I.M. Pei in Suzhou and Beyond

The second of our remembrances focuses on the architect I.M. Pei, who passed away this week. A true champion of modernism worldwide, I have admired his work both from afar and close up.

Perhaps the most vivid memory with his work was from the Suzhou Museum in Suzhou, China. It may not be his best known work, but it is a masterpiece in itself and a love letter to his hometown.

The exterior facade combines Pei’s trademark geometry and minimalism with more the more traditional designs and tropes of an adjacent palace and Suzhou’s famous gardens. It also makes extensive use of water as an architectural element both inside and outside the building.

The simple geometric shapes, as well as the use of water, stone, and glass, gave the entire complex a very warm and welcoming feeling, even as the rain came down around me. Inside, the simplicity of the galleries left ample mental space to enjoy the exhibits and artifacts, while the atrium was a work of art itself.

I admire the way he often brought modernist aesthetics and principles to traditional spaces. This is perhaps most dramatically seen in his glass pyramid that anchors the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Napoleon courtyard of the Louvre museum at night time, with Ieoh Ming Pei’s pyramid in the middle. Benh LIEU SONG [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The pyramid is perfect, a stark contrast to the severe facades around it, and perfectly balanced in size and space. While I know many traditionalists have hated on this addition over the years, I for one love it. I am an unapologetic modernist and often find myself sparring with traditionalists even here in San Francisco.

Pei’s modernism was intended to integrate with its surroundings, even as it stood in contrast to it. For example, he wanted his stark geometric design for the Mesa Laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (U.S.A.) to look “as if it were carved out of the mountain”.

Until reading others’ tributes and remembrances, I had forgotten about his role in the Javits Center in New York, a building I am quite familiar with both inside and out. It is a massive and imposing structure but crisscrossed with triangular details that remind me of the Suzhou Museum (built 20 years later). The project was plagued by challenges and controversies, and “during the inauguration ceremonies, however, neither [James] Freed nor Pei was recognized for their role in the project.” [source]

Jim.henderson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Triangles do seem to be a major recurring theme in his work, and perhaps part of why it appeals to me even within the scope of other modernists. Triangles are powerful and strong, and the often stand out in Western spaces dominated by rectangles. These elements also played a role East Building for the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., a project is loved by many, but similar to the Louvre, criticized by some traditionalists.

The building is a masterpiece of minimalism. Even some of those traditionalist critics have grown to love it in the years since it opened in 1978. And it serves its purpose, both as a home to art and a work of art itself.

The growing popularity of art museums presented unique challenges to the architecture. Mellon and Pei both expected large crowds of people to visit the new building, and they planned accordingly. To this end, he designed a large lobby roofed with enormous skylights. Individual galleries are located along the periphery, allowing visitors to return after viewing each exhibit to the spacious main room. A large mobile sculpture by American artist Alexander Calder was later added to the lobby.[93] Pei hoped the lobby would be exciting to the public in the same way as the central room of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The modern museum, he said later, “must pay greater attention to its educational responsibility, especially to the young.”[94]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I._M._Pei#National_Gallery_East_Building,_Washington,_DC

Defending modernism, even after a century, remains a tireless job. As we lose champions like I.M. Pei, it falls to those of us in later generations to make sure this beauty is preserved and celebrated.

RIP Tardar Sauce, aka Grumpy Cat

In the past 24 hours, we have heard about the passing of two of our heroes, who hailed from different walks of life and even different species. In the first of our two remembrances, we bid farewell to the beloved Tardar Sauce, aka “Grumpy Cat”, has passed away. This was posted on Grumpy Cat’s official Facebook page this morning.

Despite care from top professionals, as well as from her very loving family, Grumpy encountered complications from a recent urinary tract infection and unfortunately become too tough for her to overcome. She passed away peacefully on the morning of Tuesday, May 14, at home in the arms of her mommy, Tabatha.

Besides being our baby and a cherished member of the family, Grumpy Cat has helped millions of people smile all around the world, even when times were tough.

https://twitter.com/RealGrumpyCat/status/1129310647458467840

Tardar Sauce’s feline dwarfism gave her face a sunken appearance, that together with her markings always made her look “grumpy” and launched a great many instantly usable internet memes. Even former President Barack Obama channeled Grumpy Cat on at least one occasion.

In reality, she seemed like a very sweet and docile cat, at least in the television appearances that we saw. She became quite the celebrity and her face graced many publications and toys, including this stuffed version of Grumpy Cat that has now sat on my desk at home and three different workplaces.

It’s always sad when a family says goodbye to a beloved feline companion – it’s a pain I know well. We wish Grumpy’s human and feline family our thoughts and sincerest condolences for their loss, and will do our part to keep her memory alive.

Aretha Franklin: Rock Steady

We pay tribute to the late Aretha Franklin with one of my favorite tracks, “Rock Steady” from the album Young, Gifted and Black.  It is the perfect coming together of soul and funk. Regular readers know that even as I am immersed in all things synthesizer and electronic, soul, funk, jazz fusion are close to my musical heart.

RIP, Queen of Soul 😿

 

RIP Cecil Taylor (1929 – 2018)

We learned yesterday of the passing of another of our musical heroes, Cecil Taylor.

This segment of solo piano demonstrates how his playing is incredibly complex but remains thoroughly musical.   The fast runs contain a unique contrapuntal language.  And more importantly, there is phrasing, contour, and emotion that unifies the performance.  Taylor had an uncanny ability to combine European classical tradition, jazz, and other African American influences into a unique musical language that he dubbed “black methodology”.  This quote from poet and critic A. B. Spellman, included in the official New York Times obituary, sums it up well.

“There is only one musician who has, by general agreement even among those who have disliked his music, been able to incorporate all that he wants to take from classical and modern Western composition into his own distinctly individual kind of blues without in the least compromising those blues, and that is Cecil Taylor, a kind of Bartok in reverse.”

 

It is hard for me not to compare Taylor with another contemporary of his, Ornette Coleman, who passed away in 2015.  Coleman is one of my favorites – Taylor takes the level of complexity to another level.  Both remain huge influences.  We leave you with this recording of “Calling It the 9th”.

 


RIP Bento, the Keyboard Cat

This is such heartbreaking news.  Bento, the Keyboard Cat has passed away 😿

His humans made this wonderful tribute to Bento and his legacy, including many classic clips; and a sweet story about how he was a source of inspiration for his human companion, Charlie Schmidt.

Bento was actually the second Keyboard Cat.  The original, Fatso, also lived with Schmidt but passed away in 1987, long before the age of internet memes.  You can read more about the story of Fatso, Bento, and Schmidt at the Keyboard Cat Wikipedia page. Like my cats, Bento was a shelter cat and became a public face for the Shelter Pet Project.  We saw him featured in billboards and bus stops here in San Francisco.

Keyboard Cat has always been a favorite of mine – how could it not, given the combination of interests.  We always had fun with the early “play him/her off” videos, and it became a frequent tag-line of mine to say “You have been played off by the Keyboard Cat”, especially when someone loses a political election.  I wish we had been able to cross paths in person.

We at CatSynth extend our sympathies to Charlie Schmidt and the rest of Bento’s family.  Rest in peace, Keyboard Cat, you have been played off. 💕

Steely Dan: My Old School 1973 – RIP Walter Becker

On the news of Walter Becker’s passing, we post this classic live performance of Steely Dan.

Steely Dan seems to be one of those bands that elicit strong emotions, people seem to love them or love to hate them. While I had a soft spot for a long time that I had to occasionally defend, there had faded into the background until Aja became part of the rotation of albums I listened to during my recovery last summer. This was a deeper listening beneath the slick production to hear the chord progressions and the dark but clever lyrics. And as I write more lyrics in my music, I hear the influence of their words.

I do get the sense that the polarizing reaction to Steely Dan does tend to cleave along similar lines to other musical divisions of the 1970s, most notoriously the anti-disco crusaders from the hard rock world. But that is a story for another time…


NAMM 2017: Moog Music Tribute to Synthesizer Pioneers

This year our friends at Moog Music, Inc. had a very different sort of booth. Instead of the usual array of gear for demonstration, the space was bare and stark, with a simple kiosk and a wall dedicated to the many synthesizer players and innovators we lost in 2016.

It was a rough year for the synthesizer community. Among those we lost were Pauline Oliveros and Don Buchla, both of whom were memorialized here on CatSynth and whom I had known in person. There were also images and statements for Keith Emerson, Bernie Worrell, Isao Tomita, and Jean-Jaques Perrey.

Visitors were invited to wander the space in contemplation or with a mix of music from the artists on classic Walkmans. Visitors could also leave social media tributes to one or more artists and have an opportunity to win one of several current Moog instruments, including a Werkstatt, Mother-32 and even a new Model D.

We didn’t win, but were very touched by the way Moog used their space to pay tribute to the many heroes we lost in 2016. It was a unique and moving experience at this year’s NAMM show.

Farewell to 2016: Annus Horribilis

2015 may have been a difficult year, but 2016 was a true annus horribilis. It was a year of loss. The graphic only represents a subset that we elegized in 2016 here on CatSynth. Some were personal, some were heroes, some symbolic. There were many deaths. A dark illiberal populist pall has been cast over the country and the world. But most of all, I am still grieving for the loss of our beloved Luna.

How does one keep going after a year like this? The answer I give to friends who have asked that question in the past is that we have no choice. Surviving is what we do, until that day when we don’t.

To be fair, there were many good things this year. Much good music and art that we have written about; career and personal life are much better now than they were a year ago as well. And we look forward to many adventures with our new cat Sam Sam in the coming years.

It’s hard to know what will come to in 2017. It’s a prime number, which brings us a modicum of joy. A see quite a bit of anxiety ahead, but also things to look forward to, including in January. We shall see…

RIP Alphonse Mouzon, Vera Rubin, Carrie Fisher

2016 continues to be a year of losses. Below we visit three people whose work has influenced our diverse interests here at CatSynth and who passed away since this holiday weekend.


[By Dontworry (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

Alphonse Mouzon was one of the important early artists in jazz fusion, and performed with many of our musical heroes, including Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Gil Evans. In 1971, he joined Wayne Shorter and the rest of Weather Report for their debut album Weather Report. The band has a mixed history – something we should write about on another occasion – but those first albums in the early 1970s have a sound that were quite influential and resonate with those of us who love jazz fusion of that era. You can hear some Mouzon’s 1971 work with Weather Report in this video:


Vera Rubin is a name that should be better known that it is in popular culture, as her contributions to cosmology and astronomy are central to our current understanding of the universe. Her work made the case for dark matter and its prevalence in the universe. It was another step in the process of understanding our place in the universe. The earth, then the sun, then the galaxy, all became just small and non-centrals parts in a much larger universe; and the discovery of dark matter showed that the “stuff we are made of”, the ordinary baryonic matter (all the chemical elements and such that we learn about in school) is only a small portion of the mass-energy of the universe. Dark matter has since been eclipsed by dark energy in terms of cosmological composition.

In addition to the grand perspective, Rubin’s work helped us understand why galaxies like our own Milky Way are shaped the way they are and move the way that they do. She was also a strong advocate for women in science, not just in her own career and field but overall in terms of advocacy in inspiration.



[By Riccardo Ghilardi photographer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons]

From great science facts we move to great science fiction. Star Wars is one of the important mythologies in contemporary world, and many of us who saw the original movie in 1977 remember it vividly. While Carrie Fisher was not one of the comedic droids or Darth Vader, her character Princess Leia was important to the story in ways a kindergarten-age kid couldn’t quite fathom at the time. What also makes Fisher particularly interesting is how she presented herself, flaws and all, completely outside of the mythology of Star Wars. She was brutally honest and with a dark, dry sense of humor that came out in real life and in Princess Leia. Indeed, after she reprised the role for Episode VII, she was very up front taking on the trolls who mocked for simply doing what we all do: age. Her semi-autobiographical Postcards from the Edge was an accidental discovery in a video store – I liked seeing women leading a dark story, and only afterwords realized that Fisher wrote the screenplay and the original book.


We at CatSynth send our regards to the families of Alphonse Mouzon, Vera Rubon, and Carrie Fisher; and to all those taken by 2016.

RIP The Bear (1995-2016)

2016 has claimed another hero. The Bear was the grand old man of multiple books and blogs by self-described “cat man” Tom Cox. We had read his book Under the Paw in one of its earliest editions back in 2008 – you can read our brief review here. In the book, The Bear immediately came to the forefront even in a household with many cats. He was already an old cat whose body had a scars of one who lived life hard but survived to tell it. And those sad, sorrowful eyes spoke volumes. These traits have earned The Bear a loyal following on his Twitter feed @MYSADCAT. Posts often pictured a picture of The Bear with his sad eyes and snarky quotes about music or current events. As The Bear survived year after year passing the milestone of 20 in 2015, he seemed indestructible.

But this is 2016, the year that felled Fidel Castro, along with a great many of our musical heroes and feline friends. We read the sad news on Tom Cox’s blog, where he pays tribute to his kind friend of so many years. With the recent loss of our beloved Luna, we at CatSynth can sympathize. We send our heartfelt condolences to Tom Cox and to the rest of his human and feline family.