Yom Kippur 2017, Meditations and Reflections

Star of David

Fast, reflect, and question. These are our personal mandates on Yom Kippur this 5778 (2017). Fasting is pretty self-explanatory – I don’t do it every year, but this year it feels important to do so. Sam Sam does not have to fast. The questioning centers around “what does it mean to be Jewish in this time and place”, an especially complicated and treacherous question for those of us who are secular Jews. Yom Kippur is described in Leviticus, the one book of the Torah that I have not been able to get through in its entirety (mostly because it’s extremely dense and about as riveting as the phone book). But I still celebrate independent of that, based on heritage and family tradition. You are a Jew if your mother is a Jew, end of story. I extend this rule to my cats.

Sam Sam enjoys a snack on Yom Kippur
[Sam Sam is exempt from fasting]

For an excellent read on the topic of secular Jews on Yom Kippur, especially secular Jews committed to activism and social justice, please read this article by Dania Rajendra [Full disclosure: Dania is my sister-in-law.]. For me, part of my plan for this holiday was to compose a track based on sounds from a short-wave-radio synth module an, idea I formulated during a reflective moment last night.


[Cover image taken during Yom Kippur 2016, see this article.]

The track was recorded as a meditation of sorts, getting into a heightened, focused state while turning the knobs of the Eowave short-wave module, tuning into stations that aren’t there. The other “master” of the track was the Wiard/Richter Noisering, which I let control the Rossum Electro-Music Morpheus module. Both focus on chance and working with elements very much outside my control. I also did not want to spend much time outside the meditation-recording process itself. There is no editing save for some tapering at the beginning and end of the track and the obligatory EQ and compression.

I am both doing too much, and too little at the same time. I can’t save all the shelter cats; I can help everyone suffering through one disaster after another in North America and Carribean. But I can try to make a little bit of a difference in each. When I focus on all things “CatSynth”, sometimes my music suffers – I’m overdue booking new gigs for my band CDP and I do feel a need to atone for that. In short, the challenge in 5778 and beyond is to find a way of doing all the things that matter most while minimizing time and resources on the things that don’t. No easy task for someone who tends to say “yes” to everything, hates to disappoint others, and has a difficult time letting go of things. But that last one is another aspect of this holiday, and so it is as good a time to begin as any…

Sam Sam, The Sunset, and San Francisco

I-280The geography of San Francisco is complicated, and the east and west sections of the city can sometimes seem quite divided. This is even more so when one is transporting a cat across the city, as I did on Thursday to bring Sam Sam from CatSynth HQ in the downtown area to our longtime vets at Especially Cats Veterinary Hospital in the western Sunset District. There are several tall hills in between, and the most efficient route is to hop on I-280 around the southern portion of the city and then up into the Sunset.

CA 35 The Sunset is an interesting and intriguing place, almost a separate city. From 19th Avenue (CA 1), the alphabetically arranged streets and numerically arranged avenues slope gently down towards the Great Highway and the ocean. The Great Highway should be CA 35 all the way up to its northern end, rather than ending in the southern corner of the city along Sloat, but it does. Especially Cats is on Taraval Street, one of the main east-west strips in the neighborhood.  It even boasts a streetcar line down to the sea.

Taraval Street

Sam Sam with sockThis photo was from 2015 when I brought Luna in for her biopsy. It was a normal overcast gray summer day in the Sunset. Sam Sam’s visit was on a hazy sunny and warm day at the start of the current heatwave. The return to Especially Cats was a warm experience as well, albeit a bit emotional as it was our first reunion since Luna passed away. Fortunately, Sam Sam received a clean bill of health and charmed the staff with her cuteness. And she was remarkably well behaved on the trip over, just complaining a little bit. We decided to take the more geometrically direct but hilly and windy route back, taking Taraval to its eastern end a swanky neighborhood around Laguna Honda, and then over Portola and Market back to our corner of the city. The spot where Market and Portola meet is among my favorite in the city, with commanding views of downtown and beyond. And in between, there are dips and valley with unexplored roads and walks that I need to come back to when I don’t have an impatient cat in a carrier.

Elizabeth Street, San Francisco

The whole of the city used to be mine, as I regularly moved from neighborhood to neighborhood for work, fun, or errands. Downtown San Francisco can be a bit of a gravity well when one both works and lives there. It’s a fine situation, in truth, but I can sometimes get a bit restless to move about rest of the city again. Especially some of the older sections, or the more industrial spaces that formed the backbone of my visual art (and “Wordless Wednesday”) but are rapidly disappearing. When will the last dilapidated warehouse give way to a banal medium-rise apartment building?

Finding this balance, doing all we want to do, and have to do, is perhaps this moment’s biggest challenge. But on this day I was happy to simply do right by a loved one while exercising a bit of the wanderlust.

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NAMM 2017 Apocrypha and Final Thoughts

In this article, we go over a few remaining items from NAMM, and share some final thoughts as well.

The DATA module from Mordax takes the trend of built-in displays to another level. The large color screen displays a variety of functions, including oscilloscope, tuner , waveform generator and clock. It also has quite a few utility signal functions. It seems like quite the useful item for a medium or large modular system. Plus it looks great!

It’s a common problem with modular synthesizer systems to end up with 2hp empty and nothing to fill it with, except maybe a branded plate. 2hp quite literally fills this niche with a large selection of functional modules exactly 2hp wide.

We could all use extra multiples, or another envelope generator, or VCA. But their 2hp offerings include oscillators and filters. We could see these in various cases to get some handy functionality when needed.

Delptronics has made quite a few modules for percussion synthesis as well as for complex triggering of other modules. Their product line has grown; and we were particularly curious about the new spring module an its electro-acoustic possibilities.

We are always curious to see what 4ms has to offer, as the Spectral Multiband Filter has become one of our favorite modules for a variety of musical purposes. Their new offerings this year included a sampler module and tappable delay, which are shown in the upper right of the following photo.

There was of course more at the modular super booth and in the neighboring booths beyond what we have been able to cover this year. It will be inevitable that some products and manufactures don’t get mentioned in the blog, though we do have more on our Instagram feed during the show. We will have to figure out if there are any logistical changes we might want to try next year in order to see more while still remaining authentic and having the fun time at NAMM that we always do.


The trip home, despite the pouring rain and flooding in the LA Basin, ultimately turned out to be a pleasant one. I suppose I had a bit of a glow from the show, and full of ideas on how to move forward musically and personally in the challenging times ahead.

Even with the literal rainstorms outside and the dark pall cast by the political situation, inside the convention center we were all able to be ourselves and follow our passions for music and music technology. That doesn’t mean that outside reality didn’t intrude. It was impossible not to despair a bit on inauguration day; and by contrast Saturday with the Women’s Marches gave a bit of optimism. Mostly, I just kept doing what I came to NAMM to do. We hope you have enjoyed following our coverage, and we’ll be back doing it again next year barring some world-changing catastrophe (which unfortunately could happen).

NAMM 2017: Moog Music Tribute to Synthesizer Pioneers

This year our friends at Moog Music, Inc. had a very different sort of booth. Instead of the usual array of gear for demonstration, the space was bare and stark, with a simple kiosk and a wall dedicated to the many synthesizer players and innovators we lost in 2016.

It was a rough year for the synthesizer community. Among those we lost were Pauline Oliveros and Don Buchla, both of whom were memorialized here on CatSynth and whom I had known in person. There were also images and statements for Keith Emerson, Bernie Worrell, Isao Tomita, and Jean-Jaques Perrey.

Visitors were invited to wander the space in contemplation or with a mix of music from the artists on classic Walkmans. Visitors could also leave social media tributes to one or more artists and have an opportunity to win one of several current Moog instruments, including a Werkstatt, Mother-32 and even a new Model D.

We didn’t win, but were very touched by the way Moog used their space to pay tribute to the many heroes we lost in 2016. It was a unique and moving experience at this year’s NAMM show.

Farewell to 2016: Annus Horribilis

2015 may have been a difficult year, but 2016 was a true annus horribilis. It was a year of loss. The graphic only represents a subset that we elegized in 2016 here on CatSynth. Some were personal, some were heroes, some symbolic. There were many deaths. A dark illiberal populist pall has been cast over the country and the world. But most of all, I am still grieving for the loss of our beloved Luna.

How does one keep going after a year like this? The answer I give to friends who have asked that question in the past is that we have no choice. Surviving is what we do, until that day when we don’t.

To be fair, there were many good things this year. Much good music and art that we have written about; career and personal life are much better now than they were a year ago as well. And we look forward to many adventures with our new cat Sam Sam in the coming years.

It’s hard to know what will come to in 2017. It’s a prime number, which brings us a modicum of joy. A see quite a bit of anxiety ahead, but also things to look forward to, including in January. We shall see…

Welcome Samantha!

Samantha

We at CatSynth are excited to introduce the newest member of our family. Samantha, aka “Sam Sam”, came to live with us one week ago today.

Samantha comes to us via our friends Michael de la Cuesta (of Vacuum Tree Head and Karen de la Cuesta. She has had a challenging few years, with multiple moves – she is well traveled throughout California – and the death of her long-time human followed by the move by her subsequent human into assisted living. I hope she can have a happy and stable life her at CatSynth HQ. She’s still a bit nervous from all the changes, but she is starting to come out more; and has shown herself to be a very sweet and affectionate cat.

She has been thoroughly exploring CatSynth HQ and finding her own places. Here we see her posing among the artworks on the staircase.

It will take a little time for to fully adjust to life her, but we think she is going to be happy. So please join us welcoming Sam Sam!

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.

Bringing Luna Home

Today I brought Luna home, on what would have been her official 12th birthday. She has a place of honor on one of our most prominent shelves, with her remains as part of a shrine.

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Her ashes are in the wooden box in the center. It has a picture frame, which I still have to fill. There were over 500 photos of Luna posted on CatSynth, and many more in my archives. It will take some time. To the right is her paw print, part of the normal custom from cremation of a beloved pet. And the small vial contains a bit of her beautiful fur that I saved from when she was alive.

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She has good company, with her shrine between some of our prized feline objects: a large maneki neko from Tokyo and a cat silk painting from Suzhou in China.

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To say this is emotional is an understatement. But I hope I continue to do my best by her remains and her memory.


Included with Luna’s remains was a lovely printed copy of the story of the Rainbow Bridge. As the Mourners’ Kaddish is to Jews, the story of the Rainbow Bridge is to animal lovers of all heritages. There are variations, but we reproduce this poetic version below.

By the edge of a woods, at the foot of a hill,
Is a lush, green meadow where time stands still.

Where the friends of a man and woman do run,
When their time on earth is over and done.

For here, between this world and the next,
Is a place where each beloved creature finds a rest.

On this golden land, they wait and they play,
Till the Rainbow Bridge they cross over one day.

No more do they suffer, in pain or in sadness,
For here they are whole, their lives filled with gladness.

Their limbs are restored, their health renewed,
Their bodies have healed, with strength imbued.

They romp through the grass, without even a care,
Until one day they start, and sniff at the air.

All ears prick forward, eyes dart front and back,
Then all of a sudden, one breaks from the pack.

For just at that instant, their eyes have met;
Together again, both person and pet.

So they run to each other, these friends from long past,
The time of their parting is over at last.

The sadness they felt while they were apart.
Has turned into joy once more in each heart.

They embrace with a love that will last forever,
And then, side-by-side, they cross over… together.


We were helped through Luna’s end-of-life process by the wonderful people Golden Gate Home Hospice and Euthanasia. I found myself heading to their office yesterday to pick up Luna’s remains. They are located in the western part of San Francisco that includes the Sunset and Richmond districts. We often refer to them collectively as “The Avenues.” It’s a part of the city I rarely find myself in these days (although Luna’s general-practice vets were out there as well) but it long captivated me, even before I moved to the city.

It was a dreary, rainy day as I made my way towards the ocean on 19th Avenue, Lincoln Avenue, Sunset Boulevard and then Irving Street. Within sight of the water I stopped at bodega for some needed sustenance. The walls displayed pride in their Sunset neighborhood. The rain turned from a light drizzle to a heavy downpour as I left the bodega and headed to the Great Highway. I turned into Golden Gate Park by that bizarre windmill that symbolizes the western edge of the city. In the rain, the park was quiet and a deep green. I headed out of the park north on 25th Avenue towards Geary Boulevard in the Richmond and my final destination. The Russian heritage in the immediate neighborhood was unmistakable, from the large Orthodox church to the storefronts.

In the office, I was treated warmly and kindly, as any bereaved person should be. But right after picking up Luna’s box, a cat came out from the back of the office and created me enthusiastically, even chatting a bit. I was informed that she doesn’t give this treatment to everyone – knowing cats as well as I do, I don’t doubt that at all. In what was a dark and emotional time, it was a moment of delight to be once again in the presence of a cat.

RIP Sharon Jones (1956-2016)

When I discovered the album 100 Days 100 Nights in 2009, it was a breath of fresh air. It was a time when my life was very oriented towards Asia and my own Asian heritage, but musically I was returning to the funk and soul music that I have long adored and wished to play myself. Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings fit perfectly into that milieu. The songs, especially the title track and “Tell Me” quickly became part of my regular rotation. The strength of music is of course mostly due to Ms Jones and the band, but the production also intrigued me, as they went back to some of the technologies that made those earlier records. Both the physical artifact and the music references James Brown, one of our musical heroes, and the band intersects other more recent favorites such as Amy Winehouse and The Budos Band.

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings
[By Jacob Blickenstaff [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

Sharon Jones’ battle with cancer, which ultimately took her life this past week, also hits home for us at the moment. She had a long fight that included remission and optimism only to watch it come roaring back. It’s a painfully familiar story for us at CatSynth.