CatSynth pic: Volt Divers

This was the awesome poster for the past weekend’s Volt Divers show in Portland. Not only does it feature a cat, it is monochromatic purple!

If you are not familiar with this series run by our friend Jeph Nor (Runkl Nor’s human and synthesizer virtuoso), please check out their Facebook Page. We hope to get back up to Portland ourselves sometime soon…

Report from BPOW!!! Part 2: The Concerts

Today we conclude our reports from the Battery Powered Orchestra Workshop (BPOW!!!) in Portland, focusing on the evening concerts. Like the workshops, which we covered in Part 1, the concerts focused on DIY technologies, as well as analog synthesis.

The Saturday-evening program opened with Stephanie Simek performing on her custom multi-armed turntable.

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The arms on the turntable were outfitted with contact microphones which picked up vibrations from the grooves of hand-cut records. Each arm fed a separate audio channel, creating a multi-track, spatialized performance from a single record. Musically, the repeated sounds of jungles, space, human activity and instrumental sources formed complex rhythms with changing syncopations and graduation motion over time. The effect was quite hypnotic. Even with the enveloping sound system, there was something intimate about the performance, probably related to the visuals and distinct sound of the record player.

Simek was followed by F-DT (Future Death Toll). F-DT is an artist collective and performances feature a rotating lineup, but on this occasion it included Edward Sharp and Nathanael Thayer Moss. F-DT describe themselves as “a throbbing mess of noise that eats technology and shits performance art.” And it was certainly a performance filled with loud noise in a variety of aural ranges – high electrical noises and pounding low-frequency patterns – set against a relentless stream of glitchy visuals and text.

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Although it is hard to tell from this photo, much of their gear was colored orange, which seems to be an important part of the group’s identity. The music and presents is undeniably challenging, but well worth for those who make the effort.

Then it was my turn to take the stage. My setup focused on the analog modular synthesizer, along with another analog synth, iPad, the dotara (Indian string instrument), and Skatch Box. I also used the Synthrotek 4093 NAND synthesizer that I built during one of the workshops earlier in the day.

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The 4093 worked flawlessly, as did the modular and the Luna NT analog synth. The acoustic instruments (dotara and skatch box) also worked well. As with any experimental electronic improvisation performance, there were a few technical glitches and a few things I would have done differently in hindsight. But overall, I thought it was a good performance, and it was very well received by the attendees. You can see and hear it in its entirety in the video below:

CatSynth (Amar Chaudhary) at BPOW, August 10, 2013 from CatSynth on Vimeo.

The final act of the first night was Mechlo. His performance combined lo-fi glitch audio and video from an NES console.

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Clearly, there were modifications made to allow the system to be performed in a way that a traditional NES could not. Nonetheless, the graphics and audio were reminiscent of what one would expect from the classic 8-bit games. There were repeated modulating patterns, some of them more melodic, some noisier, with occasional glitches and pauses.


The Sunday evening concert opened with a performance by analog modular virtuoso Jeph Nor with Dan Green on analog video. Green brought an LZX modular video system, while Nor had a large collection of audio modules from different manufacturers.

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Nor built complex patterns of sound that went from sparse and resonant to thicker and more pad-like. There were moments of eerie ambience and others that had a machine-like precision. Overall, he was able to give his improvisation with this instrument a musical and even narrative quality. The visuals focused on patterns of colors, curves and lines that were constantly changing, but occasionally slowing to a standstill before shifting rapidly and switching to a completely separate collection of shapes.

Next was Mike Todd performing custom visuals and sounds. Unlike the sharper edges from Nor and Green earlier, or the noisy intensity from F-DT the day earlier, Todd’s performance was software and more organic. The visuals, based on his own software, were composed of curving liquidy shapes that seemed alive. Similarly, his music had an equally liquid quality, with more open space between fast elements, as if a swarm of moving organisms.

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Todd was followed by JMEJ, who assembled sonic circuits live on stage. One can think of this as “analog live coding”.

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The process was fun to watch. As one might expect, the sounds were a bit on the noisier and unpredictable side, but with a lot of good crunchy lo-fi texture. As the performance continued, the circuits grew more complex and culminated in this tangled product:

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The final performance featured Claus Muzak performing some of his electronic-music compositions.

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This was a more structured performance, divided into songs. His music had a strong rhythmic and harmonic foundation, realized with a diverse collection of synthesizer and drum-machine sounds. It was dark and richly textured, and at times danceable, especially when he employed rhythmic lines with high-Q filters. It was probably the most “traditional” of any of the performances on either night, well crafted electronic music that would be at home in a club setting. But it was a fitting conclusion for evening’s performances and for the festival as a whole.


You can see and hear brief excerpts from all the performances in this video:

BPOW!!! Battery Powered Orchestra Workshop – Aug 10-11, 2013 from Molecule Synth on Vimeo.

Overall, both the concerts and workshops from BPOW were a rewarding experience. It would be great to visit again to participate in future events, and in the meantime I look forward to hearing more from the artists involved. Thanks to Travis Feldman of moleculesynth for organizing BPOW and Myles de Bastion of Cymaspace for hosting.

Fun with Highways: Portland

My trip to Portland for BPOW included becoming acquainted with its streets and highways (and mostly not getting lost). The city is largely defined by the Willamette River, which bisects the city in eastern and western halves, and a series of bridges over the river connecting the two sides:

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OR_99EI-84The above photo is looking north at the Burnside Bridge, which carries one of the city’s main thoroughfares. The vantage point is from the center of the Morrison Bridge, which combines traffic entering and exiting I-5 with city streets, walkways and bike paths. It seems to part of the theme in Portland that all these different modes come together and coexist along single routes. Looking towards the east side, the bridge connects to I-5 and I-84, as well as state highway 99E (Martin Luther King Avenue) and Water Avenue.

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I-5 runs along the east bank of the river. But it also runs with bike and walking paths and a greenway. The highway, park, water and industrial zone behind them all co-exist.

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I like the way Portland has chosen to co-exist with its older industrial infrastructure and highways as it plans green spaces and alternative transportation options. It is in sharp contrast to San Francisco, which can’t seem to tear down its highways and raze its gritty industrial areas fast enough. There is a beauty and attraction in preserving them while making the city for livable and environmentally friendly. The area around Water Avenue in the “Industrial Southeast” section of the city particularly retains this character. I had briefly seen it during my 2007 trip with the band that would later become Reconnaissance Fly, and for the BPOW trip I made sure to set aside time to explore. Much of the neighborhood is below the bridges and viaducts, but in between it opens up into spaces with larger warehouses.

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It can be quite colorful if you know where to look.

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Heading north at ground level, we follow the viaduct until we get to a rather nasty looking interchange. This is the northern terminus of I-405, which loops around downtown on the west side.

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There are also several city streets and rail involved here in ways I can’t quite figure out. It also oddly frames the rose skyscraper that dominates downtown.

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From here, we head north on 99E to the northeast section of the city. The industrial character gives way to a neighborhood of mixed residential houses and small stores. It here that BPOW took place at Cymaspace. You can read the first part of my report covering the workshops here. The second half, which will cover the evening concerts, will be published soon. In the meantime, we at CatSynth recommend enjoying a beer, of which there was no shortage in any neighborhood of the city.

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Report from BPOW!!! Part 1: The Workshops

It’s been a little over a week since the Battery Powered Orchestra Workshop (BPOW!!!) occurred in Portland. Today we look back at the workshops, which were in many ways the central components of weekend.

During the Saturday morning session, I attended a workshop on electronic textiles hosted by Cat Poole of Cacophonous Creations. The skill was to learn how to use conductive thread to embed both light and controls into clothing for future performances. But for the workshop, the task was to simply sew an LED and its associated circuit onto a dinosaur patch:

BPOW electronic textiles

Of course, we at CatSynth approve of Cacophonous Creations’ chat noir logo! As for the task itself, the biggest challenges related to general sewing and laying out elements to properly fit (at least for someone with little sewing experience beyond repairing buttons). But I got through the threading of the circuit. It would be great to incorporate something like this into costuming for future performances.

In the afternoon, I attended a session presented by Steve Harmon of Synthrotek. It centered around DIY electronics and the ubiquitous 555 integrated circuit. But that then merely building an Atari Punk Console with a 555, we stepped it up with Synthrotek’s 4093 NAND Synthesizer.

4093 NAND Synth kit

The 4093 includes three square waves, based on a dual 556 integrated circuit. I was quite intent to complete it and be able to use it for my performance that evening. The soldering of the components went quite smoothly – it helps to both see other people soldering and to have access to a good iron. It was a quite a rewarding moment when the synth was complete and making sound.

Completed 4093 NAND Synth

My only disappointment was the pots not quite fitting and ending up a bit lopsided. But it worked great in the performance and will certainly be used again in the future. The additional confidence on soldering will also be valuable for future projects.

Additional workshops in the afternoon included an introduction and demonstration of modular synthesizers by Jeph Nor. He demystified modular for a general audience by presenting the fundaments (oscillators, filters, amplifiers) and adding additional elements.

Jeph Nor analog modular demo
[Image from the BPOW Facebook page.]

Attending all the workshops on Saturday would have been impossible, especially if one wanted to complete the associated tasks. In particular, I was also interested in the Raspberry Pi which was presented by Edward Sharp.


Sunday’s workshop sessions opened with a demonstration of “squishy circuits”. It turns out that homemade play-doh is quite a good conductor of electricity, and can be used to quickly prototype circuit ideas. It also serves as a very accessible medium for introducing principles of electronics to children.

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We also got to see other non-traditional conductive media including ink and paint that can be used to integrate electronics into artwork without the use of wires.

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Then everyone scattered for an electronics scavenger hunt to find electronic toys and various media to use in projects during the afternoon. The participants reconvened later in the day and got to work.

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Our host Travis Feldman of Molecule Synth hacked the interior of an Atari console with both audio and video modifications, attaching it to a Moog pedal.

Hacked Atari console

Other creations included a circuit-bent toy keytar and a tactile surface used to control audio and video on a laptop.

Overall, the workshops at BPOW were a rewarding experience. In addition to new inspiration and a few new skills, I liked seeing the wide variety of interests and disciplines that others brought to creative DIY electronics for music, video and performance art. If the event does recur next year, it will be interesting to see how technologies and the skills of participants have further evolved.

In addition to the workshops, BPOW also featured performances in the evening. We will look at those in a subsequent article.

Feline welcome to Portland

My trip to Portland for BPOW!!! (the Battery Powered Orchestra Workshop) is over and it’s now time to reflect and report for the blog. Overall, this trip very much in line with the things I write about on CatSynth: electronic music, synthesizers, mathematics, urban landscape, photography, architecture, and even cats. Indeed, I know things were off to a good start when I arrived on Friday night and was immediately greeted by this cat:

Athena the cat from PDX

It turns out this is Athena, one of the cats that lives with Travis Feldman, creator of the Molecule Synth and the host of BPOW!!!.

Look for a few more BPOW- and Portland-related posts on these pages in the coming days.

Primary Highways: Oregon

Our series returns to the west coast, and to a state I know from personal experience. I have traveled through the western part of Oregon multiple times. It is a state that at first glance has much in common with northern California, politically and geographically, but has its own unique characteristics.

Traveling north on I-5, one crosses an arbitrary line the separates the spectacular landscape of far-northern California from the spectacular landscape of southwestern Oregon. The highway weaves through the mountains and valleys of the Cascade Range, including numerous volcanic (or formerly volcanic) peaks.

At the town of Medford, one can continue north, or take a detour east on state highway 62 to Crater Lake. Crater Lake fills a caldera in the Cascade Range, and is the deepest lake the United States. It's circular shape is quite distinctive, as are its internal landmarks, including Wizard Island (the pointy island to one side of the lake), the “Old Man of the Lake“, and several volcanic formations. I had the opportunity to visit Crater Lake many years ago.

More recently, I traveled the other route from Medford, on I-5 north to Portland, while I was on tour last October.

We experienced Portland's famously variable weather. Fortunately, many of the city's attractions are indoors. This includes Powell's Books. I could have spent the whole day in the Pearl Room, which contained the art and architecture offerings, as well as their extensive rare book collection.

Portland also has abundant public art. Across from Powell's is this “brush,” a noted landmark:


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This building brings to mind the city's nickname, Rose City.


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These are only a few of the photos I took while on tour. Please visit the original article for more images, including the intriguing “recursive elephant” sculpture (and the hidden cat).

Portland is someplace I could see living, and indeed the idea crossed my mind during my period of unemployment last year. Ironically, it was en route to Portland that I took the fateful phone call that led to my current job and new life in San Francisco.

We also performed in the coastal town of Astoria, which can be reached by traversing the coast range or traveling along the Columbia River on US 30. This is actually the western end of US 30, which starts at a junction with our friend US 101.


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Astoria was cool and rainy and very green, as one would expect along the northern Pacific coast. The people we met there were also very welcoming to a group of Bay Area musicians playing weird experimental music. Again, you can read more about our visit at the original tour article.

I have never been to the eastern part of Oregon, which is a very different place altogether. I am quite intrigued by the descriptions of part of eastern Oregon as a desert landscape. But it seems like one has to be very motivated to visit, as it is far less populated and less accessible via major highways. The east-west divide also seems to extend to politics, with western Oregon being more liberal in the “northern California” sense, and eastern Oregon being more conservative. I wonder how this divide is going to play, at least in the media, given the patterns of this election…