Yesterday afternoon I was practicing for tonight’s solo electronic concert at the Make-Out Room in San Francisco; Merp decided that two of the main instruments, the Arturia MicroFreak and Novation LaunchpadPro, would make a great napping spot. Adorable as it is, it certainly made it more challenging to use them.
Merp’s rear paws occasionally kicked off beats on Ableton Live! while I was trying to do some playing on the Nord Stage EX (off-screen). Fortunately, he did eventually get up and I was able to continue with my preparations.
If you are in San Francisco this evening, please stop by the Make-Out Room to hear me perform several pieces on solo electronics. No cover charge, and close to public transportation. Details can be found here.
This past Thursday, the Center for New Music launched Compton’s Cafeteria Series, a set of occasional concerts featuring transgender performers. And I was there both the cover the show and be a part of it!
For those who are not familiar with the story, Gene Compton’s Cafeteria was a small restaurant chain and its Tenderloin location at the corner of Taylor and Turk Streets was one of the few places where transgender individuals, and especially transgender women, could safely congregate. There was, however, some tension between transgender patrons and the staff, who often called the police, with arrests and harassment ensuing. In 1966, this pattern led to the Compton’s Cafeteria Riots.
In the 1960s the Compton’s Cafeteria staff began to call the police to crack down on transgender individuals, who would frequent the restaurant.Management felt that transgender customers were loitering and causing them to lose more desirable business. In response, they implemented a service fee directed at transgender individuals and blatantly harassed them in an attempt to get them to leave the restaurant. In response to police arrests, the transgender community launched a picket of Compton’s Cafeteria. Although the picket was unsuccessful, it was one of the first demonstrations against police violence directed towards transgender people in San Francisco. On the first night of the riot, the management of Compton’s called the police when some transgender customers became raucous. Police officers were known to mistreat transgender people.When one of these known officers attempted to arrest one of the trans women, she threw her coffee in his face. According to the director of Screaming Queens, Susan Stryker, the cafeteria “erupted.”
This was nearly three years before the Stonewall Inn Riots in New York but has not gotten nearly the visibility in the time since. There is a plaque on the sidewalk in front of the former site at 101 Turk Street, and there is now an honorary street renaming of the 100 block of Taylor Street as Gene Compton’s Cafeteria Way – we featured the sign in our most recent Wordless Wednesday post.
More importantly, the immediate vicinity has been recognized by the city as a “Transgender Cultural District.” As the Center for New Music is located in the heart of this new district, it seemed natural for them to host a series celebrating transgender visibility (and audibility), and I am grateful to the staff there and to my friend David Samas for proposing this and making it happen.
The show itself was a successful event featuring vary different performances, although they all made extensive use of hardware synthesizers. You can see some of the highlights in my latest video.
The evening started with a set by Rusty Sunsets (aka Cara Esten). Her performance was divided into two sections, the first featuring acoustic guitar and voice, and the second incorporating synthesizers and drum machines. Both parts were unified by Esten’s folk-song style, with a series of compositions about her upbringing in Oklahoma and loves lost and found. Perhaps the poignant was a love song inspired by the 1911 Triangle Factory fire in New York where 146 workers, the vast majority of whom were women, perished. My favorite was the final song which brought together a Moog Mother-32 and other synthesizers with plaintive but optimistic singing.
Next up was Pitta of the Mind (Amanda Chaudhary and Maw Shein Win). We performed a short set with a featured color of blue – set against the fuschia background lighting and my automated multicolor blinking lights. Musically, it had a very punctuated quality with abstract sounds from the modular and Arturia MicroFreak against some of Maw’s poems that featured open space and short lines. We mixed it up for the final piece, which had lusher and more emotive quality with longer lines and acoustic piano – these pieces are a strength for us and we always include at least one.
Then it was time for the final set, featuring my solo electronic performance. I started with the solo version of White Wine (and a cup of white wine). The Casio SK-1 was sampled and remixed in Ableton Live, with the statement of the melody and cords, followed by a cacophony leading into two distinct rhythmic sections: first a funk/disco sound featuring MicroFreak bass and a jazz piano improvisation; and then a Stereolab inspired electric-organ solo leading into a final section of tape-delayed metallic sounds (Strymon Magneto and Pocket Gamelan from Crank Sturgeon).
After that, it was on to the cat-infused and disco-and-French-House inspired Donershtik. The piece is just a lot of fun, a classic 70s analog melody (in this case on the Arturia MiniBrute) in Phrygian mode followed by playful modular improvisation (anchored by the MOK Wavewazor) going into the electric piano disco/house section.
Overall, I think this was one of the best of my live solo sets, tightly choreographed with a relatively diverse and robust setup, and well-defined and well-rehearsed pieces. Once again, structure and hard work paid off.
But I also fed off the positive energy and enthusiasm of the crowd, which brought together regular friends and fans with members of the transgender community. It was a beautiful night overall, and I look forward to both being present and helping organize the next in this series.
Passover is, perhaps, the most “visible” Jewish holiday for me. After all, we have featured the Matzoh Man in many photos and short video clips here on CatSynth, and now twice in a row for CatSynth TV.
For this year’s episode, we took audio output from our mechanical friend via a contact mic and sent it into the KOMA Field Kit. We then split the signal into audio, which was run through our modular synthesizer – specifically, the Rossum Electro-music Morpheus – and the Field Kit’s own envelope follow and actuator section, ultimately driving the solenoid. It was a fun little demo both to make and to watch.
I also included a little demo of the ritual diet, with matzoh, prepared horseradish, and Kedem grape juice. But beyond that, anything is fair game for me during Passover as long as there are no piggies or shellfish, or leavened bread. No beer allowed, but non-kosher wine and spirits are fine. It becomes a bit of a game to see if for eight days I can follow these simple rules. To someone more Orthodox, or even the least bit devout, this simple approach could be transgressive, or even blasphemous. But from my point of view, not only is it plenty but I also sometimes wonder why I both at all. It’s not like I believe in the literal truth of the Biblical story, or have any fear of or respect for any religious authorities.
Somehow, though, I still feel compelled to participate. And not just participate, flaunt it, reminding friends that I can’t share pastries or bread products over the week because I’m Jewish. That feels important to remind people of. And it sometimes makes its way into my music, through titles like Kislev and Donershtik (Yiddish for Thursday) or organizing structures in stories. It’s fun. It’s “cool”. But also it feels more urgent, as the world around us seems more anti-Semitic now than it did during my youth. I’m deeply bothered by the attacks that seem to be increasing against Jews, both verbal and violent. But I’m also concerned with an increasing religiosity and sense of obedience among many who identify as Jewish. If being Jewish is just about being religious, or being obedient to a text or patriarchal authorities, then it does truly become time to ask “why bother?”. But for now, we do our best to both persevere and enjoy.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Outsound New Music Summit continued on Wednesday with a night featuring explorations of electroacoustics and noise. Once again, the two acts were quite contrasting in their interpretations of the night’s theme.
SO AR (formerly Ze Bib) is the collaboration of electronic musician and cellist Shanna Sordahl and percussionist Robert Lopez. We had the chance to meet with them ahead of the summit and shared our encounter in this video:
The set unfolded as a series of conversations between Sordahl – first on cello alone and then with electronics – and Lopez. The ups and downs in the pitches, rhythms, and intensities seemed to imply spoken language at times. This was especially true during the more staccato and percussive sections at the beginning and end of the set.
The long tone sections brought in more of the electronics – Sordahl’s rig featured a Korg MS-20 and iPad. The percussion once again seemed to match the longer tones, with extended rolls, long drum tones, and additional percussion. But there were also moments where the texture diverged, between long electronic tones and rhythmic percussion runs.
Even at its most intense, there was a quiet quality to the music that seemed fit with the starkness of their stage presence and the darkened hall. Even at low volume, the moments of silence stood out, with a bit of tension in the air. Space and breath are an important part of how the duo approaches their music, and this comes out strongest in the quietest sections.
X A M B U C A is a solo electronic project by Chandra Shukla. We had the opportunity to first see him perform last year with Hans-Joachim Roedellius at The Chapel in San Francisco; we were glad to see him join the lineup for this year’s Summit.
[X A M B U C A]
On a completely darkened stage, X A M B U C A delivered a set that was simultaneously rich and minimalist. There were segments of long drones cut with high-pitched sweeps, and sections of fast drum-machine runs. The styles of various sections (which segued from one to the next continuously) included fragmented dance-music patterns, elements of rock, and noise. It is, of course, hard for me not to consider electronic music without also considering the instruments used.
Shukla’s rig was anchored by an Elektron Analog Keys, along with a Korg Electribe, a Stylophone, and sundry pedals. Looking at these instruments, I can better understand how he was able to move so freely from drum patterns and hits to long tones and dense pads to distortion and noise. It was quite a dynamic performance, showing the more “experimental side” of X A M B U C A compared to what we had experienced previously.
It was a solid night, and perhaps the most “out” of the Outsound Summit shows this year, as subsequent nights embraced more idiomatic forms of musical expression. We hope to bring you those reviews over the next few days.
Musical innovation can arise from pushing the boundaries of traditional musical instruments or inventing entirely new instruments. The opening concert of the 2018 Outsound New Music Summit featured two groups whose work falls squarely in the latter category.
Tim Thompson is a longtime innovator in the space of expressive control of music using custom hardware and software. His latest creation is the Space Palette Pro, a panel with four highly sensitive touchpads that control sound and visuals via MIDI. You can hear Tim’s explanation of his invention in this video:
The Space Palette Pro is an evolutionary step from the original Space Palette, which allowed users to move their hands through holes in a large panel to drive music and visuals via a Kinect motion sensor. The newer incarnation is smaller in size and replaces the space with pads, but in many ways uses the same principles of three-dimension gestural control. Indeed, much of the software from the original was repurposed for the new version. But the Pro is definitely more of a performance instrument, rather than a “casual instrument”, as Thompson explained both in the video and at the concert.
Musically, his performance was a series of several movements that segued from one to the next. Each had its own sonic and visual palette which Thompson performed in real time. So in a sense, this was an improvised performance, but one that was constrained by the sound, visuals, and patterns in each section.
The first section was soft with spare graphics, while the second was more pointed and percussive with geometric shapes. Further movements featured lush timbres and graphics, and popular-music idioms with synthesizers and electronic drums. Many of the segments were “quantized” to fixed scales and harmonies (as well as rhythms), though Thompson could introduce new pitches and scales into the mix using a MIDI keyboard, along for more melodic and harmonic variety.
The focus during the performance was squarely on the screen and the live visuals. These were beautiful and captivating. I would have liked to be able to see more of the performer and the instrument as well, as it was for me an important part of the set.
The second set brought us (mostly) out of the electronic world and back into the realm of acoustic musical instruments, albeit instruments of unique design. Pet the Tiger is a Bay Area collective of musical instrument inventors. Their recent work has centered around a set of instruments that use strict harmonic-series tuning. Together the instruments and musicians comprise a “harmonic-series gamelan.” You can see a demonstration of some of their instruments in this video.
The music is anchored by the harmonic compass, a set of metallophones designed and built by Stephen Parris and commissioned by group director David Samas. However, there were a wide variety of instruments, including string and wind instruments by Bart Hopkin and Peter Whitehead, and even a series of meticulously tuned loose plastic tubes.
For this concert, the ensemble performed an interpretation of the fairies’ subplot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which includes many of the plays most memorable lines (including Puck’s final soliloquy). The text was subdivided into several songs, and they were indeed songs with melody and harmony, albeit in the slightly alien world of the harmonic series, which can be simultaneously soothing and anticipatory at the same time – it always feels like it is waiting to go to the next note. The songs were in a variety of styles and alternately song by Samas, Hopkin, and Whitehead. The instruments and their playing gets most of the attention, but I think the singing deserves praise as well. All three have great singing voices, and working in an alternate tuning is no small feat. I was particularly impressed with Bart Hopkin’s return to his songwriting roots, singing against a harmonically tuned guitar of his own making. And David Samas’ voice is always rich and sonorous. I have known this group and its members for several years now, and I have watched not only the instruments grow in precision and sophistication, but also musicianship in putting together an entire performance like this. The audience were very clear in their appreciation and approval as well.
In all, it was a beautiful night of music and instrumental innovation. We conclude with an exchange that occurred during the pre-show question-and-answer session when Outsound director Rent Romus asked the performers “why bother with the complexity of creating entirely new instruments?” I found Bart Hopkin’s answer quite memorable.
There are a lot of reasons to stick with conventional instruments. You could write a pretty convincing paper on why to stick with convention instruments including ones you might not normally think of…When you work with conventional instruments and you write for it, you can simply hand someone the score because there are trained musicians who can keep one eye on the score, one eye on the conductor, and “another eye” playing the instrument. They don’t have to look at their hands. There are a million advantages you wouldn’t even think of to working with conventional instruments. BUT, you know, with unconventional instruments you find musical territory you probably wouldn’t have found otherwise. And that really makes it worthwhile.
We at CatSynth agree and look forward to more unconventional musical territory in the future.
It’s been a little while since we last attended Church of Thee Super Sergeat Robotspeak in San Francisco, but we made a point of going this past weekend. For those who have not been there or read our past reviews, it’s an almost-ever-month show on a Saturday afternoon with live hardware-synthesizer performances. As the name suggests, some acts do include Serge synthesizers, but it is not required, and a wide variety of instruments are used. All three sets are featured in our most recent CatSynth TV episode.
The first set featured Lx Rudis performing on an Oberheim Xpander, a somewhat underappreciated instrument from the 1980s.
At its heart, the Xpander is a 6 voice analog synthesizer, but with a complex array of digital controls that can be programmed and applied independently to each voice. Lx Rudis took full advantage of these, especially the LFOs and lag generators, to create subtle and minimal metric patterns. He constantly moved voices in and out, configuring them on the fly, in a way that was very expressive and musical. I particularly liked the sections which had staccato rhythmic textures against slowly moving timbres deliberately out of sync with one another.
Next up was Franck Martin, who performed a solo set on a modular synthesizer with several standalone instruments.
Martin’s setup included a Moog Subharmonicon, which he built while attending Moogfest this year (we at CatSynth are a bit envious), as well as a DFAM (Drummer From Another Mother). There were also additional voices provided by Braids and Plaits modules from Mutable Instruments that he could bring in and out using a touch-plate interface. The result was a slowly changing beat pattern with an eerie inharmonic voicing and gentle undulation.
The final set featured our friends Gino Robair and Tom Djll teaming up as the brilliantly named Unpopular Electronics.
They had a wide variety of gear, including Serge panels in addition to Eurorack modules and standalone instruments from Bugbrand and others. In addition, Gino had an interesting small case that included touchpads.
The music was frenetic and intense, an avalanche of pops and hits and loud cloudlike tone clusters. And there were trumpet sounds entering into the mix at various points. But there was an exquisite detail to the madness with changes among the different instruments and sounds, and musical pauses and rests before the pair dived back into the frenzy. There were also many moments of humor and not just Djll’s book about why there aren’t any Zeppelin-style airships in the United States.
In between sets, it’s fun to browse around Robotspeak and see what’s for sale, or on display in the big glass case.
It’s also quite dangerous, as I am often tempted to leave with another module or instrument. On this occasion, I exercised restraint, but probably not next time…
Greetings, and happy third night of Hannukah! Today we look at the Soundtracks exhibition currently on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) through the end of the year. It is also the subject of our most recent CatSynth TV episode.
The exhibition explores the intersection of sound, visualization, and space, and features over 20 artists. There are a variety of interpretations and methods of making sound, from acoustic to mechanical to electronic. None of the sound installations are overpowering, but many do arrest ones attention. Upon arriving at the 7th floor for the exhibition, one is created by Anri Sala’sMoth in B-Flat, which features a mechanically triggered snare drum hanging inverted from the ceiling.
[Anri Sala. Moth in B-Flat (2015_]
The electro-mechanical theme continues with O Grivo’sCantilena, which includes several motorized sound-making sculptures primary made of wood.
[O Grivo. Cantilena (2017)]
These were fun to watch, and I found myself wanting to make one myself (we shall see if that actually occurs).
Simplicity reigned in Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’sclinamen v.3. A large shallow pool of water contained floating ceramic bowls. The frequent collisions of the bowls created a music that was very captivating.
This piece was deeply calming, and I found myself zeroing in on groups of bowls as they collided and separated to form rhythms and harmonies.
Ambient soundscapes were also the heart of an installation by Brian Eno, New Urban Spaces Series #4: “Compact Forest Proposal,”, with a darker tone and more complex technology.
[Brian Eno.New Urban Spaces Series #4: “Compact Forest Proposal” (2001)]
One is free to wander the darkened space amidst the moving columns of LED lights. Every once in a while, the light increases and one gets glimpses of shadowy figures on the wall. The sounds ranged from small percussive synth hits to trumpets to electronic noise.
Electronic noise was also at the heart of Christina Kubisch’s installation Cloud. Kubish’s work explores sonification of data and electricity. The mass of red electrical wires emits electromagnetic radiation, which was interpreted as sound using customized headphone devices.
[Christina Kubisch. Cloud (2011/2017)]
Of all the installations, this was the among the most challenging to take in sensually or to document. I love the concept, and I think it really needs an extended period of time alone to experience fully.
From the large to the small. We had fun with Sphere Packing by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, which featured several spherical speaker arrays made from those ubiquitous white Apple earbuds.
[Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. Sphere Packing (2013 and 2014)]
Each was playing a different selection of classical music from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, rearranged and diffused asynchronously through the speakers. Lozano-Hemmer also had an installation Last Breath that included a recording of breathing by the late Pauline Oliveros.
We conclude with another project visualized as a sphere. Lyota Yagi’sSound sphere featured a sphere wrapped in cassette tape that freely rotated and revolved. Customized pickups rendered the sound from the tape, which is chopped, looped and distorted based on the chaotic motion of the sphere.
[Lyota Yagi. Sound Sphere (2011)]
All of these pieces were inspiring for my own work, as I want to do more sound installation in the coming year. There were more in the main the exhibit and spread around the museum, but beyond what I can cover in this article. We do encourage you to check out our video to hear how some of these pieces sound. And if you are in the Bay Area, we strongly recommend checking the exhibition out before it closes on January 1, 2018.
Recently, John Lee, the creator of bayimproviser.com donated a portion of his extensive record collection to Outsound. And our friends at VAMP are helping us sell them to fund our continuing mission of promoting new music in the Bay Area and beyond. To launch this effort, Outsound held a benefit concert at VAMP on December 1.
I performed a solo set with my trusty Nord Stage EX, modular synth, and Casio SK-1.
As with most of my current solo performances, I try to combine both idiomatic jazz and funk elements with more experimental electronics. I opened with White Wine (instrumental) with the extended solo section morphing into a more free-form electro-acoustic improvisation that also included the garrahand drum. It moved from sections of disco and bossa nova rhythms to noise to complex harmonies from the drum and Make Noise Echopon module. It was a fun set with an appreciative audience of both attendees and record-store patrons.
After my set, Tri-Cornered Tent Show took stage. Anchored by bandleader Philip Everett on clarinet and electronics and Ray Schaeffer on bass, the band explored a variety of sounds and styles from noisy electronics and percussion to R&B grooves to psychedelic serenades featuring Valentina O on vocals. Anthony Flores rounded out the band on drums.
It was interesting to see how both sets explored the intersection of avant-garde electronic and acoustic sounds with more familiar idioms. Soul, funk, and R&B were present in both sets, but then we each veered off in different directions. Between us, we might have covered many of the genres in VAMP’s record bins!
It was a fine night of music and fellowship, and it’s great to see an independent (and idiosyncratic) store like VAMP flourishing in downtown Oakland. You can find out more about them here. And please visit Outsound’s website to find out about upcoming programs and how you can help support our work bring new music to our community.
Today we look back at the recent show featuring Song & Dance Trio and Lithuanian sound-and-performance artist Arma Agharta at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco. It was the subject of a recent episode of CatSynth TV.
I have seen the members of Song & Dance Trio, Karl Evangelista (guitar), Jordan Glenn (drums) and Cory Wright (baritone saxophone) many times before in many musical contexts, but this was the first time I saw them as a trio. As one can hear in the video, they mixed complex virtuosic avant-garde performance with familiar jazz idioms. And they made it work. There was a strong rhythmic sense throughout the set, with the musicians moving freely between a relaxed shuffle and frenetic staccato runs. The familiar jazz figures sprinkled throughout were fun, but the more experimental interludes were a palette cleanser that made the grooves stand out more strongly.
[Song & Dance Trio (Evangelista, Glenn, Wright)]
Next up was a solo performance by Arma Agharta, a Lithuanian sound-performance-artist who was kicking off the west-coast swing of his United States tour. I didn’t know quite what to expect, even after looking at his interesting setup with a mixture of sound-making objects and electronic instruments.
[Arma Agharta’s colorful electro-acoustic rig]
And then he took the stage wearing a large pointed had and colorful robe. Things started quietly but very quickly turned to a loud, frenzy of sound, movement, and vocals.
[Calm and anything-but-calm moments with Arma Agharta]
This was one of the most physically and sonically intense solo performances I have seen in a while, and the energy was nonstop for most of the duration, with just a few ebbs and pauses. An endurance test for performer and audience alike. I haven’t heard anything quite like it, and it is hard to do justice either in written or video form. The intense sounds were from many layers of electronics, including recorded sounds played at high volume along with Arma Agharta’s own powerful voice howling, bellowing, and other vocalizations.
It was interesting to see such different performances in the same show and to assemble them into a single 3-minute video. But it worked both live and recorded. We wish Arma Agharta well on his next tour (last we saw he was in Turkey) and hope to hear more from him. We, of course, will continue to follow Evangelista, Glenn, and Wright on their musical adventures here in the Bay Area.