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.

First visit to Cat Town Cafe

The Cat Town Cafe in Oakland, California is the first cat cafe to open in the United States. This past weekend, I had the opportunity to visit for the first time.



The cafe is essentially divided into two sections. The first resembles a standard small cafe but covered with cat photos. Here is where one checks in to visit the cats as well as order drinks and small snacks, all made by local Oakland-based businesses. After ordering, visitors can cross an airlock to the cat room. This is a spacious area designed at least as much with the cats in mind as the humans. They are plenty of places to play, hide, eat, and sleep. The interior wall is covered with a mural featuring Oakland cityscapes and a few celebrity cats like Grumpy Cat and Li’l Bub. The cat furniture pieces are one-of-a-kind based on landmark Oakland buildings, including city hall, the twin Federal Building, and the Oakland Tribune Building.


The largest concentration of cats during my appointment was in the Tribune building. For the first half hour they were all napping, but one could gently reach through the openings to pet and stroke the cats. One little girl particularly seemed to enjoy the attention, and eventually she got up to stretch and explore.


Turns out her name is Athena, and she was quite playful after her nap. A few of us took turns playing with her as she wandered the space. She particularly enjoyed feather toys.


Like most cats at the cafe, she comes from local shelters via Cat Town, an Oakland-based organization that recused and fosters cats in the community. The cafe has been extremely successful in adopting out cats. As of my visit, 77 had been adopted since the they opened in October. And it is always crowded with humans, especially on weekends. Indeed, they have sold appointments for every weekend since opening!

I’m sure I will be back to see the cats and find out more about the workings of the cafe. We at CatSynth also hope their success will help others get off the ground. There is at least one now open in New York, and there is currently one planned for this year in San Francisco.

Oakland Internet Cat Video Festival

The 2nd Annual Oakland Internet Cat Video Festival took place a little over a week ago. Large numbers of cat lovers and cat-video enthusiasts descended on a block of West Grand Avenue along The Great Wall in celebration of cats, and of course your author was there, complete with crazy-cat-lady dress and bag.


The daytime part of the event had more of a street fair atmosphere, with numerous booths providing food and miscellaneous cat-themed products under a bright but cloudy sky. There were also numerous organizations involved in fostering and adoption of cats, including the East Bay SPCA (one of the main beneficiaries of the event) Cat Town, and Oakland-based group that finds foster and forever homes for local cats and is also opening what may be the first cat cafe in the United States!

Cat Town

Many of the organizations brought adoptable cats and kittens for viewing. We certainly hope some found homes that day.



The celebrity rock star of the event was Li’l Bub, who was on hand for visitors to meet.

Li'l Bub

Our friend Serena Toxicat of Protea performed a feline-themed set of music for voice and electronics. Among her songs was a tribute to the manual (or Pallas Cat) with the warning not to get too close to one despite its awesomeness.


Other daylight fun included a photo booth from the makers of 9lives cat food, inviting visitors to Instagram and tag themselves as #MorrisAndMe (and of course #catvidfest).

Finally, the sun set and the actual videos began. The videos were from a curated reel featured at the Minneapolis Cat Video Festival hosted at the Walker Art Center., and featured many familiar videos such as Henri the existential cat and Grumpy Cat, but also new discoveries.

Henri the existential cat

What makes this experience unique is not the videos themselves, which so many of us know from our time on the Internet, but the act of getting together and watching them with others, and laughing together at the cat antics.



I am certainly looking forward to this event coming back again next year!

Reconnaissance Fly at DUENDE, Oakland (March 26)

Today we look back at Reconnaissance Fly’s recent performance at DUENDE on Oakland. DUENDE is a venue and tapas restaurant/bar that has been quite supportive of the new music community (I have been remiss in writing reviews for some of the other shows I have seen there), and also has delicious food and wine.

patatas bravas and Tempranillo

The patatas bravas are simple but delicious. The Tempranillo was quite nice as well.

The performance itself was fun. We had a good audience, mostly filled with familiar faces but that is always welcome. And we premiered a couple of new pieces, Spirograph by Polly Moller and Undeciphered by Tim Walters, which featured text in the undeciphered Linear A script (go look it up). Here are some views from the show.



Amanda Chaudhary
[Photos by MSW.]

Yes, I deliberately matched the color of the Nord.

Rounding out the band as always were Rich Lesnik on reeds and Larry the O on drums.

We are now busy working in more detail on those pieces and at least one more new one for our next show at the Makeout Room in San Francisco in early May.

A Tale of Two Duos

Today we look back at duo performances from the middle of September: an electro-acoustic spoetry performance with Polly Moller, and a punk-themed Pitta of the Mind performance at Bay Area Ladyfest. Musically, conceptually, and socially, these were contrasting experiences, but both very rewarding. Both duos combined voice with live electronics, and both involved my feminine persona . They also provided opportunities for different styles of playing and collaboration.

Ode to Steengo is a piece based on spoetry (spam poetry) derived from Harry Harrison’s “Stainless Steel Rat” series. Polly Moller and I performed it several times as an electro-acoustic duo in 2008 and 2009, and then later in our band Reconnaissance Fly. We reprised the piece for our duo performance at The Nunnery in San Francisco on September 15. It was a more expansive interpretation, with more instrumental breaks and live processing of voices. It was also different in that I used the analog modular for the electronic parts. The Make Noise Echophon was great for processing Polly’s vocals and wind instruments. And overall, I thought this was our best performance of this piece to date. The technology, timing and overall musicianship were strong, and we both had a good time while playing. You can enjoy it in its entirety via the video below:

Amar Chaudhary / Polly Moller Duo: Ode to Steengo, The Nunnery 9-15-2013 from CatSynth on Vimeo.

The performance by Pitta of the Mind at Bay Area Ladyfest in Oakland was something altogether different. Maw Shein Win and I interpreted several classic punk-rock songs as “art-damaged” music and spoken word performances. Musically, this involved a mixture of idiomatic and freeform improvisation on electric piano, mixed with some odd synth sounds. As with Steengo, the performance itself was a lot of fun, and in this case we made that a deliberate and overt part of the show. This was especially apparent in our final piece, an interpretation of The Ramones’ “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” where we invited the audience to sing along with us.

Pitta of the Mind at Bay Area Ladyfest: The Ramones “Sheena is a Punk Rocker” from CatSynth on Vimeo.

Both performances were well received by the audiences, which filled their respective venues, and of course I hope to do both again. Pitta of the Mind already has two more performances scheduled this year, and of course Polly and I perform together quite often. It is a good reminder to make time for duos as a specific performance format even while spending much time on solo work and on full-size bands.

Reconnaissance Fly in January, with Luke Westbrook, Grex and Greenlief/Dykstra/Perkis

Today we look back at two Reconnaissance Fly performances in early January. The first was a return to Luna’s Cafe in Sacramento, and the second was at Revolution Cafe in West Oakland. By coincidence, we shared the bill on both nights with guitarist Luke Westbrook who was visiting from New York.

This was Reconnaissance Fly’s third gig at Luna’s – we like playing there and not just because it shares my cat’s name. But the stage was once again a bit cozy for a band of our size, even more so now that we have a fifth member, Chris Broderick on reeds (saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet). This was our first public performance with the new quintet lineup. So it was a bit of puzzle trying to get the bass, drums, keyboard and bass flute on the stage, and still find room for the people who play them. But somehow we managed.

[Photo by Tom Djll]

Our set went well – at least, I was pretty happy with it. Our opening graphical score improvisation piece Small Chinese Gong went off without a hitch. As Neat As Wax is becoming our most consistently well-played song, as it is not too difficult and it is quite lyrical and rhythmic. Electric Rock Like a Cat and Sanse Iz Crede Nza are our most difficult, but also the most energetic and got a great response from the small but enthusiastic audience when we hit the final notes.

After striking the stage, it was time to relax with beer and guacamole and other treats and enjoy the next sets. Luke Westbrook took the stage for a solo guitar performance.

He has a very intense stage presence and a virtuosic technique, but the music itself has a certain ease to it. It began with gentle arpeggios that had a consistency even as they were constantly changing. These evolved into more defined repeated phrases over time that were occasionally punctuated by the occasional chromatic tone or blues-like bend. Later on, the music become more distorted with noisier and more percussive elements. There was a passage of single repeated tones that provided an increasingly anxious vibe before settling down again.

Westbrook was followed by Philip Greenlief and Jorrit Dykstra on saxophones with Tim Perkis on electronics. On the things I look for in electro-acoustic combos is how well the electronic and acoustic parts blend. In the case of this trio, they blended quite seamlessly from the start with long tones of subtly different intonation. The music soon became more animated, with syncopated saxophone rhythms set against low gurgly electronic sounds.

There were many humorous moments with matching squeaks and bleats, and richly textured moments with multiphonics against electronic pads. Perhaps the most amazing moment of the entire set was a long virtuoso noise solo by Dykstra. It is hard to describe in text, but it was one of the most impressive saxophone performances I have heard in a while. The later sections of the performance featured more percussive saxophone sounds, key clicks and striking of the metal hardware set against contrasting electronics with vocal and wah-wah effects.

Revolution Cafe is located deep in West Oakland, not far from the rebuilt I-880 freeway, which makes for an interesting exterior environment. The interior is something altogether different, with every surface adorned with vintage and eclectic artifacts. There were street and highway signs, political posters (from old Oakland Mayoral elections to the most recent Jean Quan recall announcements), vintage keyboard instruments, strange dolls and even a shrine of sorts of Frank Zappa. I spent quite a bit of time just photographing the space before even considering the music.

[Click images to enlarge]

The show was actually the latest incarnation of Karl Evanglista’s Light A Fire series. I had performed in this series last year with solo electronics. This even opened with another solo guitar set by Luke Westbrook.

Westbook’s performance was actually quite different from the one he did two night’s earlier. While his technique was on display both nights, this one was more virtuosic and more diverse in terms of material and sound. This performance was mesmerizing. I had a sense of warmer colors as he played, though that may have been a kinesthetic combination of the cafe’s ambience and Westbrook’s harmonies.

Next up was Grex, the duo of Karl Evangelista on guitar and Rei Scampavia on keyboard, voice and flute. Their music covered quite a bit of range, some more song-like with voice, keyboard and guitar, some closer to free-jazz with fast-moving improvised lines. One memorable moment featured featured a mellow guitar solo – Evangelista is quite a versatile guitarist – that morphed into in a driving loop pattern with distortion that produced its own harmony.

[Click image to enlarge]

I believe at least some of the material was from Grex’s recently release CD. You can follow the link above to find out more info.

Finally, it was our turn to take the stage. I had toyed with the idea of using the Cafe’s B3 for An Empty Rectangle, but in the end decided it would have been a lot of effort, especially with a stage that seemed to be even smaller than Luna’s Cafe We had a lot of fun and played with a lot of energy that matched the intensity of Revolution Cafe’s decor. It didn’t feel as tight or accurate as we would want for a Reconnaissance Fly set, but it did have the humor that has become part of our band’s character.

Additionally, the visuals of the space and the presence of the old keyboard instruments did inspire me to consider a future solo performance or installation there. I don’t have much more to say about that yet given everything else that is going on this season, but something to consider for later…