Don Buchla Memorial Concerts in San Francisco

This past weekend, April 22 and 23, a series of concerts and panels took place at the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts in San Francisco. It was in the midst of a busy and event-packed weekend (including the March for Science which we have already written about), but as Don Buchla was someone that I not only admired but knew personally, it was important to be there.

Buchla lives on though his many innovative musical instruments, and a pop-up museum was set up in side room of the theater showcasing many of them.

Buchla 100 and 200 series

On the right of this photo is an example of Buchla’s iconic 200 series modular synthesizer, probably the instrument for which he is best known. On the left is the rarer 100 series, originally commissioned by electronic-music pioneers Ramon Sender and Morton Subotnick of the San Francisco Tape Music Center. Neither the of these early modular series had a traditional piano-style keyboard, nor were they based traditional subtractive-synthesis architecture of oscillators, filters, and amplifiers in that order, but rather a mix of traditional synth modules with unique waveshapers, low-pass gates. The latter is probably the most recognizable as the “Bucha sound” but the variety of musical sound expression from this instruments continues to be very wide and the ethos of his work can be seen in the current renaissance of sometimes esoteric modular synthesizers. You can read more about his work and philosophy on this tribute website.

There were also some instruments I had not seen before, including the Buchla Touché and the 700 series / MIDAS.

Buchla Touche and MIDAS systems

These were more conventional in the sense of having a keyboard and a more fixed topology, but were still quite versatile in terms of their software. They certainly have a very vintage 1980s look, especially with the computer monitors and graphics.

The evening concert began with tape pieces by George Lewis and a premier of a new piece by Laurie Spiegel.

Laurie Spiegel

Spiegel’s piece had a dark but sparse quality, with discretely positioned sounds and timbres.

The live performances began with Laetitia Sonami performing on a custom gestural controller.

Her work is often focused on live movement and gesture and indeed has been an influence on my own performance practice with the theremin. But Sonami is adept at very subtle motion with seemly precise affects on the sound output.

The live performances continued with Bob Ostertag, who controlled live music and video from the center of the hall.

Ostertag’s sound is quite distinctive independent of the particular instruments in use, usually noisy and hard driving. And this performance was no exception – indeed, I was able to instantly recognize the sound as his when it started, even without being able to see him at first in the darkened space. The music however, did have dynamic range and timbral variation that gave it a narrative contour. The video was abstract, but again with a bit of an urgent quality that kept things moving forward.

Morton Subotnik’s music is in many way the opposite of Bob Ostertag’s. It is quiet and very subtle, focused on small points and details in time.

Morton Subotnik

It was spare, almost severe, but listening closely one can appreciate many of the timbral details. The changes are musical but on a different scale than one is accustomed to. The frequencies timbres are complex even while the amplitudes are low, and it is listening to these and the slight percussive elements that punctuate the music that one begins to hear how it fits together.

In between the live performances there was a tribute video for Don Buchla, featuring images as well as interviews with him. There were also cameos by a great many people I know in the electronic-music world. It was very touching, but also quite humorous, all in keeping with Don’s character.

The concert continued until late at night – in some ways, it was set up more likely a crowded nightclub or impromptu electronic-music party than a traditional concert. It was great to see it so well attended – the room was packed with people standing or sitting on the floor, but it did make focused listening a bit of a challenge at times. I was unfortunately not able to stay for the whole night, so missed a few live sets, including from friends Marielle V. Jakobsons, Tom Dimuzio, Matt Ingalls, and Richard Devine. I do hope to see them live again soon.

I also hope this is not the last event we have to celebrate the life and work of Don Buchla. I personally still feel like I have only scratched the surface of his instruments as a performer and listener.

The Amy X-Perience at the Jewish Community Center, Berkeley

As we are in the middle of Passover, it seems like a good time to look back at a Jewish-themed show in which I participated earlier this year. The Amy X-Perience brought together a mix of artists in solo, duo and ensemble sets at the Jewish Community Center in Berkeley, California. The evening was curated by our friend and collaborator Amy X Neuburg.

The night began with a piece by Neuburg featuring electronics and potato chips. Yes, potato chips. Small vending-machine-sized bags were distributed to the audience, who were instructed to on cue open the bags and start chewing the (edible) contents loudly, as Neuburg manipulated the sounds and added additional musical layers.

Amy X Neuburg

I was up next. Regular readers have likely already heard part of my solo set from this show – I posted the performance of piece White Wine in this article a couple of weeks ago. I also performed a live version of my piece Donershtik (Yiddish for “Thursday”), which you can see below.

Amanda Chaudhary performing "Donershtik" at JCC East Bay from CatSynth on Vimeo.

I was quite happy with how both solo pieces came out, but the real treat was having Amy join me in a duo of my piece North Berkeley BART, humorously appropriate for the location that evening.

North Berkeley BART w/ Amy X Neuburg – JCC from CatSynth on Vimeo.

I have always been impressed with Amy’s musicianship, discipline and ability to learn songs quickly, and very much appreciated her joining me. We also performed an avant-garde rendition of the American standard All of Me later in the evening.

Amanda Chaudhary and Amy X Neuburg

Between the two of us, there was quite an impressive collection of musical electronics on stage.

My solo set was followed by Alex Kelley, a veritable one-man band on cello and electronics.

Alex Kelley

His music blended jazz, klezmer and rock influences with experimental sounds. His cello acted not only as a melodic instrument, but also as the rhythm section, with Kelley striking it like a drum at times, and recording bass lines into a live looper and then riffing on top of that. His performance was both tight and humorous and a lot of fun to watch. You can hear a little bit in this video:

Next up was Solstice: A Female Vocal Ensemble. Sadly, several members of the group were unfortunately absent that evening due to illness, but that didn’t stop the remaining trio from delivering a strong performance.

Solstice’s repertoire spans a variety of styles and languages, and their set that evening included pieces from several places. I was quite impressed with their ability so sing in so many languages.

The second half of the program brought together the various artists in different combinations. I already mentioned my duo rendition of All of Me with Amy X Neuburg. She also performed show tunes with Alex Kelley, and joined Solstice for a virtuosic rendition of an Eastern European song. And finally, all of us joined together for a rousing rendition of Mein Herr from Cabaret. It was a fun and fitting conclusion to the evening.

Second half brought many voices in many languages and showtunes #AmyXNeuburg

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All of the performances were well received by the enthusiastic full house. Thank you to Amy X Neuburg for inviting all of us to participate in this event, and to the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay for hosting! Please visit their website to find out about the many performances and other cultural programs hosted by the JCC.

SFCMP Performs Peter Evans and Igor Stravinsky

We continue to catch up on the many concerts we have enjoyed this year. Today we look at an intriguing performance by the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players featuring Peter Evans’s Lover’s War and Igor Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat.

What made this concert unique was the way Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale) was interpolated between movements of Evan’s piece. One movement of Evans, followed by a movement of Stravinsky, back and forth, throughout the performance. The two pieces are quite different in time, style, and context. L’Histoire du Soldat is a well-known work set to a cautionary tale of ambition and hubris mixing in concert-music elements with folk styles, jazz, and klezmer. It’s a fun, sometimes bombastic piece, and even it’s darker points featuring the devil are somehow fun. Peter Evans’ contemporary piece also puts together disparate styles, but in a more abstract manner that mixes idiomatic “classical” elements with electro-acoustic improvisation, Asian classical, jazz, and more. The piece makes heavy use of improvisation, but is still quite structured around the various styles and the fragments from James Baldwin’s essay “The Creative Process.”


[Composer Peter Evans (right) with guest India Cooke (left) and ensemble-member Kyle Bruckmann (center)]

While the Stravinsky is dark and pessimistic even while it is fun, Evans’ work combined with Baldwin’s words is more optimistic. And about a century separates the two compositions. Nonetheless, they work surprising well interleaved this way. Both pieces have a very fragmented nature, and the contrasting moods help rather than hinder. In Evans’ program notes, he described his work as contrasting rather than responding to Stravinsky, and we think this is an apt description of how the concert unfolded. But it did feel like it melded in a way into something new; and the musicians, both SFCMP regulars and guest performs had a lot to do with that.


[Kyle Bruckmann with guest performers India Cooke and Nava Dunkelman]

Overall, it was a fine evening of music at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. And we enjoyed talking with performers and others at the reception afterwards. We at CatSynth look forward to continued experiments from SFCMP.

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 ☔️

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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.