Posing with my friend and collaborator Serena Toxicat at the Outsound benefit dinner a couple of weeks ago. Although about the same height, size, and silhouette, our color and texture were true contrasts. Black vs white, solid vs patterned. Yin and yang.
You can see our video from the performance at the benefit dinner below.
I have attended the Garden of Memory at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland many a summer solstice since moving to San Francisco – and written multiple reviews on these pages and even presented a CatSynth TV showcase last hear. But 2019 is the first time I have performed at this annual event as a named artist. It’s a very different experience from the inside looking out. This article describes the adventure.
My friend and sometime collaborator Serena Toxicat and I were excited to be accepted into this years program for our project Manul Override. We joined forces once again with Melne Murphy on guitar and also invited Thea Farhadian to sit in with us on violin.
I had a rather elaborate setup, anchored as usual by my trusty Nord Stage EX. The Sequential Prophet 12 has also become a mainstay of my smaller collaborations, providing rich ambient sounds. The Arturia MiniBrute 2, Moog Theremini, and a collection of Eurorack modules rounded out the rig.
Getting everything into place in the catacombs-like building – a renowned landmark designed by Julia Morgan – was a challenge in itself. Fortunately, I found parking nearby and was able to load everything onto carts or wheeled cases, and had plenty of help getting things downstairs where we were playing.
The acoustics of the space are also quite challenging. It is a set of oddly shaped stone chambers, some large, some small, so echoes abound from both the crowds and other performers. Figuring out how to balance our sound is not easy, and I don’t pretend to have gotten it right on the first try, but it’s a learning experience. But we did get ourselves sorted out and ready to play.
The set unfolded with an invocation, a drone in D mixolydian mode set to Serena’s text Mau Bast, read first in French and then in English. It seemed a perfect piece for the occasion. We then switched things up with a more humorous piece (Let’s Hear it for)Kitties, which was a crowd favorite. You can hear a bit of it in this video from the event.
I have learned how to best follow Serena’s style of speaking and singing, with a more open quality; and Melne and I know how to work together well both in terms of timing and timbre. Thea’s violin added an interesting counterpoint to the voice and electronics. Her sound was sometimes masked by the other instruments and the acoustics but when it came through it added a distinct character and texture. The remaining two pieces were more improvised. One was a free improvisation against one of Serena’s books Consciousness is a Catfish, and another was based on a graphical score with 16 symbols that I first created in 2010 but have revised and reused over the use. The newest version included a cartoon pigeon in honor of my bird-loving co-conspirator Melne.
The performance was well received. Crowds came and went throughout the evening, but many people stayed for extended periods of time to watch us, and others came back a few times. We played two hour-long sets, and in between I had a small amount of time to check out some of the other performs. In particular, I enjoyed hearing Kevin Robinson’s trio, with whom we shared our section of the space.
His spare group and arrangements with saxophone, upright bass, and drum, provided a distinct contrast to our thick sound. The moved between long drawn-out tones and fast runs with short notes that reverberated around the space in between. Robinson’s music often has a meditative quality, even when it is more energetic, so it fit well.
Around the corner from us was the Stanford Laptop Orchestra (SLOrk). They had a quiet set featuring performs seated on meditation cushions with laptops as well as various percussive objects as sound sources.
I was particularly inspired by Anne Hege and her Tape Machine, an instrument with a free-moving magnetic tape and several heads, pickups and tiny speakers. She sang into it at various points and moved the tape, created an instrumental piece that was part DIY-punk, part futuristic, and somehow quite traditional at the same time.
Her performance gave me ideas of a future installation, perhaps even to bring to the Garden of Memory in years to come…
Thea pulled double duty during the evening, also performing as part of a duo with Dean Santomieri, sharing a space with Pamela Z. Our friends Gino Robair and Tom Djll brought the duo Unpopular Electronics to one of the darker columbariums, and IMA (Nava Dunkelman and Amma Arteria) performed on the lower level. In retrospect, our group might have been better placed sharing a space with them, as we are both electronic groups (all women) with large dynamic range.
Overall, it was a wonderful experience, and with the opportunity to play as well as listen it’s my favorite to date. Thank you Sarah Cahill, Lucy Mattingly, and the rest of the crew at New Music Bay Area as well as the Chapel of the Chimes staff for letting us be a part of this event!
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.
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.
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, ColinHogan, 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.
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.
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 JohnFinkbeiner.
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.
Today we look back at this year’s μHausen, a “micro-festival” of experimental electronics that takes place every summer deep at a secure undisclosed location in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It was the subject of our most recent CatSynth TV episode.
As suggested in the video, I was thinking a lot about our natural surroundings as we made music with our thoroughly artificial electronic instruments. The trees, the air, the light, all seemed to be of a piece with the music at times. I also thought about the fact that I had not been able to attend the last three installments. In 2015 and 2016 I had to cancel or decline because of medical issues, and I’m not sure what happened in 2017. But I was back now and was great to see and hear everyone.
First up was Peter Elsea, recently retired from his longtime position as a professor of electronic music at UC Santa Cruz. On this occasion, he performed with a small rig that included a modular synthesizer and an electronic wind instrument.
His set featured tones that were timbrally rich and often noisy, but still pitched. This worked well with the wind controller which allowed the noisy tones to swell and fade musically. But there were also some beautiful moments of quiet pure tones that evoked the natural surroundings.
Next up was Later Days, a project featuring Wayne Jackson with his iOS-based evolutionary synth MendelTone, which allows patches to “breed” and evolve.
There was an urgent “machine-like” quality to the music, with low drones oms mixing with high swirls of sound and various percussive hits. Wayne is also the founder of this event and often its leader, but this year he ceded organizing duties to R Duck (of the R Duck Show), who performed next.
[Photo by Later Days (Wayne Jackson)]
The first segment of his set featured beautiful drones of processed guitar. There were quick runs, but they were absorbed into the overall sound. Over time, the tone and structure darkened, with more complex timbres and harmonies set against slow but anxious guitar riffs. He also teamed up with Later Days to deliver his perennial incantation featuring chocolate. (Did I mention that we at CatSynth love chocolate?)
Next up was synthesizer virtuoso Doug Lynner, who performed on a Eurorack-based Serge modular synthesizer.
[Photo by Later Days (Wayne Jackson)]
I have long come to expect very complex and intricate sounds from Doug, often set in a very sparse texture where one can clearly hear the details. That was certainly the case in this performance, which opened with light sounds reminiscent of birds and whale songs. It could have come from the surrounding woods rather than the synthesizer on stage (OK, the bird sounds could have, probably not the whale sounds). After a period of rapid modulation, the music settled into a different pattern, with a contrapuntal texture of long ascending tones reminiscent of sirens.
Lynner was followed by Paul Nicholson who had a large Korg-centric rig that included both a Minilogue, an MS-20 and an SQ-1 sequencer among other instruments.
His opening piece was more traditionally harmonic compared to the preceding sets, with slowly changing harmonic patterns that evoked late-20th-century minimalism (think Steve Reich and John Adams). The second portion of the set featured some harsher sounds and noise centered around Nicholson’s modular synth.
Then it was time for me to take the stage. I brought a rig that included the large 9U modular, a Casio SK-1 and my trusty Moog Theremini.
[Photo by R Duck]
As with most of my recent solo work, I select one of my more formal compositions as a point of departure. In this case, it was “White Wine”, with the melody set against one of the SK-1’s drum beats. This them morphed into a broken and complex break of sound and eventually to a pure improvisation with the modular and theremin, though the beats never really disappeared. As I was when listening to the other sets, I was thinking about the natural surroundings – in my case being the “city girl” mastering my place in space and sound, even if just for a few brief minutes.
The final set featured Lemon DeGeorge on harmonica and electronics.
The harmonicas (like a true player of the instrument, he had more than one) added a unique dimension to the music, and the electronics followed with long breathy tones. The sounds appeared to build up layers upon layers into something heavy and enveloping, but never overwhelming. Compared to Nicholson’s sounds, DeGeorge’s lone tones and patterns were thoroughly inharmonic but no less beautiful or musical.
Overall it was a fine afternoon of weird electronic music in the woods, and not just for the music itself but for the fellowship with friends who I don’t get to see that often. I remained in the mind space of the show, the environment, and the sounds for a while on the drive back, at least until reaching I-880 and heading first into Oakland and later home to San Francisco, where I snapped back into my everyday urban life.
While I thoroughly enjoyed every night of this year’s Outsound New Music Summit, last Friday was special because I was on stage with my own band CDP. We shared the bill with Dire Wolves for a night of contrasting retro styles within the context of new and experimental music.
I often get asked what “CDP” stands for. And while it does stand on its own as a name, it does come from the initials of the original three members: Chaudhary, Djll, Pino. That’s me on keyboard and vocoder, Tom Djll (synthesizers), and Mark Pino (drums). Joshua Marshall joined the band in 2017, bringing his technical chops and versatility on tenor and soprano saxophone. As a road-and-map geek, it also stands for “Census Designated Place”.
We had five tunes for this concert. Three of them were from the series I call “the jingles”, including White Wine, North Berkeley BART, and our newest song, Rambutan (it’s a fruit from Southeast Asia). Marlon Brandoand Konflict Mensch rounded out the set. Each featured a melodic and harmonic head followed by open improvisation – no fixed solos, even listens to one another and comes in and out. Our style is a blend of funk, fusion and experimental music reminiscent of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi and Head Hunters bands or Soft Machine 5 & 6, with a bit of 1970s Frank Zappa / George Duke mixed in. The music is a joy to play and I’m so glad to be able to be on a stage playing it.
We got off to a somewhat shaky start with White Wine, but we settled down quickly as we headed into the improvisation section. From that point on, things only got better with Marlon Brando and North Berkeley BART (which is always a local crowd pleaser). Rambutan was a lot of fun, including the funky 7/4 jam and the call-and-response chant with the audience. Mark held up the metric foundation, working with both me and Tom who took turns on the bass roll. Tom also got some great sounds in his solos, as did Josh who moved easily between growls and mellifluous melodic runs.
The vocoder, a Roland VP-03, held up pretty well – in some ways, I felt the scatting went even better than the lyrics – though there is still work to do keeping the voice intelligible in the context of the full band. I was exhausted and satisfied after the set, and look forward to doing more with our band.
You can read Mark Pino’s perspective on the set on his blog.
For the second set, Dire Wolvesbrought a completely different energy to the stage. Where CDP was exuberant and even frenetic at times, Dire Wolves welcomed the audience with a mellow and inviting psychedelic sound.
There was a sparseness to the music, with Jeffrey Alexander (guitar + winds), Sheila Bosco (drums), Brian Lucas (bass) and Arjun Mendiratta (violin) each staking claim to a distinct orchestral space within the soundscape. Alexander and Mendiratta had lines that melted seamlessly from one to the next; Brian Lucas’ bass was sometimes melodic. Bosco’s drums provided a solid foundation, but she also contributed voice and other sounds to the mix.
My mind was still processing the set we had just played, but the trance-like qualities of Dire Wolves provided a space for a soft landing and to return to a bit of balance. Sadly, it seems this was the band’s last performance for a while, at least with the current lineup. But I look forward to hearing more from each of these musicians in their other projects.
Both groups played to a decently sized and very appreciative audience – not the capacity crowds of the previous or following nights, but respectable. And I got quite a bit of positive feedback from audience members after our set. We still have one more night of the summit to cover, and then it’s onward to future events.
It’s been a busy season for Pitta of the Mind! We had three shows in the span of two months, beginning with our blue set at Pro Arts and culminating with ¡Voltage and Verse! at Adobe Books in San Francisco. You can get a taste for the show in our CatSynth TV video.
It was an honor to once again share a bill with ruth weiss. A Holocaust survivor and founding member of the San Francisco beat poet scene in the 1950s, she is still going strong, performing and supporting local institutions and artists.
We were glad to see that she is continuing her collaboration with our friend and synthesizer virtuoso Doug Lynner. Together with log percussionist Hal Davis, they performed a set of poetry and music that simultaneously evoked earlier eras and the latest electronic experiments. Davis’ log drum provided an expressive metronome, undulating between a trot and a gallop. Lynner’s synthesizer lines filled in the spaces, sometimes with rhythmic appeggios and at other moments with long eerie drones. The synthesizer timbres and phrases complemented the words in multiple ways, sometimes underpinning the narrative in the manner of a good film score, at other times emphasizing the rhythm of the words and making them into a musical whole.
Our Pitta of the Mind set was part of a month-long celebration for the release of Maw Shein Win’s new book of poetry Invisible Gifts. The book is divided into four sections based on different colors. This works perfectly for our use of color themes in our performances. For this night, we chose silver and performed selections from the silver section of the book. There were some familiar poems that we have performed before, and some that were new to me. There were a variety of styles and subjects in the words that inspired different musical backings, from jazzy electric piano (my favorite) to abstract synthesizer explorations. I was able to reuse some of the modular patches I had developed for my recent show in Portland and make them work with the rhythm of the texts.
Maw and I have performed together so many times now that it has become almost second nature to realize a new set; our three shows this season went off (nearly) flawlessly, and have been among the best we have done in our nearly seven years of collaboration! We have developed a toolset and pallete of instruments (including the Nord Stage and Prophet 12) and sounds that we can quickly turn to with each new text, which makes the process of learning new pieces both simple and fun. I certainly hope we can keep up the momentum in the remainder of the year, even as I turn my own attention to other musical projects.
In between our set and weiss/Lynner/Davis, we were treated to a presentation by Ramon Sender. Sender was a co-founder (along Morton Subotnick and Pauline Oliveros) of the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the early 1960s, but on this evening he regaled us with stories of his time at the Morning Star and Wheeler ranches in Sonoma County in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Morningstar, founded by Lou Gottlieb, was a radical experiment in communal living, populated by an interesting cast of characters along with folks who “commuted” between San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district and the ranch west of Sebastopol. It only existed in its communal form for a short period of time before being shut down by Sonoma County. Sender and others then moved to the nearby property of artist Bill Wheeler, who followed Gottlieb’s lead and opened his ranch as a commune open to all. I found myself fascinated by Sender’s stories, and would love to learn more about the history of the area and these communal experiments.
It was a fun night of music and words that lived up to its billing, and I certainly hope to have a chance to perform with everyone again. And thanks to Benjamin Tinker and Adobe Books for hosting the event! Please support your local bookstores and performance spaces.
[Photos not marked “catsynth.com” in this article courtesy of Maw Shein Win.]
We have a brand-new CatSynth TV! This one demonstrates a couple of the hidden features of the Moog Sub Phatty synthesizer.
In particular, we look at filter-topology selection and Oscillator 2 beat frequencies. The filter selection makes the instrument much more powerful, moving between the extra crunchy 1 and 2-pole filters to the smooth 4-pole that is “quintessentially Moog”. The beat frequency is a bit more esoteric – it maintains beating frequencies across different pitches, leading to some odd detunings in different registers. But it can add a new timbral-metric component to compositions – something to explore in more depth.
We also look at the Editor/Librarian software from Moog, which is really handy for accessing these features as well as saving patches.
Marlon Brando is a controversial figure in contemporary circles, but we did some great movies a long time ago (followed by some not-so-great ones, then a couple more classics, and then some really awful ones). But his work has intertwined with many things at CatSynth over the past couple of years. Consider this cartoon by J.B. (Jason Berry), part of our extended Mensa Cat series.
We leave the joke as an exercise to the reader. 😸
There is also the tune “Marlon Brando” initially composed by Jason Berry for Vacuum Tree Head, which I redid for my own band CDP. Here is a live performance of us playing it at the Make Out Room in San Francisco.