Oakland Underground Film Festival Summer Salon

Last Friday, I participated in the Expanded Strangelet Minus One ensemble at the Oakland Underground Film Festival’s Summer Salon.

The event took place in the cavernous space that used to be a Barnes and Noble in Jack London Square in Oakland. There was a large screening area as well as several installations arranged around the space. The most captivating installation was Tracey Snelling’s Bordertown. She created a series of models at different scales that one might see in a small town in rural California. The scales range from life size in the “Maria” ice cream cart to a miniature commercial strip with detailed buildings. The entire model fits on a large table, but when photographed up close, one loses the sense of scale and the town seems like it could be a life-size model. One could spend quite a bit of time examining all the details, the buildings, the objects inside of them, and signs on the sides.



[Tracey Snelling, installation views. Photos by CatSynth (click to enlarge)]

[Tracey Snelling, installation view.  Photo by Michael Zelner (click to enlarge).]

Several of the pieces incorporate video, such as the “El Diablo Inn” with videos playing in each of the rooms. The larger apartment building had movies playing in each of the windows, and videos of scenes from U.S.-Mexican border were projected onto a full-size screen behind the installation.

Although Snelling’s installation captures a small border town rather than a large urban area, some of the elements that she focuses on, such as industrial buildings and somewhat seedy spaces are similar to those that drive my current interests in urban photography. Urban photography was, however, the central focus of Idan Levin’s photography, which included scenes of colorful city buildings in Japan, industral lots and highway overpasses. As he states, “I prowl the streets at night, seeking a unique vantage point from which I can capture an alternate view of the world…”. He describes this view “prying, mysterious, lonely, and sometimes resembling a sci-fi post-apocalyptic cinematic scene.”

[Idan Levin, Tokyo Scape #1]

Only a few of his images were on display, but I encourage readers to visit his online portfolio.

Michelle Lewis-King’s installation featured projected video onto two cut-outs of female figures.


[Michelle Lewis-King, installation view. Photo by CatSynth (click to enlarge).]

The combination of the video and the empty space of each figure made it seem like both the adult woman on the left and the young girl on the right were present in the environment of the video.

The Expanded Strangelet is an electronic improvisation group founded by Lucio Menagon. He was not with us for this performance, hence the “minus one.” But we did have myself, Matt Davignon, Wayne Grimm, John Hanes, Suki O’Kane, Jonathan Segel, and Michael Zelner. I have played with them before at last year’s Oakland Underground Film Festival, and once again I had my minimal setup if iPhone and Korg Kaoss Pad.

[Expanded Strangelet Minus One.  Photos by Michael Zelner (click to enlarge).]

With Suko O’Kane conducting, we performed an improvised set of exactly 45 minutes, with various duos and solos, and sections with low drones and high staccato elements to provide some texture and an arc.

During the performance, we also projected videos onto the wall, and floor, and even onto people who walked by. We projected my video of Luna from the Quickening Moon Concert onto the floor, and at times it was appeared on the clothes of people nearby:



[Click images to enlarge.]

Our performance was preceded by a pair of bands from Bay Area Girls Rock Camp, including the band Poison Apple Pie. The local nonprofit program “aims to empower girls through music education, promoting an environment that fosters self-confidence, creativity and teamwork.”

There were numerous short firms and videos shown as well, including work by the Cinepimps and others.

[Cinepimps.  Photo by Michael Zelner (click to enlarge).]

Please visit the event site for a full rundown.

Garden of Memory 2010

This past Monday on the Summer Solstice I once again attended the annual Garden of Memory at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland. This year, I was going not just as an audience member and reviewer, but also to participate with the Cornelius Cardew Choir, and also ended up playing in an impromptu electronic improvisation.

Being practical, I first crossed the building to where the choir was located to check in and drop off a few things. On the way I encountered Randy Porter’s “one man orchestra” featuring prepared guitar, brass instruments and tubing. This was a fun performance to watch, and it did not escape me that there were a lot of kids watching him, too.

After dropping off my stuff, I wandered around the corner following some strong bass tones that echoed around the hallway. In one of the side chambers, Beth Custer was performing clarinet. She produced a variety of standard and extended-technique tones. I was wondering if she also was going to perform using the array of other wind instruments behind her. I continued to follow the resonant bass sounds and in a side room found Thomas Dimuzio performing dronelike sounds with guitar and effects. This section of his performance had long tones with heavy distortion and bass undertones that were the source of resonances in the main hallway. I sat to listen for a few minutes as his tone gradually moved away from distortion towards something more pure sounding. Nearby was an outdoor patio, where Orchestra Nostalgico was playing minor-key jazzy music that reminded me a bit of klezmer.


[Schocker, Ueno and Fong. (Click to enlarge)]

One of my favorite new performances this year was the trio of Ken Ueno, Adam Fong and Edward Schocker. Ueno’s expressive and virtuosic vocals, which focus on a variety of extended techniques, blended well with Schocker’s performance on glasses and Fong’s bass. For example, Ueno’s vocals used techniques like throat singing with strong resonances, which complement harmonics on the bass. The sounds were more delicate at times, but the performance an aggressive, harder sound overall which I found welcome. It is interesting to note that they were situated in the Chapel of Tenderness.

Maggie Payne had an installation in the same room as last year, once again making use of the fountain and other elements of the room. Next door was the Crank Ensemble, who were getting started with a new piece as I arrived. The instruments cover a wide range of sound-generation techniques and timbres, but they are all hand cranked. As such, they tend to produce regular rhythms of repeating notes and different rates. The piece began with some slow patterns of metallic and plucked sounds, but as more performers came in it got increasingly complex, with faster rhythms and more variety. One thing that is always readily apparent is how much physical effort it must take to operate some of those instruments, especially given the repetitive nature.

An equally rhythmic but very different performance was unfolding in the Chapel of Eternal Wisdom. Laura Inserra performed on an instrument called a hang, a large tuned metal pod set against a percussionist with three tablas (as opposed to the standard two). The duo quickly built up complex but meditative rhythms. Interestingly, there was another hang performance nearby (I am not sure which group this was, however).


[Laura Inserra. Hang and tabla performance. (Click to enlarge)]

In the columbarium, a heard a performance of Gino Robair’s opera I Norton. I had seen a large production of the piece at least year’s San Francisco Electronic Music Festival. This performance once again featured Tom Duff in the role of Norton I, “Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.” Robair performed with a small custom electronic instrument alongside a Bleep Labs Thingamagoop (I do want to get one of these at some point), with small portable speakers and taking advantage of the acoustics of the stone room. This performance also featured dance elements, and the two dancers also provided theatrical supporting vocals.


[Scenes from Gino Robair’s I Norton. (Click images to enlarge.)]

Wandering back I heard Theresa Wong performing cello while singing a blues song. I have heard her perform cello both solo and in ensembles on many occasions, but had not heard her sing blues before. I then walked by another performance featuring cello. Albert Behar and the Movement combined cello with electronics to produce ambient music that sounded like a score for a film.

I passed by a trio with our friends Tom Djll, Karen Stackpole and Ron Heglin. The combination of brass (Djll and Heglin) with Stackpole’s trademark gongs seemed like it would be quite a contrast, but at this particular moment, the short tones on the gongs and the bursts from the trumpet and trombone seemed to match in overall contour if not in timbre.


[Cornelius Cardew Choir. (Click image to enlarge)]

It was then time for my first shift with the Cornelius Cardew Choir. We were performing a four-hour version of Pauline Oliveros’ The Heart Chant, in which performers enter and exit a circle, and while joined with others sing long tones on a steady pitch in between breaths. This turns out to require a lot of energy, singing a series of long tones for about ten minutes, especially for someone who does not do a lot of singing. I did my best, and also simultaneously listened to the sounds of the other voices and the overall harmonies. My favorite moment was when the harmony evolved organically into a steady perfect fifth. The overall quality, while very focused on the body and breadth, was meditative and calming. The piece is supposed to be one of healing, and I used the opportunity of this performance to send healing vibes to someone who needs them.

At sundown, around 8:30PM, we led the annual ringing of bells, as part of Brenda Hutchinson’s Daily Bell project, which started in 2008 but continues every year. At 8:32PM bells started ringing throughout the main hall, gradually getting louder as more people joined in; and then a minute later, it came to an end.

After sunset, I wandered down to the Sanctuary, a small dark room, where Sylvia Matheus and Thomas Miley were performing a large and richly textured electronic improvisation with a mixture of synthesized sounds and vocal samples. Gino Robair had joined in with the instrument he had used in I Norton, and at Matheus’ invitation I joined in as well, using several iPhone instruments such as the Bebot and Smule Ocarina. This spontaneous performance was a welcome coda to this long evening of music.

The Heart Chant at Garden of Memory 2010

As I have for the past two years, I will be attending the Garden of Memory walk-through performance event at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland on the summer solstice this Monday.

This year, in addition to exploring and writing reviews (follow these links for my 2009 and 2008 reviews), I will be performing with the Cornelius Cardew Choir. We will be performing a version of The Heart Chant by Pauline Oliveros that will span the entire evening (about four hours).

This participatory Deep Listening meditation is a gesture of sonic healing for all beings and circumstances that need healing. It was created in response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. “Ah” is a vocal sound associated with the heart shakra.

Basically, the piece unfolds with members or the choir forming a circle, with each performer placing their right hand over his or her heart, the left hand on the heart position on the back of the person to the left, and then repeatedly singing the syllable “ah” in long steady tones for length of a breath. Choir members and audience participants (everyone is invited to participate) can enter or exit the circle at any time.

It is a very meditative and healing piece. I am planning to be part of the circle at the time leading up to sundown (8-8:30PM), and I have also chosen a recipient for whatever healing energy I create as part of the performance.

Reconnaissance Fly at Studio 1510, Oakland

A few photos and thoughts from last Friday’s Reconnaissance Fly performance at Studio 1510 in Oakland.

I knew that Studio 1510 had a great acoustic piano, which I wanted to take advantage of particularly for our piece Emir Scamp Budge which features an extended jazz piano solo. But it turns that they also now have an actual Rhodes Stage Piano Mark II. I could pass up the opportunity to appropriate it for our set. Here is the Rhodes with the E-MU Proteus 2000 and Korg Kaos pad conveniently perched on top:

Together with the acoustic piano and MIDI keyboard for a rather massive keyboard setup:

Click the above picture to enlarge it and spot the cat!

Here we are getting ready to play the first note of our opening piece “Small Chinese Gong”.


[Photo by Tom Djll.]

The set went well from that point. I have not yet heard the recording, but I thought the first piece, as well as “One Should Never” (which was about as tight as I have heard us play it), “Ode to Steengo” – with the interplay of the text, the Kaos Pad, odd drum beats and Tim’s live electronic processing – and “Emir Scamp Budge” went particularly well.

Matt Davignon opened for us with a solo set featuring a live performance on drum machine and effects processors.

This was nominally a performance marking the release of his new CD Living Things, although none of the pieces in the performance were actually from the CD. But that was OK. I particularly remember the last piece in the set for a variety of reasons, including but limited to the subtle effects in the music.

Thanks to Scott Looney and Studio 1510 for hosting us!

KFJC 50th Anniversary at Flux 53

Last Tuesday I attended performance celebrating the 50th anniversary of KFJC radio at FLUX53 in Oakland.

robair_marsh_dedionyso_cThe evening opened with a trio of Arrington de Dionyso, Gino Robair, and Bob Marsh. The set began with the drone of an electric harmonium, the space was then filled with the chirping of Marsh’s performance on Alesis Airs, Robair’s percussive and chaotic Blippo Box sounds, and de Dionyso’s reed instruments. All the sounds, acoustic and electronic, had a similar quality, and seemed to come together in a pattern I would describe as “yodeling”. This was followed by a combination of low reed tones and bass synthesizer sounds, both of which had complex overtones again masking the separation between acoustic and electronic.

Photo by Michael Zelner
Photo by

During the next portion of the set, de Dionyso performed on a double-reed instrument that I am pretty sure was a nadaswaram, a South Indian instrument similar to the Indian shehnai, but larger. Surprisingly, it sounded more like a saxophone than what I would expect (based on my familiarity with the shehnai and double-reed instruments in general), and was set against bass synth tones and more “liquidy” sounds. The sounds evolved into a drone layered with scratches and bending notes, and then into something more evocative of old space or science-fiction music, with descending synthesizer timbres. From this mixture, a minor harmony eventually emerged.

Photo by Michael Zelner.
Photo by

Robair then brought out his “signature cymbal”, and played bowed metallic resonances against gurgles and whispers. de Dionyso sang into various resonant objects as well, such as a partially filled metal water pitcher, and the detached bell of a bass clarinet.

There was more of the “space harmonies” and drones, groans and static. And vocal syllables against machine-like sounds, softer percussive synthesizers and metallic resonances. The sounds faded out, leaving just the original harmonium droning. Then suddenly there were bells and loud “skronking” (fast-moving loud notes), and then the set was over.


In the intermission, Walter Funk presented the Hologlyphic Funkalizer, an installation that uses a video synthesizer to interpret audio signals and project them onto an oscilloscope. I had actually seen a previous performance at the 2008 Edgetone Music Summit where Funk also played in the duo Kwisp. This time I was treated to a more detailed presentation and explanation of the technical details, including the Max/MSP programs that generated the audio signals and the analog video synthesizer. You can see visual examples at his website.


The LARGE ensemble, which was indeed large, performed a series of conducted improvisations, with Gino Robair and Bob Marsh alternating as conductors. Marsh conducted the piece in dramatic fashion. It began slowly with atonal pitches, squeaks, bends and glissandi on various instruments. The woodwinds began to add more “pointed” notes, with some short runs and phrases. The full ensemble then came to a loud stop followed by silence; then back to more of the longer notes from the beginning, then another loud hit and silence. This repeated a few times. Out of last silence emerged guitar scratches and harmonics set against scraped percussion, eventually joined by plucked string basses with bending notes, then the smaller string instruments. The texture grew dense again with long notes followed by faster runs. The music became loud and energetic and “argumentative”. And then it stopped.

LARGE_ensemble_c

[click to en-LARGE]

The next piece, conducted by Robair, had a sparser texture that seemed to focus on individual timbres of the instruments and specific sounds. It started with analog synthesizers and noise generates (Travis Johns) set against fast gurgling trumpet (CJ Borosque). They were soon joined by string bass and guitar also playing faster tones, while the violins faded in with a long steady-state tone. I could envision the ensemble being played as if it was a synthesizer rig rather than a series of separate instruments and performs. The texture grew thick, with some deep bass electronic sounds set against the strings; then it grew sparse again, with drums, trombone and bass clarinet. After some jazz-like runs on the basses, the ending centered around loud multiphonics and overblown tones from the bass clarinet.

The next piece started off like a standard from the 20th century classical repertoire, with detached pitches, atonal harmonies and percussive sounds. The music carried the tension and anxiety of a film score. Eventually the whole ensemble crept in. I also particular liked a section with clanging metal percussion against a very low synthesizer drone.

Robair then introduced the next piece as “Stretched out Xenakis in G.” It very quickly lived up to its name, with very slow pizzicato glissandi, and drones set against percussion scrapes. It was interesting to watch some of the instructional cards being used in the conducting, some had very literal musical meanings like “louder”, “soft”, “sweet”, “fast”, but others had more unusual instructions like “subvert.” Eventually, the ensemble settled into a textural equilibrium with everyone playing at once, and then instrumentals were replaced by voices singing in such a way to keep the existing texture going. The voices and instruments moved towards subtle harmonies or unisons (which I realized were of course all on on near G). Against this harmonic structure I heard the scraping sounds from Tom Nunn’s skatch box. The texture of the music grew more complex, and was then suddenly replaced by a violin solo of a minor melody that sounded quite Eastern European.

At this point, Marsh again took over conducting, and both he and Robair alternated every few minutes while the music continued uninterrupted. There were sections featuring mallet percussion, and squeaks on a soprano saxophone set against Nunn’s scratches, and a big “drum solo”. Later on, the mallet percussion rhythms took on a jazz feel in terms of syncopation and harmonies, an effect that was augmented by the presence of guitar chords. The texture eventually grew noisier again, with noise generators and loud, excited playing by the whole ensemble. The instrumental ensemble again became a chorus of voices, this time sounding a bit drunk. As the music grew software, Marsh held up the final instructional card: “God is in the details.” After this, the music came to a loud finish.

Expanded Strangelet at oakuff

Last night I performed with Expanded Strangelet at the Oakland Underground Film Festival. The Expanded Strangelet was described as “Lucio Menagon’s peripatetic ensemble with Suki O’kane, Michael Zellner, Jonathan Segel, John Hanes, Amar Chaudhary, and Allen Whitman.”

This was a combined “music jam” and “projectionist jam”, with several improvised video and film projections on the screen, a free-form piece that followed the more formal screenings earlier in the evening. The screen was filled with several changing images projected from different angles:

It was particularly interesting in the context of the theatre itself. This was one of those classic cavernous movie theaters with stylized art-deco details, but with very contemporary abstract lighting in deep blues, reds and violets, as can be seen on the right side of the image above.

It was in this context that we set up on the floor of the theater and made music. Basically, the performance was a collection of bleeps and bloops, noises, glitches, loops, crashes and snippets of melody and harmony here and there. Nonetheless, it was all musically done with phrasing and dynamics, loosely “conducted” with ongoing whispered directions from Suki O’kane.

In order to keep things light, I bright a very small setup, consisting of red Korg Kaos Pad, an iPhone now loaded with multiple software synthesizers, a circuit-bend instrument with photovoltaic modulation, along with a small mixer and amplifier.

As expected, it was difficult to pay attention to the screen during the performance, while attempting to manage the instruments and listen to the other performers. Fortunately, I did get to see the first half of the projectionist jam with another group providing the music: POD BLOTZ (Suzy Poling) and lazyboy (Bruce Anderson, Dale Sophiea and Gregory Hagan). The combination of images, sounds and environment combining old and new elements, noises and images, was quite captivating.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the beer from Linden Street Brewery. I particularly liked the stout.

Flip Quartet performance at Book Zoo, July 17

Last Friday, I performed at Book Zoo in Oakland. To start off the evening, I did a solo set, which was followed by a performance of Polly Moller’s The Flip Quartet.

Book Zoo itself was an interesting space, with high ceilings and bookshelves. For a space of this size, we had a decent turn-out as well.

This was the first time in quite a while that I did not use any software components as part of a solo set. The performance centered around the Line6 DL4 for looping and various delay effects. I made extensive use of the analog-delay simulation for echoes and feedback, with various wood blocks, gongs and the ektar as source material.


[Photograph by Jennifer Chu. Click to enlarge]

Of course, the Kaos Pad, DSI Evolver and E-MU Proteus 2000 were also used as electronic sound sources. I also included several beat-based elements, both from hand-drumming and from the sequences are the Evolver and the Proteus 2K, which were matched both rhythmically and arhythmically against the delay lines. Overall, it was not the tightest solo set I have done, but it worked and seemed to be well received by the audience, and stylistically it was a good lead-in to the Flip Quartet.

I had seen a recent performance of the Flip Quartet, and this performance followed the same structure and format, but with different performers. In addition to myself, there was Moe! Staiano, Suki O’Kane and Travis Johns.


[Photographs by Jennifer Chu.]

Basically, the Flip Quartet is a composition for four improvisers who move between four stations representing the cardinal directions (north, east, south, west) and the four medieval elements: earth, air, fire, water. Each station had a variety of instruments and sound-making objects to represent elements. Each performer has a three minute timer. The timers are synchronized, and when the three minutes are up, everyone moves to the next station. We rotate around all four stations twice.

The “fire” table, which included metal and electronic items, was the most populated, with the water table (liquids, strings) having the fewest items. However, Moe! did bring an interesting old string instrument. It was wooden, had four strings and piano-like keys for striking the strings. It was not an auto-harp, it was definitely something else – and it was the main instrument I played during my trips to the water station.

Another interesting addition was the box of worms that Travis Johns contributed to the earth station – the earth station mostly features drums and wooden objects. The worms, were in a box with dirt and vegetable manner, and the box was equipped with a contact microphone that could pick up audible signals from the worms that could then be interpreted musically by the performer.

Musically, this was very different from the previous interpretation of the Flip Quartet, a combination of the musicians involved, the objects available, and the setting. There were some cool moments, where two or more performers together make a musical phrase or pattern emerge from within the overall improvisation – that is something I am always looking for.

2009 Annual Transbay Skronkathon

It is mid-summer, and so once again the annual Transbay Skronkathon and BBQ comes around, with a full day of experimental and weird music at 21 Grand in Oakland. There are always a few from outside the Bay Area, or who are appearing in this setting for the first time, but overall it is a who’s who of local experimental and avant-guard musicians and familiar faces. We spend the whole day performing and listening to music, and dining on a variety of grilled food items in the neighboring alley.

I arrived at 4PM, which was already three hours into the event. I was just in time to catch most of Respectable Citizen, a duo of Bruce Bennett and Michael Zbyszynski performing live improvisation with keyboard/electronics and saxophone, respectively. The set started with ethereal noisy computer sounds in the background, with the noises increasingly insistent and louder over time, culminating in a defined whistle sound and a wave that became something akin to electrical noise. The electronics were complemented by the saxophone improvisation; there was a moment where the sax and electronics together formed a sound like an emergency siren. Then things became quiet again with the noise growing into an ever louder rumble.

Next was electric-guitar looping performance by George Ludwig. It was very similar to the looping guitar performances I hear annually at the Live Looping Festival in Santa Cruz, with drones and long tones; mostly harmonic, though there was some good clean distortion effects as well.

I made sure to be in for the next group, T.D. Skatchit, featuring Tom Nunn and David Michalak on custom instruments called skatch boxes. I had just seen Nunn and his custom instruments at the “Tuesdays at Toms” performance. This performance featured similar instruments, made primarily of cardboard and performed with combs and other implements. The result is a series of scratches, streches, scrapes, squeaks and other noises, all very musical. With two performances and multiple instruments, harmonies start to form. Even when not looking directly at the performers (which is quite interesting to do), the performance had a very “visual” quality. The overall texture reminded me of the sounds of the woods at night. I could hear scampering mechanical creatures. Although the structure of the music was very static, the performance was very expressive.

The next set was a trio of Jacob Felix Heule (drums), Tony Dryer (double bass) and
Jay Korber (tenor sax). This set qualified as actual “skronking”, with very rapid notes (especially on the drums) and the belting of inharmonic and variable pitch tones on the sax. Lots of details to listen to. But above all, skronking tends to be very loud, so I did end up listening to second part of the set from the alley, where I also had a chance to socialize and check out the barbecue.

However, the loudest set of all was yet to come, and it wasn’t even officially on the program. Someone in a ski mask with a table-saw on an old turntable record player claimed to be the next set Sndrft eeoo, though it turned out he wasn’t. Nonetheless, we were treated to ear-threateningly loud high-pitched noises that sent everyone out into the alley to join those of us already there for conversation and sausages (the official food of choice at the Skronkathon). Outside, the sound was somewhat bearable, and vaguely interesting. Sndrft eeoo and Mike Jacobs did get to play an abbreviated set once the impostor left the stage (much to our collective relief).

Hanuman Zhang described his set as found objects, toy piano, circuit-bent toys
noise, mayhem, and roaring silence. He was introduced by Tom Duff as playing “a big pile of junk” – but a nonetheless musical pile of junk. He started with stones and bass drum, making rhythms. He then moved to to bins and metal objects, all the while maintaining a basic rhythm. He bashed in a large plastic bottle really good. There were also some electronic circuit-bent toys, and a toy piano (acoustic toy piano being an instrument I am quite fond of). As the toys came to the forefront, the rhythm began to break down and the texture more sparse.

From loud skronking and found objects, we then had a very contrasting set from Protea, with Serena Toxicat and thereminist Joey D’Kaye performing ambient electronic music. Sporting a Hello Kitty tunic, Serena Toxicat gave an evocative performance with vocals and dancing . The vocals and theremin both consisted of long tones that followed one another without exactly matching. Overall, there were minor harmonies, etherial textures, gradual changes and a bit of tension.

We then switched back from ambient electronic to skronking (but it is really “skronking”?) with a free-improvisation set by z bug with David Leikam, Zachary Morris, Sheila Bosco and Craig Latta. Once again, lots of fast loud notes, with the bass acting as a third drum set (there were two drum sets in this group), and some performance with a Moog synth. Although the set was very loud at times, there was really a good range with sudden drops in volume where one could here bells and chimes sounding. However, I could not at all hear the vocals. I did like the sudden switch during the performance to a steady disco beat.

Tom Nunn and David Michalak returned as part of RTD3. Overall, the performance was similar to their set the previous tuesday, with Nunn and Michalak performing free improvisation together Ron Heglin on trombone and Doug Carrol on electric cello. However, Nunn’s instrument in this set was quite different. It was a much larger board that he played vertically. It looked a bit like a modernist painting with some elements that seemed derivative of Kandinsky, but it had a very clearly marked eye and geometric shapes. The texture of music was more sparsem and there was a good moment with soft trombone. it sounded like “a radio from the past.” There was a section that sounded vaguely ethnic (in the way that a contemporary western audience might label some music as “ethnic”) and then hit a watery pattern on Nunn’s instrument.

John Hanes and Steve Adams performed “dueling laptops” (and an iPhone). Moments in the music reminded me a bit of one of my favorite Stockhausen recordings, but there were also drums and beats, timbrally rich drones and bowed tones and loops. It reminded me a bit of the “Off-ICMC” concerts (often the more interesting performances) I would hear when I used to attend the computer-music conferences.

I did not get to hear as much of PG13 in detail as I would have liked because I was busy setting up for our upcoming set. The trio consisted of Phillip Greenlief on saxophone, John Shiurba on guitar and Thomas Scandura on drums. It seemed during the introduction that there was some question as to whether they should be described as “1970s rock” or not, but musically they did have a strong driving 4/4 beat with heavy drums and loud guitar. Greenlief also played very rhythmic accented lines on the saxophone that fit with the guitar and drums. So with my only partial listening, it did have a lot of “rock-like” elements, which were welcome, and a good lead in to our own set.

This was our first time performing re-named as Reconnaissance Fly and as a trio rather than a quartet, with myself, Polly Moller (flute, voice, heatsink) and Bill Wolter (guitar, custom electro-mechanical “boat”). We are currently looking for a bassist/composer to round things out.

The set consisted of four pieces based on “spoetry” or poetry found in spam emails – most email spam (or blog-comment spam) is completely worthless text, but occasionally there are very poetic passages that can be used for creative work. I did two pieces setting spoetry to graphical scores in which the performers improvised based on interpretations of graphical elements, and Polly and Bill each did more idiomatic pieces. All the practicing and rehearsing paid off, and the set was quite tight and full of energy, with fun and theatrics – and I’m glad I brought the full keyboard for playing more traditional jazz piano at various spots alongside the more esoteric electronic sounds from the Kaos pad. Probably the most memorable moments were repeated riffs on “Ca-a-na-da-a”, and the rolling jazz bass and guitar in “Emir Scamp Budge”. And it seemed like we had a pretty decent audience.

We were followed by the all-acoustic sfSound group. As an acoustic group with winds, strings and percussion, they have a really rich palatte of textures and timbres. One can hear small percussive phrases emerge from a series of long tones. The winds (Kyle Bruckmann,
Matt Ingalls, Christopher Jones, and John Ingle) sometimes match the percussion (Kjell Nordeson) , sometimes the strings (Alexa Beattie, Monica Scott). The performance was very subtle with lots of dynamic range and empty spots, and quite a contrast to our set with its loud electronic improvisations and theatrics.

sfSound was immediately followed by another powerful accoustic set, featuring Karen Stackpole with her impressive array of gongs, Jen Baker and Ron Heglin on trombones, and Tom Djll on trumpet. An unusual instrumentation, “Brass and Bronze” (as introduced by Tom Duff). The set began with the gongs followed by really soft long notes on the three brass instruments. The gongs resonated as Stackpole moved along their perimeters, producing beautiful long stretched out tones. They formed inharmonic chords anchored by drones on the brass. The texture became less sparse over time with bowing of gong and faster swells on trombone and notes on trumpet. This eventually turned to loud hits and gong strikes, and more expresive phrases.

The final set of the Skronkathon featured Gino Robair and Amy X Neuburg on dueling Blippo Boxes. The Blippo Box is a custom analog synthesizer by Rob Hordijk that features chaotic oscillators and a wide range of non-linear modulation options – I wouldn’t mind having one of these myself. The Blippo Boxes produce constantly modulating sounds that are difficult to control in advance, the performer must react to whatever is produced using his or her best musically instincts. As the boxes can occasionally go unstable, being able to react quickly is key. Fortunately, we have two master musicians whose listening and improvisational instincts can be called upon to handle such situations. The result was a very expressive mixture of machine noise and rumbles, gargles, clicks and chirps – the chaotic sound actually becomes familiar after listening for a few minutes (though in fairness I should say years of listening to such music). And there were many moments where the oscillations of the two boxes seemed surprisingly on sync, with the waveforms and modulations slowing down to the level of musically distinct notes.

And once the Blippo Boxes went silent, this marathon event came to a quiet end.

Garden of Memory 2009

We passed another summer solstice a couple of weeks ago, and once again I marked the occasion by attending the Garden of Memory performance at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland.

For more views of the Chapel of the Chimes itself, please visit the review from last year. It is full of light and a mixture of large and intimate spaces, and a really interesting place to wander and hear different sounds.

The size of the event itself can be a bit overwhelming, with so many performers and galleries throughout the complex. One approach is simply to wander and discover the different spaces and music. But I tend more towards trying to go through the entire space systematically and see as much as possible, which I did with some success (I did unfortunately miss several performances).

Just like last year, I was greeted at the entrance by a performance by Jaroba and Byron Blackburn. Jaroba again had a gopichand in his collection of instruments.

In the main chapel, I saw performances by Sarah Cahill and the William Winant Percussion Group. I thought the latter sounded a bit like Philip Glass with its repetitive patterns, pentatonic scales and harmonies, and marimba rhythms. At the end of the performance, I found out it was in fact a piece by Philip Glass.

The more electronic “stage acts” were in the Julia Morgan Chapel at the other end of the building. Amy X Neuburg gave another of her charismatic and very tight performances that we at CatSynth have reviewed in the past. This was followed by Paul Dresher and Joel Davel, whose performance featured a marimba lumina as well as a large and intriguing bowed string instrument:

Musically, the performance began with repeated undulating tones, minor modal harmonies, and syncopated rhythms, with expressive bowing on the large instrument throughout. Gradually the performance become more “electronic” – even though the entire performance involved electronics from what I could tell, the sounds became more characteristic of electronic music – with more effects, noises and hits as the rhythmic pattern faded out. There was a “surprise note” followed by more percussive computer-like tones, bends and glissandi on the stringed instrument, looping and effects. The instrument was also “prepared” with metal objects during this part of the performance. Eventually the rhythmic patterns returned, but they seemed “darker.”

Matthew Goodhart’s installation in the Chapel of Patience (I really like the names of the different chapels and halls there) featured cymbals with transducers, producing long metallic tones and visual effects and they reflected the light:

[click to enlarge]

Leaving the cymbals, I then followed the sound of Gino Robair’s bowed gongs to find his performance along with Polly Moller and Tom Duff:


[click to enlarge]

My favorite moment during their performance involved Tom Duff singing God Save the Queen set against cymbal resonances and a perfect fourth by a tone tube (I forget the formal name) and Polly on bass flute.

In the previous two photos for the Goodhart installation and Gino Robair’s ensemble, one can truly get a sense of the setting. Each of the squares in the grids represents the location of cremated remains, someone’s final resting place.

I tend to be drawn to metallic sounds, so a next followed the hall to an installation Loving Kindness by John Bischoff. Although this was a computer-controlled electromechanical piece, with motors affecting the sound-making objects, it reminded me musically of Stockhausen’s Kontakte (a favorite piece of mine).

From metal we then move to strings, with Larnie Fox and the Crank Ensemble. The plethora of plucked string tones fit perfectly with the visuals of the musicians moving around a large square of cable. It was held in place by some of the performers while one moved around:

I did also notice the “live knitting”, which was an integral component of the performance.

Tucked away in a small chamber and easy to miss was an installation by Joel Colley featuring a macabre set of animal skulls atop stones, with ambient sounds in the background.

Over the course of four hours, it is not surprising that some performers will need to take breaks. It did mean I missed a couple of interesting performances which did not publish specific times. Pamela Z did publish performance times, so I did get to see part of her performance with the iPhone Ocarina application.

Michael Zbyszynski performed more traditional wind instruments, flute and saxophone, but with modern extended techniques mixed with jazz idioms, in the Chapel of Resignation.

Nearby, in one corner of the main atrium, Thomas Dimuzio and Wobbly performed on guitar and live electronics, respectively. The music unfolded as long ethereal sounds with strong resonances, and some bowed metal sounds as well.

Maggi Payne presented this cool-looking installation founded that blended quite well into the permanent elements of the room:

[click to enlarge]

In a nearby room was a performance by the ensemble Vorticella. We previously reviewed Vorticella, which consists of Krystyna Bobrowski on horns, Erin Espeland on cello, Brenda Hutchinson on aluminum tube and vocals, and Karen Stackpole on percussion, as part of the Flower Moon concert. Once again, the four very different performances produce a rich and complex music.

In the next room was a duo of Svetlana Voronina and Joe Straub with glockenspiel and electronics. Before hearing them perform, I wandered over during one of their breaks, and found their setup visually interesting:

[click to enlarge]

Upstairs, I caught part of a performance by the ensemble Natto, which featured electronics, flutes, strings and a Chinese lute (I believe it was a pipa). The music consisted of heavy strumming, electronic “wipes”, harmonics on the wind instruments and resonances and delays used for pitch effects.

In the upstairs section of the main atrium was a continuous vocal performance by the Cornelius Cardew Choir of Pauline Oliveros’ Heart Chant. The audience was invited to participate.

The upstairs of the atrium is also the place to arrive during the climactic moment of the evening at sundown. As sundown approaches, everyone is invited to ring bells – many people rang keychains. There was an interesting timbral and spatial juxtaposition of the sunset bell-ringing and Dimuzio’s and Wobbly’s drone sounds on the lower level.

The theme of bells and metal sounds continued as I left after sunset, passing a set of large chimes that seemed to mark the end of the event.