Farewell to 2017

2017 in review

Once again, it is time for our end-of-year collage and review. So many images to choose from in such a busy 2017 that took us in so many directions at once, both outward and inward.

At the end of 2016, I was still reeling from the loss of Luna and the election.  But I did welcome Sam Sam into my life and also promised myself that I would prosper and thrive in the new terrifying Trump era.  And we did, focusing on moving forward with the things from 2016 that did go well.  Lots of new music as a solo performer, with my new band CDP, and with Vacuum Tree Head.   There are now three CatSynth-branded apps for both iOS and Android, and a fourth on the way.  We launched CatSynth TV, with 22 videos under our belt since October.  And Sam Sam has blossomed into a sassy and thoroughly spoiled cat whom we love dearly.

If there is a word of caution on the personal and professional fronts, it is perhaps that 2017 was too much.  After a strong first half of the year through July, I scaled back on live performance to focus on other priorities.  I regret that, but it was also the reality of the many things going on.  I wish the apps, blog, and video channels were progressing faster, but it’s as fast as we can go with our myriad other responsibilities.  The last couple months, while still rich with experience, have been an exercise in paring back and trying to focus on the highest priorities; and also focus on health, self-care, and well being.  These are all very challenging, but I’m grateful to have the help of loved ones.

We cannot ignore the fact that our rebound in 2017 after two difficult years took place amidst a dark pall over the country and world.  Many friends have suffered amidst the monumental forces of hurricanes, flooding, fires, and human foolishness.  The latter is most visible in the face of the current regime that continues to embarrass and threaten us.  These are things we have to be vigilant about as we move in 2018.  I do feel personally in the cross-hairs on multiple fronts, so I hope we can continue to survive and prosper as well as we did in 2017, and maybe at the end of 2018 we will look back and saw how the world became at least a slightly better place.

It is also interesting to look back to our end-of-year post from 2007, ten years ago.  It was a dark, cold time amidst major life changes – I couldn’t have imagined then what life would be like now.  Will we feel the same way in 2027?  And will there still be a CatSynth then?  Only time will tell…

Red Robot Show presents Vacuum Tree Head Live @ HSP2017!

The Red Robot Show and Vacuum Tree Head are back! This time Jason Berry brings footage from our March show at HSP2017, and is joined by Marlon Brando in this full-length episode.

The members of the band for this performance are:

Jason Bellenkes : Alto Saxophone and Clarinet
Jason Berry: Conductor
Amanda Chaudhary: Keyboards and Vocoder
Richard Corny: Electric Guitar
Michael de la Cuesta: Guitar, Synth, Vibraphone, Sitar, etc.
Richard Lesnik: Bass Clarinet
Justin Markovits: Drum Kit
Joshua Marshall: Soprano and Tenor Saxophones
John Shiurba: Bass Guitar

Video credits:
Cameras by Amanda Chaudhary and Jason Berry
Edited by Berry / Chaudhary
Audio Engineering by Amanda Chaudhary
Animated and Directed by Jason Berry

Special Thanks:
Mika Pontecorvo
Mark Pino

Brought to you by White Wine. Crisp. And Refreshing.

Hardly Strictly Personal 2017 Day 1: Vacuum Tree Head and More

We conclude our reverse-order look at the Hardly Strictly Personal 2017 Festival that took place at the Finnish Kaleva Hall in Berkeley about two months ago. This day featured Vacuum Tree Head among several other acts.

Vacuum Tree Head
[Photo by Karen de la Cuesta]

This was among the best Vacuum Tree Head shows I have experienced since joining the band, in terms of energy and musical tightness. The rhythm section, anchored by Justin Markovits on drums and John Shiurba on bass functioned well as a unit and provided a foundation for the rest of the band. We had three horn players: Joshua Marshal, Jason Bellenkes and Richard Lesnik. Our guitar section featured Richard Corny, and Michael de la Cuesta, who also was part of the synth/keyboard section of the band with me. And Jason Berry ran the show with new tunes, new arrangements and interstitial entertainment. We will have a full video of our set soon along with a more detailed review, but for now here is a little clip courtesy of our friend Rick Rees.

As mentioned in previous articles the overarching theme of HSP2017 was “A Celebration of Post-Beefheart Art.” The first two acts of the evening took the theme quite seriously. Earspray projected videos along with Beefhart clips mixed with live improvisations.


The group features Ann O’Rourke on electronics and video, Carlos Jennings on electronics, and Mark Pino on percussion. Mark returned in Crow Crash Radio, which also featured Brian Strang on guitar Andrew Joron on theremin along with guest Garrett Caples on vocals.

Crow Crash Radio

Like Earspray, Crow Crash Radio worked the Beefhart theme directly into the contact of their set, with Caples channeling him in his vocal sound and style as the band covered Diddy Wah Diddy and other songs. If there was one thing that didn’t work, it was not being able to hear the vocals well, though perhaps that was part of the concept.

The band performances contrasted sharply with a quiet so set by Jakob Pek on guitar. He uses extended techniques on the instrument, preparations, and electronics to create unusual soundscapes. The sound is mostly long tones and timbres, but punctuated by percussive elements as well.

Jakob Pek

The final set of the evening brought Lost Planet to the stage.

Lost Planet

This band, which features Dave Slusser on winds and electronics, Thomas Scandura on drums, and Len Paterson and Steve Clarke on guitars, mixed loud rock elements with space jazz for an energetic set. In some ways, they combined elements prominent in the previous band sets of the evening.

It was fun to play with VTH on this night and hear the other groups, as I also did with CDP on night 3. We would like to thank Mika Pontecorvo for organizing this event, as well as Elijah Ponteocorvo, Kersti Abrams, Mark Pino and everyone else who followed teared to make it a success.

Vacuum Tree Head and Census Designated Place at HSP2017

It’s been a busy musical time for us at CatSynth. Last week I performed a solo set and collaborative pieces with Amy X Neuburg at the Jewish Community Center in Berkeley. This weekend, I have two more performances, again in Berkeley, as part of Hardly Strictly Personal 2017. It’s a three-day event featuring a wide range of experimental and adventurous music, and benefits EarthJustice and the Homeless Action Center. You can see the full updated schedule, as well as ticket and location info here.

Vacuum Tree Head will be playing tonight, and my fusion/experimental project Census Designated Place (CDP) will be playing on Sunday. I have been busily preparing to make my debut on the Roland VP-03 Vocoder in both bands. Needless to say, between that and the various everyday tasks of an adult in San Francisco, we haven’t had as much opportunity to post here. Regular (?) CatSynth pics and more resume next week.

Vacuum Tree Head and More at All Tomorrow’s After Parties 2016

No sooner was I back from New York than I found myself preparing for another series of performances, this time in various groups for NextNow Present’s All Tomorrows After Parties 2016 at Berkeley Arts in the town of the same name. The three-day long festival was both a musical showcase for the community and a benefit for homeless action and support in the Bay Area. This article focuses on the first evening which featured a performance by Vacuum Tree Head.

Vacuum Tree Head
[Photo by Polly Moller]

The band is ever evolving, with a changing cast of musicians joining Jason Berry and Mike de la Cuesta. On this night the band included Amanda Chaudhary on keyboards, Justin Markovits on drums, Richard Corny on guitar, Galen Stagner on bass, and Jason Bellenkes and Joshua Marshall on horns. From just the images alone, one can tell this is a new incarnation of the band, with a well-dressed frontline coincidentally featuring “Nord red”; and a funkier, jazzier sound anchored by a tight rhythm section. You can hear our entire set in this video.

While the funky finale EMS Deluxe might be the most memorable of the set, each song was played well and had something unique to offer. This was my favorite rendition of Nubdug to date. The “Mystic Chord” and Gnostic Charms medley was our most abstract, featuring synth, a Waterphone and complex tones evolving into a driving rhythmic finish. And Hegemony Cricket opened things up with a bang. The set was well received by the audience; and I think everyone in the band that night was very happy with the performance. We hope to play together again as a unit in the not-too-distant future, so please look for updates here on CatSynth and elsewhere.

Vacuum Tree Head closed out an evening that was primary focused on music with words, although like us the first set was entirely instrumental. Joshua Allen and Rob Pumpelly combined forces in a frenetic duo.

Pumpelly / Allen Duo

Joshua Allen brought his virtuosic saxophone techniques to the performance; and between the two of them the energy never let up for the entire duration of the set. Their set reminded me a bit of the Coltrane album Interstellar Space.

Next up was Cartoon Justice, a noise-jazz project featuring Mika Pontecorvo on guitar, flute, and electronics, Kersti Abrams on winds, Mark Pino on Drums, and Elijah Pontecorvo on bass. They were joined by Meg Pontecorvo who read some of her science fiction writings.

Cartoon Justice

The music moved though a variety of sounds, but had a “space” vibe that complemented that texts. The concept brings to mind Sun Ra, though the sound was more reminiscent of Musica Elettronica Viva, a 1970s Italian improvising group that sometimes featured the likes of Steve Lacy and Frederic Rzewski. Of course, their sound is their own, particularly with Mark Pino’s unique drum style, Eli Pontecorvo’s bass bringing a bit of a rock/metal sound to the mix, Mika Pontecorvo’s electronic manipulations, and Meg Pontecorvo’s words.

Cartoon Justice was followed by Poetics of Narrative, a trio with guitar, electronics, and voice. I spied experimental writer Andrew Joron on theremin.

Poetics of Narrative

This group was fun and I liked there sound. It ranged from more noisy moments to playful songs with complex lyrics and melancholy melodies. In addition to the theremin, the performance featured accordion and other instruments among the ever-present small electronics. The combination of elements was reminiscent of the Tone Dogs and other avant-prog groups of that era. And the costuming and theatrics were a welcome addition.

Poetics of Narrative

I regret not being able to see the set by Oa, the duo of my friends Matt Davignon and Hugh Behm-Steinberg. But I know that their unique mix of electronic processing and poetry fit into the evening’s theme while taking the concept of music and words in a very different direction from the previous sets.

Overall, it was a wonderful evening of music, and in some ways I am still glowing from our Vacuum Tree Head set. We had a good and appreciative audience, and raised some good funds for the causes. We are grateful to have participated, and in particular would like to thank Mika Pontecorvo, Eli Pontecorvo and Mark Pino for all their help with both our set and the entire event.

NextNow Presents All Tomorrows’ After Parties 2016 (with Vacuum Tree Head and CDP Trio)

[Artwork by J.B.]

Well, it’s finally here, the big show at Berkeley Arts, Next Now Presents All Tomorrows’ After Parties. I will be performing tonight with Vacuum Tree Head at 9:30PM, and tomorrow with my new CDP Trio at 7:00, preceded by the Lingua Incognita Session at 5PM. If you are in the Bay Area, please join us either or both nights for this great event. Details are below.

NextNow’s All Tomorrows’ After-Parties 2016

June 3rd-4th-5th 2016 Berkeley Ca

A spring celebration of the creative music community in the Bay Area and beyond. Coming together
to support worthy grass roots non-profit organizations, this Spring our proceeds will benefit the
Homeless Action Center http://homelessactioncenter.org
SF Coalition On Homelessness http://www.cohsf.org

JUNE 3,4,5 (Friday Evening, All-day Saturday and Sunday)

Berkeley Arts Festival Space, 2133 University Ave, Berkeley CA

$12 for one day, $20 for all three days.


Friday June 3rd
07:00 PM Pompelly/Allen Duo
08:00 PM Cartoon Justice w/Authors Meg Pontecorvo&David Gill
08:30 PM Poetics of Narrative
09:00 PM Oa
09:30 PM Vacuum Tree Head

Saturday June 4th
02:00 PM SHIVA X
02:30 PM Trois Chapeaux w/Jorge Bachmann
03:00 PM Jack Hertz
03:30 PM T.D. Skatchit
04:00 PM Reconnaissance Fly
05:00 PM Lingua Incognita Session
06:00 PM Matti Bye Ensemble (Sweden)
06:30 PM Jeffrey Alexander Trio
07:00 PM CDP
07:30 PM Lau Nau (Finland)
08:00 PM v’Maa w/kinetic video sculpture
08:30 PM Bill Wolter Project
09:00 PM Ear Spray
09:30 PM Tri-Cornered Tent Show

Sunday June 5th
02:00 PM Alphastare
02:30 PM Denny Joints
03:00 PM zBug
03:30 PM Will Alexander
04:00 PM United Separatists
05:00 PM Colin Dyer
05:30 PM Mark Clifford Project
06:00 PM John Shiurba/Philip Greenlief Duo
06:30 PM Cosmists
07:00 PM Jordan Glenn
07:30 PM R Duck, Wayne Jackson, Doug Lynner
08:00 PM Amy Reed
09:00 PM Ebolabuddha

Mensa Cat Monday: All Tomorrows’ After Parties 2016

Next Now Presents’ All Tomorrows’ After Parties is a three-day festival of music happening in Berkeley on Friday June 3 through Sunday June 5. Here is our video for the event, courtesy of Jason Berry (J.B.) of Vacuum Tree Head.

Voice credits:
Jason Berry…………Male Mensa Cat, Announcer
Amanda Chaudhary…….Female Mensa Cat, Trump Duck

I will be performing Friday night at 9:30PM as part of Vacuum Tree Head. We have a great new lineup and sound, and I am really excited about the direction of the band.

I am also playing in two additional sets on Saturday June 4. At 5PM, I will be with Mika Pontecorvo and others in Lingua Incognita Project, and at 7PM I will debut one of my new bands, Census Designated Place (CDP) with guest Rent Romus. All three sets I am playing in will be funky!

Please join us, not just for these sets for the rest of the performances as well. It’s going to be some great music for a great cause (all proceeds go to benefit local homeless action projects in the Bay Area).

Vacuum Tree Head Live at Berkeley Arts, January 10, 2016

Vacuum Tree Head
[Photo by Christina Stanley]

On January 10, 2016, Vacuum Tree Head performed at Berkeley Arts as part of the “Hardly Strictly Personal” benefit festival curated by Mika Pontecorvo. We played a short instrumental set that featured refinements of existing songs from our previous performance as well as new compositions. You can see and hear the highlights in this video.

As you can see from these highlights, it was short and energetic, and we certainly had a lot of fun playing.

Amanda Chaudhary and Jason Berry, Vacuum Tree Head.
[Photo by Christina Stanley]

The band was led as always by Jason Berry, who also played soprano saxophone and electronics. The rest of the best included Amanda Chaudhary on Nord Stage and Moog Sub Phatty keyboards, Michael de la Cuesta on guitar and synthesizers, Rich Lesnick on saxophone and bass clarinet, Thomas Scandura on drums, and Stephen Wright on bass. Mixing, editing, and interstitial music was done at CatSynth HQ; and the animations were by J.B.

Farewell to 2015: Annus Asper

Farewell to 2015
[Click to enlarge.]

2015 was a rough year. There is no other way to put it. We looked over the precipice at some of the worst possibilities becoming reality. But we came through. Luna stared down an extremely dire diagnosis and is once again thriving. For that I am truly grateful. I rebounded strongly from my own health issues as well. And there were many other beautiful moments this year, a few of which are included in our graphic.

This was a year of many endings as well, most notably in the personal and musical domains. But new doors are opening for 2016 as a result, and there are some new projects and opportunities for which I am excited. 2015 left a lot of questions unanswered, some of which are also depicted in the graphic and some of which are beyond the scope of this site.

So we are excited for 2016, but also extremely anxious and apprehensive. There are more big challenges coming up; and if I have learned anything, it is that I have no idea how things will ultimately turn out. It’s just a matter of doing things one at a time incrementally – but also continuing even more than ever to speak my truths and accept the risks and consequences that come with doing so.

Meanwhile, we at CatSynth will continue to do what we do here, bring music, art, culture and cats to the world. Thank you for all your support in 2015, and especially all your support for Luna and me. We are truly humbled and look forward to sharing this new year whatever it brings.