Polly Moller at Trinity Chapel

Today we look back at a concert of works by Polly Moller at Trinity Chapel in Berkeley, CA that I attended back in December. This concert was a large undertaking, not only with a full night of music by a single composer, but a large cast of characters from the Bay Area new-music scene, as one might see at an event like the Skronkathon, but in this case all working towards a single purpose and vision. There were several pieces I was already familiar with from previous performances, including two that I have performed myself. Three others were being premiered. Mythology and narrative seemed to permeate all of the pieces, whether drawn from specific mythological stories or unfolding through rituals and rule-based processes.

(As with several of the larger performances and events I attended last year, I was live tweeting @catsynth, and have included a few choice tweets in this larger review.)

The concert opened with a performance of The Flip Quartet. I had first seen it performed at Hypnogogia at the Climate Theater in 2009, and then had the opportunity to participate in a performance myself later the same year. This performance brought back the original lineup of Karl Evangelista, Jason Hoopes, Thomas Scandura and Bill Wolter. Four stations were set up, representing the four cardinal directions and the traditional elements of air, water, fire and earth. At each station was an array of instruments and other objects that in some way represented that element (e.g., wind instruments at the air station, electrical instruments at the fire station, etc.). Each performer starts at a station and improvises using the objects for two minutes before advancing to the next and repeating the process. Musically, this can really go in many any number of directions (no pun intended) based on the particular objects available and the sensibilities of the performers involved. Often the sounds happen coincidentally, but every so often the four performers come together and produce that is musically integrated (@catsynth Lots of nice gurgling and drumming and whistling. Strong musical moment.) This was the first time I had seen the piece performed on a traditional proscenium. The previous performances were done in the round with the audience in the center and the stations surrounding them. While it was easier to see all the performers at once this way, there was something fun about the round format, the connection to the elemental and directional aspects and the ability to see the instruments close up.

Next was the premier of Duo No. 1 featuring Gino Robair on a variety of instruments and Krystyna Bobrowski playing a “sliding speaker instrument.” The piece has a dual identity as a narrative following the life cycle of a moth and an excuse to make Gino Robair “play really, really quietly.” And indeed, it was relatively quiet and subtle, but still with a lot of dynamic energy. Robair played a variety of percussion instruments, including the signature broken cymbal that I often see him play. Robair’s sounds are fed into the speaker in Bobrowski’s instrument and excite the tube, which she can then vary in length to change the timbre of the sound.

Bobrowski was able to get quite a variety of interesting timbres from her “acoustic signal processor”, which then informed how the improvisational duet unfolded within the context of the overall graphical score.

The next piece, Penelope, was perhaps the most traditional of the evening, as it was through composed for a single performer on piccolo with supporting vocal and foot-stomping parts. It was commissioned for and performed by Amy Likar.

The piece based on the final chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses (which is of course itself inspired by Greek mythology), and the extended piccolo techniques, combined with the irregular foot-stomp rhythms and repeated breathy voicing of the word “yes” are intended to “evoke Molly Bloom’s sensual stream of consciousness.” I found myself mostly focused on the combination of the foot stomps, trying to find syncopated patterns whether or not they were there, and the surprisingly powerful sounds from the extended instrumental techniques. (@catsynth Who knew the piccolo could be such an angry instrument?)

After a brief intermission, the concert resumed with a performance of the Three of Swords. I had first seen Polly perform this piece for Pamela Z’s ROOM series at the Royce Gallery in San Francisco. This version was performed by Sara Elena Palmer using vocals and electronics.

The narrative structure is a bit more abstract in this piece, but it is nonetheless present through the highly ritualized nature. The program notes describe it as a “sound-art divination ritual for solo performer and tarot cards.” It unfolds with the setting of a 20-minute hourglass and lighting a series of candles. For each candle, the performer draws a card from the tarot deck arrayed out in front of her, and interprets the card musically. (@catsynth http://yfrog.com/hsv2tzj pick a card any card.) At the end of each section, the corresponding candle is extinguished. Sara Elena Palmer’s bright red costume and head covering (which she removed during the recitation concerning the heart) seemed to be an integral part of her interpretation of the ritual. Among the more interesting musical elements she employed was a radio used to generate analog noise sounds.

The next piece, Alcyone is based on the Greek legend of Alcyone, the Kingfisher Queen, who calms the ocean for seven days before and after the winter solstice so she can incubate her eggs in a nest on the waves. (Appropriately, this concert took place three days before the winter solstice.) Musically, the piece opens with an energetic instrumental quartet featuring Philip Greenlief on clarinet, Cory Wright on bass clarinet, Lisa Mezzacappa on contrabass and Suki O’Kane on percussion. After a stretch of time, mezzo-soprano Laura Malouf-Renning entered the stage regally costumed with a black cape and crown and carrying a nest with Christmas ornaments (@catsynth A festive birds nest). She silenced the instrumentalists one by one with a tap on the shoulder, and began an expressive monologue.

The final piece of the evening was Genesis for 12 performers. I had first seen this piece at its premier at the Quickening Moon Concert last year, and then had the opportunity to perform it myself with Cardew Choir last summer. This version followed closely the personnel and interpretation of the original performance, featuring Polly as the conductor and Matt Davignon in the role of the new universe. The piece combines “Western magical tradition” with the concept of the 11-dimensional universe from string theory. The performers represent each of the dimensions, with special roles for the conductor, the timekeeper who represents the time axis, and three performers representing the conventional spatial dimensions. The final performer represents the new universe that is born from the multi-dimensional processes.

The performers are arranged in a very specific spiral formation with the new universe (Davignon) at the center. The conductor (Moller) carries chimes and walks the spiral, tapping each performer to enter or exit. The sound starts out slowly and gradually, but then builds into a loud crescendo as the new universe is born. At this point, Davignon took over with a solo on live electronics. Like many of his other electronic performances, he achieves a very organic sound with lots of textural details, sometimes liquidy or like a series of objects being shaken or dropped. After the new universe solo, the spiral reverses as the other dimensions re-enter, but gradually get softer before a final statement by the new universe.

(@catsynth #pollymoller concert concludes. Good night!)

Live Tweeting from Polly Moller’s concert tonight

Our friend and longtime collaborator Polly Moller is having a retrospective concert tonight. Those in the Bay Area tonight are encouraged to attend (despite the likely rain). But for those who wish to enjoy from afar, I will be live tweeting @catsynth with hash tag #pollymoller.

Polly Moller, composer – Trinity Chamber Concerts
Trinity Chapel
2320 Dana Street
Berkeley, CA

-The Flip Quartet for four improvisers (2006)
performed by Karl Evangelista, Jason Hoopes, Thomas Scandura and Bill Wolter

-Duo No. 1 (premiere, 2008)
performed by Gino Robair, cymbal
and Krystyna Bobrowski, sliding speaker instrument

-Penelope (premiere, 2010)
commissioned and performed by Amy Likar, piccolo

INTERMISSION

-Three of Swords for a solo improviser (2009)
performed by Sarah Elena Palmer

– Alcyone (premiere, 2010)
Laura Malouf-Renning, mezzo-soprano
Phillip Greenlief, Bb clarinet
Cory Wright, bass clarinet
Lisa Mezzacappa, contrabass
Suki O’Kane, percussion

-Genesis for twelve improvisers (2006-2010)
performed by Polly Moller (conductor)
Suki O’Kane, percussion (Universal Time)
Karen Stackpole, gongs
Marianne Tomita MacDonald, harp
Nancy Beckman, shakuhachi
Jayn Petingill, alto saxophone
Adria Otte, violin
Emily Packard, violin
Cheryl Leonard, viola
Ann Dentel, cello
Lisa Mezzacappa, contrabass
and Matt Davignon, drum machine (New Universe).

The 2010 Annual Transbay Skronkathon

As summer drew to a close, much of the Bay Area new music community gathered at 21 Grand for our annual ritual of live musical performance, socializing and tasty barbecued treats known as the Annual Transbay Skronkathon. The Skronkathon is also a benefit for the Transbay Creative Music Calendar, a free print publication that serves the creative music community here with event listings and articles (including several from this site).

I had been planning my own part in this ritual since, well, last year’s Skronkathon when Polly Moller discovered that my CatSynth review had been reposted in “spammogrified form” by another website. That became the basis for this years performance, which featured a reading of the spammogrified text and the inexplicable repeated phrase as a dominate. Another thing that was different this year was our “live tweeting team” of myself, Polly Moller and Tom Duff. It sort of happened spontaneously. It seems a bit difficult to search for the past #skonkathon posts via Twitter, but I have collected them all and will sprinkle a few throughout this article. (Look for the @ signs.)

[Live tweeting.  Photo by Suki O’kane. (Click to enlarge.)]

In fact, one of Tom’s live tweets described the duo of Ann O’Rourke and Carlos Jennings as “a disco remix of Berio’s Visage”. I am sorry I did not arrive earlier – it’s hard to pass up something with a description like that.

Rachel Wood-Rome. Photo by Michael Zelner.

I did arrive in time to see Rachel Wood-Rome’s performance for solo horn. Her melodic performance seemed like a snippet from a 19th or early 20th century concerto, minus the orchestra. However, in listening I started to fill in an orchestral part myself. She then presented a sing-along of a piece with lyrics by Max Gutmann. It included this refrain song with a minor melody in 5/8 time:

Our librarian is Miss Marion
she is scary an’ very old
pause and pity us
’cause she’s hideous
very hairy an’ likes to scold

Wood-Rome was followed by Respectable Citizen. Usually the duo of Bruce Bennet and Michael Zbyszynski, they were actually a trio on this occasion with the guest appearance of Jeff Ridenour on violone. For those not familiar with the violone, it is a large bowed stringed instrument with frets, closer to the viols used in Renaissance and baroque music than to the modern orchestral string family. The set started off softly with flute, picking on the violone, and stringy ethereal sounds.

[Respectable Citizen.  Photo by Michael Zelner.  (Click to enlarge.)]

The next piece featured more noise and distortion, with scratching sounds on the violone and a particularly interesting moment with the keyboard resonated together with squeaking sounds from the saxophone. There was also a section of “loungy free jazz” – which is certainly fun for me – mixed with some FM-like sounds.

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Respectable Citizen was followed T.T.F.W.’z. If I had to describe their performance, it would be “punk skronking”, with loud, fast, driving rhythms and noisy squawks, squeaks and long strings of notes. And they had their own fan section doing 1990s-style jumping-up-and-down dancing. Given the loudness, I opted to enjoy their set from the alley, and even relive a bit of my youth by briefly demonstrating this form of dance to some of my musical colleagues.

The next set was one I was quite looking forward to: a duo of Matt Davignon with “a table full of junk” (as Tom Duff delicately described it) and Eric Glick Rieman on prepared electric piano. I am quite fond of electric piano (e.g., Fender Rhodes) and interested in prepared acoustic piano, but this was first time I had seen and heard the two concepts together.


[The prepared electric piano. (Click to enlarge.)]

The sounds of the Rieman’s instrument and Matt’s drum machines and effects ranged from high and tinny, to scratchy, glitchy, or sometimes more bell-like. The piano certainly made some unique sounds: boings. bell-like scratching and other effects that made the purely electronic sounds seem tame by comparison On occasion, the instrument’s piano-like quality would stand out, and one could hear the tines that are characteristic of electric pianos. At other times it was more aggressive and percussive. Rieman’s playing style brought out this quality, and I found myself watching the mechanics of the instrument as I was listening to the music. There was moment that seemed like film music, with long piano notes set against “squishy sounds” from Matt Davignon’s electronic effects. And then a sound that reminded me of marbles. There were anxious harmonies, and rhythms on top of rhythms in samples.

[Matt Davignon and Eric Glick Reiman.  Photo by Michael Zelner. (Click to enlarge.)]

Next up was blipvert (aka Will Northlich-Redmond). Standing behind a table with an Alesis Air and a Pioneer DJ controller, he launched into an intense and frenetic blast of music and choreography (@TomDuff He doesn’t *act* like a guy in cargo pants & a black teeshirt). The electronics were all controlled by his voice or other live sounds and gestures, so when he shouted or snapped or spun around or fell and the floor only to spring back up moments later, it would trigger a new sound or change in the sonic process. The hits and squeaks and thuds and sample loops and retro-1980s synthesizer sounds were perfectly timed to his over-the-top theatrics and choreography. It is clear that he spent a lot of time practicing and perfecting this. And it was definitely a fun performance to watch! Just when it seemed he was running out of energy and about to collapse from exhaustion, he got back up with a shout and launched into the next one. It is difficult to describe in words, but you can get a flavor from his videos from other performances. And the videos do not give the full sense of the energy.

[Blipvert.  Shared by @TomDuff on twitter.  (Click to see original post.)]

Blipvert was followed by Blowout Preventer (@TomDuff fresh from their gig at Deepwater Horizon), a clarinet quartet featuring Philip Greenlief, Dan Plonsey, Ceylan Yagmur and Michael Zelner. I am always intrigued by clarinet ensembles, having played the instrument in the past and written a piece for clarinet quartet. This performance began with whaling sounds that sounded like sirens, and then suddenly became quiet and harmonic and even contrapuntal. An intricate rhythm emerged in the sum of the four parts – even though each part seemed relatively simple, the interaction was complex. There was also a section with long growling tones, followed by more harmonic sounds; scraping of mouthpieces set against multiphonics; and a waltz that was interrupted.

Next up was Kattt and Ron, a duo of Kattt Atchley on Ron Heglin on vocals with electronics. Their set began with long electronic drones with beating patterns. Heglin began his vocal incantations in this backdrop, with his words soft and purposefully hard to discern. The drone, which was slowly but continually changing, had a generally minor harmony, but with inharmonic tones and continued beating patterns. The overall effect was very meditative. There were some odd facial expressions as the vocals became more noisy. By this time, both Atchley and Heglin were performing with voice, gradually becoming more harmonic and moving between unisons and perfect intervals. I was able to hear the voices both as a single unit and as individuals, the male and female contrast. The sounds gradually faded to a single beating tone at the end with a sprinkle of more percussive vocalizations.


[Kattt Atchley and Ron Heglin. Photo by Michael Zelner.]

As always happens at Skronkathon, I miss the set right before my own as I set up and prepare. In this, the set featured Bob Marsh on classical guitar, CJ Borosque on pedals an turntable, and Sandra Yolles on electronic percussion.

This is as good a time to mention the work of art that served as a backdrop for the performances, perhaps the most beautiful that I have seen at 21 Grand. The piece is by Dina Rubiolo and is titled 13th Ave. It features 8500 35mm slides arranged into the shape of a building facade and backlit. (@pollymoller Stage area has a striking backdrop: a proscenium arch made of backlit photographic slides.)

It was then time for our performance. I recited the entirety of the spammogrified text (you can see a copy here), while Polly performed the refrain “as a dominate” as it appeared within the text, complete with props and choreography. It was interesting to both read (and hear) how my text was affected by the various translators and other processes that may have been used. Certain phrases kept popping out, such as “plum sonorous” and “plum decorous” – I think “plum” was the retranslated equivalent of “rather” or “quite”, which I often use in my writing. Soft instruments or musical passes were re-worded as “sissified”, and several people seemed to enjoy the phrase “sissified trombone” – and some people also had fun hearing their own names of those of their friends and colleagues appear in the middle of the barely comprehensible narrative.

[Amar and Polly.  Photo by Michael Zelner.  (Click to enlarge.)]

In terms of technology and instrumental accompaniment, I kept things rather sparse. I opted to only use the iPad, running the Smule Magic Piano and the a granular synthesis app called Curtis. As source material, I used some pre-recorded passes of myself reciting the text.

(@TomDuff Decourous as a notwithstanding. #skronkathon(Amar and Polly.). As a dominate)

We were followed by RTD3, with Doug Carrol on cello, Tom Nunn on his invented instruments, Ron Heglin on trombone and voice. They are always a fun group to watch. (@catsynth Scraping sounds percussive cello trombone and vocal blah blah. Some particularly interesting moments included all three instruments making percussive scraping sounds, Carrol performing the cello like a guitar and also upside-down, and a moment whether the tone of bowed cello and the skatch box and the two blended together. There were some very soft moments, such as soft staccato trombone tones, and a low drone-like rumble from the ensemble. There was also a series of sounds that conjured up the image of a scampering mouse.

Next was a trio of Matt Ingalls on clarinet, Tom Scandura on percussion, and Thomas Dimuzio on Moog guitar. This was the first time I had heard a Moog guitar in a live performance setting. Knowing the musicians involved, I knew in advance this was going to be a loud set (@catsynth Scandura, Ingalls and Dimuzio trio will definitely not be sissified). The music started off with a dramatic film-like drone, with the clarinet coming though on top. The drums gradually got louder and started to match. From this point, there was mixture of fast runs and loud notes, some sections that sounded like 1960s free jazz and others that seemed to follow a more Middle Eastern scale. At some point, both the clarinet and the electronic guitar become more inharmonic and the drums got wilder and louder. Then suddenly a beat entered into the music, a bit of a slow rock shuffle or rock ballad overlaid with dark ambient guitar sounds. Matt Ingalls switched the violin at one point during the set. As the music started to feel more relaxed, it suddenly get loud again with FM-like sounds and acoustic drum, and then it got “super loud”. Even within the loudness, one could hear interesting details, such as a latin beat and a phrygian scale, and a really loud high-pitched squeak.

The contrast to the next set, a duo of Philip Greenlief and David Boyce, was rather dramatic. Although it was full of fast virtuosic runs, it was relatively quiet and spacious. There were moments where the seemed to go into unison, or where the rhythm seemed to stand still, before returning to the fast and complex runs. There were also a variety of interesting breathing sounds, mouthpiece effects, and other extended techniques. At one point, it sounded like a bird or a creature that was “laughing”.

[Greenlief and Boyce in front of Dina Rubiolo’s artowrk.  (Click to visit original post.)]

The combination of the relative calm of the set and the time of the evening made this one that truly took advantage of the backdrop provided by Rubiolo’s artwork. I featured this image of Greenlief and Boyce in front of it in a previous Wordless Wednesday.

They were followed by another duo, Gino Robair and John Shiurba under the name G / J. Robair was billed as playing “voltage made painful”, and incorporated a Blippo Box, as well as a drum machine, effects boxes and a device for pre-recorded samples into the mix. Shiurba played guitar with a variety of extended techniques, including using a superball to excite the strings. The were lots of fast cuts and cartoonish moments, with boinks and slaps and machine noises. The Blippo Box had a liquidy organic sound that contrasted with finger-picking on the guitar. At one point in the performance, Robair set in motion a rather funky rhythm loop that sounded for a bit, then came in and out and decayed into grains of sound (@catsynth I want Gino to keep that funky rhythm background going longer. As a dominate.). There were moments that were a bit more aggressive, with loud piercing sounds, but then others that were…well, “plum sonorous” and featured minor harmonies.

[G / J in front of the wall of beauty.  Photo shared on twitter by @TomDuff. (Click to visit original post.)]

Next up was Wormses, a trio of Jacob Felix Heule (percussion), Tony Dryer (bass) and Bobby Adams (electronics). The set started with a low rumble and hum, with the bass soon coming on top of scratchy electronic sounds and Heule playing a cymbal against a bass drum. The music became more anxious and busy over time, with some electronic insect-like sounds coming in above the other parts. Then all of a sudden things got very soft. A rhythm emerged in the background, but barely audible behind the bass and cymbal. As the set continued, a walking bass line came out of nowhere, then lots of swells and glissandi. Gradually, the music built back up to a rather loud level, a couple sounds that were like clipping and feedback, and ultimately ending with the sounding of the bass drum.

I think that was where I walked out to the alley for another break. There was lasagna!

The final set featured Ghost in the House, with Karen Stackpole (percussion), Tom Nunn (invented musical instruments), David Michalak (lap-steel guitar) and Andrew Voigt (who was sitting in for Kyle Bruckman on winds). I had heard them previously at the Wind Moon Concert back in April, and their sound is quite ethereal and airy, even for the percussion and lap-steel guitar. As with the previous performance, they began with a procession, of elemental instruments. The room was dark, except for the light from the 35mm slides in front. The performers then took their places for the remainder of the performance. The sounds were quite subtle at times, slightly minor, and sometimes like old film or radio soundtracks with eerie wind sounds mixed in. The metal instruments (primarily Stackpole’s gongs on Nunn’s instruments) served as a foundation, with the sounds of the wind instruments floating above. In addition to the long atonal sounds, there were moments with high squeaks and east-Asian harmonies and timbres. In the final piece, Stackpole played on an interesting metal-tube instrument and also used a vinyl record as percussion. Michalak’s lap-steel guitar featured prominently in this piece as well. The overall effect sounded electronic, even though the ensemble was purely acoustic instruments. The night concluded with the ensembles recessional from the room, still appropriately dark.

(@casynth #skonkathon concludes. Good night)

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Amar and Polly duo at the Skronkathon

Tomorrow, Polly Moler and I will be performing a duo at the 10th Annual Skronkathon tomorrow.

This performance was somewhat inevitable, i.e., we “knew we HAD to do it”, once Polly found this “spamogrified” copy my review of last year’s Skronkathon. You can read the original here. The spamogrified version, which is probably translated from English to another language and then back to English, is quite amusing especially with its repeated use of the phrase “as a dominate”. Consider this section which incorporates portions of my original review describing Hanuman Zhang, Protea (Serena Toxicat) and David Leikam et al:

There were also some electronic circuit-bent toys, and a knick-knack piano (acoustic knick-knack piano being an contraption I am unqualifiedly fancying of). as a dominate As the toys came to the forefront, the beat began to accustom down and the structure more scarce. as a dominate Sporting a Hello Kitty tunic, Serena Toxicat gave an evocative display with vocals and dancing as a dominate.
From sonorous skronking and establish objects, we then had a plumb contrasting pursue from Protea, with Serena Toxicat and a “special caller thereminist” performing ambient electronic music. as a dominate The vocals and theremin both consisted of dream of tones that followed unwedded another without faithfully complementary. as a dominate Overall, there were two a penny harmonies, etherial textures, deliberate changes and a scintilla of stress. as a dominate
We then switched cater to in from ambient electronic to skronking (but it is unqualifiedly “skronking”?) with a free-improvisation pursue on z exasperate with David Leikam, Zachary Morris, Sheila Bosco and Craig Latta.

The performance will primarily feature my reciting the text in concert with Polly performing the “as a dominate”. In terms of instrumentation, I will keeping things rather simple, and rather light, focusing on a the monome controlling a Max/MSP patch on a laptop, and a granular-synthesis application called Curtis for the iPad:

I hope to be further slicing and dicing the text. I will probably also have the trusty Kaos Pad, along with some acoustic instruments.

The full program for the Skronkathon is listed below. The festivities start at 1PM at 21 Grand (416 25th St) in Oakland, and we go on at 6:25 PM. In the meantime, there is lots of good music, food on the grills (bringing your own is strongly encouraged), and quite a roster of Bay Area “new music” folks.

1:00-1:25 Amigo (Tim Flynn, gtr/David J Moore/bass)
1:25-1:50 Ann O’Rourke (perc) and special guests
1:50-2:15 Ed Christensen (solo elec)
2:15-2:40 Key West (Brian Pedersen/Jason Ricci/Dave Dupuis/
Mark Blatnick/Sung Kim)
2:40-3:05 Michael Guarino (solo prepared gtr, perc)
3:05-3:30 Rachel Wood-Rome (solo horn, voc)
3:30-3:55 Respectable Citizen (Michael Zbyszynski/Bruce Bennett)
3:55-4:20 T.F.F.W.’z (yacob/misha/eden)
4:20-4:45 Matt Davignon (drum machine)/Eric Glick Rieman (prepared elec pno)
4:45-5:10 blipvert (Will Northlich-Redmond, solo elec)
5:10-5:35 Blowout Preventer (Phillip Greenlief/Dan Plonsey/
Ceylan Yagmur/Michael Zelner)
5:35-6:00 Katt & Ron (Kattt Atchley/Ron Heglin)
6:00-6:25 Iron Triangle (Bob Marsh/C. J. Borosque/Sandra Yolles)
6:25-6:50 Amar Chaudhary (elec) & Polly Moller (fl, voc)
6:50-7:15 RTD3 (Doug Carroll/Tom Nunn/Ron Heglin)
7:15-7:40 Tom Scandura (perc)/Matt Ingalls (cl)/Tom Dumuzio (midi gtr)
7:40-8:05 Phillip Greenlief (tenor sax)/David Boyce (tenor sax)
8:05-8:30 G/J (Gino Robair (voltage made painful)/John Shiurba (gtr))
8:30-8:55 Wormses (Jacob Felix Heule/Tony Dryer/Bobby Adams)
8:55-9:20 Ghost in the House (Karen Stackpole/David Michalak/
Tom Nunn/Andrew Voigt)

Admission is free, but we will be accepting donations to benefit the Transbay Creative Music Calendar, which features announcements and information about the local “creative music” community (and also often features reviews from CatSynth).

Reconnaissance Fly at Luna’s Cafe, Sacramento

This is the “official CatSynth report” from our Reconnaissance Fly show at Luna’s Cafe in Sacramento last Monday.

Luna’s Cafe is in downtown Sacramento, within a couple of blocks of the large park that surrounds our State Capitol.

[click to enlarge]

I had stopped in during then In the Flow Festival back in may, so everything was quite familiar.

Inside, the stage was…well…a bit cozy.

[click image to enlage]

We managed to fit ourselves on in an odd arrangement of angles and overlapping. Polly was in this small triangle of space bounded by the stage front, the keyboard and the drum set.

[click image to enlarge]

The painting behind the stage is David and the Giant Under the Blue Moon, by Bill Carr. All of Carr’s paintings on the wall had a moon theme, which was rather apropos of the venue (although “Luna’s” actually refers to the name of the proprietor of the cafe and not directly to the moon or to any cats we may know).

I felt like we did not play as well as we did at the Outsound Music Summit, but it was still a fun experience, and we got a warm reception from the audience (including the other musicians)

We were followed by the Garage Jazz Architects, with Lob Instagon on bass, Chad E Williams on guitar and Mark Halverson on drums.

[click image to enlarge]

They played a mix of covers and originals. After an original piece called “Butter”, they moved into a series of including an interesting version of the Simpson’s theme with alternate harmonies, and several other classic TV shows. One of the originals was a surf-style piece entitled Surf Orangevale. From what I am told, Orangevale is a completely landlocked area east of of Sacramento. Lob also recited a poem that he composed on August 9, 1995 after hearing of the death of Jerry Garcia – a poem he only reads on August 9 – with musical accompaniment by the rest of the band.

Lob also leads the group Instagon, which has a different lineup every time it performs. After the show he invited me to join in the next Instagon performance, which just happened to be at the regular Outsound Thursday night series at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco. That took place last Thursday, so look for an upcoming report soon.

Thanks to Ross Hammond for inviting us to play, and Art Luna for hosting us at the cafe

Outsound Music Summit: MultiVox

Today we at CatSynth conclude our series from the recent Outsound Music Summit with my own report from the MultiVox program that featured Reconnaissance Fly, the Cornelius Cardew Choir, and Amy X Neuburg. We did feature a guest review by Joe McMahon last week, which covers the same show from an outside perspective. My own perspective is anything but outside, given that I was in two of the three groups performing at night.

This was a professional show, with formal load-ins, sound checks, and staging. Reconnaissance Fly features a full rhythm section, so we had a lot of equipment to set up:

[click image to enlarge]

On the left is Tim Walters’ bass and Macbook running SuperCollider. In the middle is Moe! Staiano’s drum set, and on the right is my own keyboard+electronics setup featuring the Nord Stage, the trusty Korg Kaoss Pad, and the little stuffed cat for good luck. Here is another perspective with more detail:

[click image to enlarge]

The Evolver was actually for the Cardew Choir, but I set up everything at once. One can also see Moe!’s toys and other support percussion instruments.

Onto the show itself. Here is the full band on stage, with myself, Polly Moller (flute/vocals), Tim Walters (bass), Moe! Staiano as our special guest “concussionist”.

[Photo by Michael Zelner.  Click image to enlarge.]

We performed a full nine-piece set from Flower Futures, our “spong cycle” featuring music set to spam poetry. The set now has an eclectic mix of styles, from experimental avant-garde to prog rock, along with latin and jazz influences. We as always with Small Chinese Gong and ended with An Empty Rectangle – we always like playing that last one, but it’s even better with Moe!’s drums! I particularly enjoyed playing the medley of Electric Rock Like a Cat and Sanse is Credenza – the end of the first piece, with free-improvisation on flute set against B-diminished chords, elides into an early 1970s jazz fusion jam on the same chord (think “Chameleon” from Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters album). This is a relatively high-energy and somewhat challenging piece, and while it was fun to play, it also felt good to then return to the relative calmness of Oh Goldfinch Cage, which featured samples of “human calls” for training birds to speak, with phrases like “Hello, how are you?” and “pretty bird”, processed with ring modulation and turntable effects.

[Photo by Bill Wolter.  Click image to enlarge.]

Overall, it was a great performance with a lot of energy. It’s easy to lose sight of that in the midst of playing, where one focuses on mistakes and challenges – personally, I forgot to check that patches for the Nord were all queued up at the start of the performance, and the heat from the lighting and large crowd added unexpected challenges. But it was received well by the audience (a full house), and it seemed like they were asking us for an encore!

The Cornelius Cardew Choir was a stark contrast to Reconnaissance Fly in terms of form and energy. Our first piece, Joe Zitt’s “That Alphabet Thing” was a cappella with a freeform structure. Basically, it unfolds by each singer intoning the sounds of the letters of the alphabet, starting with A and gradually working his or her way to Z. Everyone moves at a separate pace but mindful of others not to get too far ahead or behind, and there were a lot of fun moments of interplay among different choir members, such as back-and-forth with “Hi!” for H-I or “why?” for Y.

[Photo by Michael Zelner.  Click image to enlarge.]

We wear white lab coats.

This was followed by “El Morro” by choir director and co-founder Tom Bickley. The piece was inspired by a trip to the El Morro monument in New Mexico and featured the text from inscriptions on a rock spanning carved messages from two centuries of Spanish, Mexican and American passers by, soldiers as well as other travelers. Each of us had a set of inscriptions to recite on a single pitch per inscription, set against an electronic background of rocks, birds of prey and highly processed vocal incantations. This was a rather complex piece conceptually, though not difficult to perform. Because we were so involved in the performance and the conceptual nature, it is hard to know how it was received in the audience.

The set concluded with a performance of Polly Moller’s Genesis. We had seen a previous performance of Genesis at the Quickening Moon Concert. The previous performance was entirely instrumental. This time, the parts of the spatial and higher dimensions were voice. I performed part of “universal time”, using the sequencer on the Evolver as the time-keeper and performed various modulations of the tempo and timbre. Polly played the role of the “new universe” with a flute solo featuring multiphonics and other techniques. Tom Bickley conducted the piece by walking around the stage and carrying chimes.

[Photo by Michael Zelner.  Click image to enlarge.]

This was a very meditative performance, with the chimes, the flute multiphonics, the ever changing electronic rhythm and timbre, and the vocalists singing their respective dimension numbers in different languages.

The final set of the evening featured Amy X Neuburg. As always, her “avant cabaret” set was very polished and spoke well to both her technical expertise with her instruments and her versatility as a performer. She employs several styles of singing, often in a single piece, moving from classical to cabaret/jazz to experimental vocalizations. Her synchronization with looping electronics is very tight, seemlessly adding and subtracting samples and recordings within the rhythms and phrasings of the song.

[click image to enlarge]

There were pieces familiar from past performances, such as “Life Stepped In” where she deftly mixes looping technology and theatrical vocals. She also did a few improvisational pieces, the first of which featured the Blippo Box. This is an instrument with chaotic oscillators that never quite sounds the same twice, but she always manages to control it quite well – in this performance she made it sound like a voice, to which she responded with her own voice. She also performed an improvisation with a Skatch Box which she made at the “build your own Skatch Box” presentation earlier in the week (and which I unfortunately missed). It’s hard to make a skatch box sound like a voice, but she could make her voice sound like the growls and scrapes that it produced.

[Photo by Michael Zelner.  Click image to enlarge.]

She ended her set with a tribute to Kim Flint, who was very active in the looping and electronic-music communities, and the founder of Loopers Delight, and who passed away after a tragic accident in Berkeley in June. He was someone I knew as well from both music and social events. Amy’s tribute was a performance of the first piece she ever created using the Echoplex, which he co-invented.

Preparing for tonight’s performance

This week has all been about the Outsound Summit, either attending programs or rehearsals, including two rehearsals for Reconnaissance Fly and one for the Cornelius Cardew Choir.

For Reconnaissance Fly, We now have our full Flower Futures set:

1. Small Chinese Gong
2. One Should Never
3. Neat As Wax
4. Emir Scamp Budge
5. Seemed to be Divided in Twain
6. Electric Rock Like a Cat
7. Sanse is Credenza
8. Oh! Goldfinch cage
9. An Empty Rectangle

There is actually a tenth movement, but we had to leave it out of this performance for timing reasons. One of the pieces, “Electric Rock Like a Cat”, was first premiered on KFJC last weekend. And three others are brand new that we only read and rehearsed in the past week. This included a final rehearsal last night. Sadly, it means I was not able to attend last night’s performance, but the extra rehearsal time paid off and I think we are going to play a great set tonight!

Technologically, things are relatively simple compared to the solo shows like the Quickening Moon Concert. I will primarily be using a Nord Stage keyboard for classic Fender Rhodes and organ models and acoustic piano, with support from the Korg Kaoss pad on several pieces and a loop/sample playback application on the iPhone. Tim Walters will be using SuperCollider for signal processing alongside bass guitar. Moe! Staiano will probably have toy instruments along with his drum set. We don’t have any live processing of Polly Moller’s flute or vocals in this particular set. I like the way our music has evolved to require less feats of technology and more musicianship.

For the Cardew Choir, I will be performing the role of “Universal Time” in Polly Moller’s Genesis using a combination of “space like” and “drum like” patches on the DSI Evolver. Other than that, the set is all vocals.

For those in the Bay Area who would like to attend, the show is 8PM at the Community Music Center, 544 Capp Street in San Francisco. You can get full schedule and ticking info here.

Outsound Music Summit: Blurred Lines

Last night was the first full concert of the Outsound Music Summit. “Blurred Lines” focused on the combination of music and visual media, i.e. film and video.  The pieces were more of a collaboration between film and music rather than one serving the other per se, although in each case the music making and film/video making were done independently .

The first half of the concert featured films by Martha Colburn with live piano improvisation by “local Bay Area pianist impresario” Thollem McDonas. Colburn’s films employ stop animation with original artwork and found images, as well as found footage. The overall look reminded me of Terry Gilliam’s animations (e.g., from Monty Python), though the material was generally much darker. Several of the films dealt with death and violence, particularly in U.S. history and current events. Destiny Manifesto in particular juxtaposed images of western settlers in conflict with Native Americans alongside contemporary looking soldiers and scenes that could have been from the Middle East or Central Asia. Images of people being killed and dismembered abound in these films. Other films, such as Meet Me in Witchita with its images inspired by the Wizard of Oz, but here again things turned dark with Osama Bin Laden’s head superimposed on the Wicked Witch and then being killed and collapsing in a mess of bloody body parts. There were lighter images in some of the films, such as figures that seemed influenced by South Asian shadow puppets and even abstract graphic squares reminiscent of a disco dance floor.

[click image to enlarge]

McDonas’ piano veered between more classical or film-score inspired music and more percussive prepared piano. The music did not follow each film structurally per se (i.e., in the manner of a film score), but did evolve over time and present a particular character in each film. Initially, it started off lighter with fast runs and anxious chords, later on being more percussive and employing prepared piano or plucked strings. As the set progressed, the piano music became dense and darker, with large clusters of fast patterns and arpeggios in lower registers, every so often punctuated by more percussive and plucked elements. Overall the music had an aggressive feel which both showed of McDonas’ piano skills and fit with the violent nature of the films.

The second half of the program featured the 2009 60×60 international compilation. This is a set of 60 one-minute compositions that were selected and ordered into a continuous hour-long performance. For this program, each piece was set to a one-minute video) by Patrick Liddel. I had actually heard the 2009 60×60 compilation before (without the videos) at the Long Night’s Moon Concert last December, and recognized several of the pieces from that performance. Many of the videos were abstract graphics, such as the pixelated images that accompanied the opening pieces by Halsey Burgund and Matthew Dotson, or the abstract kaleidoscopic images set to Polly Moller’s “Abdominal Cyclist Ultra”. Others had more representational images. #16 by Jane Wang featured toy piano and was set to footage of a toy piano being played.

[click image to enlarge]

Some were less directly representational and more evocative of the music, such as the scenes from 1950s television commercials set to Gregory Yasinitsky’s jazz piece. Although it was far more abstract, I would put the constantly moving gray rectangles against Patrica Walsh’s electronica dance music in the same category.

Among my favorite of the combined video+music pieces were Brian Lindgren’s music set to a slowly moving film of a woman in a black dress in front of a brick wall; and Enrico Francioni’s sounds featuring strong resonance and feedback that were set to a beautiful film of forward motion in a dark industrial hallway. Also of note were Jay Batzner’s music (which reminded me of Xenakis) set to geometric views of industrial girders, perhaps power lines; and the intricate grid (along with spiders) set to Anton Killin’s metallic sounds.

Overall, with 60 sets of constantly changing visuals and music, and my attempt to take at least few notes on each, the experience became one of sensory overload. Looking back on the notes, it is interesting in looking at my previous review of the 2009 60×60 mix how different pieces stood out more in the mix without the visuals while others seemed more prominent in the music+visuals mix.

CatSynth at the Outsound Music Summit

Starting tomorrow, and throughout next week, I will be involved in the Outsound Music Summit here in San Francisco. In addition to participating as a performing artist, CatSynth is an official community media sponsor of the festival! I will attending (almost) all of the events, providing some live updates via Twitter, and of course more detailed reviews here on the blog. For those who wish to follow along, you can join us on Twitter @CatSynth, or subscribe to our feed, or simply check back in to the site periodically.

Please visit the Outsound Music Summit site for more info. You can find a detailed schedule of all the programs, and ticketing information for those who will be in the Bay Area next week.

In terms of participating in the events themselves, I will be at the Touch the Gear Expo on Sunday. I am not yet sure the exact list of gear I will present, but it will almost certainly include the Monome, the Kaoss Pad and the Evolver.

On Saturday (that’s tomorrow), I will be performing with Reconnaissance Fly live on KFJC Radio. The performance is listed as 4PM U.S. Pacific Time, and is available online.

Finally, on Friday, July 23, I will be performing at the summit, both with Reconnaissance Fly and the Cornelius Cardew Choir.

Polly Moller’s collected and adapted spoetry texts form the basis for a new “spong cycle” — a song cycle based on spoetry. Entitled “Flower Futures”, this otherworldly ten-movement work shifts constantly in imagery and sound. Movements feature free improvisation, graphic scores, and full scored music, each with a spoem as its basis. Reconnaissance Fly, consisting of Moller plus Amar Chaudhary (keyboards and electronics) and Tim Walters (bass guitar and electronics) will perform “Flower Futures” along with special guest concussionist Moe! Staiano.

The Cornelius Cardew Choir is a SF Bay Area-based vocal performance ensemble. Situated at the intersection of community & experimental music, these professional, amateur, & novice singers work collectively to turn ideas into sonic action. The Choir’s set will include “Genesis” for twelve improvisers by Polly Moller, with the composer herself portraying the New Universe.

It is going to be a busy week…

Matthew Sperry Festival: Tag Team Trio Shift

Last Thursday I attended and performed in the Tag Team Trio Shift at the Luggage Store Gallery. This event was part of the Eighth Annual Matthew Sperry Memorial Festival, a festival held every year in honor of local composer and bassist Matthew Sperry since his tragic death in 2003.

The event featured a large cast of characters from the Bay Area new music scene, improvising three at a time, with John Shiurba acting as referee.


[John Shiurba as referee, with Gino Robair entering a trio.]

Each of us was given a name card. At any given moment, three musicians would be performing. Anyone could hand in their card at any time and replace one of the three current musicians. Thus, there was an ever changing set of trios. For the most part, musicians entered and exited individually, but in the second half of the program we could submit three cards at once as a planned trio. The music ranged from trios of synthesizers and electronic noise, to purely vocal trios, to free-jazz improvisation (saxophones and bass), and all combinations in between.


[Tom Nunn on skatch box and Tom Duff with Bleep Labs Thingamagoop.]


[Vocal trio of Agnes Szelag, Aurora Josephson, and Myles Boisen.]

There were many strategies one could use for deciding when to hand in his or her card and replace someone. For me, I timed my card to coincide with others with whom I wanted to play, or moments where I thought my sounds would work well with the texture.

One could also be competitive and “cut” someone else’s improvisation (as one might do in a traditional jazz-improvisation setting). I can’t say that anyone did that, but there were certainly some playful back-and-forths with people replacing each other.

I brought the trusty Kaos Pad as well as my iPhone, with the BeBot app and a looping/playing app that I used for the Pmocatat ensemble. The latter (which featured variable-speed sounds of Luna and my Indian instruments) got some attention from the other musicians. Scott Looney, who was sitting next to me, and an interesting new instrument that used Reactable icons on a surface with a keyboard, to create a sort of “electronic prepared piano”:


[Scott Looney’s new control surface (photo by catsynth).]

There were some fun moments. One of Philip Greenlief’s improvisations involved his attempting to balance his saxophone in the palm of his hand, constantly moving and shifting in order to keep it from falling. He was clearly hoping for someone to replace him quickly, but we actually let him keep going for quite a while.


[Philip Greenlief’s balancing act.]

The sounds from busy Market Street outside contributed to the music at various times – indeed, the street should have gotten its own card.

Among the attendees were Matthew Sperry’s wife and daughter, who appropriately closed out the second set with the sound of shaking keys fading out.

The full roster of participating musicians included: Myles Boisen, Amar Chaudhary, Matt Davignon, Tom Duff, Tom Djll, Phil Gelb, Lance Grabmiller, Philip Greenlief, Ron Heglin, Jacob Felix Heule, Ma++ Ingalls, Travis Johns, Aurora Josephson, Scott Looney, Bob Marsh, Lisa Mezzacappa, David Michalak, Polly Moller, Kjell Nordeson, Tom Nunn, Dan Plonsey, Garth Powell, Jon Raskin, Gino Robair, Tom Scandura, Damon Smith, Moe! Staiano, Agnes Szelag.

[Unless otherwise indicated, all photographs in this article are from Michael Zelner. You can see a full set of photos from the performance at his flickr page.]