Our Volt Divers Cat-tastic edition show in Portland this past month raised funds for House of Dreams, a no-kill cat shelter that specializes in older cats and those with medical conditions that may make them more challenging to adopt out. I had the chance to visit the shelter and made this video from the experience.
House of Dreams is, quite literally, a house at a non-disclosed location in Northeast Portland. Most of the space is dedicated to the cats, who have can move about freely in their respective rooms. We saw cats doing what cats do: play, interact, eat, and nap. And they certainly get a lot of love and attention from the all-volunteer staff.
The is a separate section of the house for cats who have tested positive for feline leukemia (FeLV). FeLV-positive cats to have special medical needs, and should be with other FeLV-positive cats, but they can still lead happy and full lives. Indeed, a couple of the most playful cats I met while I was there were in the FeLV section.
This is Snowball, probably the biggest ham among the cats.
These “CatSynth pics” of the cats at House of Dreams were taken by our friend and Volt-Divers host Jeph Nor, a synthesizer virtuoso in his own right and human companion of Runkl.
This is Sassy, who definitely had an attitude to match her name. (She appears at the end of our video giving us a “look” 😸). Below is sweet Spice.
Flicka was one of my “tour guides” who followed me around.
All the cats seemed pampered and well-loved by the staff. They had lots of personal attention (if they wanted it). Plus, the entire space was immaculate and full of furniture and toys to both stimulate and comfort the cats. As a small shelter focusing on cats with special needs, they have fewer overall adoptions – each one is a celebration, though often a farewell to a friend that the volunteers have grown to love. But they do have a good track record of adopting out, and often keep in touch with their “alumni” and human caregivers.
We at CatSynth were happy to visit and support them, both through our video and through the Volt Divers show. If you want to find out more about House of Dreams, including information on donations, please visit their website.
A week ago, I found myself back in Portland for the first time in four years. Officially, I was there to headline the Volt Divers Cat-tasticEdition show, but geat many other experiences large and small framed the main event. There were synths, cats, food, drink, and rain. Lots of cold rain. And wind. This is not unusual, but it did limit outdoor activities such as industrial and architectural photography. Instead, we enjoyed some of Portlanders’ favorite indoor activities, starting with brunch.
Portland may be an even “brunchier” place than San Francisco, Oakland, or Brooklyn, judging by the lines I observed at popular spots, including Jam on Hawthorne, not far from my home base in Southeast. Fortunately, as a solo patron who doesn’t mind squeezing into a tight spot at the bar, I didn’t have long to wait to get served. I quite enjoyed the spicy bloody-mary variant with Jam’s proprietary “aardvark sauce”, as well as the rancheros.
The sharper cheese sprinkled on top gave the dish an almost Italian quality, but it retained the hearty beans, spicy sauce, and simple eggs that made it perfect for a cold morning. The view out to Hawthorne Boulevard displayed some of the local flavors, including that Charlie-Brown-inspired van in the first photo.
Then it was back to our temporary “CatSynth HQ” to relax for a bit. Buddha, one of my hosts, made sure I felt at home. He was rather friendly, and even demanding of attention. I was happy to oblige.
After some quality cat time, it was back out to Hawthorne, this time headed over the bridge to downtown. Downtown Portland is somewhere between the downtown sections of Oakland and Brooklyn in terms of cityscape and vibe, though on a smaller scale than the latter. It has a regular grid cut by the I-405 freeway and Burnside Street, and a mix of contemporary, mid-century and older buildings. It was at the base of one of the older buildings that I found a small hair salon that was able to fit me in for a last-minute blowout – the weather was not kind to my hair, and I needed to look purrfect for the show that evening.
The next stop took me eastward from downtown to the ragged edges of the city along SE 82nd Avenue (State Route 213). I was here to pick up a borrowed Nord for the show. A mixture of auto-shops, low-rise apartments, and shopping centers made this area feel more like Los Angeles (except for the weather) or the far eastern sections of Queens. But it was still fascinating in its way, and there was an interesting row of shops, bars, and eateries along Stark Street – I wish I had a chance to stop at The Country Cat, but time did not permit this.
With hair done and keyboard secured, it was time to prepare for the show, which back in the industrial section of Southeast along the river at The Lovecraft Bar.
Inside the bar, it was dark. Really dark. It took me a few minutes before my eyes adjusted and I could see everyone else busily setting up their mostly modular rigs. It was all business after that as I set up for the show, but I did have some moments to check out the Lovecraft and horror-themed decor.
I will be covering the show itself in detail in a subsequent article. But we already have a video published on CatSynth TV, which you can view below.
The next morning I found myself in the Hollywood neighborhood. It was actually the first time on this particular trip that I found myself north of Burnside in the northeast sector of the city. Sandy Boulevard was lined with a diverse collection of low-rise businesses. I crossed I-84/US 30 into the adjacent Grant Park district, which reminded me again of residential neighborhoods with larger lots at the edges of New York City into Westchester and Long Island. I had some personal appointments that morning but then remained in Northeast to visit House of Dreams cat shelter at their secure undisclosed location.
House of Dreams is a no-kill shelter specializes in cats that have difficulty finding homes and has space dedicated for FelV-positive cats (i.e., those with feline leukemia). Our show the night before raised funds for their shelter and work, and I of course wanted to come visit the kitties. We will dedicate an upcoming article and video entirely to House of Dreams, but for now here is a cute picture of Flicka, one of the many sweet cats I met there.
We then hopped onto I-84 back west towards the river, passing the convention center and on to Mississippi Street, a trendy area of boutiques, pubs, and restaurants. This is also the home of Control Voltage, a premier shop for synthesizers of all sorts. It was relatively easy to find with the sidewalk signage.
Among the many keyboard and modular displays was this rack featuring modules from FolkTek, one of several local makers in the Portland area. They do have a gorgeous design.
I chatted with the staff and shot some video for an upcoming CatSynth TV, but also walked away with one of the FolkTek modules, a quad envelope follower that I know will come in handy for some upcoming music projects.
I wandered a few blocks south on Mississippi to StormBreaker Brewing, which I had remembered from a previous trip. In addition to their beer offerings, they had several suggested beer-and-whiskey pairings, which I of course had to try.
One of the daily specials, a cream-of-asparagus soup, was perfect for that cold and rainy afternoon.
Although this trip took me to quite a few corners of the city, I still felt there was much undone, especially meeting more of the local synth community, and spending some time outdoors. So I do expect to be back much sooner than last time.
See more of Portland, Oregon and many other fascinating places in our Highway☆ app, available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.
This was the awesome poster for the past weekend’s Volt Divers show in Portland. Not only does it feature a cat, it is monochromatic purple!
If you are not familiar with this series run by our friend Jeph Nor (Runkl Nor’s human and synthesizer virtuoso), please check out their Facebook Page. We hope to get back up to Portland ourselves sometime soon…
Today we conclude our reports from the Battery Powered Orchestra Workshop (BPOW!!!) in Portland, focusing on the evening concerts. Like the workshops, which we covered in Part 1, the concerts focused on DIY technologies, as well as analog synthesis.
The Saturday-evening program opened with Stephanie Simek performing on her custom multi-armed turntable.
The arms on the turntable were outfitted with contact microphones which picked up vibrations from the grooves of hand-cut records. Each arm fed a separate audio channel, creating a multi-track, spatialized performance from a single record. Musically, the repeated sounds of jungles, space, human activity and instrumental sources formed complex rhythms with changing syncopations and graduation motion over time. The effect was quite hypnotic. Even with the enveloping sound system, there was something intimate about the performance, probably related to the visuals and distinct sound of the record player.
Simek was followed by F-DT (Future Death Toll). F-DT is an artist collective and performances feature a rotating lineup, but on this occasion it included Edward Sharp and Nathanael Thayer Moss. F-DT describe themselves as “a throbbing mess of noise that eats technology and shits performance art.” And it was certainly a performance filled with loud noise in a variety of aural ranges – high electrical noises and pounding low-frequency patterns – set against a relentless stream of glitchy visuals and text.
Although it is hard to tell from this photo, much of their gear was colored orange, which seems to be an important part of the group’s identity. The music and presents is undeniably challenging, but well worth for those who make the effort.
Then it was my turn to take the stage. My setup focused on the analog modular synthesizer, along with another analog synth, iPad, the dotara (Indian string instrument), and Skatch Box. I also used the Synthrotek 4093 NAND synthesizer that I built during one of the workshops earlier in the day.
The 4093 worked flawlessly, as did the modular and the Luna NT analog synth. The acoustic instruments (dotara and skatch box) also worked well. As with any experimental electronic improvisation performance, there were a few technical glitches and a few things I would have done differently in hindsight. But overall, I thought it was a good performance, and it was very well received by the attendees. You can see and hear it in its entirety in the video below:
The final act of the first night was Mechlo. His performance combined lo-fi glitch audio and video from an NES console.
Clearly, there were modifications made to allow the system to be performed in a way that a traditional NES could not. Nonetheless, the graphics and audio were reminiscent of what one would expect from the classic 8-bit games. There were repeated modulating patterns, some of them more melodic, some noisier, with occasional glitches and pauses.
The Sunday evening concert opened with a performance by analog modular virtuoso Jeph Nor with Dan Green on analog video. Green brought an LZX modular video system, while Nor had a large collection of audio modules from different manufacturers.
Nor built complex patterns of sound that went from sparse and resonant to thicker and more pad-like. There were moments of eerie ambience and others that had a machine-like precision. Overall, he was able to give his improvisation with this instrument a musical and even narrative quality. The visuals focused on patterns of colors, curves and lines that were constantly changing, but occasionally slowing to a standstill before shifting rapidly and switching to a completely separate collection of shapes.
Next was Mike Todd performing custom visuals and sounds. Unlike the sharper edges from Nor and Green earlier, or the noisy intensity from F-DT the day earlier, Todd’s performance was software and more organic. The visuals, based on his own software, were composed of curving liquidy shapes that seemed alive. Similarly, his music had an equally liquid quality, with more open space between fast elements, as if a swarm of moving organisms.
Todd was followed by JMEJ, who assembled sonic circuits live on stage. One can think of this as “analog live coding”.
The process was fun to watch. As one might expect, the sounds were a bit on the noisier and unpredictable side, but with a lot of good crunchy lo-fi texture. As the performance continued, the circuits grew more complex and culminated in this tangled product:
The final performance featured Claus Muzak performing some of his electronic-music compositions.
This was a more structured performance, divided into songs. His music had a strong rhythmic and harmonic foundation, realized with a diverse collection of synthesizer and drum-machine sounds. It was dark and richly textured, and at times danceable, especially when he employed rhythmic lines with high-Q filters. It was probably the most “traditional” of any of the performances on either night, well crafted electronic music that would be at home in a club setting. But it was a fitting conclusion for evening’s performances and for the festival as a whole.
You can see and hear brief excerpts from all the performances in this video:
Overall, both the concerts and workshops from BPOW were a rewarding experience. It would be great to visit again to participate in future events, and in the meantime I look forward to hearing more from the artists involved. Thanks to Travis Feldman of moleculesynth for organizing BPOW and Myles de Bastion of Cymaspace for hosting.
My trip to Portland for BPOW included becoming acquainted with its streets and highways (and mostly not getting lost). The city is largely defined by the Willamette River, which bisects the city in eastern and western halves, and a series of bridges over the river connecting the two sides:
The above photo is looking north at the Burnside Bridge, which carries one of the city’s main thoroughfares. The vantage point is from the center of the Morrison Bridge, which combines traffic entering and exiting I-5 with city streets, walkways and bike paths. It seems to part of the theme in Portland that all these different modes come together and coexist along single routes. Looking towards the east side, the bridge connects to I-5 and I-84, as well as state highway 99E (Martin Luther King Avenue) and Water Avenue.
I-5 runs along the east bank of the river. But it also runs with bike and walking paths and a greenway. The highway, park, water and industrial zone behind them all co-exist.
I like the way Portland has chosen to co-exist with its older industrial infrastructure and highways as it plans green spaces and alternative transportation options. It is in sharp contrast to San Francisco, which can’t seem to tear down its highways and raze its gritty industrial areas fast enough. There is a beauty and attraction in preserving them while making the city for livable and environmentally friendly. The area around Water Avenue in the “Industrial Southeast” section of the city particularly retains this character. I had briefly seen it during my 2007 trip with the band that would later become Reconnaissance Fly, and for the BPOW trip I made sure to set aside time to explore. Much of the neighborhood is below the bridges and viaducts, but in between it opens up into spaces with larger warehouses.
It can be quite colorful if you know where to look.
Heading north at ground level, we follow the viaduct until we get to a rather nasty looking interchange. This is the northern terminus of I-405, which loops around downtown on the west side.
There are also several city streets and rail involved here in ways I can’t quite figure out. It also oddly frames the rose skyscraper that dominates downtown.
From here, we head north on 99E to the northeast section of the city. The industrial character gives way to a neighborhood of mixed residential houses and small stores. It here that BPOW took place at Cymaspace. You can read the first part of my report covering the workshops here. The second half, which will cover the evening concerts, will be published soon. In the meantime, we at CatSynth recommend enjoying a beer, of which there was no shortage in any neighborhood of the city.
It’s been a little over a week since the Battery Powered Orchestra Workshop (BPOW!!!) occurred in Portland. Today we look back at the workshops, which were in many ways the central components of weekend.
During the Saturday morning session, I attended a workshop on electronic textiles hosted by Cat Poole of Cacophonous Creations. The skill was to learn how to use conductive thread to embed both light and controls into clothing for future performances. But for the workshop, the task was to simply sew an LED and its associated circuit onto a dinosaur patch:
Of course, we at CatSynth approve of Cacophonous Creations’ chat noir logo! As for the task itself, the biggest challenges related to general sewing and laying out elements to properly fit (at least for someone with little sewing experience beyond repairing buttons). But I got through the threading of the circuit. It would be great to incorporate something like this into costuming for future performances.
In the afternoon, I attended a session presented by Steve Harmon of Synthrotek. It centered around DIY electronics and the ubiquitous 555 integrated circuit. But that then merely building an Atari Punk Console with a 555, we stepped it up with Synthrotek’s 4093 NAND Synthesizer.
The 4093 includes three square waves, based on a dual 556 integrated circuit. I was quite intent to complete it and be able to use it for my performance that evening. The soldering of the components went quite smoothly – it helps to both see other people soldering and to have access to a good iron. It was a quite a rewarding moment when the synth was complete and making sound.
My only disappointment was the pots not quite fitting and ending up a bit lopsided. But it worked great in the performance and will certainly be used again in the future. The additional confidence on soldering will also be valuable for future projects.
Additional workshops in the afternoon included an introduction and demonstration of modular synthesizers by Jeph Nor. He demystified modular for a general audience by presenting the fundaments (oscillators, filters, amplifiers) and adding additional elements.
Attending all the workshops on Saturday would have been impossible, especially if one wanted to complete the associated tasks. In particular, I was also interested in the Raspberry Pi which was presented by Edward Sharp.
Sunday’s workshop sessions opened with a demonstration of “squishy circuits”. It turns out that homemade play-doh is quite a good conductor of electricity, and can be used to quickly prototype circuit ideas. It also serves as a very accessible medium for introducing principles of electronics to children.
We also got to see other non-traditional conductive media including ink and paint that can be used to integrate electronics into artwork without the use of wires.
Then everyone scattered for an electronics scavenger hunt to find electronic toys and various media to use in projects during the afternoon. The participants reconvened later in the day and got to work.
Our host Travis Feldman of Molecule Synth hacked the interior of an Atari console with both audio and video modifications, attaching it to a Moog pedal.
Other creations included a circuit-bent toy keytar and a tactile surface used to control audio and video on a laptop.
Overall, the workshops at BPOW were a rewarding experience. In addition to new inspiration and a few new skills, I liked seeing the wide variety of interests and disciplines that others brought to creative DIY electronics for music, video and performance art. If the event does recur next year, it will be interesting to see how technologies and the skills of participants have further evolved.
In addition to the workshops, BPOW also featured performances in the evening. We will look at those in a subsequent article.