Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, Whitney Museum

We at CatSynth have long been interested in the intersection of art, technology and conceptual process.  Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965–2018 surveys over 50 years of video, computational and conceptual art, cleverly weaving them together into a single narrative whole.  The three disciplines are united by the concept of a “program” or set of instructions through which the work of art unfolds, whether a computer program, instructions for a performance, or strict concept on a visual object.  Video and lights abound, but there is also painting, dance, and more.

Installation view.   Photograph by Ron Amstutz.

One of the artists who embodies the range of works is Nam June Paik.  Immediately on entry to the gallery, we are bombarded with his massive installation Fin de Siècle II.  Originally made in 1989, it has been beautifully restored for this exhibition.  It contains numerous clips from broadcast video and art video taken out of context and turned into a moving collage on a grand scale.

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Nam June Paul’s beautifully restored Fin de Siecle II. #whitney #nyc

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At the opposite end of the video spectrum is his 1965 piece Magnet TV.  A black-and-white CRT television set is disrupted by a large magnet, creating a unique but sometimes unpredictable pattern that is in its way rather spare and graceful.

Nam June Paik. Magnet TV, 1965. Modified black-and-white television with magnet.

In the first piece, the process is in the composition, arrangement, and looping of the various video clips.  In the latter, it is the physics of the magnet and the CRT.

Motion and experiments with electronics are also at the heart of James L. Seawright’s contemporaneous piece, Searcher, which features gradual motion and changes in light.  The shadows it casts are also part of the experience of the piece.

There is an interesting juxtaposition of one Joseph Kosuth’s classic neon text pieces, Five Words in Green Neon, and W. Bradford Paley’s Code Profiles, a Java program that generates images.  They bring together the concepts of “text as art” and “code as art” – the message is the medium.

Joseph Kosuth.  Five Words in Green Neon, 1965.  Neon
W. Bradford Paley.  Code Profiles, 2002 and 2018.  Java applet.

Paley’s code may be one of the most literal examples of the exhibition’s theme, but code need not be computer code as we think of it today.  Many works from earlier periods were based on a series of instructions, where the instructions are the work and the performance or visual object are the expressions of said work.  One such example is Sol Le Witt’s sculpture Five Towers.  The three-dimension grids are assembled by a program with various combinations into a simple but beautiful result.  I particularly enjoyed looking through it.

Sol LeWitt.  Five Towers, 1968.  Basswood with alkyd enamel paint.

Josef Albers’ color-field rectangles can similarly be generated from a “program”.  Like Le Witt’s piece, one could conceive of doing something like this with a computer, but neither artist chose to do so, instead being themselves the interpreters for the code.

Josef Albers.  White Line Square VI, 1966. Screenprints on board

The performing arts have long been linked to programs, whether the traditional score or choreography, or more modern uses of algorithms or conceptual instructions.  Performance was most strongly represented in the exhibition by Lucinda Childs’ Dance, done in collaboration with Sol LeWitt and Philip Glass.  Childs, who is known for a precise and almost algorithmic approach to dance, choreographed a series of 5 pieces to a score by Glass.   She made drawings in different colors for the different movements and projected these onto the floor.  During the dance segments, the colors of her drawing were also used for the lighting.  Finally, LeWitt filmed the dancers, and the film was then projected behind live performers.  The documentation of this complex counterpoint was on display in the gallery, including the film, score, and drawings.

Philip Glass.  Score for Dance #1, 1979.  Photocopy with ballpoint pen.

Program, object, video and performance also come together Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Lorna.  Lorna is an interactive video story on a laser disc (anyone else remember laser discs?).  Users can determine how the story unfolds through one of three endings via a remote control.  The screen and control are placed within a simulated apartment decked out entirely in leopard print, and the viewer is invited to sit in a comfy chair while the controlling the story.  This self-guided performance is at once programmed, but also immersive in that the viewer becomes part of the piece, both in space and in terms of control.

Lynn Hershman Leeson.  Lorna, 1979-84. Video, color, sound; with television, interactive laser disc shown as DVD, modified remote control, television cabinet, night table, end table, wood chair, upholstered chair, mirror, fishbowl with plastic goldfish, clothing, wallet, belt, shoes, watch, telephone, magazines, framed storyboards, and framed art

Video permeates the entire exhibition, popping up directly and indirectly in at least half of the pieces, or not more.  But video has many different aspects.  Is not a collection of discrete LEDs programmed to represent a moving image, as in Jim Campbell’s Ambiguous Icon #5 (Running, Falling), a video?  It is certainly a low resolution one, but this low resolution and discrete electronics allow us to see the individual elements that simulate movement in our perception.

Jim Campbell.  Ambiguous Icon #5 (Running, Falling), 2000.  LED lights and custom electronics.

We conclude this survey with a new site-specific commission by Tamiko Thiel.  She created an augmented-reality mobile app (in collaboration with developer /p) that overlays organic forms on the angular, geometric space of the museum’s outdoor terrace.  

Thiel’s organic growths are beautiful and playful, but also have a darker aspect.  Some resemble plastic refuse, and others coral formations.  Both are emblematic of the crises facing our seas due to pollution and climate change.  At the same time, the algorithmic process she uses, a formal grammar developed in 1968 by the Hungarian biologist and botanist Aristid Lindenmayer, is fascinating.

Tamiko Thiel  (with /p),  Unexpected Growth, 2018. Augmented reality installation, healthy phase. Commissioned by the Whitney Museum of American Art

There were many more works in this exhibition that we can discuss in a single article.  Each one had something compelling and different about it.  For anyone interested in or curious about these forms of art, I highly recommend checking out this exhibit! 

Programmed: Rules, Codes, and Choreographies in Art, 1965–2018 will be on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art through April 14, 2019.

Toward a Concrete Utopia: Yugoslavian Brutalism at MoMA

We at CatSynth are admirers of brutalism, as anyone who follows us on Twitter can attest.  We love the geometric forms, how it screams “modern”, and how it makes such an intense break with tradition.  And I will admit, I also have a little fun using it to poke fun at the architectural conservatism prevalent in places like San Francisco.  But above all, it provides a singular beauty to built spaces.

Brutalism perhaps reached its zenith in the former Yugoslavia during the period between the end of World War II and 1980, a period that is highlighted in a current exhibition at the MoMA, Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980.  It highlights the work of several Yugoslavian architects in the period and pieces ranging from prosaic apartments to public arenas to monuments.  The buildings themselves are, of course, not on display in the museum, but their stories are told through models, photographs, and examples of interior objects.


Installation view of Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, July 15, 2018–January 13, 2019. © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Martin Seck

A convergence of factors came together which allowed these modernist experiments to flourish.  Yugoslavia broke away from the Soviet bloc in 1948 and began to forge its own socialist path and identity.  It constituted itself as six republics in a federation in which traditional regional identities were subordinate to a new and modern whole.  At the same time, the country was devastated by World War II and needed massive rebuilding.  Finally, new ideas in architecture were emerging along with new materials, notably advances in concrete, steel, and glass allowed a new built environment to take shape.

The simple forms and surfaces were used for everyday buildings, such as apartment complexes, schools, and medical facilities.  But rather than just one-offs, they become part of a unified cityscape, a grand plan.  This was perhaps no more so than in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, which was devasted by an earthquake in 1963 and largely rebuild using modernist design and principals.

Janko Konstantinov. Telecommunications Center. 1968–81. Skopje, Macedonia. View of the Southwestern Block façade. Photo: Valentin Jeck, commissioned by The Museum of Modern Art, 2016
MARKO MUŠIČ.  Photograph by VALENTIN JECK
Ss. Cyril and Methodius University Campus, Skopje, Macedonia 1967–1974.  (Gotta love an architect named “Music”)

There are, of course, numerous rectilinear designs, sometimes in steel and glass, and sometimes dominated by concrete.  But concrete also allowed for the exploration of curved structures and organic shapes.  We see this in many of the large civic arenas, but also in the brutalist monuments built in the post-war period.  This “cell-like” structure in Macedonia takes it to the extreme, looking at once like an organic organism and a spaceship.

Wandering through the exhibition, one cannot help but imagine being the real spaces.  For me, the modernist, severe style brings a sense of calm and welcome that more traditional styles don’t always provide.  Ornament can be beautiful, but it is rarely ever calming in the way that simple texture and geometry is.  The calming nature of simple forms can extend to the interior spaces as well as the exterior, and the exhibition includes examples of everyday objects and furnishings.

Installation view of Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, July 15, 2018–January 13, 2019. © 2018 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Martin Seck

Sadly, the Yugoslavian experiment ultimately failed, with country breaking apart and the entire region plunging into extreme nationalism and devastating wars in the 1990s.  This is a cautionary tale as we watch the plague of nationalism rising around the world, including in the United States.  Many of the architectural works in this exhibition did survive the wars.  But they do face continued challenges to their survival, including maintenance and a push to return to more “traditional” forms.  The “Skopje 2014” initiative, for example, is both farcical and tragic.  Despite these challenges, I hope the countries of the region will recognize and preserve the legacy of their modernist period for years to come.

This article only scratches the rough, hardened surface of the wealth in this exhibition.  It was truly a wonderful experience, even if so much was in my imagination through the artifacts.  Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980 will be on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York through January 13, 2019.

The Art of Paper at Sundaram Tagore Gallery

The Art of Paper is a multi-artist exhibition currently on display Sundaram Tagore Gallery at their Chelsea location.  The term “works on paper” often refers to drawing and print, but the medium and can be used in so many more ways.  Each of the artists in the show uses paper in a very different way, showcasing its breadth and versatility as a raw material for art.

Korean artist Chun Kwang Young creates fantastic three-dimensional sculptures from mulberry paper.  This thin and delicate paper is prized as an artistic material, but also has mundane uses as wrappers.  Chun sources his paper from old books and wraps them into tight triangular forms that he then assembles into beautiful and complex forms he calls Aggregations.

Chun Kwang Young, “Aggregations” installation view

Some are flat and wall-mounted while others are freestanding.  But in all cases, they are three-dimensional full of complex depth and texture.

The jagged triangular elements seem sharp, even a bit dangerous up close.  But at the same time, they seem fragile, like delicate crystals that could fall apart among touch.  When viewing closer, they seem soft, especially as the details of the paper come into view, including the original printed text from the source material.  There is something almost science-fiction-y and other-worldly about the result that I find captivating.

Aggregation 17 – DE099​, 2017, mixed media with Korean mulberry paper, 59.4 x 59.4 inches/151 x 151 cm

Chun has a simultaneous solo exhibition from his Aggregations at the Brooklyn Museum, which we will be reviewing in a separate article.

The work of Anila Quayyum Agha also uses paper as a basis for sculpture with a very different set of styles, techniques, and sensibilities.  She is best known for her works featuring paper laser-cut into large intricate forms.  Many of the paper cuts are assembled into cubes placed in immersive spaces with light.

Shimmering Mirage, 2016, lacquered steel and halogen bulb, 36 x 36 x 36 inches/91.4 x 91.4 x 91.4 cm

Being in the space of this piece and viewing it from all angles was a captivating experience.  It doesn’t seem like paper, but rather intricately carved stone or metal.  Some of the same principles of light and the spaces in between the material are at play in Agha’s two-dimensional works. The designs of Agha’s laser-cuts are reminiscent of the intricate designs found in Islamic art and architecture, such as the mosques of her native Pakistan.  Growing up as a woman there, she often found herself excluded from such spaces, and this informs her art today.

In contrast to Agha’s highly intricate designs, Miya Ando’s work is more subtle and spare.  She is known for more abstract work in metal, but she brings that work to paper in her “moonlight” pieces for this show.

Miya Ando, Gekkou (August) Moonlight 2, 2018, silver leaf and pigment on Arches paper, 41 x 29 inches/104.1 x 73.7 cm

Paper is often white, but it can be many different whites and shades in between those gradations.  The subtle changes give the round form a very natural feel in contrast to the stark white background.

There are several more artists in this show, more than we at CatSynth are able to cover in this article.  For more information, please visit the gallery’s website.  They are located at 547 West 27th Street, and the exhibition will be on display through December 15, 2018.

Mary Corse: A Survey in Light, Whitney Museum

We at CatSynth spent the better portion of a recent afternoon at the Whitney Museum of American Art, taking in the entire museum top to bottom.  In the first of our reports, we start at the top with a survey of the work of artist Mary Corse.

The exhibition – Corse’s first solo survey at a major institution – focuses on her work in the mid-to-late 1960s as part of the West Coast Light and Space movement.  Like many of her contemporaries, Corse was very interested in the use of light as a medium in itself, but her output of light works was almost entirely focused on flat art, i.e., the kind you can hang on walls.  This made her a bit of an outlier in the movement.

Installation view of Mary Corse: A Survey in Light (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, June 8-November 25, 2018). From left to right: Untitled (Two Triangular Columns), 1965; Untitled (Space Plexi + Painted Wood), 1966; Untitled (Two Triangular Columns), 1965; Untitled (White Diamond, Negative Stripe), 1965; Untitled (Hexagonal White), 1965. © Mary Corse. Photograph by Ron Amstutz

At first glance, it might be tempting to dismiss her work as “another round of white-on-white paintings from the 1960s.”  But what makes it interesting is that light is at the center, rather than texture or pigment; and that she delved into emerging technologies and media to move beyond painting.

The most intriguing pieces in the exhibition were those that used plexiglass and lighting technologies.  Corse studied physics and engineering in preparation for this body of work.  We see this in her series where custom Plexiglass elements of different depths are juxtaposed next to one another allowing different amounts of light to pass through. 

Untitled (Space Plexi + Painted Wood), 1966.  Series of 3. Plexiglass and acrylic on composition board.  24 5/16 x 24 5/16 x 2 5/8 in. (61 x 61 x 6.4 cm). Collection of Andrea Nasher

It is a subtle but fascinating set, and I found myself moving back and forth and looking from either side in my own exploration.

Corse also made her own light elements with a variety of technologies, including this piece from 1968 which employed an argon light and frequency generator, once again with her own custom plexiglass. I would have loved to have seen it in action, but it was unfortunately broken at the time – Tesla coils are notoriously temperamental.  But they did have a video guide on hand with a video to let us experience the work.

Untitled (Space + Electric Light), 1968. Argon light, plexiglass ,and high-frequency generator, 45 1/4 x 45 1/4 x 4 3/4 in.(114.9 x 114.9 x 12.1 cm). Museum of Contemporary Art SanDiego; museum purchase with funds from the Annenberg Foundation.Photograph by Philipp Scholz Rittermann

Looking at the bands within the light, I immediately found myself thinking of the amplitudes in a time-varying sound wave, or perhaps a frequency-domain spectrum.   It would have been quite interesting to “hear” it.

The final set of work in the exhibition takes an abrupt turn, making the end of this period in Corse’s career.  In 1970, she moved from Los Angeles to Topanga Canyon and embarked on her Black Earth Series of paintings.

Untitled (Black Light Painting), 1975. Acrylic squares, glass microspheres, and acrylic on
canvas. 108 x 108 in. (274.3 x 274.3 cm). Collection of Sangbeom Kim and Sunjung Kim

Beyond the obvious switch from white to black, there is a break from technology and a return to working with more traditional materials and textures.  The “black” in the Black Earth Series are ceramics made in her own kilns.  The glossy material is reflective, but also thick and covered in bumps and curves.  This is in stark contrast to the plexiglass surfaces of her earlier work and makes a fitting bookend for the survey.

Unfortunately, the exhibition is closing this weekend, but if you happen to be in New York I recommend checking it out.  It makes a fine escape from the overwhelm and sensory overload of holiday season.

Vacuum Tree Head and Moe Staiano Ensemble at The UPTOWN

Today we look back at the show featuring Vacuum Tree Head and the Moe Staiano Ensemble at The UPTOWN in Oakland. It was also the subject of our most recent episode of CatSynth TV. 

This was the most ambitious Vacuum Tree Head show to date, at least during the time I have been involved in the band.  There were ten musicians involved: Jason Berry conducting, Steve Adams (of ROVA fame) on baritone saxophone, Jason Bellenkes on various woodwinds, Amanda Chaudhary on keyboard, Richard Corny on guitar, Michael de la Cuesta on guitar and synth, Justin Markovits on drums, Joshua Marshall on saxophones, Amy X Neuburg on voice and blippo box, and John Shiurba on bass. 

Vacuum Tree Head.  Photo by Crystal Lee

The band delivered an impressive and truly dynamic performance, going through a diverse mix of styles from our current repertoire.  And that fact that the core of the lineup has stabilized means that the tunes are always getting tighter and more idiomatic, especially our “big” numbers Nubdug and EMS Deluxe – I always have a lot of fun in the latter with a big 1970s style electric-piano solo.  But this set was more than just music – it continued the band’s pattern of adding new spectacle at each show.  This time, we had a juggler, Colin Hogan, and my friend and frequent collaborator Serena Toxicat held up signs for audience participation.  The juggling was a unique moment, with Hogan tossing lighted beanbags and other objects as we played a new version of the tune Marlon Brando

Overall, I had a wonderful time playing, as I’m pretty sure the entire band did.  And we got a great response from the audience at The UPTOWN.  Next, it was time for the Moe Staiano Ensemble to take the stage.

Moe Staiano Ensemble

This was also an ambitious set, building on Moe’s previous ideas but with an even larger ensemble of guitars:  Jay Korber, William Bohrer, Melne Murphy, Damon Wood, Robin Walsh, Drew Wheeler, Bill Wolter, John Shiurba, Josh Pollock, David James, Marc Zollinger, and Karl Evangelista.  That, my friends, is a lot of guitars!  But they were also joined by Steve Lew on bass and Jeff Lievers on drums.

Moe’s large scale composition followed a classical form of three movements: a loud opening fanfare, a calm and moody second movement, and amore dynamic finale.  It featured many of the idiomatic elements I have come to know and appreciate in his compositions from my time playing in Surplus 1980, including the repetitions coming in and out of phase.  During the first movement, there was a driving eight-note patterns with phasing that created an intense but pointillated wall of sound.  The second movement, which contained slower notes and lots of open space, was exceptionally beautiful, and my favorite part of the performance.  You can hear some of it in our video.

It was a wonderful night of music in Oakland, and I was happy to be a part of it both as a performance and an audience member.  There was a fairly decent turnout, especially for a Tuesday.  It’s not every day you can get this cast of musicians on a stage at once, as both groups did, but I look forward to the next time they do.

David Pate & Steve Cohn / Manul Override / Ornettology at the Make-Out Room

As we busily prepare for the next Vacuum Tree Head show this coming Tuesday, I find myself looking back at my last show with a very different band, Manul Override earlier this month at the Make-Out Room in San Francisco.  It was the subject of a recent CatSynth TV episode.

The evening began with an improvised set featuring saxophonist David Pate with keyboardist Steve Cohn.

Then it was time for Manul Override’s debut show.  This was a new group I put together with my friend and collaborator Serena Toxicat on voice and former Surplus-1980 bandmate Melne on guitar.

We had a lot of fun on stage, and the energy spread to the audience, with dancing and meowing all around (all of our tunes had at least some connection to cats).  I was particularly happy with the opening incantation, which featured a French rendition of Serena’s ode to the goddess Bast, and our 1980s-pop-style tune “Goodnigobbles”, which also featured Serena seductively delivering lyrics and spoken words in French.  Melne had a chance to show her versatility throughout the set, including our extended funky jam in the middle of the set.  As with all new musical projects, this is a work in progress, figuring out what works for us and what doesn’t, and how to make each show better than the previous one.  But it was also fun visually, with our fashion statements, cat ears, and Melne’s lighting.

The final set featured Ornettology, a project led by guitarist and composer Myles Boisen.  As the name suggests, the group is inspired by the music of Ornette Coleman, and reimagines many of his compositions.   He was joined by a stellar cast of local musicians including Steve Adams and Phillip Greenlief on saxophones, John Haines on drums, Safa Shokrai on bass, and John Finkbeiner.

The band delivered a truly dynamic performance that featured some of Ornette Coleman’s more familiar tunes, including “Ramblin'” and “Mob Job” There were some great solos from each of the members of the group as well.  You can hear some of Philip Greenlief and Myles Boisen soloing in our video.

The last few shows I have played at the Make-Out room always have a great audience – full houses that seem to appreciate having live music, whether they came to hear the specific artists or just happened to drop by.  A few in the latter category seemed to quite enjoy our Manul-Override set, signing Serena’s leg cast (she had an unfortunate accident a couple of weeks before the show) and taking selfies with us.  It was a fun night of music all aroundl.

René Magritte: The Fifth Season at SFMOMA

We at CatSynth have been extraordinarily busy since the start of summer with work, music, and other obligations.  As a result, our explorations of visual art have suffered a bit.  But we start correcting that today with a report from the blockbuster René Magritte: The Fifth Season exhibition at SFMOMA.  I’m glad I was able to get in to see it before it closes in two weeks!

The exhibition focuses on his later works, from World War II through the late 1960s.  It is billed as “If you think you know Magritte (1898–1967), think again.”  Yet, this period includes many of his most iconic works – other than perhaps his most famous La Trahison des images (aka “this is not a pipe”), including many of my favorites from the broader Magritte retrospective I had seen at SFMOMA in the early 2000s.

Les valeurs personnelles
Les valeurs personnelles (1952)

The work depicted above,  Les valeurs personnelles, is perhaps my favorite of all.  I find myself drawn to it not just because of the stark juxtaposition of larger-than-human-sized objects in a smaller-than-human-sized space, but for the various textures that defy painting.  The objects themselves have the hyperrealistic sheen of graphics from the 1990s (we were all proud of our ability to render glass) with the more pedestrian room space and strangely realistic sky on the wall.  These are the characteristics of many of Magritte’s pieces during his Hypertrophy period in the 1950s.  It’s taken to an extreme in a piece that features one of his iconic green apples swelling to gargantuan proportions and pushing against the walls of a modest room.

The Listening Room
The Listening Room (1952)

And of course, there were many bowler-hatted gentlemen, some with green apples, some without.

The Son of Man
The Son of Man (1964)

The image of the bowler hat and the bowler-hatted man has appeared throughout Magritte’s career, but it was more closely associated with the artist himself in his later works, a form of self-portraiture.

The Happy Donor
The Happy Donor (1966)

In addition to the green apple, we see many objects and concepts that appear in other works from this period applied to the bowler-hatted man, such as the small round stone, birds, and negative spaces.

In both sets of works, we see the discrete juxtaposition of elements that may or may not fit with real-life experience.  I see this is as “quintessentially Magritte” and consistent throughout most of his career.  In that sense, I disagree a bit with the thesis of the exhibition that this later period was a break with surrealism, but rather a reimagining of it with different subjects and techniques and without the heaviness of the movement’s manifesto.  If there was one section of the exhibit that truly represented a break from what I know of the artist, it was the first section that featured his vache period immediately following World War II.

Lyricism (Le Lyrisme) 1947
Lyricism (Le Lyrisme) 1947

I would never have guessed these grotesque parodies of van-Gogh-style impressionism were his work if they were not presented and explained.  At the same time, it is not surprising that the experience of the war (Magritte remained in his native Belgium during the Nazi occupation).  It feels like his weakest and least memorable work, but one theory suggests that his retrograde style during this period helped avoid Nazi attention and persecution.  We are certainly glad he returned to form in his later years.

One of late series, collectively called The Dominion of Light, brings together a nighttime city streetscape with a daytime sky. 

The Dominion of Light

It takes a moment of adjustment to realize the confounding of night and day in the image, as our eyes are so used to assumptions about the passing of time and light.  The series is at once playful, but also a bit melancholy, pointing to the later years of a life and life’s work.   Fortunately, there was one more chapter to come that was both more curious and more uplifting.

A Sense of Reality (1963)

This bizarre series of boulders floating in space or sitting isolated on an apartment terrace is a return to form, but also an exploration of time and gravity and even more fundamental assumptions that we make in everyday life.  Their lightness and starkness also make an interesting statement at the end of a career that spanned several decades and saw the massive changes of the 20th century.  We should note that the bowler-hat portraits featured in this article were done during the same late period, and are stronger both as works in themselves and as a career-spanning statement. 

The exhibit was overall a delight to experience.  It was hung in a minimalist but also warm style without too much crowding or overwhelm, and it weaved a narrative even as I took in the works as individuals.  It also marked a return a place of solace, the museum, after a long period of intensity and focus on other practices.  I won’t stay away as long again.

If you are in San Francisco over the next couple of weeks, I strongly recommend checking this exhibition out before it closes on October 28.  For more information, please visit https://www.sfmoma.org/exhibition/rene-magritte/.

SF Symphony Performs Perséphone and The Firebird

Even as Septembers and Octobers go in San Francisco, this one has been crazy, careening between rehearsals and performances for various projects, growing in a new job, and dreading whatever new political development occurs.  So our recent outing to hear SF Symphony perform the music of Igor Stravinsky was a bit of a respite.  It was part of a two week-festival celebrating the music of Stravinsky that included not only the “big three” (The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring) but other less-frequently performed works.  We were there for the night featuring The Firebird and enjoyed the bar’s special Firebird martini in celebration.

The Firebird, the first the “big three,” premiered in 1910 and while was considered avant-garde by some in Paris, it’s a very accessible work that draws more from 19th-century romanticism than from the innovations of the time.  For us at CatSynth, this is about as conservative as our live music gets.  But it is nonetheless an adventurous piece and very richly textured, especially in its focus on brass and wind instruments.  As it was performed without staging, it was easier to concentrate entirely on the music.  The early “Prince Ivan” sections had phrases and idioms that foreshadowed L’Histoire du soldat (The Soldier’s Tale); then there is that iconic ending with the slow big chords.

If anything, it was the opening performance of Perséphone that was more unique an exciting.  It far less often that Stravinsky’s other large-scale works, and it is complex to stage.  For this performance, the symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas was joined by the great Leslie Caron as the narrator and Persephone, Nicholas Phan on tenor as Eumolpus and other characters, as well as San Francisco Symphony Chorus, San Francisco Girls Chorus, and the Pacific Boychoir.

Despite the massive number of performers between the orchestra and the choruses, Perséphone has a sparse and more minimal texture than The Firebird or the other big ballets.  It also has a very deliberate and punctuated quality, with each note and each syllable of the text standing alone.  It does have a joyous, lyrical quality at times – it is a celebration of spring.  But it also has dark, unsettling moments, which is keeping with the mythological story of Persephone, the spring goddess and daughter of Ceres being brought to Hades by Pluto.  The story is one of balance between light and dark, and between the seasons.  But the text in this version is somewhat more ambiguous, emphasizing Persephone’s descending to Hades by choice.  It does also celebrate her worldly existence as the bride of Triptolemus and joy of rebirth, and of course the springtime.  Musically we are treated to a light touch without leaning too heavily on major/minor emotional tropes, much as the story projects its ambiguity between light and dark.  The winds, and piccolos, in particular, were prominent. And as stated above the space within the music leaves ample time to consider each note and word.  It was a quietly but powerfully dynamic performance; and orchestra, soloists and chorus were treated to many well-deserved rounds of applause.

It was our first trip back to the Symphony in a while, as their 2017 program was far more conservative and focused on traditional repertoire compared the numerous shows we had enjoyed in 2016.  We do look forward to more adventurous and contemporary programming again soon.

Club Foot Orchestra performs their Greatest Hits

Last weekend the Club Foot Orchestra teamed up with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, to perform some of their “greatest hits”, contemporary live performances to silent film classics.  A full day of live music by the venerable and indefatigable ensemble! 

The Club Foot Orchestra was started 25 years ago in 1983 by Richard Marriott (brass, winds), and still includes original member Beth Custer on woodwinds.  They were joined in this performance by Sheldon Brown (woodwinds), Will Bernard (guitar), Chris Grady (trumpet), Gino Robair (percussion), Kymry Esainko (piano/keyboard), Sascha Jacobsen (bass), Deirdre McClure (conductor), and Alisa Rose (violin).   They performed some of their most memorable scores, including interpretations of the German expressionist classics Metropolis and Nosferatu.  We at CatSynth were not able to attend Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s futurist masterpiece and a personal favorite of mine.  But we were on hand for Nosferatu, the iconic and controversial horror film directed by F. W. Murnau and starring Max Schreck as the eternally creepy Count Orlock.

The history of Nosferatu is as intriguing as the film itself.  It was an unauthorized adaptation from Bram Stoker’s original Dracula, and although the names and some details were changed, in many ways it conforms more closely to both the story and spirit of the original than many later interpretations.  Perhaps too closely, as the Stoker estate successfully sued Murnau’s production company and won a judgment that included an order to destroy all copies of the film.  Fortunately, some prints had already been distributed internationally and have been used for restorations of the original.  The version screened on this occasion was a beautiful restoration from the 2000s that included color tinting for various scenes.  The colors added an even more eerie and otherworldly quality to the film.  It worked particularly well for the Transylvanian scenes and those in and around Orlock’s castle.

The orchestra delivered a highly dynamic and varied performance paired with the images.  There were many sparse sections that fit with the tension of the film, and I particularly liked the spots that featured single lines, such as percussion hits, extended-technique winds, or synthesizer samples.  But the sections where the ensemble came together to deliver punchy and sensuous jazz lines were especially fun.  It added an element of humor and modernism, which is inevitable for a twenty-first-century viewing of a movie from nearly 100 years ago.  The mixture of noises and extended sounds with bits of Eastern European melody and harmony worked especially well for strangely colored Transylvanian scenes.

As a small group, each of the wind players had multiple instruments.  Richard Marriott had a quite an arsenal of flutes and lower brass, and both Beth Custer and Sheldon Brown had bass clarinets in addition to their other instruments.  Gino Robair also had in an impressive array of percussion instruments (though no electronics on this particular occasion).

It was a delightful evening of music and visuals that worked well together – a more concrete film-centered version of the discipline we had a seen a week earlier in Andy Puls’ abstract set at the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival.  And while I’m sorry to have missed Metropolis on this occasion, Nosferatu was probably even more of an “event” in the space of the Castro Theatre.  We look forward to hearing more of Club Foot Orchestra’s scores in the near future.

San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF) Night 3

The 19th annual San Francisco Electronic Music Festival concluded yesterday, and we at CatSynth were on hand for the final concert. There were three sets, each showcasing different currents within electronic music, but they all shared a minimalist approach to their musical expression and presentation.

The evening opened with a set by Andy Puls, a composer, performer and designer of audio/visual instruments based out of Richmond, California. We had seen one of his latest inventions, the Melody Oracle, at Outsound’s Touch the Gear (you can see him demonstrating the instrument in our video from the event). For this concert, he brought the Melody Oracle into full force with additional sound and visuals that filled the stage with every changing light and sound.

Andy Puls

The performance started off very sparse and minimal, with simple tones corresponding to lights. Combining tones resulted in combining lights and the creation of colors from the original RGB sources. As the music grew increasingly complex, the light alternated between the solid colors and moving patterns.

Andy Pulse

I liked the sound and light truly seemed to go together, separate lines in a single musical phrase, and a glimpse of what music would be if it was done with light rather than sound.

OMMO, the duo of Julie Moon and Adria Otte brought an entirely different sound and presence to the stage.

OMMO

The performance explored the “complexities and histories of the Korean diaspora and their places within it.” And indeed, words and music moved freely back and forth between traditional and abstract sounds and Korean and English words. Moon’s voice was powerful and evocative, and quite versatile in range and she moved through these different ideas. The processing on her voice, including delays and more complex effects, was crisp and sounded like an extension of her presence. Otte performed on laptop and analog electronics, delivering a solid foundation and complex interplay. A truly dynamic and captivating performance.

The final set featured a solo performance Paris-based Kassel Jaeger, who recently became director of the prestigious Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM). Sitting behind a table on a darkened stage, with a laptop, guitar and additional electronics, he brought forth an eerie soundscape.

Kassek Jaeger

The music featured drone sounds, with bits of recognizable recorded material, as well as chords and sharp accents. The musique concrète influence was abundant but also subtle at times as any source material was often submerged in complex pads and clouds over which Jaeger performed improvisations.

It is sometimes difficult to describe these performances in words, though we at CatSynth try our best to do so. Fortunately, our friends at SFEMF shared some clips of each set in this Instagram post.

Much was also made of the fact that this was the 19th year of the festival. That is quite an achievement! And we look forward to what they bring forth for the 20th next year…