James Chance and the Contortions at the Knockout, San Francisco

James Chance and the Contortions made a rare appearance in San Francisco, and we at CatSynth were on hand at The Knockout to see it. For those who are not familiar with James Chance, he was an icon in the New York post-punk and “No Wave” scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Perhaps more than most in that scene, he incorporated jazz and funk, not merely as decorative elements but foundational to the music as a whole. His music has been described as “combining the freeform playing of Ornette Coleman with the solid funk rhythm of James Brown, though filtered through a punk rock lens” [Wikipedia].

At around midnight, he took the stage with his trademark pompadour and saxophone blaring.

From the start it was a high-energy experience, especially up front near the stage where we were. The rhythm section was solid, whether playing a bouncy ska-like rhythm or the funk rhythm and details that so characterize and separate the band from others in its original scene. Every so often, Chance would break out into fancy footwork reminiscent of James Brown in between vocals that were simultaneous playful and aggressive. And the rhythm remained tight even when the horns went on long free runs, occasionally cutting out for a voice solo and keyboard hit, and then coming back in on the beat. It has been said that Chance hold his bands to a high standard of tightness and musicianship and it shows.

Another fun aspect of the set was the interplay between James Chance and Mac Gollehon on trumpet and keyboard. In additional to some classic horn-section hooks to complement the funk rhythms, Gollehon used a dynamic-filter effect on his trumpet that worked extremely well in context, turning the horn into a rhythm-section instrument playing riffs that in more conventional bands are covered by guitar.

It was a sold-out show with an enthusiastic crowd packing the small space of the Knockout, and it spans a wide age-range from those who may have seen James Chance in the 1970s and 1980s to younger people likely seeing him for the first time. And having a great time of it. We certainly did. And I draw some inspiration from the mix of funk and jazz with punk and avant-garde elements. We at CatSynth wish them well on the remainder of this west coast tour.

SF Sympony Performs John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary

In February, the San Francisco Symphony performed The Gospel According to the Other Mary by composer John Adams with libretto by Peter Sellars. The event was part of the celebration of Adams’ 70th birthday.

John Adams
[Photo courtesy of San Francisco Symphony]

The Gospel According to the Other Mary is a monumental opus, over two hours in length and featuring a full orchestra, chorus, and staging with the principal singers. The orchestra also included some additional interesting instruments, including this large collection of gongs.

As implied by the name, the libretto is drawn heavily from the New Testament, specifically the story of Mary and Martha of Bethany whose brother Lazarus is raised from the dead by Jesus. But it also incorporates many other modernist elements. The story moves back and forth between the Biblical setting and a more contemporary setting, weaving in scenes of women protesting as part of Cesar Chavez’s farmworkers’ strikes, and Mary witnessing a fellow inmate in jail suffering through a painful drug withdrawal. The setting of Mary and Martha’s home is depicted as a women’s shelter that would not be out of place in any large American city. And the milieu surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion is a modern urban uprising, complete with police sirens.

Another unusual element in this telling of the story is that Jesus is never specifically shown on stage as a character, although he is sometimes represented by a trio of tenors who also act as something akin to a Greek chorus. The full symphony chorus meanwhile acts as a tertiary level of narration, with Biblical quotes, Latin phrases, and more contemporary sources in English and Spanish. All of this makes for a complex setting around the main characters on stage: Mary (Kelly O’Connor), Martha (Tamara Mumford) and Lazarus (Jay Hunter Morris). Mary is the central character – she is listed as “Mary Magdalene” in the program although biblically she is not the same character as Mary of Bethany – introducing the piece and then reappearing frequently with long arias and monologues. Martha is the solid rock providing structure but also her own story running the shelter and caring for her sister and brother. Both women are portrayed as major “fan girls” of Jesus, excited when he comes to town, but each in their own way. Lazarus comes across as a bit of a skeptic and in one scene questions and challenges the somewhat amorphous Jesus.

The simplicity and familiarity of the central story combined with the complexity of the visual and sonic setting make for a compelling performance – even those who cynically eye-roll at “yet another musical setting of Biblical texts” should be impressed by this work. It is also a departure from earlier compositions by John Adams – he is best known for his minimalist works, similar to that of Steve Reich but with a softer tone and west-coast source materials. But there is nothing soft about this piece. It is dark, angry, anguished at times, especially during Mary’s multiple scenes of personal anguish and confusion as well as the tense scenes leading up to the crucifixion. The modern elements blend effortlessly with the biblical elements and help to bring home to brutality and harshness in both contexts.

The two-hour-plus length did seem a bit daunting at first (there was an intermission between acts), but it actually went quite quickly as were were wrapped up in the many aspects of the performance. Overall, it was a great experience and I am glad we were on hand for it. As this is Adams’ 70th birthday year, we are looking forward to hearing more performances of his music, new and old.

SFJAZZ Honors Zakir Hussain

Just before departing for NAMM back in January, we had the opportunity to attend the SFJAZZ Gala honoring Zakih Hussain with a lifetime achievement award.

One of the unexpected guests of the evening was a torrential rain that peaked just as we were arriving. This video from our Instagram gives a small taste.

Crazy rain for #sfjazzgala ☔️

A post shared by CatSynth / Amanda C (@catsynth) on

But inside it was warm, the drinks were flowing, the music was as expected. We had seats in the bleachers which provided an excellent view of the stage. And the backs of the musicians, including the maestro himself.

You can see a much better view of Zakir Hussain performing with saxophonist John Handy is the Instagram photo from SFJAZZ.

It was a sweet and delightfully simple jam, which capped an evening of performances featuring the SFJazz Collective, saxophonists Joe Lovano and Joshua Redman, guitarist Bill Frisell, vocalist Mary Stallings, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, and drummer Cindy Blackman-Santana.

The award presentation itself was preceded by a tribute video made by Hussain’s daughters, which highlighted his genius as a musician and rhythmic master as well as his good humor and down-to-earth nature as a person. This was also apparent in his remarks upon accepting the award. (The same could not be said for the verbose and pretentious introduction by Mickey Hart.)

After the presentation, it was time to party, with more music and dancing filling the hall.

We didn’t stay too late because I was off to NAMM the next morning, but I am glad to have braved the storm to celebrate a great musician.

Ides of March (or March of Ives)

For the Ides of March, we present this take from the Mensa Cats.

March of Ives

This cartoon was created by J.B. (Jason Berry) of Vacuum Tree Head, who also shares Ides of March by John Cale and Terry Riley, from the album Church of Anthrax (1971).

And finally, we share this classic from the band Ides of March.

For a special treat, we recommend playing both tracks at the same time. 😺 🎶

Pi Day Composition Redux

It’s a bit of an on-again-off-again tradition on Pi Day (3-14 in the United States) to share my composition based on the digits of Pi.

It was based on the binary digits rather than decimal digits of Pi, which seemed more universal and also more logical to work with. It uses stretched impulses and square waves for the sounds themselves. At least that is what I recall. It was written in 2011. It’s probably time to revisit the concept with a new piece…

Ensemble Signal Performs Steve Reich in Berkeley

The time between NAMM and this past weekend’s performances has been quite busy for music, not only performing but also attending a variety of concerts. Today we look back at a concert featuring the work of Steve Reich by Ensemble Signal at Hertz Hall in Berkeley, California.


[Ensemble Signal performs music by Steve Reich on Sunday, January 29, 2017 in Hertz Hall. Photo by EMPAC Rensselaer, courtesy of Cal Performances.]

We also had the opportunity to hear a full concert of Steve Reich’s music last year by the SF Symphony – the composer has been receiving a great deal of attention since his 80th birthday. Two of the pieces from that concert were on this program as well, including Clapping Music and Double Sextet.

Clapping Music opened the evening, with the composer himself joining Ensemble Signal conductor Brad Lubman. Similar to last year, I consider it quite a treat to here Steve Reich performing this piece. Double Sextet closed the concert. It is a large and complex work, with the two quartets performing similar but non-identical parts that come in and out of phase rhythmically and harmonically.

Vibraphones feature prominently in Reich’s music and in this concert in particular, including the second piece Quartet for two pianos and two vibraphones. Interestingly, the use of two pianos featured prominently this concert as well. The piece has many of the characteristic elements of interlocking harmonies and repeating patterns, but there were more sudden changes and gaps in this piece (composed in 2013) than in some of his earlier works, where the changes only occurred gradually.

However, the two pieces immediately before and after the intermission were what made this concert unique. First, there was the U.S. premiere of Runner a piece for large ensemble co-commissioned by Cal Performances (who hosted the concert). It featured winds, percussion, piano and strings in a series of rhythmic patterns over five movements, played without pauses. It forms a rhythmic palindrome of sorts, with even sixteenths followed by irregularly accented eighths, and then a standard bell pattern from Ghana before returning backwards to the eighth-note patterns and finally the even sixteenths. It’s a long and complex piece, and was undoubtedly an endurance test for the musicians, but Reich’s music in the hands of the right performers can sound effortless.

Radio Rewrite had perhaps the most interesting backstory of any piece in the concert. It was composed by Reich in 2013 after hearing Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead (who had made backing tracks for Reich’s Electric Counterpoint). The piece, also in five moments, draws upon two Radiohead songs “Everything it its Right Place” and “Jigsaw Falling Into Place.” It’s not a set of variations or quotations in the traditional sense, although bits of the original songs to make their way into the melodic and harmonic material. And the instrumentation is quite unlike a standard rock band, save for the inclusion of electric bass. Musically, this was probably the most distant from the idioms of Clapping Music, but a powerful contrast to the other pieces on the program. It was lush, intense, and once again quite an endurance test at 17 minutes.

Overall, this was a great concert in a gem of a concert hall, and it’s always great to see composers like Steve Reich on hand. We will continue to follow his music and hope to see new works.

Vacuum Tree Head and Census Designated Place at HSP2017

It’s been a busy musical time for us at CatSynth. Last week I performed a solo set and collaborative pieces with Amy X Neuburg at the Jewish Community Center in Berkeley. This weekend, I have two more performances, again in Berkeley, as part of Hardly Strictly Personal 2017. It’s a three-day event featuring a wide range of experimental and adventurous music, and benefits EarthJustice and the Homeless Action Center. You can see the full updated schedule, as well as ticket and location info here.

Vacuum Tree Head will be playing tonight, and my fusion/experimental project Census Designated Place (CDP) will be playing on Sunday. I have been busily preparing to make my debut on the Roland VP-03 Vocoder in both bands. Needless to say, between that and the various everyday tasks of an adult in San Francisco, we haven’t had as much opportunity to post here. Regular (?) CatSynth pics and more resume next week.

NAMM 2017 Apocrypha and Final Thoughts

In this article, we go over a few remaining items from NAMM, and share some final thoughts as well.

The DATA module from Mordax takes the trend of built-in displays to another level. The large color screen displays a variety of functions, including oscilloscope, tuner , waveform generator and clock. It also has quite a few utility signal functions. It seems like quite the useful item for a medium or large modular system. Plus it looks great!

It’s a common problem with modular synthesizer systems to end up with 2hp empty and nothing to fill it with, except maybe a branded plate. 2hp quite literally fills this niche with a large selection of functional modules exactly 2hp wide.

We could all use extra multiples, or another envelope generator, or VCA. But their 2hp offerings include oscillators and filters. We could see these in various cases to get some handy functionality when needed.

Delptronics has made quite a few modules for percussion synthesis as well as for complex triggering of other modules. Their product line has grown; and we were particularly curious about the new spring module an its electro-acoustic possibilities.

We are always curious to see what 4ms has to offer, as the Spectral Multiband Filter has become one of our favorite modules for a variety of musical purposes. Their new offerings this year included a sampler module and tappable delay, which are shown in the upper right of the following photo.

There was of course more at the modular super booth and in the neighboring booths beyond what we have been able to cover this year. It will be inevitable that some products and manufactures don’t get mentioned in the blog, though we do have more on our Instagram feed during the show. We will have to figure out if there are any logistical changes we might want to try next year in order to see more while still remaining authentic and having the fun time at NAMM that we always do.


The trip home, despite the pouring rain and flooding in the LA Basin, ultimately turned out to be a pleasant one. I suppose I had a bit of a glow from the show, and full of ideas on how to move forward musically and personally in the challenging times ahead.

Even with the literal rainstorms outside and the dark pall cast by the political situation, inside the convention center we were all able to be ourselves and follow our passions for music and music technology. That doesn’t mean that outside reality didn’t intrude. It was impossible not to despair a bit on inauguration day; and by contrast Saturday with the Women’s Marches gave a bit of optimism. Mostly, I just kept doing what I came to NAMM to do. We hope you have enjoyed following our coverage, and we’ll be back doing it again next year barring some world-changing catastrophe (which unfortunately could happen).

NAMM 2017: Behringer DeepMind 12

Our somewhat drawn-out coverage of NAMM 2017 comes down to two final articles. We would be remiss if one of them did not include the Behringer DeepMind 12.

Perhaps no product was more anticipated and controversial among synthesizer players and enthusiasts this year than the DeepMind 12. A lot of this has to do with Behringer’s history and reputation in some parts of the industry, as well as the intense hype and frequent teasers last year. But as an instrument, the DM12 stands on its own. It has rather impressive specs including two DCOs, VCA, VCF and multiple LFOs and envelopes for each of its 12 voices. It connects to a PC or tablet to control all onboard parameters – something we at CatSynth think is a nice touch. And it has a professional-looking industrial design, with an attractive front panel and wooden-looking sides.

In terms of sound and playing, it felt like an “ordinary” analog poly synth and reminded me a bit of a Juno or the popular Korg Minilogue. It doesn’t have the distinctive or super-intense sound of a Moog synth or a classic Prophet or Oberheim, which seem to pack more punch sonically into fewer oscillators. The DM12 seems to sound it’s best doing stacked voices rather than at 12-voice polyphony, but this might be my bias for intense timbral-rich sounds. So if one already has an analog synth from one of those legendary makers, the DM12 probably won’t hold as much personal appeal. But it does seem like a convincing choice as a “first” analog polyphonic synth and something to bring to gigs, especially if one needs a variety of classic synth pads and 80s-esque sounds in one’s music. It also is a little less intimidating to program than some other poly synths. And of course the $999 USD price tag is much less than a high-end mono synth or most analog poly synths. Those who were excited about the Minilogue and similar instruments will probably want to check this out as well.