Wordless Wednesday: Mesquite Dunes, Death Valley

The Mesquite Dunes in Death Valley at sunset. I featured this image in my recent music video celebrating Death Valley – a “painting with music.” Please check it out if you haven’t already.

CatSynth Video: Kittens on the piano

Adorable video of two kittens playing on a piano. I for one hear quite a bit of musicality in this – and the look into the camera by the tuxie at the end is priceless.

King Crimson returns to the Fox Theater, Oakland

Our incredibly musical two weeks that began with Herbie Hancock concluded with King Crimson’s return to the Fox Theater in Oakland. We at CatSynth saw their last visit in 2017 and were excited to hear what the brought this time around.

It was a pleasure to see King Crimson back in action again, albeit with another lineup change.  This time around, Bill Reiflin was not with the group, and so there was no full-time keyboardist.  His duties were taken over by drummer Jeremy Stacey, and, at times, winds player Mel Collins. Of course, Robert Fripp was there, holding court seated stage left next to his tower of gear, as were longtime members Tony Levin on bass and Chapman stick and Jakko Jakszyk on lead vocals and guitar. Rounding out the trio of drummers were Gavin Harrison and Pat Mastelotto.

The group once again made a great overview of their 50-year history.  I was particularly pleased to hear “Cat Food” from the 1970 album In the Wake of Poseidon played. “Cat Food Cat Food…again!” The music is malleable and adaptable to the current band’s instrumentation and abilities.  Choruses are reharmonized, as was the case with “Cat Food”; vocal numbers are re-arranged into extended instrumental pieces, as in “The Construction of Light”; new melodies were added, as in “Indiscipline”; and so on. There were also new lyrics to the chorus of “Easy Money”. The combination of the three drumsets was even tighter than the previous tour, and more nuanced as well with each playing entirely different parts in a three-voice counterpoint that occasionally coalesced into a massive syncopated thunder. It should also be noted that the drums were a bit lighter because of Stacey’s keyboard duties.

The sound in the first set was a bit challenging at times; the winds and vocals in particular suffered.  Thankfully, this was all corrected going into the second set. And just when it seemed they were going to get through the entire night without playing “21st Century Schizoid Man”, they returned with the tune as their encore, with extended abstract solos and instrumental sections.

As always, King Crimson is very strict about photography during their concerts, but at the very end, they ritualistically share a moment taking pictures of the audience while we picture them. This time both Tony Levin and Robert Fripp snapped pictures of the audience as we returned the favor.

King Crimson on stage at the end of the show
King Crimson photographs us photographing them

Here is a photo of the audience from Tony Levin’s blog. We are somewhere in the lower left of the orchestra.

Tony photographs the audience
Tony photographs the audience [Tonylevin.com]

[Jason Berry contributed to this story]

Herbie Hancock at the Greek Theater, Berkeley

It’s been a wonderfully musical couple of weeks for us at CatSynth. Two days in the recording studio, our recent performance…and all of this bookended by concerts featuring our musical heroes. Today we visit the first of those concerts featuring Herbie Hancock at the Greek Theater in Berkeley.

Those who have been longtime readers of this site or familiar with some of my recent music will recognize the tremendous influence of Herbie Hancock, especially his Mwandishi and Head Hunters bands of the 1970s. For a concert in 2019, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. But from the moment the maestro took the stage, I was not disappointed.

Together with his current band – Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, James Genus on bass, Lionel Loueke on guitar and multi-instrumentalist Terrace Martin on horns and keyboard – he revisited many of the old classics, but with new twists. Some, like Chameleon and Cantelope Island, pretty much followed their classic forms and were a delight. Others, like Butterfly and Sunlight were quoted more subtly or obliquely, teasing us a bit through solos, chord changes, and excursions before landing on the tune’s head just long enough of us to recognize it and use it as a point of departure for the next section. This is something that we have heard Wayne Shorter do in his more recent performances as well – just enough of a hint of the original tune for us to notice before departing into new musical territory. It was pretty much everything I would hope for from this concert.

The music that I so love and admire (and try to play) but not as a museum or conservatory piece but as something dynamic and vital. He did a full rendition of Actual Proof, complete with introductory description – this piece is perhaps one of my favorites of his, in part because it is so rhythmically confounding – it is in 4/4 but the way the main riff spreads over bars, it can be hard to tell where the measures begin and end. I also enjoyed how he broke out the keytar and the vocoder from the late 1970s in several songs.

It wasn’t all updates on old favorites, as there was newer material as well. And he remains a consummate showman, giving his personal energy back to the crowd. Towards the end of the set, he led all of us in a wave while beaming from ear to ear – this then served as the introduction to a final encore jam of Chameleon where Kamasi Washington and others joined him on stage.

Kamasi Washington’s own set was also full of energy and complex music – perhaps a bit overshadowed for me by Herbie, but still a favorite of the crowd many of whom were sporting Washington’s t-shirts. He had an interesting band with two drummers (Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr) and Cameron Graves on keyboard/synth. Rounding out the band was Ryan Porter on the trombone, Patrice Quinn on vocals, and Miles Mosley on bass. Perhaps the most touching moment was when Washington’s father, Rickey Washington, came out to join the band on soprano saxophone.

The opening set featured Robert Glasper and his band. A local favorite, his music weaved together elements of jazz with hip-hop. Centered around Glasper on keyboards, his group brought together different elements such as upright bass and turntable.

Overall, the show taken as a whole was one of the best live concerts I have seen in a while, which each group building on the foundation set by its predecessor, culminating in Herbie Hancock’s musical odyssey (there was, however, no Arp Odyssey this time). Even as an even chill settled into the Greek Theater during his set, I barely noticed. As as I practiced for my own music the coming week, I couldn’t help but notice myself doing more of those chromatically rising fast runs that are so characteristic of his solos. It’s not copying, but rather influence and tribute – a subject for another article at another time.

CatSynth Video: Cat-Chella 3

A bit more guitar than synth, but still cats and music. And best of all, it’s a benefit for our friends at House Of Dreams No-Kill Cat Shelter in Portland. If you are in the area, please go check it out!

2019 Outsound New Music Summit in Review

It’s been a little over a week since the 2019 Outsound New Music Summit and it seems a good time to look back over all five nights of adventurous musical programming. If you haven’t already seen our summary video with highlights from all ten acts, please check it out.

The concert series kicked off with a performance by the duo B Experimental Band, a large project led by Lisa Mezzacappa (bass) and Jason Levis (drums). They have been performing as a duo for a long time, taking on different challenges as their musical relationship has evolved. The latest is bringing their improvisational focus to a large group, i.e., maintaining spontaneity and musicality of improvisation while herding cats.

duo B Experimental Band

What I most noticed about this set was how sparse and spacious it was. In the first piece, space played an important visual as well as musical role, with different pairs of performers scattered around the concert hall. And towards the end, the full group thinned out to a single solo line from Polly Moller Springhorn on flute. The complete ensemble also included Bruce Ackley, Randy McKean, Cory Wright, and Joshua Marshall on woodwinds; Theo Padouvas and Rob Ewing on brass; and Gabby Fluke-Mogul (violin), Murray Campbell (octave violin), Shanna Sordahl (cello), and Kjell Nordeson on percussion.

By contrast, the second set featuring saxophone quartet Social Stutter was densely packed with rich harmonies and melodies. Composer and bandleader Beth Schenck makes the quartet – which also includes Phillip Greenlief, Cory Wright, and Casey Knudsen – function as a single instrument with some exquisitely beautiful chords and melodic lines. There was also space for each of the members to shine individually, with Knudsen’s fast runs, Greenlief’s unique timbres and keywork, and Wright solidly holding down the foundation on baritone sax. I was quite taken by this performance and now inspired to write my own compositions for saxophone quartet.

We always aim for a diversity of styles of music and instrumentation throughout the week, loosely categorized into nightly themes. For example, both of the bands that could be characterized as “rock music” were on the same night, but the two groups were still quite contrasting. Gentleman Surfer, a trio featuring Jon Bafus (drums), Barry McDaniel (guitar), and Zack Bissell (synthesizers) delivered a hard-driving set – my favorite moments were those where all three played unison syncopated rhythms complete with silences that were as intense as the sounds.

Gentleman Surfer

By contrast, Vegan Butcher’s set had a more plaintive, cerebral quality, due in large part to composer and bandleader John Shiurba’s “January Scale” and lyrics taken from his dream state just before waking up. The scale removes C-sharp, A-sharp, and F-sharp from the available twelve tones. This provides some interesting musical challenges. For example, a song centered in the “key” of F would have to avoid B-flat (A-sharp), and some keys like D become challenging indeed! The selection of chords to work around these gives the band’s music the plaintive sound. Their final song was particularly memorable, especially the section where rhythmic chords undergird the lyrics “I’m coming down from my stilts now, baby!” I found myself singing that for days afterward.

Vegan Butcher. Photo by Charles Smith

The next night again featured two contrasting sets. First was a very spare improvisation featuring Francis Wong on saxophone and Lenora Lee on dance/movement. Wong and Lee are longtime collaborators and have been working on both improvised and larger-scale compositions for two decades.

Francis Wong and Lenora Lee

This performance, which made use of the space around the hall as well as the stage, was extraordinarily subtle and quiet as both the sound and movement bounced off the silent space – but at the same time forceful in the message it delivered, decrying all forms of violence and discrimination against immigrants and refugees from the Chinese Exclusion Act and the internment center on Angel Island to the images of mistreated children out our southern border today.

As with duo B and Social Stutter, the sparse nature of Wong and Lee’s performance was in sharp contrast to the lush landscapes of Andrea Centazzo’s solo set, with live percussion – drums, gongs, and his signature stacks of cymbals – set against both live and recorded electronics.

Andrea Centazzo

Centazzo’s solo performances often involve multimedia projections with the music. Sadly, this was not able to happen for this concert, but one could still “hear the images” of nature and remote places in his sounds, from the initial thundering drums to the gong array set against what sounded like singing monks.

The next night brought Polly Moller Springhorn’s much-anticipated Tomography Fortunae to the Outsound stage, or more specifically to the floor in the middle of the hall as the audience looked on from the edges. Her composition combines a variety of sounds with ritualistic movement and concept, all codified in a graphic score. The most unique element was the fact that all performers had to be named “Tom.” This comes from a longstanding observation that many of the musicians in the Bay Area new-music scene happen to be named Tom (or Matt, or David). The Toms on this occasion were Tom Djll, Tom Dimuzio, Tom Duff, Tom Dambly, Tom Nunn, Tom Scandura, and Tom Weeks.

Polly and all seven Toms.

The piece unfolded as a series of three movements, each with more elaborate patterns of motion, ritualistic drawings, and numerical interplace. Most of the music was improvised within that framework, often bringing together pairs or trios of Toms for humorous interplay leading a loud and raucous finale with everyone playing. The whole experience was fascinating and fun.

Tomography Fortunae

The next set brought together percussionist William Winant with Zachary James Watkins on guitar and electronics. The two had performed together before, but I still did not know what to expect. The set opened with Winant on pine cone and drum, with Watkins gradually building up high-pitched noisy sounds to fill the spaces in between. The guitar soon emerged with stronger electronic sounds as Winant shifted to his gongs and metal percussion.

William Winant rocking the pine cone
William Winant and Zachary James Watkins

The sounds are fascinating but quite loud (especially for those of us who have maintained our high-frequency hearing) – and this was perhaps the most challenging moment of the entire festival. But things settled down again into a cloud of sound mixing percussion and electronics where the two became entangled.

The final night brought two veterans of the summit and of experimental jazz to the stage. Rent Romus (also the executive director of Outsound and the festival) teamed up with fellow woodwind multi-instrumentalist Keith Kelly for Deciduous, a set that unfolded as a collection of short stories, complete with characters, magic, and mischief. They were joined by Nava Dunkelman on percussion, Heikki Koskinen on e-trumpet, Gabby Fluke-Mogul on violin and Lisa Mezzacappa on bass.

Rent Romus
Deciduous

The final set brought back Vinny Golia and his wild collection of wind instruments to the Outsound Stage. In addition the more conventional baritone saxophone and bass clarinet, he also had a contrabass flute, a sopranino saxophone, and a rare G Mezzo-Soprano saxophone (which he describes in our preview video).

Vinny Golia trio. Photo by Charles Smith

Golia was joined by Miller Wren on bass and Clint Dodson (drums). Originally, our friend Steve Adams was going to join them on saxophones but was unfortunately unable to make it for medical reasons. Fortunately, he appears to be much better and back to performing since then, and we wish him the best.

It’s particularly interesting to be present all nights and hear how the different artists and styles of music follow one another on the same stage. And I am glad to have been a part of it again this year both as a listener and part of the organizing committee.

Manul Override at the Garden of Memory 2019

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.

Photo by Annabelle Port

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!

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.

Wordless Wednesday: Après Baschet

One of Martí Ruiz’s sonic inventions from his current exhibition at the Center for New Music in San Francisco. Please check out our recent CatSynth TV episode to see and hear more.

Farewell to 2018

Click to enlarge

The end-of-year colage has become a long-standing tradition here at CatSynth, and one that I particularly enjoy. It was a complex year, and the images reflect that. Our cats Sam Sam and “Big Merp” (who has pretty much become an indoor-outdoor cat at his new home in Oakland), some great shows including outstanding performances with CDP and Vacuum Tree Head, a wonderful and restorative visit back to New York. It was also dark and fiery at times, as when the Camp Fire leveled the town of Paradise and bathed our sky in smoke and ash – beautiful and tragic all at once.

Another New Year tradition at CatSynth is to share some stats from the past year. First, the basics:

  • 309 posts
  • 169 Cat-and-music posts
  • 78 episodes of CatSynth TV

Our top posts for the year, using the somewhat shaky measurements of Google Analytics:

  1. Wordless Wednesday: Windmill (Golden Gate Park)
  2. Aretha Franklin: Rock Steady
  3. Secret Chiefs 3 and Cleric play Zorn’s Masada
  4. Women’s March 2018 in San Francisco
  5. CatSynth Pic: White Cat and Modular, Vertical View

It was heartening to see such a diverse set of posts top the list. However, this belies the fact that blog readership is way down, and eclipsed by Facebook and YouTube / CatSynth TV. Most of our referrals to the blog come from these two sources; but most activity stays on Facebook and YouTube. On the plus side, CatSynth TV viewership has grown significantly. Here are the top videos for the year.

  1. NAMM 2018: Mellotron! [Episode 34]
  2. Arturia MiniBrute 2 Part 1
  3. Arturia MiniBrute 2 Sequencer [Episode 61]
  4. NAMM 2018: Rossum Electro Music Assimil8or [Episode 31]
  5. Volca FM: Deconstructed Electric Piano [Episode 53]

Clearly, the NAMM reviews and synth demos dominate the channel, though I am proud of the diversity of art, music, and culture topics shared there as well. Overall, we at CatSynth do see the writing on the wall, and the efforts in 2019 will probably accelerate the shift from blog to video in terms of time, energy and investment.

On a more personal and introspective note, 2018 was a year we accomplished a lot. At the same time, it ends feeling like I both did too much and didn’t do enough. There are still so many things going on, even as we tried to consolidate and focus. One of the challenges going into 2019 will be looking at how to stay organized and even more focused, without giving up on all that we do. Also, like birthdays, a new year is a reminder that time is passing, and we are getting a bit older. Taking care of myself will also be a priority.

Thank you all as always for sharing this past year with us, and wish wish everyone a Happy New Year!