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.

Amanda Chaudhary and Tania Chen at Spectrum, New York

Today we look back at my performance with Tania Chen at Spectrum in New York, a little over a week ago.


[Photo by BC]

Our duo is built around a mixture of experimental improvisation with electronic instruments and other elements, and songs with lyrics, melodies and chords, often segueing seamlessly from one to the other. Spectrum has a wonderful Steinway grand piano, which allowed to Tania to exercise her piano skills while I focused on chords and rhythm with a Nord Electro keyboard and DSI Prophet 12 and Moog Mother-32 synthesizers. At times the sound was dark and droning, others very sparse, and many times quite humorous – after all, we did sing a “Cheezy Love Song.” The songs themselves were quite structured, but there as well as the improvisations in between we were able to play off one another to create patterns and textures.



[Photos by BC]

I particularly like the sections combining the acoustic piano with the Prophet 12, and our dueling Casio keyboards. And yes, we had a lot of fun. You can see our full performance in this video below.

Overall we had a great time performing and it was quite well received by the audience. It wasn’t actually our first show together in New York. That was at the Brick Theater in Brooklyn and will be discussed in a separate article.


Our performance was in the middle of the bill. The evening began with a set by Hey Exit, a solo project by Brooklyn-based Brandan Landis.

Using guitar, electronics and video, Landis created a dark soundscape, sometimes noisy and drawing from his backgrounds in punk and noise, but at other times quite haunting and ethereal. The room was particularly dark, with light only from the video screen and a nearby candle.

Hey Exit was followed by a solo set by Jeff Surak featuring sundry electronic and acoustic sound sources.

Much of the set featured long drones with rich timbres, but also details such as beating patterns and occasional breaks in the sound. The timbres could be tense at moments, but overall tt was a very meditative performance; and a perfect sonic segue into our very different set.

We were immediately followed by Jarvis Jun Earnshaw performing with guitar, voice and electronics.

His sound at times was reminiscent of cafe folk singers, but his voice was anxious and abstract. The entire performance mostly followed the pattern of combining these elements with high-feedback delay and other effects.

The final set Jenn Grossman, another Brooklyn-based musician and sound artist.


[Photo by BC]

Her electronic set featured vocal experimentation with electronics, including rhythmic and ambient elements. Although also making use of drones, it was very different from Jeff Surak’s sound, more harmonic and thicker, more like a dreamy movie scene versus a tense dark space. There were percussive hits and noisy bits as well, which gave the music a defined texture.

It was overall a great experience being back at Spectrum and performing along with all the other acts. And we had a sizable and appreciative audience, despite the space being a little hot that evening. Thanks as always to Robert Pepper (Alrealon Musique) and Glenn Cornet for hosting us, and hopefully I will play there again soon.

JERK, Future Death Agency + Amanda Chaudhary, Chani Bockwinkel

Today we look back at a a set of very unusual performances featuring friends by way of Portland and New York. When they came to perform at the Temescal Arts Center in Oakland, I was there to join them both as a collaborator and an audience member.

The evening began with a performance by Chani Bockwinkel in which she channeled the persona of Justin Bieber giving a TED talk.

Chani Bockwinkel channeling Justin Bieber

I have done my best to avoid sounds and sights related to Justin Bieber, but Bockwinkel definitely perfected the look and mannerisms of a swaggering young man steeped in sexuality and narcissism. The content of the fictionalized TED talk also seemed to dwell into aspects of his Christian faith, which itself seems intertwined with ego. There was also a mayonnaise taco. Bockwinkel’s performance was a well crafted presentation of an entirely repulsive individual.

Then it was time to take the stage as part of Future Death Agency. The set featured dance and performance by tippi and 3dwardsharp (aka Edward Sharp) for which I provided improvised sound from a Moog Sub Phatty, Mother-32 and Theremini.

Amanda Chaudhary and Tippi in Future Death Agency

One of the primary visual features during the performance was the dancers ensconced in garbage bags as the moved around the space, speaking backwards.

Garbage bag.  Future Death Agency

There were also numerous photographs scattered around the space, each of which had a handwritten statement on the back. 3dwardsharp and tippi occasionally read from these as they moved around, and also whispered some to members of the audience. Musically, I kept things fairly minimal, but trying to mix different textures and dynamics throughout. I looked for opportunities where I could match the sound with the movement, though as both were ever changing this could be challenging. We did have a few great moments of synchronicity that were frenetic and sensual. You can see the entirety of our performance in these videos.

Overall, it was a lot of fun to perform, and I was happy with the result especially after seeing how it worked with the dance from the audience’s perspective. (One item to note is that the woman who blurts out a question about the structure of the piece in the second video was not herself part of the piece. We simply reacted as best we could in the moment, as one does in live performance.)

The final set featured Alex Romania performing excerpts from his piece JERK.

Alex Romania performing JERK
[JERK. Photo by Daniela Sanchez]

From Romania’s notes on the piece:

This physically vulnerable choreography frames the male body between violence and pleasure — a microphone is bound to the body and swung from the pelvis evoking forms in the realm of BDSM, pornography, athletics, games, and flagellation. Through genital hypnosis and rigorous discomfort, this is a dance of (narcissistic) pleasure and (quiet) longing, (self) mutilation and (self) care. A dance to flatten and complexify the male body, to tenderize the flesh, to move beyond and to newly inhabit — a phallic solo to recompose the phallus.

From the start it was both provocative and physically rigorous, with Romania wrapping himself and tying himself in microphones and cords that were attached to effects pedals and a loudspeaker. The microphones against his body produced the primary sound of the piece. At first the sound was sparse and matched exactly his movement against the cords in the manner of BDSM play. But then he released some of the cords it took a more athletic direction as he twirled the microphones through the air using not his hands other parts of his body (e.g., pelvis and genital area), adeptly leaping over and ducking under the cords to avoid collision. There was a quieter, more textual and conceptual moment towards the end which I assume helped Romania recover from the tremendous energy of the main sections of the performance. The intensity of the experience was increased by the otherwise silent room with flat white lighting.

Alex Romania performs JERK

[JERK. Photo by Daniela Sanchez]

It is interesting to note that both the first and final sets focused on a single character who embodied male sexuality, but in very different ways. “Justin Bieber” in his TED talk was all swagger, narcissism and unwavering self-confidence even with his vaguely provocative dance during the mayonnaise-taco part of the set. Romania’s persona in JERK was both frighteningly powerful and vulnerable, more adept and genuine in his movements but also projecting a bit of uncertainty.

I was happy to have been a part of this unique evening of performances and hope to work with everyone again.

CatSynth pic: Cat on Moog Voyager and Modular (In Space)

Cat on Moog Voyager with Eurorack

From Cats on Synthesizers in Space, submitted to us by Lee Tizzard:

OK Cat people….ya got to love this one …….Spooky grey cat sitting on a Moog, Mini-Moog Voyager Synthesizer, augmented with numerous unidentified Eurorack synthesizer modules, in Space……….. this cat spook is obviously being guided by the omnipotent, guardian CatSynth space spirit.———————From : Cats on Synthesizers in Space

CatSynth pic: Moog Invasion

Cats on Moog synthesizers invading earth

From Cats on Synthesizers in Space.

A bunch of Cats invading Earth on various Moog Synthesizers…………………………………………………………………………………………..across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this Earth with envious eyes, and slowly, and surely, they drew their claws against us…