San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF) Night 3

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.

Andy Puls

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.

Andy Pulse

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.

OMMO

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.

Kassek Jaeger

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.

Much was also made of the fact that this was the 19th year of the festival. That is quite an achievement! And we look forward to what they bring forth for the 20th next year…

Secret Chiefs 3 and Cleric play Zorn’s Masada

Greetings, and L’Shana Tovah! Today we look back to a show from last weekend at The Chapel in San Francisco where two bands interpreted selections from John Zorn’s Masada songbook. It was part of a four-day residency by Zorn at the Chapel in celebration of his 65th Birthday.

“Masada” has morphed and grown as a musical concept since Zorn’s original Ornette-Coleman-inspired group from the 1990s. There have been follow-up projects, notably Electric Masada that we at CatSynth are most familiar with. But it is as much a songbook as a collection of ensembles. The “Masada songbook” contains hundreds of short compositions, sometimes just fragments, scales, or concepts. Originally intended to be performed by the ensembles, these compositions can be interpreted by other bands. And on this night, the bands took them in decidedly rock direction.

First up was Cleric. The Philadelphia-based “avant-metal” band currently features Matt Hollenberg on guitar, Nick Shellenberger on keyboards and vocals, Larry Kwartowitz on drums, and Daniel Ephraim Kennedy on bass.

Cleric plays Masada

As their background implies, the performance was decidedly metal, a full-on triple-forte projection with growling vocals and fast runs punctuated by heavy drones. Nonetheless, it was top-notch musicianship and an adventurous choice of music. Within the mix, I found myself mostly focused on Shellenberger’s vocals and keyboards, though Kennedy’s six-string bass took center stage visually, and Hollenberg’s guitar performance added a solidifying aspect to the music. It was a solid set, and certainly an interpretation of the Masada songbook we have never heard before (and may never hear again).

Next up was Secret Chiefs 3, who brought a decidedly different sound and presentation to the stage.

Secret Chiefs 3 plays Masada

Led by guitarist and composer Trey Spruance (formerly of Mr. Bungle and Faith No More) and heavily featuring Eyvind Kang on violin, the group weaved together jazz, rock, folk, klezmer, and Middle Eastern influences into their eclectic set. Rounding out the group on this night were Jason Schimmel on guitar, Matt Lebofsky on keyboards, Shanir Blumenkranz on bass, Ches Smith on percussion, and Kenny Grohowski on drums.

It was an inspired and highly dynamic performance from these hometown favorites, and the band seemed a good match for the Masada songbook. There is an explicit thread of mysticism and the esoteric in both Zorn’s music and the work of SC3, so this is not surprising. I even recognized a couple of songs from Electric Masada recordings. The orchestration was brilliant and clever, bringing out each of the musicians as well as the Jewish influences of the songs. There were contrapuntal moments where the musicians played different lines and rhythms but coming together for short emphatic choruses with syncopated lines. It was crisp, tight, but also fun. And one could sense that the audience – a packed crowd on both levels of the Chapel, was having a great time along with them. The set was also the perfect length, keeping up the energy without petering out or overstating their welcome, leading to a single climax note that ended the music and cued Zorn and the musicians from Cleric back to the stage for a final group bow.

All together with John Zorn

Overall, a fine night of music. As with many multi-day festivals, I regret not being there for the other nights, but glad I was able to make it to the one that I did. September is always the busiest month for music (and art) in San Francisco, and we will have much more to experience and share in the coming weeks.

μHausen (micro-Hausen) 2018

Today we look back at this year’s μHausen, a “micro-festival” of experimental electronics that takes place every summer deep at a secure undisclosed location in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  It was the subject of our most recent CatSynth TV episode.

As suggested in the video, I was thinking a lot about our natural surroundings as we made music with our thoroughly artificial electronic instruments.  The trees, the air, the light, all seemed to be of a piece with the music at times.  I also thought about the fact that I had not been able to attend the last three installments.  In 2015 and 2016 I had to cancel or decline because of medical issues, and I’m not sure what happened in 2017.  But I was back now and was great to see and hear everyone.

First up was Peter Elsea, recently retired from his longtime position as a professor of electronic music at UC Santa Cruz.  On this occasion, he performed with a small rig that included a modular synthesizer and an electronic wind instrument.

Peter Elsea

His set featured tones that were timbrally rich and often noisy, but still pitched.  This worked well with the wind controller which allowed the noisy tones to swell and fade musically.  But there were also some beautiful moments of quiet pure tones that evoked the natural surroundings.

Next up was Later Days, a project featuring Wayne Jackson with his iOS-based evolutionary synth  MendelTone, which allows patches to “breed” and evolve.

There was an urgent “machine-like” quality to the music, with low drones oms mixing with high swirls of sound and various percussive hits.  Wayne is also the founder of this event and often its leader, but this year he ceded organizing duties to R Duck (of the R Duck Show), who performed next.


[Photo by Later Days (Wayne Jackson)]

The first segment of his set featured beautiful drones of processed guitar. There were quick runs, but they were absorbed into the overall sound.  Over time, the tone and structure darkened, with more complex timbres and harmonies set against slow but anxious guitar riffs.  He also teamed up with Later Days to deliver his perennial incantation featuring chocolate.  (Did I mention that we at CatSynth love chocolate?)

Next up was synthesizer virtuoso Doug Lynner, who performed on a Eurorack-based Serge modular synthesizer.


[Photo by Later Days (Wayne Jackson)]

I have long come to expect very complex and intricate sounds from Doug, often set in a very sparse texture where one can clearly hear the details.  That was certainly the case in this performance, which opened with light sounds reminiscent of birds and whale songs.  It could have come from the surrounding woods rather than the synthesizer on stage (OK, the bird sounds could have, probably not the whale sounds).  After a period of rapid modulation, the music settled into a different pattern, with a contrapuntal texture of long ascending tones reminiscent of sirens.

Lynner was followed by Paul Nicholson who had a large Korg-centric rig that included both a Minilogue, an MS-20 and an SQ-1 sequencer among other instruments.

His opening piece was more traditionally harmonic compared to the preceding sets, with slowly changing harmonic patterns that evoked late-20th-century minimalism (think Steve Reich and John Adams).  The second portion of the set featured some harsher sounds and noise centered around Nicholson’s modular synth.

Then it was time for me to take the stage.  I brought a rig that included the large 9U modular, a Casio SK-1 and my trusty Moog Theremini.


[Photo by R Duck]

As with most of my recent solo work, I select one of my more formal compositions as a point of departure.  In this case, it was “White Wine”, with the melody set against one of the SK-1’s drum beats.  This them morphed into a broken and complex break of sound and eventually to a pure improvisation with the modular and theremin, though the beats never really disappeared.  As I was when listening to the other sets, I was thinking about the natural surroundings – in my case being the “city girl” mastering my place in space and sound, even if just for a few brief minutes.

The final set featured Lemon DeGeorge on harmonica and electronics.

Lemon DeGeorge

The harmonicas (like a true player of the instrument, he had more than one) added a unique dimension to the music, and the electronics followed with long breathy tones.  The sounds appeared to build up layers upon layers into something heavy and enveloping, but never overwhelming.  Compared to Nicholson’s sounds, DeGeorge’s lone tones and patterns were thoroughly inharmonic but no less beautiful or musical.

Overall it was a fine afternoon of weird electronic music in the woods, and not just for the music itself but for the fellowship with friends who I don’t get to see that often.   I remained in the mind space of the show, the environment, and the sounds for a while on the drive back, at least until reaching I-880 and heading first into Oakland and later home to San Francisco, where I snapped back into my everyday urban life.

 

Weekend Cat Blogging with Marlon…and Sophia

Today we visit with our feline friends in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland.  First up is Marlon, formerly known as “Fluffy.”

Despite living outdoors, he is healthy and well-fed, and clearly has a past that includes life as a pet cat.  He loves people and didn’t need much convincing to spend time indoors.  Indeed, he is living it up with his indoor time, getting food and scritches and soft blankets to relax on.

He is a big fellow but has a tiny voice that sounds more like “merp” than “meow”.  I don’t yet have any video of his vocals, but you can see him thoroughly enjoying himself in this Instagram video with the music of John Schott playing in the background.

You can hear more of John Schott and his Actual Trio in this CatSynth TV video.  In the meantime, let’s check in with Sophia, formerly known as “Hissy.”

As one can see in this photo, she is a beautiful cat, with Siamese-like markings and a graceful bearing.  We think she might have once been a pet as well, but she is still extremely skittish around people.  I mostly just get a glimpse of her from a distance and she runs off at any attempts to get closer.  But she usually remains hidden nearby when Marlon is around.  The two of them seem to have a special bond, despite their divergent attitudes towards humans.

We hope all our human and feline friends have a lovely weekend.

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 😿

 

Outsound New Music Summit: Bobby Bradford’s Brass’n’Bass, KREation Ensemble with Marilyn Crispell

For the final night of the Outsound New Music Summit, we invited two jazz legends to collaborate with noted local musicians. Each of them has performed and recorded with a whos-who of jazz in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  Sometimes such collaborations can go awry in practice, but we at CatSynth are happy to say that both were a resounding success.

Bobby Bradford has had a long career as cornet player and composer who enjoyed long collaborations with the likes of Ornette Coleman and John Carter.  He has taught multiple generations of musicians, including Bill Noertker, who invited Bradford to lead a project for this year’s summit.  The cornetist and bassist teamed up with cornetist Theo Padouvas and bassist Scott Walton to form Bobby Bradford’s Brass’n’Bass.


[Photo by Michael Zelner]

The performance focused on Bradford’s compositions, but as in any good jazz setting, each of the musicians brought their own creativity to the set.  The instrumentation makes for a sparse texture, with each member of the group having to perform multiple duties on melody, harmony, and rhythm.  But the result is an unusual sound.  Bradford’s cornet led the way, with Padouvas filling in some of the space with fast runs and other sounds.  Noertker and Walton took turns on the rhythm at times but also worked together as a unit.  They also doubled as additional melodic instruments in the group.  One memorable moment featured Noertker playing long bowed harmonics atop Walton’s back-and-forth plucked bass notes.  There was a ballad with Bradford and Padouvas playing nearly the same line what seemed like a different scale and harmony to the basses, resulting in a very haunting effect.  Another faster tune was reminiscent of Ornette Coleman in the 1960s (i.e., before the Prime Time era).

Bobby Bradford
[Photo by Michael Zelner]

As Bradford is perhaps best known as a sideman and a teacher, it was great to see him lead the band with his own music on this occasion. The group did end with a more open improvisation, which Bradford himself admitted he wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out.  It was short and sweet, with the musicians bouncing off one another but not overstaying their moments.  Overall, I thought this group had a fine debut, and it will be interesting to see if they play together again, perhaps in Bradford’s home turf of Southern California.

The second set brought together pianist Marilyn Crispell with Kevin Robinson’s KREation Ensemble that also included Lee Hodel on bass and Tony Gennaro on percussion.

KREation Ensemble

On the surface, this coming together would seem to be a more traditional jazz quartet, but Gennaro had an unusual percussion kit with a variety of hand drums, bells, and more.  Indeed, there were times it seemed all four musicians were playing melody lines.  And there was a lot of open space, with Robinson’s meditative poses acting as a fifth instrument.

Kevin Robinson

Robinson has a very sparse, detailed and contemplative style of playing, even when he was playing faster sections.  This contrasted with Crispell’s frenetic runs on the piano.  Hodel was able to match her with percussive notes on the bass.  I really liked the way the two of them interplayed.  I found myself re-focusing throughout on Crispell to see what she would do next.  There was something clever, even mischievous, about her playing, even when it was darker long chords.

Marilyn Crispell

The ever-changing style and energy throughout the set make sense in the context of the work being premiered.  As stated in the program, “Through the Twisting Prisms is a collection of intervallic, rhythmic, harmonic labyrinths and mazes that explore ideas convergence, expansion, contraction, and meditation.”

Together, the two sets made a fine conclusion to this year’s Outsound Summit.  And we had a full house at the Community Music Center, even in the balcony.  We finish exhausted but satisfied at a job well done and a great week of music brought to life.

 

 

Outsound New Music Summit: CDP and Dire Wolves

While I thoroughly enjoyed every night of this year’s Outsound New Music Summit, last Friday was special because I was on stage with my own band CDP.  We shared the bill with Dire Wolves for a night of contrasting retro styles within the context of new and experimental music.

I often get asked what “CDP” stands for.  And while it does stand on its own as a name, it does come from the initials of the original three members: Chaudhary, Djll, Pino.  That’s me on keyboard and vocoder, Tom Djll (synthesizers), and Mark Pino (drums).  Joshua Marshall joined the band in 2017, bringing his technical chops and versatility on tenor and soprano saxophone.  As a road-and-map geek, it also stands for “Census Designated Place”.

CDP at the Outsound New Music Summit

We had five tunes for this concert.  Three of them were from the series I call “the jingles”, including White WineNorth Berkeley BART, and our newest song, Rambutan (it’s a fruit from Southeast Asia).  Marlon Brando and Konflict Mensch rounded out the set.  Each featured a melodic and harmonic head followed by open improvisation – no fixed solos, even listens to one another and comes in and out.  Our style is a blend of funk, fusion and experimental music reminiscent of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi and Head Hunters bands or Soft Machine 5 & 6, with a bit of 1970s Frank Zappa / George Duke mixed in.  The music is a joy to play and I’m so glad to be able to be on a stage playing it.

Amanda Chaudhary and Joshua Marshall, CDPWe got off to a somewhat shaky start with White Wine, but we settled down quickly as we headed into the improvisation section.  From that point on, things only got better with Marlon Brando and North Berkeley BART (which is always a local crowd pleaser).  Rambutan was a lot of fun, including the funky 7/4 jam and the call-and-response chant with the audience.  Mark held up the metric foundation, working with both me and Tom who took turns on the bass roll.  Tom also got some great sounds in his solos, as did Josh who moved easily between growls and mellifluous melodic runs.

Tom Djll's synth

The vocoder, a Roland VP-03, held up pretty well – in some ways, I felt the scatting went even better than the lyrics – though there is still work to do keeping the voice intelligible in the context of the full band.   I was exhausted and satisfied after the set, and look forward to doing more with our band.

You can read Mark Pino’s perspective on the set on his blog.

For the second set, Dire Wolves brought a completely different energy to the stage.  Where CDP was exuberant and even frenetic at times, Dire Wolves welcomed the audience with a mellow and inviting psychedelic sound.

Dire Wolves

[Photo by Michael Zelner]

There was a sparseness to the music, with Jeffrey Alexander (guitar + winds), Sheila Bosco (drums)Brian Lucas (bass) and Arjun Mendiratta (violin) each staking claim to a distinct orchestral space within the soundscape.  Alexander and Mendiratta had lines that melted seamlessly from one to the next; Brian Lucas’ bass was sometimes melodic.  Bosco’s drums provided a solid foundation, but she also contributed voice and other sounds to the mix.

Jeffrey Alexander Sheila Bosco

[Photos by Michael Zelner]

My mind was still processing the set we had just played, but the trance-like qualities of Dire Wolves provided a space for a soft landing and to return to a bit of balance.  Sadly, it seems this was the band’s last performance for a while, at least with the current lineup.  But I look forward to hearing more from each of these musicians in their other projects.

Both groups played to a decently sized and very appreciative audience – not the capacity crowds of the previous or following nights, but respectable.  And I got quite a bit of positive feedback from audience members after our set.  We still have one more night of the summit to cover, and then it’s onward to future events.

Outsound New Music Summit: Rubber City and Ralph Carney Memorial Octet

Last Thursday night at the Outsound New Music Summit, musicians and music lovers came together to celebrate the life and legacy of one of our own, Ralph Carney.  He was a fixture of the Bay Area new-music scene who could be spotted performing in many groups and venues, and he also enjoyed success and notoriety in popular music with Tom Waits, the B-52s, and others.  He is also one of the most infamously colorful characters in the scene.  He passed away suddenly at the end of 2017 in an accident, leaving many both shocked and saddened.  This tribute concert featured a performance by Rubber City, of which Ralph was a member, and a memorial ensemble featuring local musicians who performed his compositions.

In the week leading up the concert, we had the chance to speak with David Slusser of Rubber City and Phillip Greenlief, who arranged Carney’s music for the memorial ensemble.  You can hear from them in these videos.

Rubber City opened the evening with a rendition of Beautiful Ohio, sounding much like they did in the video.  It was a fitting opening as Slusser, Carney, and drummer Chris Ackerman were all Ohio expatriates.  They were joined by bassist Richard Saunders and reedist Sheldon Brown.

The second piece, a rather bluesy tune, also evoked their Ohio origins and gave Saunders and Brown a chance to shine in solos.  The next was much darker and more atonal/arhythmic in nature but still had a very playful quality to it.  Another featured Slusser and Brown both playing soprano saxophone at the same time, a rare combination!  For the last piece, they set aside the saxophones for bass clarinet and flute.

David Slusser on flute

Even during moments of seriousness, there was a lot of fun and energy in the music, which was fitting for the artists on stage as well as the one they were paying tribute to.  It was a tremendous performance overall, and one I am not likely to hear repeated soon.

Slusser, Brown, and Saunders returned in the second set for the memorial “octet” that actually had nine members.  They were joined by Phillip Greenlief and Rent Romus on saxophones, Suki O’kane on drums, Myles Boisen on guitar, and Karina Denike and Michael McIntosh from Carney’s “Serious Jass Project.”  The performance was dominated by the horns in what I dubbed the “wall of saxophone.”

Wall of saxophone

The group began on a somber note with Carney’s Lament for Charleston, written shortly after the massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015.  But even this dark piece had exuberance and could not fully contain the energy of the large group.  From there, they continued on a rollicking trip through Carney’s compositions, including his oddball marches and an old-timey song about driving down Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles that was sung by Greenlief with great effect.

In keeping with Ralph Carney’s wide-ranging musical interests, there were a number of vintage jazz-style and mid-century tunes complete with swaying horn-section choreography.  Karina Denike’s singing and vintage presentation added to the overall effect and classic style of the performance.

Many of us were simply caught up in the joy of the music and the celebration.  Upon reflection, one realizes how different this was from the typical Outsound set with its references to swing, bebop, and early rock-and-roll.  But there is absolutely nothing wrong with that – I have long professed that “new” and “experimental” musicians should not feature traditional idioms and structures in their music.  This was an unequivocally great show, and the fact that it was on the Outsound stage was all the better.

Both bands played to a full and very appreciative house.  Throughout the evening, on stage and in the audience, people shared their memories of seeing Ralph play or performing with him, and how much he is missed.   I am confident that he would have loved our musical tribute and celebration, though he probably would have expressed his appreciation in an appropriately dry and confounding way.

Outsound New Music Summit: SO AR and X A M B U C A

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.

Shanna Sordahl
[Shanna Sordahl]

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.

Robert Lopez
[Robert Lopez]

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
[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.

 

Outsound New Music Summit: Tim Thompson and Pet the Tiger

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.

Tim Thompson Space Palette Pro

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.

Pet the Tiger

Peter Whitehead

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.