CatSynth pic: Mandarina and modules

From Travis Johns via the CatSynth Facebook page.

Mandarina “assisting” with some modules – March is the hottest month in Costa Rica and my studio is on the second floor of a building with a metal roof so daytime temperatures render it unusable – so I’ve been bringing work home with me in order to work at night when the temp’s a little more bearable. Unfortunately, there’s usually a certain orange snag to that plan. The modules themselves are from a class I’m teaching called TicoTronics – teaching basic electronics and circuit design via open source synth schematics, modified to use only components common to Costa Rica. For more info – www.vauxflores.com

You can see an example of Travis Johns’ creations and here.

You can see an example of Travis Johns’ creations and here.

Getting ready for today’s performance – noise synth

While preparing for today’s μ-hausen at Camp Happy performance in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I snapped this Hipstamatic iPhone photo of the custom noise synth created by Travis Johns that I will be using.

I think the noisy and somewhat unpredictable quality of some of the Hipstamatic algorithims fits perfectly with this instrument. (Though I do wish the Hipstamatic did a better job of focusing.)

Also in use will be the Wicks Looper, the DSI Evolver, the iPad and the monome.

2010 DroneShift – Long Nights Moon Concert

Two weeks ago, I participated in the 2010 edition of the Droneshift at the Luggage Store Gallery here in San Francisco.
The Droneshift has become an annual event, though this year it was part of the Full-Moon Concert Series, approximately coincident with the Long Nights Moon.

Droneshift is a collaborative concert of improvised drone music. Between 15 and 25 musicians will gather to contribute to a continuous 2 hour drone, each adding their acoustic or electronic instruments here and there, and weaving their sounds together to create gradually shifting tapestries of music. The performance will most likely shift back and forth from completely acoustic music to electric ambiance and post-industrial noise.

Basically, the two hour performance is one continuous ever-changing sound. No individual notes, rests, phrases, breaks, etc. That doesn’t mean it is at all monotonous – there are continuous changes in timbre, dynamics and expression, both within individual parts as various musicians enter and exit the sound.


[Rachel Wood-Rome, Rent Romus. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. (Click images to enlarge.)]

There were actually close to (if not more than) 30 performers participating this year. The performers were arranged along periphery of the gallery with the audience situated in the middle looking outward. So between the audience and musicians, things got quite crowded. I was able to stake out some chair space for myself my minimalist setup:

I just had the iPad and an amplifier, and I was primarily running the Smule Magic Fiddle throughout my allotted time. It is a good instrument for droning, as one can linger on the strings pretty much forever, and play subtle pitch and dynamic changes. It’s easy to gradually fade out, and then fade in very slowly another pitch, which will change the overall sound of the performance without causing a distinct note break.

Because the nature of overall drone sound and the large number of participants, it was often difficult to focus on what any one other musician was playing. I mostly shifted between focusing on my own part and getting lost in the overall sound, which was quite meditative at times. I was able to take in some details, such as Matt Davignon’s distinctive glass-vase performance:


[Matt Davignon. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. (Click image to enlarge.)]

David Michalak’s Omnichord and Joe McMahon’s plastic-tube “didgeridoo” were also quite distinctive (particularly because they were sitting near me):


[David Michalak, Joe McMahon. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. (Click images to enlarge.)]

I was sitting across from Adam Fong on upright bass. There were moments when I took cues from him and other string players to re-enter the mix on Magic Fiddle. I was also trying to take cues from purely electronic musicians, such as Kristen Miltner on laptop or Andrew Joron’s theremin:


[Adam Fong, Kristen Miltner. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. (Click images to enlarge.)]

Overall, the instrumentation was quite varied and there was a balance between winds, strings, percussion and electronic, although there were a few moments were it seemed some low-frequency analog electronics were overpowering everything else. It was interesting to hear how the textures and orchestration evolved. Sometimes similar instruments (e.g., strings) would cluster together, sometimes the texture became more scratchy and granular with lots of noise elements – something which is pushing the boundaries of what might be considered a continuous “drone” sound. At times, traditional harmonies emerged, e.g., minor or diminished chords, while at other times the timbres themselves were purely inharmonic. There were very sparse sections with only one or two participants, and others that seemed to include much of the ensemble. All of these elements just happen organically, based on how the musicians hear one another and are inspired to layer on their own parts.


[Ron Heglin, Aurora Josephson. Photo: PeterBKaars.com. (Click images to enlarge.)]

You can listen to a ten-minute excerpt of the full performance in this video, courtesy of Matt Davignon:

As one can hear, the emergency vehicles that inevitably come down Market Street with sirens blaring during Luggage Store Gallery shows became part of the overall tapestry in this performance.

My personal sense of the performance as being meditative, perhaps even more so than previous Droneshifts, was echoed by members of the audience with whom I had spoken.

In addition to reflecting on the music, I would like to call out the photography of Peter B Kaars, which is featured in this article Those who have followed my own interest in photography know I tend to like very sharp, high-contrast black-and-white images. Additionally the monochrome fits with the full-moon theme and overall quality of the music they document. I wish I had space for more, or to call out more individual musicians. A full list of performers appears below:

Tom Bickley – wind controller
CJ Borosque – trumpet
Bob Boster – processed voice
Amar Chaudhary – iThings
Matt Davignon – wine glasses/vessels
Tony Dryer – bass
Adam Fong – bass
Phillip Greenlief – sax/clarinet
Ron Heglin – trombone/trumpet
Jeff Hobbs – bass, clarinet or violin
Travis Johns – electronics
Andrew Joron – theremin
Aurora Josephson – voice
Sebastian Krawczuk – bass
David Leikam – Moog rogue synthesizer
Cheryl Leonard – viola
Brian Lucas – electric bass / tapes
Melissa Margolis – accordion
Bob Marsh – voice
Marianne McDonald – didgeridoo
Chad McKinney – supercollider/guitar
Joe McMahon – didgeridoo
David Michalak – Omnichord
Kristin Miltner – laptop
Ann O’Rourke – bowed cymbal
Ferrara Brain Pan – sopranino saxophone
Rent Romus – sax/tapes
Ellery Royston – harp w/effects
Lx Rudis – electronics
Mark Soden – trumpet
Moe! Staiano – guitar
Errol Stewart – guitar
Lena Strayhorn – tsaaj plaim / wind wand
Zachary Watkins – electronics
Rachel Wood-Rome – french horn
Michael Zelner – analog monophonic synthesizer, iPod Touch

Outsound Music Summit: Touch The Gear Expo

Once again, the Outsound Music Summit opened with Touch The Gear Night this past Sunday, in which the public is invited to come and, well, “touch the gear” and interact directly with many of the festival artists who use technology in their music. “Technology” included software, electronic devices, DIY projects, and mechanical and sculptural instruments.

I attempted to both cover the event for CatSynth and demo some of my own gear, which made for a hectic but fun evening. I kept my demonstration relatively minimal, with my Monome 8×8, the Korg Kaoss Pad and the Dave Smith Evolver:

[click to enlarge]

Basically, this was a subset of the gear I used at the Quickening Moon Concert (which was part of Outsound’s regular Thursday series at the Luggage Store Gallery). The monome was driving a simple software synthesizer, which along with the Evolver was being processed by the Kaos pad. The monome in particular attracted a lot of attention with its clean geometry and texture, and mysterious nature. It’s just an array of lighting buttons with no marking whatsoever, which invites curiosity.

Travis Johns brought a highly portable version of his worms in compost, this time attached to an analog ring modulator and open-source software the implements Slow Scan Television.

[click to enlarge]

One could hear the noise generated by the worms (which was a low-level rumbling static sound) and see the corresponding image generated by the SSTV software projected onto a screen.

Walter Funk presented a variety of instruments and objects, including Phoenix, a metal music object created by Fred the Spaceman. It was attached via contacts to an effect processor and a speaker, and could be struck or shaken to produce a variety of sounds.

[click images to enlarge]

He also had an old Realistic (remember that brand?) variable-speed tape recorder that included a bucket-brigade (BBD) chip which could be used for a variety of pitch and time shift effects. It would be interesting to modify the unit to take live input in addition to recorded tape input, although the use of tape is part of the charm of such a device. Additionally, he had a small custom analog synthesizer made from inexpensive breadboards made by Elemco that were originally designed for test equipment.

Tom Duff demonstrated the Sound Labs Mini-Synth, a DIY synthesizer kit designed by Ray Wilson. It’s a basic subtractive analog synthesizer, a la a Minimoog. More intriguing were the two generations of Bleep Labs Thingamagoop and Thingamagoop 2. The Thingamagoop 2 includes the photocell-and-light control and analog sound-generation from the original, plus an Arduino for digital sound and control. I want one of these! It was also fun to put the two generations of Thingamagoops together to control one another.

Cheryl Leonard brought some musical objects from Antarctica, including flat stones, bones and limpet shells. The stones had a high but short sound when struck or rubbed against one another. These were used in her Antarctica: Music from the Ice project.

The limpet shells had a resonant sound with well defined pitches. I found myself playing a subset of three shells that together produced an interesting set of harmonies and intervals.

Bob Marsh demonstrated Silver Park, a beautiful instrument that started as a proposal for a park in Detroit with metal sculptures and structures.

[click to enlarge]

Marsh sometimes performs with Silver Park as part of his Mr. Mercury project. The instrument version features springs in addition to the original metal objects, which add to its timbre. In a quiet room (unlike the room we were in) it can be played acoustically, but it can also be played with microphones and electronic effects. Whenever I see pieces like this, I am inspired to create one of my own, but also reminded how much work it is to create sculptures with metal, adhesives, etc. I did get some tips on some “baby steps” to work with similar sounds without necessarily committing to a sculptural artifact.

Another visually powerful instrument was Dan Ake’s 12×13, a large box with 1/4″ metal rods and washers. When the box is spun, the washers slide and shake along the rods producing a metallic cacophony of sound and visual motion.

By spinning the box, or leaving it tilted at various angles, one can get the full effect of the falling washers, or freeze them in mid-fall to cut off the sound.

Philip Evert performed with an auto-harp processed by a large series of effects boxes. The control and sound of the effects chain was largely indeterminate, though the demo that I heard began with ring modulation before becoming a more complex mix.

Tom Nunn brought his Skatchboxes for visitors to try out. Here were see T.D. Skatchit demonstrating the main Skatchbox.

[click to enlarge]

He is a virtuoso on this instrument, and we have reviewed his collaborations with Nunn in previous performances.  The Outsound Summit included a demonstration and class on building your own Skatchbox, which sadly I was not able to attend.

Mark Soden (of phog masheeen) demonstrated a chain of effects processors including a Electrix Filter Queen that produced chaotic oscillations when driven with an appropriate sound source. He had a Roland SP-555 to drive the effects, but the more interesting demo was using a trumpet with contact microphones on its body. One could generate sound by blowing, tapping, or otherwise exciting the body of the trumpet which then drove the chaotic effects processing.

Amy X Neuburg demonstrated the two instruments I have seen her use in her live sets. The Blippo Box produces chaotic signals that are compelling and very easy to play – the effect of turning knobs on the sound, even if it was unpredictable, was very smooth. Of course, the challenge is that the instrument is so chaotic that is very difficult to reproduce the same exact sound twice. She also showed her looping setup, which included a drum pad and an Echoplex.

Rick Walker demonstrated his new “Walker Manual Glitch pedal”. It featured both built-in sound generators and live input, and the ability to “glitch” or reply snippets of sound from any of the sources. This seems like it will be a powerful instrument, especially when combined with loops as input or a live improvised performance.

Thanks to Matt Davignon for organizing this event!  He was also a presenter and showed off his drum machines and effects boxes that he has used in many previous live shows.

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.]

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.

Containment Scenario: FUEL, Luggage Store Gallery

This performance, entitled FUEL, was part of the Containment Scenario performance series “which explores the current environmental situation through the lens of improvisational music-dance-theater.” This was the third part of a five-part series adopted from the book Containment Scenario: DisloInter MedTextId entCation: Horse Medicine by M. Mara-Ann, who also directed this performance.

This was a multimedia piece with voice, text, instruments, dance and reactive video (Luke Selden). It began with the vocal leads (M. Mara Ann and Sarah Elena Palmer) sitting down in the front of the stage with computer printouts, loudly ruffling and connecting them up with packing tape. As video of bucolic grass scenes and a close-up of a human are projected on the walls behind them (and onto their reflective white dresses), we hear their voices come in, speaking words disjointed and percussively. The voices gradually become more melodic, but all the while the “paperwork” continues. The other performs move slowly onto the stage, all wearing white shirts. As they take their positions, first the guitar (Noah Phillips), then the electronics (Travis Johns), then violin (Emily Packard) and percussion (Anantha R. Krishnan) all came in.

Musically the texture remained very gradual, interspersed with vocals, though the words became clearer and louder over time. This was aided by the fact that the text (presumably from the Containment Scenario source) became synchronously part of the music and the projected media. Text scrolling by on the right video projection was recited in various musical styles, harmonic, percussive, expressive, while the vocalists took turns typing their words into a laptop that would project onto the other screen, sometimes mixed with other videos. During this section, the instrumental music was much more sparse, often silent as the written and spoken words became the focus.

Later textual recitations returned from the video to the computer printouts. At times the words came out as whispers, sometimes more melodically, with the instrumentals returning into the mix. As the performers moved around the stage, there were dramatic visual moments where they became part of the video projection, their white shirts and dresses becoming screens on which the video was reflected and distorted and combined with the flat background.

The dancers (Julie Binkley and Rebecca Wilson) eventually took the printouts used for the back screen and began to wrap each of the musicians in a cocoon of paper. First Travis Johns on electronics was encased, then the each of the others in succession, eventually binding the two vocal leads into a bundle of their own printouts. The piece concluded with the dancers bringing out large number signs (I’m not sure what these were about), and handing them to the vocalists, after which the sounds and words gradually stopped.


The performance of Containment Scenario: FUEL was preceded by two fun sets of improvisational music.

The first set was by Drew Ceccato, playing an electronic valve instrument (EVI) by Steiner and an analog synth by Crumar – a beautiful and intriguing instrument. The set began with a low rumbling, which joined with “watery” sounds and pitch modulation expressively controlled by the EVI to create a subtle rhythm. Over time, this become louder, with wider pitch modulations, beating, percussive sounds before returning to the low rumbling. The music then changed completely for more traditional “analog sounds” with traditional pitched notes, like a conventional wind instrument, though with extremely high pitches at times. It was a very brief, and very intense set, without a moment wasted.

Ceccato was followed by a duo of Gino Robair and Christopher Riggs who was playing “guitar and a box of cool looking stuff”. Of course, Gino Robair had his collection of cool stuff as well, analog synthesizers along with metallic resonant objects and various means of exciting them. It started with a metallic roar, which I believe was created by Riggs’ rubbing the guitar strings. This was combined with the chaotic sound of the Blippo Box and other synths. The two performers appeared to come to an equilibrium of sorts, with sounds repeated and played off one another. Indeed, it was sometimes hard to tell who was playing what sound – and this is a good thing. Robair moved on from the synths to cymbals, with loud dramatic resonances set against the guitar rhythms. I heard a plaintive brass synth set against a more “chattery” guitar; a styrofoam instrument that was “insect-like” in both its appearance and sound; a funny voice vaguely like throat singing made with a tube and a coffee can; and more metal objects excited by motorized fans crawling along the floor. After a climx with angry resonances and a metal on metal thud, lots of motion, convulsing and fast scraping, the sounds faded out.


The turnout for this particular evening was quite impressive, it seemed that all the seats were filled, even the extra “kiddie seats” that the folks at the Luggage Store often put out.