a festival held every year in honor of local composer and bassist Matthew Sperry since his tragic death in 2003.

The event featured a large cast of characters from the Bay Area new music scene, improvising three at a time, with John Shiurba acting as referee.


[John Shiurba as referee, with Gino Robair entering a trio.]

Each of us was given a name card. At any given moment, three musicians would be performing. Anyone could hand in their card at any time and replace one of the three current musicians. Thus, there was an ever changing set of trios. For the most part, musicians entered and exited individually, but in the second half of the program we could submit three cards at once as a planned trio. The music ranged from trios of synthesizers and electronic noise, to purely vocal trios, to free-jazz improvisation (saxophones and bass), and all combinations in between.


[Tom Nunn on skatch box and Tom Duff with Bleep Labs Thingamagoop.]


[Vocal trio of Agnes Szelag, Aurora Josephson, and Myles Boisen.]

There were many strategies one could use for deciding when to hand in his or her card and replace someone. For me, I timed my card to coincide with others with whom I wanted to play, or moments where I thought my sounds would work well with the texture.

One could also be competitive and “cut” someone else’s improvisation (as one might do in a traditional jazz-improvisation setting). I can’t say that anyone did that, but there were certainly some playful back-and-forths with people replacing each other.

I brought the trusty Kaos Pad as well as my iPhone, with the BeBot app and a looping/playing app that I used for the Pmocatat ensemble. The latter (which featured variable-speed sounds of Luna and my Indian instruments) got some attention from the other musicians. Scott Looney, who was sitting next to me, and an interesting new instrument that used Reactable icons on a surface with a keyboard, to create a sort of “electronic prepared piano”:


[Scott Looney’s new control surface (photo by catsynth).]

There were some fun moments. One of Philip Greenlief’s improvisations involved his attempting to balance his saxophone in the palm of his hand, constantly moving and shifting in order to keep it from falling. He was clearly hoping for someone to replace him quickly, but we actually let him keep going for quite a while.


[Philip Greenlief’s balancing act.]

The sounds from busy Market Street outside contributed to the music at various times – indeed, the street should have gotten its own card.

Among the attendees were Matthew Sperry’s wife and daughter, who appropriately closed out the second set with the sound of shaking keys fading out.

The full roster of participating musicians included: Myles Boisen, Amar Chaudhary, Matt Davignon, Tom Duff, Tom Djll, Phil Gelb, Lance Grabmiller, Philip Greenlief, Ron Heglin, Jacob Felix Heule, Ma++ Ingalls, Travis Johns, Aurora Josephson, Scott Looney, Bob Marsh, Lisa Mezzacappa, David Michalak, Polly Moller, Kjell Nordeson, Tom Nunn, Dan Plonsey, Garth Powell, Jon Raskin, Gino Robair, Tom Scandura, Damon Smith, Moe! Staiano, Agnes Szelag.

[Unless otherwise indicated, all photographs in this article are from Michael Zelner. You can see a full set of photos from the performance at his flickr page.]

Quickening Moon Concert

Sometimes things linger undone for a quite a while. And that is the case with reviewing the Quickening Moon Concert, which I am finally getting around to doing as the next Full Moon concert is about to happen. Basically, the process goes like this. I wait a few weeks to look at the video of my own performance with a fresh perspective. I review the videos. Then post them online. Then a few more weeks pass as life intervenes. So here were are, finally getting to it many “moons” later. Memories of course fade over time, but even going by my own recollections, there is much to recall fondly. Bottom line is that it was a really good performance, in fact I would consider it one of my best solo electronic sets to date. This was in no small part to the advance preparation, but also to the audience, which filled to the Luggage Store Gallery to standing-room only capacity!

This was also one of the larger setups, featuring the Octave CAT vintage analog synthesizer, E-MU Proteus 2000, DSI Evolver, Korg Kaoss Pad, a Mac laptop running Open Sound World and Max/MSP, and the Monome controller, along with an array of my folk instruments from China and India. Even the iPhone made an appearance as an instrument.


[Click images to enlarge.]

Of course, the highlight of the set was the premier of 月伸1, featuring improvised electronic music set against a video of Luna. Musically, I focused on the Octave CAT (seemed appropriate) with the other electronic instruments in a supporting role. You can see a full video of the performance of this piece below:

The music was improvised live, with some prepared guidelines. In this way, it was reminiscent of the live music performances from old silent films. I kept the music relatively sparse and maintained the focus on the visual elements, which moved back and forth between clips of Luna and abstract visual elements (you can read more about the video production here). The audience clearly responded to the video of Luna and the music, and their laughter at very points reminded just how funny a piece this was. It was easy to lose sight of that in the hours of very detailed and very technical preparation, and one of the delights of playing in front of a live audience. I also heard from people that could tell they were able to sense the affection for Luna that came through in the video, though the long shots and the breaks in the otherwise silent video where her voice came through.

The balance of the set leading up to 月伸1 featured various combinations of electronic and acoustic instruments. The monome was my main controller in several of the other pieces, including the opener that focused and live sample loops and patterns from the folk instruments.

I played the instruments live, and then replayed the samples in various patterns on the monome to create complex timbral and rhythmic patterns. I also used the monome in a later piece to control some very simple but musically interesting sound synthesis, as can be seen in this video.

The lights on the monome are visually compelling, but also provide a link for the audience between the actions (which are really just button pressing) and the music.

Several of the pieces including strong rhythmic elements, which helped propel the set forward – I even saw at least one person “grooving out” to one piece.

I replayed several of the pieces (but not the video) in another performance a few days later at the Meridian Gallery. I certainly hope I will have an opportunity to the video again as well.


My performance was followed by the premier of Polly Moller’s Genesis. Genesis is “a musical experiment in which the M-theory of the 11-dimensional universe combines with the inward and outward spiral of the Western magical tradition.” The 11 member ensemble represent the 11 dimensions (which include Universal Time, the three spatial dimensions, and seven others) who combine to bring the “New Universe” into being, as portrayed by Matt Davignon on drum machines.


[Photo by Tom Djll.]

Polly Moller conducted the piece, not from the traditional podium in front of the ensemble, but rather by walking in an inward and outward spiral among the performers. As she walks by, wind chimes in hand, different performers enter or exit. As the New Universe comes into being, Matt Davignon’s electronic performance emerges, culminating in an extended solo as the 11 performers representing the “parent dimensions” fade out.

Quite fortuitously, someone turned my video camera to face the ensemble, so I was able to capture some video of the performance. In the clips below, one can see the conducting by walking in a spiral, as well as parts of the New Universe solo.

Conduct Your Own Orchestra Night

Last Thursday, I participated in Outsound Presents Conduct Your Own Orchestra Night at the Luggage Store Gallery. During the course of the evening, several conductors took turns conducting an “orchestra” of improvising musicians for ten minutes. Each conductor took a very different approach, using a variety of gestures, instructions and symbols to guide the performers.


[Bob Marsh conducts the orchestra.]

As with other recent guided-improvisation pieces, I used a graphical score for my conducting. The performers were each given a set of 16 graphical symbols. During the course of the performance, I held up large cards each containing one of the symbols, directed either at individuals, groups or the ensemble as a whole.

You can see some of the symbols below:

[Click to enlarge.]

This is the second page of the 16 available symbols, generally these were the more complex. Viewers might notice that symbol 12 is a cat. Like other symbols, I expected to be interpreted relatively freely – but by coincidence percussionist Ann O’Rourke had a cat-shaped metal CD rack as an instrument, so it became a very obvious cue for her to play the “cat.”

Ann O’Rourke’s piece was based entirely on pairings of words, such as “fearful/choppy” and “fearful/flowing” or “hesitant/slow” and “confident/fast”. The orchestra was divided in half, with one side receiving one pairing and the other side receiving the other pairing.

Brandan Landis’ conducting was more physical/body-oriented. He did not use any visual cues (textual or graphical), but instead used dramatic body movements to guide the orchestra. Some of these were rather intense and the piece ended with his collapsing on the floor.

Mark Briggs used short rhythmic patterns and cues to individual performers to build up a complex rhythmic texture. I was given a very simple repeated pattern to perform, which allowed me to remain immersed in the overall rhythm of the piece.

Tom Bickley led the orchestra in a very sparse and beautiful piece with individual sounds from cued performance set against silence. It was the sparse texture that made this among my favorite pieces of the evening, musically speaking.

Bob Marsh used his own instructional cards and gestures to conduct the orchestra, and contributed his own vocal performance on top.

Other conductors included CJ Borosque and Matt Davignon, who used a combination of instructional cards, including one that instructed a performer to make a loud sound when Matt pointed a finger gun and shot him/her.

Reconnaissance Fly at Studio 1510, Oakland

A few photos and thoughts from last Friday’s Reconnaissance Fly performance at Studio 1510 in Oakland.

I knew that Studio 1510 had a great acoustic piano, which I wanted to take advantage of particularly for our piece Emir Scamp Budge which features an extended jazz piano solo. But it turns that they also now have an actual Rhodes Stage Piano Mark II. I could pass up the opportunity to appropriate it for our set. Here is the Rhodes with the E-MU Proteus 2000 and Korg Kaos pad conveniently perched on top:

Together with the acoustic piano and MIDI keyboard for a rather massive keyboard setup:

Click the above picture to enlarge it and spot the cat!

Here we are getting ready to play the first note of our opening piece “Small Chinese Gong”.


[Photo by Tom Djll.]

The set went well from that point. I have not yet heard the recording, but I thought the first piece, as well as “One Should Never” (which was about as tight as I have heard us play it), “Ode to Steengo” – with the interplay of the text, the Kaos Pad, odd drum beats and Tim’s live electronic processing – and “Emir Scamp Budge” went particularly well.

Matt Davignon opened for us with a solo set featuring a live performance on drum machine and effects processors.

This was nominally a performance marking the release of his new CD Living Things, although none of the pieces in the performance were actually from the CD. But that was OK. I particularly remember the last piece in the set for a variety of reasons, including but limited to the subtle effects in the music.

Thanks to Scott Looney and Studio 1510 for hosting us!

Pmocatat Ensemble and Chorus, and Weller-Borosque Duo

Last Thursday night, the Pmocatat Ensemble performed again at the Luggage Store Gallery. Pmocatat (pronounced “Moe Ka Tatt”, the “p” is silent) stands for “pre-recorded music on CDs and tapes and things”. The members of ensemble pre-record acoustic material (instruments, voice, environmental sounds, etc.) according to compositional instructions, and then during the performance, improvise with these pre-recorded sounds using standard playback controls: play, pause, fast-forward, rewind, and speed controls. Devices used for playback included CD players, cassette tape players, and iPods/iPhones. This performance featured Matt Davignon, Amar Chaudhary, Suki O’kane, Michael Zelner, Rent Romus and Edward Schocker. It was billed as the “Pmocatat Ensemble and Chorus” as many of the pieces featured vocal material.

Matt DavignonMichael Zelner's iPod TouchAmar ChaudharySuki O'kaneRent RomusEdward Schocker

[Photos by Michael Zelner.]

We opened with a sparse piece, with single-syllable words entering periodically to perform collaborative nonsense phrases. There was a lot of open space between the words, which was filled in with droning instruments later in the piece. This was followed by a free-improvisation with pre-recorded woodwinds, mallet percussion and bell sounds. The result was an expressive performance with rich textures and complex rhythms composed articulated notes from the different instruments.

graphical score for Pmocatat.  Click to enlarge.

graphical score for Pmocatat. Click to enlarge.

My composition contribution was a piece with a graphical score which called for vocal sounds, instrumental and vocal drones, and animal sounds. It for this piece that I recorded clips of Luna last week, and thus she made her “debut” in a new-music concert. Her meows were set against moderately long vocal sounds that arbitrarily “cut off”, followed by a series of very short sounds to represent the tiny scratches in the graphical element. Here, we heard Luna’s clicking sounds that she makes when hunting. For the longer sounds, her purrs were set against various drones. I think was received well, judging by the looks of delight and amusement from various members of audience.

The graphical piece was followed by an interpretation of Pauline Oliveros’ Form Unknown Silences. The sparse texture, with a variety of short sounds interrupting periods of silence, had both a playful and meditative quality. This was followed by a brand new piece featuring guitar sounds set against percussion. The percussion was really following the guitar sounds, with the pa

This being a holiday show, we of course had to conclude with a holiday offering. In this case, it was a rendition of the classic “O Christmas Tree”, with pre-recorded versions of the song sung very slowly, and played back even more slowly and asynchronously, with gaps, pauses and changes in playback speed overtime growing more complex until the artifacts overtook the original.


The Pmocatat Ensemble was preceded by a duo of Ellen Weller and CJ Borosque. The set opened with an atonal “call to prayer” of Weller on a shofar and Borosque on trumpet. The remainder of the set unfolded as an interplay with Weller’s wind instrument and Borosque’s noise synthesizers (and trumpet). Among her instruments was an experimental box with chaotic oscillators and filters – I acquired one of these a few weeks ago but she has gained significantly more proficiency than I have. There were moments with fast saxophone phrases against the synths, and others with Weller’s exceptionally noisy and agressive flute sounds against very finely articulated synth noise. Other moments included undulating unstable waves, a snake charmer flute, and a variety of acoustic and electronic squeaks. The were moments when the music became quite trancelike even as it remained loud and noisy.

Pmocatat Ensemble and Ivy Room Experimental/Improv Hootenany

OK, so I have been delinquent in reviewing some of own recent shows. I was hoping to find photos, but so far I have not found any. It does happen once in a while even in this hyper-photographic society. In fairness, I have taken photos at many shows I attend, but then find out they were not good enough to post. So, we will just go ahead and use our visual imagination.


Two weeks ago, on the day I returned from China, I participated in Pmocatat Ensemble. From the official announcement:

The Pmocatat Ensemble records the sounds of their instruments onto various forms of consumer-ready media. (Pmocatat stands for “prerecorded music on cds and tapes and things”.) Then, they improvise using only the recorded media. Several different pieces will explore both the different arrangements of recorded instruments and the sound modulation possibilities of the different recording media.

In my case, my pre-recorded media was digital audio played on an iPhone. I used recordings of my Indian and Chinese folk instruments, and I “played” by using the start, stop, forward, rewind, and scrubbing operations.

In my case, my pre-recorded media was digital audio played on an iPhone. I used recordings of my Indian and Chinese folk instruments, and I “played” by using the start, stop, forward, rewind, and scrubbing operations.

Other members included Matt Davignon, James Goode, John Hanes, Suki O’Kane, Sarah Stiles, Rent Romus, C. P. Wilsea and Michael Zelner.

Matt Davignon, who organized the ensemble, had composed some pieces which provided much needed structure and avoid a “mush” of pre-recorded sound. Some portions were solos or duos, with various other members of the ensemble coming in and out according to cues. This allowed for quite a variety of texture and musicianship. I definitely hope the Pmocatat Ensemble continues to the perform.


The following Monday, March 16, I curated a set at the Ivy Room Experimental/Improv Hootenany with Polly Moller and Michael Zbyszynski. I know Polly and Michael from completely different contexts, so it was interesting to hear how that would work together. Michael played baritone sax and Polly performed new words as well as flute and finger cymbals. I played my newly acquired Chinese instruments, the looping Open Sound World patch I often use, and a Korg Kaos Pad.

Musically, it was one of those sets that just worked. I was able to sample and loop Polly’s extended flute techniques into binary and syncopated rhythms, over which the trio could improvise. Periodically, I changed the loops, sometimes purposely to something arhythmic to provide breathing space. Michael’s baritone sax filled out the lower register against the flute and percussion.

We got some good reviews from our friends in the Bay Area New Music community. The following comments are from Suki O’Kane (with whom I played in the Pmocatat ensemble):

Amar had been dovetailing, in true hoot fashion, into Slusser using a small
digitally-controlled, u know, like analog digit as in finger, that totally
appeared to me to be the big red shiny candy button of the outer space ren.
The important part is that he was artful and listening, and then artful
some more. Polly Moller on vocals and flute, text and tones, which had a
brittle energy and a persistent comet trail of danger.

The “big red shiny candy button of the outer space ren” was undoubtedly the Korg mini-Kaos Pad.

And from David Slusser, whom I “had been dovetailing”:

Amar’s curation seemed like a well orchestrated composition; Polly’s contribution on voice and flutes adding much to that.

Not bad for a birthday show :).