Word Performances and The Nunnery

After a couple of months away from live performance, I found myself playing two shows in one weekend, both in the Mission District of San Francisco. They were an exercise in contrasts artistically, but both were delightful in different ways.

Word Performances is a “variety show” of poets, musicians, and dancers produced by Cybele Zufolo Siegel and Todd Siegel. The latest incarnation took place at the Lost Church, a favorite venue of mine for its cozy theater and visual vibe reminiscent of David Lynch.

Like any good variety show, it features a staple of regular players that includes both Cybele and Todd, but also Pitta of the Mind as a recurring act. There were of course new participants as well, especially among the poets. You can see a bit of everyone in our video from the evening.

As is clear from the short excerpts, there was a diversity of styles and subject-matter. There were the spartan settings of the readings by Rose Heredia, Jon Sindell, Crystal Jo Reiss, and William Taylor, Jr. Todd and Cybele also gave readings, but with violin accompaniment provided by Hannah Glass. And flamenco Dancer Damian Alvarez stole the show with his tightly choreographed dance to the music of James Brown.

For Pitta of the Mind – myself and poet Maw Shein Win – we performed a brand new set with new poems, and a new color theme of green. The instruments were the same as for our previous performances, combining the Nord Stage, Prophet 12, and modular synthesizers. The consistency in structure and instrumentation helps in our ability to quickly come up with a new set.

Other than my psychedelic lights not working as expected, it was a solid set overall, and we are always happy to be part of the Word Performances shows.


If Word Performances provided a diversity of styles and media, the show later that weekend was very focused on invented instruments, unusual sounds, and the birthday of our friend David Michalak. You can see a bit of everyone in our CatSynth TV video (with David giving the valedictory tag).

This was the first time I performed as a duo with Scott Looney, but I was quite happy with the results. We are both skilled improvisers and were able to blend our sounds and ideas together seamlessly, with my performing on an Arturia MiniBrute 2 and Scott on a custom string instrument with various preparations.

Our set as well as the one that followed us featuring Tom Nunn, David Michalak, and Aurora Josephson had a similar texture: a lot of wisps, scrapes, and staccato elements. It was interesting to see how much musically David could get out of a flat piece of cardboard! The opening set with Tom Nunn on skatchbox and Ron Heglin on voice also had a very pointed and sparse texture.

The final set featuring Ghost in the House had a softer, longer, and more liquidy quality. This time David Michalak was performing with a processed harmonica and lap steel guitar, with long tones matched by Polly Moller Springhorn on bass flute and Cindy Webster on musical saw – and this was no ordinary musical saw, it seemed built specifically for music.

Overall, it was a fun show, and of high quality musically. It’s a shame more people weren’t able to hear it live – it was a private event – but the video captures much of the experience in a compact form.

Codex Seraphinianus

We at CatSynth have been fascinated with the Codex Seraphinianus long before this beautiful edition made its way to CatSynth HQ.

The Codex is a masterpiece of book art by Italian artist, architect and industrial designer Luigi Serafini. It is an illustrated encyclopedia as a handwritten manuscript with hand-drawn color illustrations depicting a surreal imaginary universe of objects, creatures and concepts.

Most interesting of all, it is written in a completely invented script.

The script, consisting of squiggles and dots, sometimes detached and sometimes cursive, resemble a Western, Semitic or South Asian script, but one entirely of Serafini’s own imagination. It is easy to pick out repeated letters, such as the “E-like” character with one dot in its lower section; and curve-on-a-stem that appears to serve as a singular character in many portions of the first book.

Even without knowing the full meaning of the script or the illustrations, one can start to discern meaning. For example, on this page it is pretty clear that this creature tends to wilt (perhaps even suffer) in rain, but thrives in sunshine. (This is something I can sympathize with.)

Serafini himself has declared the writing in the Codex to be asemic, without a specific structure or meaning. And while I take him at his word, one cannot help but construct meaning from both the images and the writing. I have long been fascinated by other alphabets and writing systems and been able to find patterns (and even learn them to some degree) independent of the languages they represent. For example, I was able to learn a bit of the Tamil script when traveling in South India in my youth, though I never learned the sounds or the language. Similarly, I began to pick up Sinographic characters in my time in China but with no knowledge of how to pronounce most of them.

It is in this vein that I have begun to read the Codex from its start, treating it as a pure work of art with text and illustration as its medium. It’s actually a pleasurable and captivating experience to pour over the text and spot the patterns without being confined by the need for meaning. I made it through the first book (plants and anthropomorphic flora) and a bit into the second (animals). It is the fourth book (physics, chemistry) and the fifth (machines) that I most curious to “read” in depth, but I will take my time to get there.

NAMM 2019: Arturia MicroFreak (First Look)

One of the most talked-about releases at NAMM (at least within our circles) was the new MicroFreak from Arturia. So, of course, we at CatSynth had to check it out.

It is a unique-looking instrument. The panel is etched with a variety of iconography; and then there is the flat PCB in place of the traditional keyboard. No moving parts here. But it is quite expressive, including polyphonic aftertouch.

Beyond its looks and keyboard, the main feature of the MicroFreak is its digital oscillator. There are several different “types” for the oscillator, including wavetable, sampling, physical modeling, virtual analog, and something called “texturizer”. Within each there are selections for parameters labeled wave, timbre, and shape, that do different things in different types. These can be selected in real time via the knobs, and wave and timbre can also be destinations for modulation.

The digital oscillator followed in the signal chain by an analog filter, specifically an Oberheim SEM-style filter, which sounds quite good when the oscillator is set to a rich source. There also the usual array of modulators, including envelope (one-shot and cycled), LFO, and arpeggiator. The sequencer includes a bunch of compositional functions with cute names like “Spice” and “Dice” to help build and modify patterns, which then can be routed via the modulation matrix.

It is quite a powerful instrument, but attempting to play it was a bit intimidating at first. Unlike the MiniBrute (analog) or even the Sequential Prophet 12 (hybrid), the knobs weren’t quite as intuitive for someone used to a lot of subtractive or semi-modular synthesizers, especially the oscillator with its various modes and the composition functions. I suspect it was an easier first-experience for those who use beat and sample boxes like those from Elektron. Indeed, I was able to get more out of it by turning on the arpeggiator and then turning knobs. You can see a bit of my initial attempts in our recent video.

In order to really understand what this little beast has to offer, a deep dive in the studio would be required. We at CatSynth hope to be able to arrange that in the not-to-distant future, and will report back here and on CatSynth TV.

NAMM 2019: New Modules from 2hp

We at CatSynth are fans of 2hp, and not just The Cat. They’ve given us so many things to put in those pesky little spaces left in our modular systems, from highly useful VCAs (you can never have too many VCAs), to more exotic offerings like physical modeling.

At this year’s NAMM show, the debuted four new modules covering both utilitarian and creative terrain. The one that most intrigued me was the Bell, a physical modeling voice that brings metallophone sounds. It can do vibraphone-like sounds, wine glasses, bowls, and of course, bells. With the main mallet and bar parameters (indicating that is likely based on modal synthesis), one can get a variety of combinations with CV modulation. This looks like a lot of fun – I already on the Pluck – and look forward to its release.

At the other end of the spectrum is the DC module. It offers three different DC offsets along a -5v, +5v, and 10v scale. These are useful utilities when crafting specific CV signals. I could see this pairing nicely with a Make Noise Maths for more precise control, or for tuning 1v/Oct controls.

Next up is the Sine, which is more than a simple sinewave generator. It does have a pure sine wave, but also a sub that allows blending of the fundamental, one octave below, and half an octave above. It also includes a wave folder function for rich harmonics. Essentially, this is another harmonic oscillator.

Finally, there is the Grain, a granular processor that buffers incoming signals and allows them to be output using granular synthesis. This is a bit different from a sample-based granular module like the original Nebulae from Qu-bit which works on stored samples (the v2 of the Nebulae does allow processing of live input). The buffers can then be mangled and stretched by setting the density and periodicity of grains, along with the overall pitch. The demo we saw had this hooked up to The Cat.

The result of the new modules plus the Cat and percussion made for a delightful demo as you can see and hear from our video.

For more information about these upcoming modules from 2hp, including estimated release dates, please visit http://www.twohp.com/soon/.

NAMM 2019: Qu-Bit Electronix

One of our first stops at NAMM 2019 was to visit our friends at Qu-Bit Electronix. This year they had three new modules to share.

The first of the three was the Prism (center in the picture above). It combines three audio processors that are mapped to a three-dimension “prism” control space. One axis controls a comb filter, another a bit crusher, and the third is time/speed control. The audio processors operate on a buffer, which can either be continuously updated from audio input or “frozen” in time and looped. Finally, there is a multi-state filter that can either operate at the beginning or end of the signal chain. Of the three, this one perhaps intrigued me the most with the possibilities of mapping these different functions to CV input (e.g., from a Maths or a sequencer) in ways that push traditional music. You can hear a bit of it, along with the other two modules, in our video which features all three modules.

The second module was the Chord, or rather the new incarnation of the chord. It’s a four-voice polyphonic oscillator with both traditional waveforms (continuously morphable) and a new set of wavetables. The oscillators can be stacked into chords, or in this new version each controlled separately for polyphony in the music-theory sense of the word – yes, with the right sequencer, this module can do four-voice counterpoint. The chord mode includes a variety of standard western four-voice chords (i.e., with a seventh degree), but also the ability to add custom chords that include microtones or dense tone clusters. It’s also more compact than the original, slimmed down to just 14hp.

The final module was the Bloom, a sequencer that could generate variations on the fly using a proprietary fractal algorithm. The amount of variation, from none to completely random, can be controlled dynamically via CV, as can the number of steps in the sequence, for quite a range of variety. And with two channels, it would seem to pair nicely the Chord.

As always, it’s fun to visit with Qu-Bit and see what they up to, especially as they are CatSynth superfans. And we look forward to seeing these modules out in the wild over the course of the year. The Prism is due in March, the Chord in late spring, and the Bloom in the fall.

NAMM 2019: Korg Volca Modular and Minilogue XD

We can always count on something new from Korg these days. Sometimes it’s completely new, but this year it was new incarnations of existing lines. We introduced them in a recent CatSynth TV episode and describe them in more detail below.

The Volca series continues to grow with its newest offering, the Volca Modular.

Korg Volca Modular

The Volca Modular is a self-contained semi-modular synthesizer in a tiny volca-sized package. It has a VCO and modulator for complex waveforms, a function section with envelopes and an LFO, a sequencer, and various patch points for splitting and mixing. Its novel element is the LPG, a low pass gate that can be used as an amp, a filter, or something completely different a la west-coast synthesis. It puts quite a lot in a little box for just $199.

It reminds a bit of some other “tiny tabletop semi-modular synthesizers” such as the Moog Werkstatt or the newer Bastl Instruments Softpop (my CDP bandmate Tom Djll uses one of these and thus I want one, too). Like those, the Volca Modular has tiny little patch points and chords, which are adorable. But unlike those, I found it difficult to patch. The wire tips were a bit flimsy and I bent at least one of them trying to create a new patch on the fly. Otherwise, though, I think this is a fine little instrument, and could end up in my Volca collection.

Minilogue XD

The other new instrument was the revamped Minilogue XD. The original Minilogue made quite a splash a couple of years ago as an affordable polyphonic analog synthesizer. In addition to a nice, darker finish, the XD adds their expandable digital wavetable technology from last year’s Prologue. The digital engine has several different oscillator types and functions, and is essentially a “third sound source” for the instrument. It’s not clear to me whether this includes the same open API that the Prologue has, which would be an unfortunate omission for us at CatSynth, though probably not an issue for most users. It also has microtonal capabilities, something which is missing from many structured MIDI-analog combinations.

Both of these instruments are interesting, incremental changes, with Korg seemingly defending the turf it established in the synthesizer resurgence. Neither is a top priority for us at CatSynth, but I would be surprised if they find their way to us at some point.

NAMM 2019: Behringer Synthesizers

Our 2019 NAMM experience began a little earlier this year when we stopped by Behringer’s offsite event in the Chatsworth neighborhood of Los Angeles. It was an opportunity to check out their current and upcoming synthesizer offerings. You can see some of them in this video.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ylvIpER

There is perhaps no synthesizer maker more controversial and more talked about these days than Behringer. Some dismiss them outright, others condemn their cloning of classic instruments, and others applaud their making affordable synthesizers that sound good and play well. Mention them in any synthesizer forum, and you are likely to get more responses than with any other topic.

Overall, I was happy with what I saw from them this year. I particularly liked the Vocoder VC340, a clone of the legendary Roland VP330 vocoder.

I already own a Roland Boutique VP-03, so I have access to this sound and signal path, with all its temperamental qualities. But the VC340 comes in a larger package with full-size keys, with electronics more similar to the original, including the voice and string synthesizers. It would make a great stage vocoder if I had need and space for one. It is also easier to get external signals into it, and we played around using Behringer’s new Rhythm Designer RD-808 as the modulator signal (you can hear it in the video).

Behringer has also come out with a clone of the Odyssey, simply called Odyssey.

It’s industrial design, font, and colors are remarkably similar to the original (something which probably makes Behringer’s critics howl). But it’s a good sounding unit, and quite rugged looking. The layout of the sliders is a bit different from what I know from the original, the Korg clone, and my Octave CAT, so I didn’t have the opportunity to dial in the “Chameleon” tone and give it the Herbie Hancock test, but I did get some interesting modulated sounds familiar from the original Odyssey.

It is important to note that Behringer has also produced original instruments such as the Neutron.

The Neutron is a Eurorack-compatible synthesizer with all the expected VCO, VCF, and VCA sections, as well as an extensive modulation matrix. It does not have a sequencer, but the Eurorack ecosystem is awash with sequencers so that shouldn’t be much of an issue. The Neutron is on the surface similar to the Moog Mother-32 and Arturia Microbrute (sans sequencer), but it does have its own sound. Is it different enough to want it if you already own those instruments? That is subjective. But it played well, and at $399 is quite affordable.

There is also the clone of the Minimoog, the Model D, affectionately known by many of us as “The Boog.”

It sounds like a Model D. And it is Eurorack compatible. It’s a great affordable option to get that sound. End of story.

And finally, there is the new MS-101, a clone of the Roland SH-101, complete with red and blue finishes.

I don’t think the controversies around Behringer will fade anytime soon, especially as they continue to ramp up their synthesizer catalog. For those who complain about their cloning, there are others who charge “elitism” at their critics, considering the high prices vintage instruments and even current Eurorack modules command. Plus, these instruments have MIDI, USB, and other features that are rather handy when making music. We at CatSynth come down somewhere on the outside of this discussion, and simply enjoyed playing the instruments; and we might look into that vocoder.

Kwang Young Chun Aggregations and Infinite Blue, Brooklyn Museum

After seeing Kwang Young Chun’s Aggregations at Sundaram Tagore Gallery (read our review of that show), I knew I needed to check out his solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. I expected more of the same style of abstract triangulated paper constructions, but on a larger scale. And I was not disappointed.

Kwang Young Chun: Aggregations. Installation view.

These large other-worldly constructions are formed from small tightly folded prisms of mulberry paper.  This thin and delicate paper is prized as an artistic material but also has mundane uses as wrappers.  Chun primarily sources his paper from old books.

Close-up of Aggregation 15-JL038 . Kwang Young Chun

The freestanding central piece, which I believe was Aggregation 15-JL038 (his titles all rather cryptic alphanumeric combinations), was particularly intense and seemed like a cratered surface of a large asteroid. The remaining pieces were wall-mounted, but still combined light and shadow, roughness and smoothness, in a similar way.

Aggregation 09-D071, Blue (2009)

There is something I find deeply captivating about Chun’s sculptures. They seem like something I might have generated on the computer, but they are made of paper. They seem solid and heavy, but fragile at the same time. I also liked the juxtaposition of blue with the otherwise grayscale elements. I found myself sitting in the middle of the gallery and contemplating each of them for a long time, longer than I usually sit with individual pieces on a whirlwind trip through a museum.

Aggregation 17-NV089 (2017)

Blue seemed to be the color of the day. Even before reaching Kwang Young Chun’s exhibition, I was greeted by Infinite Blue, a survey of art and design objects from the museum’s collection.

Installation view

I have long been drawn to blue – along with purple, it is a color I welcome into my own art and design, and one of the few colors that I wear. It’s also historically a rarer color and one that is not often found in nature (other than the blue tint of the sky and water). The exhibition goes through different places and periods of art and craft incorporating blue, often juxtaposing traditional objects with contemporary art. For example, the Chinese porcelain in the image above was paired with contemporary paintings by Chinese artist Su Xiaobai.

Su Xiaobai. Moonlight Halo, 2013.

I tend to be most drawn to objects that are more abstract and geometric. As such, the section featuring 19th-century American decorative arts did nothing for me. By contrast, I enjoyed seeing a Korean 19th-century porcelain bottle with 20th-century American designs in blue glass.

Installation views

I do, however, have a soft spot for fish.

The most powerful element tying the entire exhibition together was the opening piece, one of Joseph Kosuth’s neon text works 276 (On Color Blue).

Joseph Kosuth. 276 (On Color Blue), 1993.

And this is perhaps a fitting way to close this article. There was more to see and share from this visit to the Brooklyn Museum, but we shall save that for a subsequent article.

Rova Saxophone Quartet and Life’s Blood Trio at VAMP, Oakland

As 2018 draws to a close, we look back a recent show we saw at VAMP (vintage – art and music – for the people) in Oakland. It was the subject of our most recent CatSynth TV.

As one can see at the start of the video, it was pouring rain that night. And it did not let up for the entire evening. But that did not stop an intrepid collection of music lovers from settling into VAMP’s small and quirky space to hear two great ensembles.

Rova Saxophone Quartet

The venerable Rova Saxophone Quartet have been performing together for 40 years, so it’s not surprising that they have coalesced into a sound all their own. Each of the four members, Bruce Ackley, Steve Adams, Larry Ochs, and Jon Raskin, have their own character, but as a group they function as one instrument. This is true even during fast runs, as they did in the latter half of the set, and when various members drop out or “solo” for a section.

Life's Blood Trio

Rounding out the evening was the Life’s Blood Trio, led by Rent Romus (saxophones) and featuring Safa Shokrai on upright bass and Timothy Orr on drums. This is a version of the larger Life’s Blood Ensemble pared down to its essentials. But there is still a rich and full sound in the spartan setting, with the three members filling the full harmonic and textural space. Romus’ performance is always expressive and frenetic, filled with emotion. Shokrai played an amazing extended bass solo. Orr kept things grounded, including during a solo of his own.

VAMP is a bit of a performance in an of itself, with its odd collection of items for sale and a record collection that requires one to sift through and look for surprises. They’ve been holding on, even as Oakland changes in myriad ways. We look forward to seeing more music there – and perhaps playing there again – in 2019

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.