Outsound New Music Summit: Tim Thompson and Pet the Tiger

Musical innovation can arise from pushing the boundaries of traditional musical instruments or inventing entirely new instruments.  The opening concert of the 2018 Outsound New Music Summit featured two groups whose work falls squarely in the latter category.

Tim Thompson is a longtime innovator in the space of expressive control of music using custom hardware and software.  His latest creation is the Space Palette Pro, a panel with four highly sensitive touchpads that control sound and visuals via MIDI.  You can hear Tim’s explanation of his invention in this video:

The Space Palette Pro is an evolutionary step from the original Space Palette, which allowed users to move their hands through holes in a large panel to drive music and visuals via a Kinect motion sensor.  The newer incarnation is smaller in size and replaces the space with pads, but in many ways uses the same principles of three-dimension gestural control.  Indeed, much of the software from the original was repurposed for the new version.  But the Pro is definitely more of a performance instrument, rather than a “casual instrument”, as Thompson explained both in the video and at the concert.

Musically, his performance was a series of several movements that segued from one to the next.  Each had its own sonic and visual palette which Thompson performed in real time.  So in a sense, this was an improvised performance, but one that was constrained by the sound, visuals, and patterns in each section.

Tim Thompson Space Palette Pro

The first section was soft with spare graphics, while the second was more pointed and percussive with geometric shapes.  Further movements featured lush timbres and graphics, and popular-music idioms with synthesizers and electronic drums.  Many of the segments were “quantized” to fixed scales and harmonies (as well as rhythms), though Thompson could introduce new pitches and scales into the mix using a MIDI keyboard, along for more melodic and harmonic variety.

The focus during the performance was squarely on the screen and the live visuals.  These were beautiful and captivating.  I would have liked to be able to see more of the performer and the instrument as well, as it was for me an important part of the set.

The second set brought us (mostly) out of the electronic world and back into the realm of acoustic musical instruments, albeit instruments of unique design.  Pet the Tiger is a Bay Area collective of musical instrument inventors.  Their recent work has centered around a set of instruments that use strict harmonic-series tuning.  Together the instruments and musicians comprise a “harmonic-series gamelan.”  You can see a demonstration of some of their instruments in this video.

The music is anchored by the harmonic compass, a set of metallophones designed and built by Stephen Parris and commissioned by group director David Samas.  However, there were a wide variety of instruments, including string and wind instruments by Bart Hopkin and Peter Whitehead, and even a series of meticulously tuned loose plastic tubes.

Pet the Tiger

Peter Whitehead

For this concert, the ensemble performed an interpretation of the fairies’ subplot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which includes many of the plays most memorable lines (including Puck’s final soliloquy).  The text was subdivided into several songs, and they were indeed songs with melody and harmony, albeit in the slightly alien world of the harmonic series, which can be simultaneously soothing and anticipatory at the same time – it always feels like it is waiting to go to the next note.  The songs were in a variety of styles and alternately song by Samas, Hopkin, and Whitehead.  The instruments and their playing gets most of the attention, but I think the singing deserves praise as well.  All three have great singing voices, and working in an alternate tuning is no small feat.  I was particularly impressed with Bart Hopkin’s return to his songwriting roots, singing against a harmonically tuned guitar of his own making. And David Samas’ voice is always rich and sonorous.  I have known this group and its members for several years now, and I have watched not only the instruments grow in precision and sophistication, but also musicianship in putting together an entire performance like this.  The audience were very clear in their appreciation and approval as well.

In all, it was a beautiful night of music and instrumental innovation.  We conclude with an exchange that occurred during the pre-show question-and-answer session when Outsound director Rent Romus asked the performers “why bother with the complexity of creating entirely new instruments?”  I found Bart Hopkin’s answer quite memorable.

There are a lot of reasons to stick with conventional instruments. You could write a pretty convincing paper on why to stick with convention instruments including ones you might not normally think of…When you work with conventional instruments and you write for it, you can simply hand someone the score because there are trained musicians who can keep one eye on the score, one eye on the conductor, and “another eye” playing the instrument. They don’t have to look at their hands. There are a million advantages you wouldn’t even think of to working with conventional instruments.  BUT, you know, with unconventional instruments you find musical territory you probably wouldn’t have found otherwise.  And that really makes it worthwhile.

We at CatSynth agree and look forward to more unconventional musical territory in the future.

Outsound New Music Summit: The Breath Courses Through Us

This past Monday, the Outsound New Music Summit featured a screening of The Breath Courses Through Us, a documentary by Alan Roth about the New York Art Quartet.  From the Outsound Summit website:

The Breath Courses Through Us” (2013) is a documentary film about the early 1960s avant-garde jazz group, the New York Art Quartet. The film focuses on the group’s 35-year reunion, while reaching back through their recollections of their foundations and innovative musical ideas. The year 2014 is the 50th anniversary of this group, and a revolutionary period in jazz music, which declared its existence in the October Revolution in Jazz, in October 1964. “The Breath Courses Through Us” mirrors the newly open improvisationary style of “free jazz” that subverted the traditional structure of jazz. Unfolding in free time and enveloped in their music, the film helps the viewer better understand the human element of the creative process, by focusing on their interactions in the present.

It was an interesting experience on multiple levels, as the structure of the documentary mirrors that of our musician- and band-focused CatSynth TV episodes, but on a larger scale.  It weaves interviews with members of the ensemble with archival footage, live performances from the early 2000s, and even scenes from a casual dinner among the members of the group discussing their music and plans for their reunion in 1999.  In many ways, the latter is the foundation for the history and interviews, and we keep returning to the dinner throughout the film.

It was an interesting experience on multiple levels, as the structure of the documentary mirrors that of our musician- and band-focused CatSynth TV episodes, but on a larger scale.  It weaves interviews with members of the ensemble with archival footage, live performances from the early 2000s, and even scenes from a casual dinner among the members of the group discussing their music and plans for their reunion in 1999.  In many ways, the latter is the foundation for the history and interviews, and we keep returning to the dinner throughout the film.

Musically, it connects the current scene of free and avant-garde jazz to the creative foment of 1960s New York.  We hear from the founding members: John Tchicai, Roswell Rudd, and Milford Graves, along with one of the original bassists Reggie Workman and poet Amiri Baraka.  The five reunited for the early 2000s concerts as well as the documentary.  We get to hear their distinct personalities.  Tchicai brings a serious and brooding discipline, Rudd an exuberance and enthusiasm for playing, and Graves his quirky and humorous character. Workman was one of three bassists that performed with the group during its brief existence in 1964 and 1965; Baraka often read poems to the quartet’s improvisations, including his famous “Black Dada Nihilismus”, parts of which are included in the documentary.  It seemed like an improbable coming together that depended on a series of coincidences and connections, but together they informed a style and practice of music that was “revolutionary” in its time, and still in many ways sounds fresh.

Although the documentary has been out for a few years now, this was its first public screening on the west coast.  Hopefully, this will lead to future screenings.  Even immersed as I have been in the music influenced by the New York Art Quartet, I was not as familiar with them as I should be.  I think it will be a valuable experience for those who perform and listen to free jazz, as well as though who are new to it.

More information on the film, including screenings, can be found at the official website.

The Making of Lake Merced

Today we talk about Lake Merced, as well as the recent video we made featuring it.

Lake Merced is located in the southwestern corner of San Francisco, in the vicinity of the SF Zoo and SF State University.

Lake Merced in San Francisco

Despite its odd shape and the fact that it borders three golf courses, it is actually a natural lake.  It is fed primarily by an underground spring.  In the 19th century, the lake briefly had an outlet to the ocean, approximately where the Great Highway breaks off from Skyline Boulevard, just south of the zoo.  The outlet is long gone, but the lake’s ecosystem retains some of its saltwater heritage among the fish and other wildlife that inhabit it. Lake Merced and its surrounding park remain one of the last and largest natural spaces left in the city (in spite of the golf courses), and is home to a variety of plant and animal life.  On the day I visited to shoot video, I encountered this egret.

But it is definitely an urban natural space, with sounds and sights from the surrounding city mixing with nature.  I am particularly fond of this view looking east over the lake to some apartment buildings.  It brings to mind Flushing Meadows in the New York City borough of Queens.

I have been spending more time in the western neighborhoods of San Francisco of late, and Lake Merced is one of the spots I revisit.  This is what inspired me to make it the subject of a CatSynth TV video, complete with original synthesizer music.

Here is see the final post-production on the video in Pro Tools.  Front and center is Tracktion’s BioTek software synthesizer, which I reviewed during NAMM 2016.  It was among the primary instruments used in this video where I blended its mix of natural and traditional-synthesizer sounds with the sounds of the field video.

I also made extensive use of the 4ms Spectral Multiband Resonator and Epoch Modular Benjolin (designed by Rob Hordjik).  They both have very elemental sounds that resemble air and water.  The Benjolin is chaotic by design, and a small turn of a knob can change it from liquidy to screeching, so it’s sometimes a challenge to get a good recording that fits the concept of the music.  The SMR is a lot of fun to play, especially using alternate tunings and changing the spread and morph parameters.  A clock is used to constantly shift the bands.

 

Rounding out the sound palette were the Arturia MiniBrute 2Mimimoog Model D, and Metasonix R53 vacuum-tube waveshaper and ring modulator.

The Moog Model D, the MiniBrute and several of the modules make cameos during the video, as does Sam Sam.  Watch the video all the way through to spot her 😺

This was a fun video to shoot and put together, something a bit more creative and abstract than our usual demos or live-show reports.  I have more of these waiting in the queue to be made…

 

Outsound Benefit Dinner with the Actual Trio

We are just a few weeks away from the 2018 Outsound New Music Summit!  And as always, we kick off the countdown with the annual benefit dinner featuring live creative music by local artists.  This year we were pleased to have Actual Trio perform.

Actual Trio is led by composer and virtuoso guitarist John Schott and features John Hanes on drums and Dan Seamans on upright bass.  To simply label them as a “contemporary jazz trio” would be a disservice to all three musicians, who bring a wide range of compositional and performance experiences to this group.  Their music ranges from laid-back grooves to fast frenetic runs to sparse percussive punctuated passages.  Overall, they delivered a highly dynamic performance that was well received by all in attendance.  You can hear a bit of it in our recent CatSynth TV video.

As Schott states in the video, there is something special about the trio format.  Trios are three-legged stools which depend on the contributions of each member and their ability to listen and perform together.  But it is still relatively sparse and spare compared to larger ensembles.  Actual Trio has a very small toolset of drums, bass and guitar (although Schott brought quite a few bits of vintage and modern electronics along as well).  But they get a lot out of what they have.  Schott and Hanes function together as a rhythmic and melodic unit, and they seemed to be able to finish each others lines, whether fast runs or vamps.  Seamans brought a melodic sensibility to his bass performance even while providing a solid foundation for the music.  And they were just fun to watch and listen to.


[Vintage amp and spring reverb units used by John Schott]

The Outsound Benefit Dinner is a “thank you” of sorts to our core supporters in the community – an instance of the time-honored tradition of plying supporters and donors with food, drink and entertainment.   All in attendance enjoyed the performance by Actual Trio and the food provided by Slippery Fish Catering.  But this year, Outsound owes an even greater debt of gratitude to its individual donors and supporters as grants for small arts and music groups becomes even harder to come by than it has in the past.  But we are looking forward to another excellent summit this year.  Please visit the website for tickets and to find out more about the shows, which take place at the Community Music Center in San Francisco from July 22 through July 28, 2018.

UnPopular Electronics (Robair + Djll), Lx Rudis, Franck Martin at Robotspeak

It’s been a little while since we last attended Church of Thee Super Serge at Robotspeak in San Francisco, but we made a point of going this past weekend.  For those who have not been there or read our past reviews, it’s an almost-ever-month show on a Saturday afternoon with live hardware-synthesizer performances.  As the name suggests, some acts do include Serge synthesizers, but it is not required, and a wide variety of instruments are used.  All three sets are featured in our most recent CatSynth TV episode.

The first set featured Lx Rudis performing on an Oberheim Xpander, a somewhat underappreciated instrument from the 1980s.

Lx Rudis on Oberheim Xpander

At its heart, the Xpander is a 6 voice analog synthesizer, but with a complex array of digital controls that can be programmed and applied independently to each voice.  Lx Rudis took full advantage of these, especially the LFOs and lag generators, to create subtle and minimal metric patterns.  He constantly moved voices in and out, configuring them on the fly, in a way that was very expressive and musical.  I particularly liked the sections which had staccato rhythmic textures against slowly moving timbres deliberately out of sync with one another.

Next up was Franck Martin, who performed a solo set on a modular synthesizer with several standalone instruments.

Franck Martin

Martin’s setup included a Moog Subharmonicon, which he built while attending Moogfest this year (we at CatSynth are a bit envious), as well as a DFAM (Drummer From Another Mother).  There were also additional voices provided by Braids and Plaits modules from Mutable Instruments that he could bring in and out using a touch-plate interface.  The result was a slowly changing beat pattern with an eerie inharmonic voicing and gentle undulation.

The final set featured our friends Gino Robair and Tom Djll teaming up as the brilliantly named Unpopular Electronics.

They had a wide variety of gear, including Serge panels in addition to Eurorack modules and standalone instruments from Bugbrand and others.  In addition, Gino had an interesting small case that included touchpads.

The music was frenetic and intense, an avalanche of pops and hits and loud cloudlike tone clusters.  And there were trumpet sounds entering into the mix at various points.  But there was an exquisite detail to the madness with changes among the different instruments and sounds, and musical pauses and rests before the pair dived back into the frenzy.  There were also many moments of humor and not just Djll’s book about why there aren’t any Zeppelin-style airships in the United States.

In between sets, it’s fun to browse around Robotspeak and see what’s for sale, or on display in the big glass case.

It’s also quite dangerous, as I am often tempted to leave with another module or instrument.  On this occasion, I exercised restraint, but probably not next time…

Denny Denny Breakfast at the Luggage Store Gallery, San Francisco

A couple of weeks ago we saw a fun and intriguing performance by Denny Denny Breakfast at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco.  It was the subject of a recent CatSynth TV.

Denny Denny Breakfast is an ensemble project led by Robert Woods-LaDue.  The personnel changes per event, but on this occasion, it included Sarah Dionne Woods-LaDue (dance),  Mark Clifford (vibraphone), Crystal Pascucci (cell0), Jordan Glenn (drums), David Young (keyboard), Max Judelson (upright bass), and Rent Romus (alto saxophone).  They had recorded an album together in December 2017 and the mix of improvisations and noted sections informed the live performance at the Luggage Store.

Several of the parts were improvised once again, but others were relatively fixed, including the final piece that was a note-for-note transcription of an improvisation from the recording sessions.  There was also a piece originally conceived while the group was playing in the Finnish Hall in Berkeley but did not make it onto the album.  It was a simple concept of repeated patterns slowly changing in speed between two groups of performs, creating a phase pattern in the acoustic space.  The Finnish Hall has very unique acoustics, and so does the third floor of the Luggage Store Gallery, making it an ideal location to recreate the piece.  Throughout there was a large variation in the music between pieces, ranging from melodic and theatrical to noisy and percussive, to minimal with large amounts of empty space.  Each of these styles and textures left room for the dancers Sarah and Robert Woods-LaDue to be front and center.

We were happy to have been introduced to Woods-LaDue’s work, and are enjoying his recordings as well.  There is a wide variation in style among the different albums, but that will be a topic for another review in the not-too-distant future.

Voltage and Verse: Ruth Weiss/Doug Lynner/Hal Davis, Pitta of the Mind, Ramon Sender at Adobe Books

It’s been a busy season for Pitta of the Mind!  We had three shows in the span of two months, beginning with our blue set at Pro Arts and culminating with ¡Voltage and Verse! at Adobe Books in San Francisco.  You can get a taste for the show in our CatSynth TV video.

It was an honor to once again share a bill with ruth weiss.  A Holocaust survivor and founding member of the San Francisco beat poet scene in the 1950s, she is still going strong, performing and supporting local institutions and artists.

Maw Shein Win, ruth weiss, Amanda Chaudhary

We were glad to see that she is continuing her collaboration with our friend and synthesizer virtuoso Doug Lynner.  Together with log percussionist Hal Davis, they performed a set of poetry and music that simultaneously evoked earlier eras and the latest electronic experiments.  Davis’ log drum provided an expressive metronome, undulating between a trot and a gallop.  Lynner’s synthesizer lines filled in the spaces, sometimes with rhythmic appeggios and at other moments with long eerie drones.  The synthesizer timbres and phrases complemented the words in multiple ways, sometimes underpinning the narrative in the manner of a good film score, at other times emphasizing the rhythm of the words and making them into a musical whole.

ruth weiss and Doug Lynner

Our Pitta of the Mind set was part of a month-long celebration for the release of Maw Shein Win’s new book of poetry Invisible Gifts.  The book is divided into four sections based on different colors.  This works perfectly for our use of color themes in our performances.  For this night, we chose silver and performed selections from the silver section of the book.  There were some familiar poems that we have performed before, and some that were new to me.  There were a variety of styles and subjects in the words that inspired different musical backings, from jazzy electric piano (my favorite) to abstract synthesizer explorations.  I was able to reuse some of the modular patches I had developed for my recent show in Portland and make them work with the rhythm of the texts.

Pitta of the Mind

Maw and I have performed together so many times now that it has become almost second nature to realize a new set; our three shows this season went off (nearly) flawlessly, and have been among the best we have done in our nearly seven years of collaboration!  We have developed a toolset and pallete of instruments (including the Nord Stage and Prophet 12) and sounds that we can quickly turn to with each new text, which makes the process of learning new pieces both simple and fun.  I certainly hope we can keep up the momentum in the remainder of the year, even as I turn my own attention to other musical projects.

In between our set and weiss/Lynner/Davis, we were treated to a presentation by Ramon Sender.  Sender was a co-founder (along Morton Subotnick and Pauline Oliveros) of the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the early 1960s, but on this evening he regaled us with stories of his time at the Morning Star and Wheeler ranches in Sonoma County in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Morningstar, founded by Lou Gottlieb, was a radical experiment in communal living, populated by an interesting cast of characters along with folks who “commuted” between San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district and the ranch west of Sebastopol.  It only existed in its communal form for a short period of time before being shut down by Sonoma County. Sender and others then moved to the nearby property of artist Bill Wheeler, who followed Gottlieb’s lead and opened his ranch as a commune open to all.  I found myself fascinated by Sender’s stories, and would love to learn more about the history of the area and these communal experiments.

It was a fun night of music and words that lived up to its billing, and I certainly hope to have a chance to perform with everyone again.  And thanks to Benjamin Tinker and Adobe Books for hosting the event!  Please support your local bookstores and performance spaces.

[Photos not marked “catsynth.com” in this article courtesy of Maw Shein Win.]

Mensa Cat Monday: Making a Living Through Art

Mensa Cats: Morton Feldman and Milton Friedman

Today’s Mensa Cats cartoon by J.B. touches a dilemma many of us face as artists.  Can we make a living from our art?  Sadly, in the late-stage capitalism envisioned by Milton Friedman, it is particularly challenging by Morton Feldman.  We at CatSynth have day jobs.

RIP Cecil Taylor (1929 – 2018)

We learned yesterday of the passing of another of our musical heroes, Cecil Taylor.

This segment of solo piano demonstrates how his playing is incredibly complex but remains thoroughly musical.   The fast runs contain a unique contrapuntal language.  And more importantly, there is phrasing, contour, and emotion that unifies the performance.  Taylor had an uncanny ability to combine European classical tradition, jazz, and other African American influences into a unique musical language that he dubbed “black methodology”.  This quote from poet and critic A. B. Spellman, included in the official New York Times obituary, sums it up well.

“There is only one musician who has, by general agreement even among those who have disliked his music, been able to incorporate all that he wants to take from classical and modern Western composition into his own distinctly individual kind of blues without in the least compromising those blues, and that is Cecil Taylor, a kind of Bartok in reverse.”

 

It is hard for me not to compare Taylor with another contemporary of his, Ornette Coleman, who passed away in 2015.  Coleman is one of my favorites – Taylor takes the level of complexity to another level.  Both remain huge influences.  We leave you with this recording of “Calling It the 9th”.

 

Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando is a controversial figure in contemporary circles, but we did some great movies a long time ago (followed by some not-so-great ones, then a couple more classics, and then some really awful ones). But his work has intertwined with many things at CatSynth over the past couple of years. Consider this cartoon by J.B. (Jason Berry), part of our extended Mensa Cat series.

Marlin Brando

We leave the joke as an exercise to the reader. 😸

There is also the tune “Marlon Brando” initially composed by Jason Berry for Vacuum Tree Head, which I redid for my own band CDP.  Here is a live performance of us playing it at the Make Out Room in San Francisco.

CDP Marlon Brando May 1 from CatSynth on Vimeo.

And finally, our friends at the Cat Museum of San Francisco shared this feline photo today.