Grex and Two Aerials, Octopus Literary Salon

Last Thursday we at CatSynth returned to the Octopus Literary Salon in Oakland to hear two groups whose work we follow, Grex and Two Aerials.  The show was also the subject of our most recent CatSynth TV video, which can you see below.

There are similarities between in terms of style and songcraft, and they worked well in tandem.  Two Aerials, led by Mark Clifford (vibraphone) and Crystal Pascucci (cello, voice), had a jazzier vibe and more reminiscent of art-rock and prog of the early 1970s.  Clifford’s frenetic but luscious vibes are a lot of the reason for this, but solid backing from Brett Carson on keyboard and Jordan Glenn on drums added to the overall sound and structure.  There were sounds and textures reminiscent of Henry Cow, especially during the songs that featured Pascucci on voice.  There were also sections that reminded me of Frank Zappa’s best lineups from the early to mid-1970s.
 
 two aerials
 
Grex has gone through a few iterations of style and personnel in the time I have known them.  The current incarnation features principals Karl Evangelista on guitar and Rei Scampavia on keyboards, but they each take on additional musical duties with electronics, foot-driven percussion, and voice.
 
Grex
 
Musically, they also have a style that falls somewhere in the realm of art rock, but with a dreamier, more psychedelic feel.  They move effortlessly back and forth between very tender lyrical songs and frenetic pedal-heavy guitar solos from Evangelista, as well as space in between those poles.  We particularly enjoyed the quote of Princess Leia’s theme during their final song.
In all, it was a fun evening with friends and music.  And the Octopus Literary Salon is fast becoming a frequent destination for us for eclectic and intimate musical performances.  We look forward to more.

Fred Frith Trio, IMA and Watkins / Peacock at Starline Social Club, Oakland

Today we look back at the December show at the Starline Social Club featuring the Fred Frith Trio, IMA, and Watkins / Peacock. It was the subject of a recent episode of CatSynth TV.

In addition to giving a great interview, Zachary Watkins performed a great set with collaborator Ross Peacock, featuring a large array of electronic gear, with interesting rhythms, harmonies, and timbres throughout. The largely improvised set included several patterns and patches from Watkins as well as solo work by Peacock on a vintage Korg MS-20.

Wakins and Peacock

IMA, the duo of Nava Dunkelman and Jeanie Aprille Tang (aka Amma Ateria) provided a very different sound and style combining percussion and electronics.

The timbres of Nava Dunkelman’s percussion and Tang’s electronics complement each other, with the electronics weaving between the frequency ranges and timbres of the percussion. This worked especially well with the metallic sounds. Having played together as a unit for a while now, IMA’s improvised sounds have a tight structure and narrative quality.

Then it was time for the Fred Frith Trio to take the stage. In addition to Frith, the trio features Jason Hoopes on bass and Jordan Glenn on drums.

Like IMA, the trio locked in even in more free-form improvised sections to maintain a rhythmic and virtuosic quality. They have developed a musical language among the three of them that allows them to converse and also listen during “monologues”, like Frith’s solos or Hoopes’ dramatic bass patterns.

We had a great time at this show – the Starline is a good place to see live music. The stage lighting was almost a performer in its own right, constantly changing and adapting to the music. The fog could have been a bit lighter, though.

Outsound & VAMP Present A Holiday Pop-Up Benefit Show

Recently, John Lee, the creator of bayimproviser.com donated a portion of his extensive record collection to Outsound. And our friends at VAMP are helping us sell them to fund our continuing mission of promoting new music in the Bay Area and beyond. To launch this effort, Outsound held a benefit concert at VAMP on December 1.

I performed a solo set with my trusty Nord Stage EX, modular synth, and Casio SK-1.

Amanda Chaudhary setup for show with Nord and modular

As with most of my current solo performances, I try to combine both idiomatic jazz and funk elements with more experimental electronics. I opened with White Wine (instrumental) with the extended solo section morphing into a more free-form electro-acoustic improvisation that also included the garrahand drum. It moved from sections of disco and bossa nova rhythms to noise to complex harmonies from the drum and Make Noise Echopon module. It was a fun set with an appreciative audience of both attendees and record-store patrons.

Amanda Chaudhary

After my set, Tri-Cornered Tent Show took stage. Anchored by bandleader Philip Everett on clarinet and electronics and Ray Schaeffer on bass, the band explored a variety of sounds and styles from noisy electronics and percussion to R&B grooves to psychedelic serenades featuring Valentina O on vocals. Anthony Flores rounded out the band on drums.

Tri-Cornered Tent Show

It was interesting to see how both sets explored the intersection of avant-garde electronic and acoustic sounds with more familiar idioms. Soul, funk, and R&B were present in both sets, but then we each veered off in different directions. Between us, we might have covered many of the genres in VAMP’s record bins!

It was a fine night of music and fellowship, and it’s great to see an independent (and idiosyncratic) store like VAMP flourishing in downtown Oakland. You can find out more about them here. And please visit Outsound’s website to find out about upcoming programs and how you can help support our work bring new music to our community.

Serena Toxicat and #OaklandCatFashionWeek

Today we look back at the recent art and fashion show featuring the work of Serena Toxicat. I was fortunate to be a part of this show as a model, and it was featured in Episode 9 of CatSynth TV.

Serena Toxicat is a multi-disciplinary artist, working as a writer, visual artist, musician, and now a fashion designer – longtime readers may recognize her via our reviews of her band Protea. Her paintings were featured on the walls of Farley’s East in Oakland as the fashion show took place in the lobby. She also had her music, books, and cat-themed tarot cards on hand.

One sees themes that repeat throughout her work in various media. There are of course the cats – I particularly liked the painting featuring manuls or Pallas cats – and felines reminiscent of Egyptian iconography. But there are themes running through as well with the bright high-contrast colors and dreamlike arrangements of forms. The feline, color, whimsy and spiritual dimensions are all of a piece and come together in her life experience as well as her outward creativity.


[Photo from @serenatoxicat on Instagram]

The show itself was a fun experience. Each of us modeled two looks over the course of the evening, with more formal runway-style processions interspersed with more freeform dance sections.

A good time was had by all.

In addition to Serena and myself, the models included Ariel McEtchin, Gina Ghorbani, Charlena Verrette, Kristine Katalyst, Maya Imani, Sam Isis, and Jessa Nico.

Although the art show is now over, you can see and learn more about Serena Toxicat’s work via her Facebook page.

Henry Kaiser Quartet Plays Steve Lacy at Piedmont Pianos

On an extraordinarily hot Saturday evening in Oakland, we and several others kept cool both physically and musically at Piedmont Pianos. The occasion was a concert of music by Steve Lacy, as interpreted by an ensemble organized by guitarist Henry Kaiser with saxophonist Bruce Ackley.

Steve Lacy is a visionary but often under appreciated musician in avant-garde jazz. He was a prolific composer especially in the 1970s with his sextet and is an influence on many of the musicians were regularly see and perform with. (You can see Jason Berry’s tribute comic to Steve Lacy in an earlier post.) Bruce Ackley and Henry Kaiser have long been interpreters of Lacy’s music. Ackley and other founding members of Rova shared a deep interest in Lacy, and connected with him in both Berkeley and Paris, ultimately recording their own album of his work in 1983. They teamed up with Kaiser for performances of Lacy’s Saxophone Special in the early 2000s and ultimately recorded the piece together with Kyle Bruckman. More recently, Kaiser and Ackley have put together a group to perform the music from The Wire, which included Tania Chen on piano, Danielle DeGruttola on cello, Andrea Centazzo on percussion, and Michael Manring on bass. The performance on this evening featured a subset of this group featuring Ackley, Kaiser, Chen, and DeGruttola.

Henry Kaiser Quartet

The concert featured many pieces from The Wire as well as a few others, and demonstrated the breadth of Steve Lacy’s composition from the brightly melodic “Hemline” (dedicated to Janis Joplin) to the extremely percussive and avant-garde “The Owl” (dedicated to Anton Webern), which featured Tania Chen and Kaiser blending the extended acoustic techniques of their respective instruments.

Henry Kaiser, Tania Chen, Robert Ackley

Even at its most percussive and noisy, Lacy’s music is quite melodic and structured. Indeed, many of the pieces were intended as songs, specifically songs for the voice of Irene Aebi. The melodies often revolved around simple repeating motifs, as in “Bound” (dedicated to Irene Aebi). On some pieces, including “Deadline”, DeGruttola and Kaiser acted as a string-based rhythm section, providing a foundation for the soprano-sax to interpret the melody and the piano to fill the space in between. Other moments provided lush harmonies, with Kaiser playing long pitch-bent chords on guitar and Chen playing frenetic harmonic fragments on piano. The energy can be intense at times, but then slower and haunting as in “Clouds”. Although structured, there is a lot of room for improvisation in the music, and the ensemble had great on stage chemistry for listening and playing off of one another, leaving empty space, and allowing Lacy’s original ideas to come out even as the performers added their own. The performance also included the title track from The Wire, “Twain”, “Ecstasy” and more.

This was my first visit to Piedmont Pianos. It is a large, friendly, and inviting space, dedicated entirely to the piano. Many were rather impressive, both in terms of their quality as instruments as well as their sticker prices, including the gorgeous Fazioli grand that Tania Chen played for the concert. However, I found myself most captivated by this remake of a 1930s Bluthne PH Piano, which is a work of visual as well as sonic art.  It is based on a design by noted Danish architect and inventor Poul Henningsen.

1931 PH Piano

We look forward to seeing more shows at Piedmont Pianos now that we have discovered it, and of course upcoming shows for all the musicians involved in this evening. Nor is this our last word on the music of Steve Lacy.

King Crimson, Fox Theater, Oakland

King Crimson returned to North America this summer for their “Radical Action Tour”. And we at CatSynth were on hand to see them at the Fox Theater in Oakland. As this was their first North American tour in three years, we were not going to miss a chance to see the band, and Robert Fripp.

The band featured a massive stage lineup – referred to by Fripp as a “double quartet” – that included three drum sets, played by Gavin Harrison, Pat Mastelotto and Jeremy Stacey. Behind them were longtime band members Mel Collins on horns, Tony Levin on bass and Chapman stick, Bill Rieflin on keyboard, and Jakko Jakszyk on lead vocals and guitar. Robert Fripp himself held court on the right side of the stage, with guitar and his array of electronic instruments. Three drum sets might seem a recipe for disaster, but in their hands it was quite impressive. A massive but tightly synchronized sound that dominated but also bended with Fripp’s rhythmic delayed-guitar and other elements.

The concert, although nominally feature their new EP, included songs from the band’s full history and repertoire. They played quite a few “deep cuts” this time around, including a number of compositions from the 1970 album Lizard – Cirkus, and a good chunk of the second side’s suite (“Dawn Song”, “Last Skirmish”, “Prince Rupert’s Lament”. The large band, and especially the full-time keyboards (Rieflin) and horns (Collins) allowed the orchestrations to be heard. The title track from Islands was given a lovely reading.

Although they performed a number of classic Adrian Belew-era compositions, the vocal parts were a bit reduced, as on the opener, “Neurotica”, or eliminated altogether, as on The “ConstruKction of Light”. This is not to take anything from Jakszyk’s vocal performance, which was intense and spirited.

The formal concert ended with a rousing rendition of “21st Century Schizoid Man,” among their biggest hits. Sadly, no “Cat Food” at this particular concert. But the did close with their cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes”, which is also featured on their new EP.

King Crimson has always been very strict about photography during their concerts, but at the very end they ritualistically share a moment taking pictures of the audience while we picture them.

King Crimson on Stage in Oakland

Tony Levin in particular is big on photography and documenting their shows, and has a blog post on the two dates at the Fox in Oakland. If you look really carefully, you might see me in the middle of this rather nice photo he took from the stage.

Tony Levin photographs the audience at the Fox Theater

[Image from TonyLevin.com. Click to see original at Tony’s blog in full size.]

Jason Berry contributed to this story.

Thoughts on the Oakland Ghost Ship fire

Long time readers may know that fire is among my biggest fears. I fear fire in every rickety wooden space where I go to play or hear music. Most are fairly safe, with alarms, sprinklers and clear corridors. And even in those few cases where there weren’t, my attention shifted to the music, fellowship and always had a wonderful time. That’s why we go. It’s what we do, it’s what we love. We, artists, have no choice but to create and participate. It could have been any of us.

Oakland warehouse fire
[By Janna487 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

By last count, the fire at the Ghost Ship in Oakland on December 2 claimed 36 lives. We at CatSynth send our thoughts and condolences to their families and close friends. I was worried for many dear friends who might have been there. They fortunately have all checked in safe in the week since, but they are grieving deeply in the aftermath for their friends who were lost. I feel for them, and try my best to remember those who perished with whom I crossed paths like Cherushii (aka Chelsea Dolan), Cash Askew, and others. But this is not my story. It is the story of my friends who knew them best. The personal remembrances they have posted are not mine to share. I did find this article helpful in understanding the victims better. Their stories are another reminder that it could have been any of us.

As we grieve, we in the arts community brace for a round of crackdowns on spaces, from both authorities and landlords. Ghost Ship was an outlier – most spaces while operating in the margins do more often than not operate with a concern for safety and cleanliness and civility. These are the spaces that are now under attack – it’s starting to happen beyond Oakland, with reports from New York, Denver, and here in SF. My own neighborhood in San Francisco was a warren of old factory buildings and warehouses that contained a thriving underground scene in the 1980s at a time when I just a kid in New York buying a first synth. I saw the waning days of that scene, with some of the last large artist-studio buildings being displaced in the past couple of years to make way for offices and condos. Fire is not necessary for authorities to displace artists, but it can certainly make it easier. But even the most safety-minded among us can’t compete easily in places when both the powerful and the populists do not value artists. New York has done better. The grim artists’ spaces of the lower east side may have long given way to boutiques, restaurants, and other upscale spaces but artists are still colonizing spaces and they have “paths to legality.” If authorities here want to help safety in a way that doesn’t show contempt for artists, a similar system of support for bringing things up to code and then operating would be useful as well.

Although I maybe starting to “age out” of some of the underground spaces of the Bay Area – even if my spirit wants to be there, my body and mind are not as enthusiastic – I still cherish many of my past experiences both as a performer and an attendee. My first time out and about in the world as Amanda was at a large warehouse space in West Oakland in 2011, and shortly afterwards I performed at a very nice space in an old factory in East Oakland as her. Some of my early shows in the mid 2000s at underground spaces in San Francisco were very informative for my solo practice today – a few of them even written up here on CatSynth, but I hesitate to link directly to them as authorities may use them in their crackdowns.

This is already a perilous time for those of us in marginalized communities, such as people of color and LGBTQ individuals. Coming together to create and enjoy, even in the edges of society, is one way we cope and thrive; and now we have to fear that may become more challenging as well. So some will forced further out to the edges. And another tragedy will happen.

It could have been any of us.

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.