UnPopular Electronics (Robair + Djll), Lx Rudis, Franck Martin at Robotspeak

It’s been a little while since we last attended Church of Thee Super Serge at Robotspeak in San Francisco, but we made a point of going this past weekend.  For those who have not been there or read our past reviews, it’s an almost-ever-month show on a Saturday afternoon with live hardware-synthesizer performances.  As the name suggests, some acts do include Serge synthesizers, but it is not required, and a wide variety of instruments are used.  All three sets are featured in our most recent CatSynth TV episode.

The first set featured Lx Rudis performing on an Oberheim Xpander, a somewhat underappreciated instrument from the 1980s.

Lx Rudis on Oberheim Xpander

At its heart, the Xpander is a 6 voice analog synthesizer, but with a complex array of digital controls that can be programmed and applied independently to each voice.  Lx Rudis took full advantage of these, especially the LFOs and lag generators, to create subtle and minimal metric patterns.  He constantly moved voices in and out, configuring them on the fly, in a way that was very expressive and musical.  I particularly liked the sections which had staccato rhythmic textures against slowly moving timbres deliberately out of sync with one another.

Next up was Franck Martin, who performed a solo set on a modular synthesizer with several standalone instruments.

Franck Martin

Martin’s setup included a Moog Subharmonicon, which he built while attending Moogfest this year (we at CatSynth are a bit envious), as well as a DFAM (Drummer From Another Mother).  There were also additional voices provided by Braids and Plaits modules from Mutable Instruments that he could bring in and out using a touch-plate interface.  The result was a slowly changing beat pattern with an eerie inharmonic voicing and gentle undulation.

The final set featured our friends Gino Robair and Tom Djll teaming up as the brilliantly named Unpopular Electronics.

They had a wide variety of gear, including Serge panels in addition to Eurorack modules and standalone instruments from Bugbrand and others.  In addition, Gino had an interesting small case that included touchpads.

The music was frenetic and intense, an avalanche of pops and hits and loud cloudlike tone clusters.  And there were trumpet sounds entering into the mix at various points.  But there was an exquisite detail to the madness with changes among the different instruments and sounds, and musical pauses and rests before the pair dived back into the frenzy.  There were also many moments of humor and not just Djll’s book about why there aren’t any Zeppelin-style airships in the United States.

In between sets, it’s fun to browse around Robotspeak and see what’s for sale, or on display in the big glass case.

It’s also quite dangerous, as I am often tempted to leave with another module or instrument.  On this occasion, I exercised restraint, but probably not next time…

Denny Denny Breakfast at the Luggage Store Gallery, San Francisco

A couple of weeks ago we saw a fun and intriguing performance by Denny Denny Breakfast at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco.  It was the subject of a recent CatSynth TV.

Denny Denny Breakfast is an ensemble project led by Robert Woods-LaDue.  The personnel changes per event, but on this occasion, it included Sarah Dionne Woods-LaDue (dance),  Mark Clifford (vibraphone), Crystal Pascucci (cell0), Jordan Glenn (drums), David Young (keyboard), Max Judelson (upright bass), and Rent Romus (alto saxophone).  They had recorded an album together in December 2017 and the mix of improvisations and noted sections informed the live performance at the Luggage Store.

Several of the parts were improvised once again, but others were relatively fixed, including the final piece that was a note-for-note transcription of an improvisation from the recording sessions.  There was also a piece originally conceived while the group was playing in the Finnish Hall in Berkeley but did not make it onto the album.  It was a simple concept of repeated patterns slowly changing in speed between two groups of performs, creating a phase pattern in the acoustic space.  The Finnish Hall has very unique acoustics, and so does the third floor of the Luggage Store Gallery, making it an ideal location to recreate the piece.  Throughout there was a large variation in the music between pieces, ranging from melodic and theatrical to noisy and percussive, to minimal with large amounts of empty space.  Each of these styles and textures left room for the dancers Sarah and Robert Woods-LaDue to be front and center.

We were happy to have been introduced to Woods-LaDue’s work, and are enjoying his recordings as well.  There is a wide variation in style among the different albums, but that will be a topic for another review in the not-too-distant future.

New Video Review of Solo: A Star Wars Story

Our latest CatSynth TV episode features a review of the latest offering in the Star Wars franchise, Solo: A Star Wars Story.

The video has some spoilers in it, so we advise waiting to watch it until you have seen the movie.  For now, here are some non-spoiler takeaways:

  • The movie continues to fill in the storyline between Episode III and Episode IV, along with the Rebels TV series and Rogue One.
  • Donald Glover is great as Lando Calressian!
  • Star Wars does a good job with its gangsters and bar and club scenes, going all the way back to the Mos Eisley cantina.  There is no shortage of such scenes in this movie.
  • It’s a smaller scale story than the main movies or even Rogue One.  And force-wielders are less prominent than in any other movie or series.
  • Sadly, no cats.

We do recommend it for Star Wars nerds like us, as well as casual viewers. 😺

Voltage and Verse: Ruth Weiss/Doug Lynner/Hal Davis, Pitta of the Mind, Ramon Sender at Adobe Books

It’s been a busy season for Pitta of the Mind!  We had three shows in the span of two months, beginning with our blue set at Pro Arts and culminating with ¡Voltage and Verse! at Adobe Books in San Francisco.  You can get a taste for the show in our CatSynth TV video.

It was an honor to once again share a bill with ruth weiss.  A Holocaust survivor and founding member of the San Francisco beat poet scene in the 1950s, she is still going strong, performing and supporting local institutions and artists.

Maw Shein Win, ruth weiss, Amanda Chaudhary

We were glad to see that she is continuing her collaboration with our friend and synthesizer virtuoso Doug Lynner.  Together with log percussionist Hal Davis, they performed a set of poetry and music that simultaneously evoked earlier eras and the latest electronic experiments.  Davis’ log drum provided an expressive metronome, undulating between a trot and a gallop.  Lynner’s synthesizer lines filled in the spaces, sometimes with rhythmic appeggios and at other moments with long eerie drones.  The synthesizer timbres and phrases complemented the words in multiple ways, sometimes underpinning the narrative in the manner of a good film score, at other times emphasizing the rhythm of the words and making them into a musical whole.

ruth weiss and Doug Lynner

Our Pitta of the Mind set was part of a month-long celebration for the release of Maw Shein Win’s new book of poetry Invisible Gifts.  The book is divided into four sections based on different colors.  This works perfectly for our use of color themes in our performances.  For this night, we chose silver and performed selections from the silver section of the book.  There were some familiar poems that we have performed before, and some that were new to me.  There were a variety of styles and subjects in the words that inspired different musical backings, from jazzy electric piano (my favorite) to abstract synthesizer explorations.  I was able to reuse some of the modular patches I had developed for my recent show in Portland and make them work with the rhythm of the texts.

Pitta of the Mind

Maw and I have performed together so many times now that it has become almost second nature to realize a new set; our three shows this season went off (nearly) flawlessly, and have been among the best we have done in our nearly seven years of collaboration!  We have developed a toolset and pallete of instruments (including the Nord Stage and Prophet 12) and sounds that we can quickly turn to with each new text, which makes the process of learning new pieces both simple and fun.  I certainly hope we can keep up the momentum in the remainder of the year, even as I turn my own attention to other musical projects.

In between our set and weiss/Lynner/Davis, we were treated to a presentation by Ramon Sender.  Sender was a co-founder (along Morton Subotnick and Pauline Oliveros) of the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the early 1960s, but on this evening he regaled us with stories of his time at the Morning Star and Wheeler ranches in Sonoma County in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Morningstar, founded by Lou Gottlieb, was a radical experiment in communal living, populated by an interesting cast of characters along with folks who “commuted” between San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district and the ranch west of Sebastopol.  It only existed in its communal form for a short period of time before being shut down by Sonoma County. Sender and others then moved to the nearby property of artist Bill Wheeler, who followed Gottlieb’s lead and opened his ranch as a commune open to all.  I found myself fascinated by Sender’s stories, and would love to learn more about the history of the area and these communal experiments.

It was a fun night of music and words that lived up to its billing, and I certainly hope to have a chance to perform with everyone again.  And thanks to Benjamin Tinker and Adobe Books for hosting the event!  Please support your local bookstores and performance spaces.

[Photos not marked “catsynth.com” in this article courtesy of Maw Shein Win.]

#KSW45 and CatSynth: A Personal History

As Kearny Street Workshop gets ready to celebrate its 45th anniversary, we at CatSynth look back in the many ways our histories have intertwined in the past decade, from a shy outsider writing reviews to becoming Board President!

In August 2009, I attended a guided tour of the Present Tense Biennial, an exhibition co-curated by the Chinese Cultural Center and an intriguing-sounding organization named Kearny Street Workshop – it seemed an apt name for organization hosting an exhibition on Kearny Street.  I wrote an article about it which was seen by the folks at KSW including then-executive-director Ellen Oh, who invited me to cover their flagship program APAture the next month.

I did go to several of the APAture programs, including the opening night and visual-arts showcase and the music showcase, writing more articles, making new friends, and probably drinking a bit too much.  This was an entirely new community quite apart from the experimental-music and jazz circles in which I traveled, or the other contemporary visual artists I was meeting.  I went on to attend KSW’s rollicking SF Thomassons Performance Tour in January 2010, and also befriend Truong Tran (himself a former executive director) at the opening of his first solo exhibition Lost and Found.

It was during these and other events that I became more acquainted with the history of the organization beyond the art and artists it was currently supporting.  I learned about the Asian American movement, about the history of the neighborhood from which KSW derived its name and about the fall of the I Hotel.  Kearny Street Workshop was not simply an arts organization, or eventhe “oldest organization in the U.S. focused on Asian American artists”, but a multi-generational group dedicated to local activism and community through the arts.  I became a regular donor and continued to attend events, including A Sensory Feast, and continued to write and share reports.  But in many ways, I was still an outsider looking in.

That all changed in 2013 when APAture returned after a four-year break and I was a performing artist for the opening night.

I performed an experimental electronic set with tabletop and modular synths and a dotara (Indian folk stringed instrument) for a large and diverse audience.  I felt more connected to the KSW community, but that was about to become even more so as then program director (and later executive director) TJ Basa invited me to get more deeply involved, recruiting me to join program committees, including the ever-popular Dumpling Wars.  This led to joining the board of directors in 2014.

During this time, KSW was in a process of rebuilding from its board down to its individual programs and partnerships, and returning to its activist and community-focused routes.  Under TJ and new programming manager (now Artistic Director) Jason Bayani we began to focus programming in this direction, including the resurgent APAture festival (which I performed at again that year).

[2014 Kearny Street Workshop / Antoine Duong]

Later that year, I became Board President and Chair as we grew the board into its strongest and most active team in many years.  It was quite an unexpected turn that I would never have anticipated when I first started attending events five years earlier.  KSW became a family, and I was now about as much an “insider” as one could be.  I learned a lot about individual and institutional fundraising, forging relationships with other groups, and the herding of cats that is a small and scrappy but ambitious arts non-profit.  But I still found joy in participating directly in events and writing reviews, including for last year’s APAture festival.  It coincided with the launch of CatSynth TV, and we featured the opening night and book-arts showcase in two of our early episodes.

Tomorrow night is our 45th Anniversary Gala, to be held at the Chinese Cultural Center, where I first encountered KSW nine years earlier.  In a way, it is coming full circle.  But instead of writing a review, I am writing a speech to recognize the 45 years and multiple generations of history.  If you are in San Francisco tomorrow evening and wish to join us, there are still a few tickets available for the general program.

 

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Life’s Blood Ensemble at the Ivy Room

It’s time for another round of catch-up on recent musical adventures around the Bay Area.  And so today we look back at last month’s performance by Rent Romus’ Life’s Blood Ensemble at the Ivy Room in Albany, California, where the celebrated the release of their new album Rogue Star.  It was the subject of a recent episode of CatSynth TV.

As Romus explained on stage (and in our video), Rogue Star is a deliberate reference and homage to David Bowie’s final masterpiece Black Star.  In particular, it is inspired by the work of saxophonist Donnie McCaslin (Romus’ brother-in-law) on Black Star.  Indeed, the title track of the new album as performed that night did reference the style and material of McCaslin’s work.  But this was a point of departure, and the ensemble moved in different directions as they performed other tracks from the new album.

Life's Blood Ensemble

Several of the band members contributed compositions to the album and to the performance that evening, including “Think!” by Heikki Koskinen (e-trumpet) and “Space is Expanding” by Safa Shokrai.  Shokrai’s piece picked up on the theme of space and cosmos that winds through many of Life’s Blood Ensemble pieces as well as through Romus’ other projects.  Koskinen’s composition offered frenetic ensemble runs punctuated by silences and small staccato hits from his e-trumpet as well as other instruments.

Rounding out the ensemble were Mark Clifford on vibraphone, Timothy Orr on drums, and Joshua Marshall on tenor saxophone.  As always, I was impressed at the way the ensemble functioned as a unit, whether in the middle of a swinging “cool jazz” idiom or more seemingly free and chaotic sections.  In some ways, it is in the silences between phrases where this is most apparent.

Before closing, I should also say something about the Ivy Room.  This venerable institution has gone through multiple incarnations in the ten years since I moved to San Francisco and started playing and attending shows there.  Of course, I had a lot of fun performing at “Hootenannies” back in 2008, 2009 and 2010, and enjoyed the kitschy decor.   But from a musical point of view – and especially a jazz-ensemble point of view – this current incarnation is the best, with a sizable stage, lighting and sound reinforcement.  I hope to bring my current band there sometime soon.

Pitta of the Mind, Usufruct, Alex Cruse, Murder Murder at Pro Arts

As we get ready for our next Pitta of the Mind show this Thursday, March 8, we look back at our recent show at Pro Arts in Oakland, where we were joined by Usufruct, Alex Cruse, and Murder Murder.  You can see a bit of all four groups in this recent CatSynth TV episode.

Pitta of the Mind’s color theme (we always have a color or pattern theme) for this evening was blue and featured blue-themed poems by Maw Shein Win, many from her new book Invisible Gifts.  

Pitta of the Mind
[Photo by Tom Scandura]

I used the Prophet 12 synthesizer, along with the modular system, my trusty Nord Stage, and some percussion instruments to create a musical interplay with the words as well as the space between them.

Amanda's Pitta of the Mind Setup with Prophet 12, Modular synth and Nord Stage EX

Even though we haven’t performed in a while and only had one rehearsal, I felt this was one of our strongest performances – and the feedback I got from the audience backed up that perception.  In particular, I think the poem “You Will Be With Me in a Town Called Paradise” came out particularly well, with a sultry vibe and jazzy accompaniment on electric piano.

After our set, Usufruct, the duo of Polly Moller Springhorn and Tim Walters took the stage.


[Photo by Tom Scandura]

As the word “usufruct” implies, they make use of materials for which they have usage rights beyond ownership, such as public-domain text sources.  Polly’s vocal interpretations of the texts are processed electronically by Tim using custom programs written in SuperCollider.  The end result is simultaneously dark and playful.  But beyond the text sections, I was particularly taken with the instrumental portion at the beginning, which featured bass flute live and electronically processed.

Alex Cruse brought a very different vibe and sensibility to the evening, with an electronic performance that focused on beats, loops, and hits.

There were many delightful sounds and many hard-edged industrial noise moments as well.  The vocals were deliberately obscured by heavy distortion and other processing but provided a percussive element that worked well with the rhythms.

The final set by Murder Murder was again something altogether different.  With two drummers, two horns, two electronic performers, and vocals, it was nonstop intensity from the first drum hit.

The intensity continued for several minutes and then came to a sudden close.  It was the musical equivalent of a tornado tearing through our calm evening of voice and electronics, but perhaps it was a fitting coda to the evening.

We thank Pro Arts and Sarah Lockhart for having us at this series, which has become quite a mainstay of the Oakland scene.  I hope to be back again soon with one of my other projects.  And of course, we are looking forward to our next Pitta of the Mind Show – where we will once again be joined by Usufruct – at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco on Thursday, March 8 at 8 PM.

NAMM 2018: Blipblox

Among the more unique instruments that we saw at NAMM this year was the Blipblox, a fully functional synthesizer in a plastic shell reminiscent of children’s toys.

Blipblox at NAMM 2018

Don’t be deceived by its appearance. The Blipblox is a full-featured monophonic synthesizer with selectable signal topologies and oscillators; a low-pass filter; a sequencer; and even a drum machine.  There is also a modulation matrix to complete the feature set.  In some ways, it seems similar to overall style and concept of the Moog Mother-32, though it is of course a very different instrument.

You can hear a bit of our attempt to play the Blipblox in this video.

It certainly seems like an interesting way to introduce kids to synthesizers and both the science and art of sound.  But it also seems quite usable for live performance – if it’s rugged enough for kids, it’s probably rugged enough for the stage.  We look at it an immediately think of the repurposing of musical toys for experimental electronic performance via circuit bending.  Whether a Blipblox is bendable or not is beyond the scope of this initial look, but it would certainly fit in with a setup that includes such modified instruments.

More info can be found at https://blipblox.com/

NAMM 2018: Strymon Magneto

At NAMM, one tries out a lot of instruments and walks away wanting to have a good number of them.  The novelty fades quickly, but some you find that you continue to really want.  The Magneto module from Strymon is in the latter category.

Strymon Magneto

The Magneto is a four-head tape delay simulator.  Its controls are very intuitive and playable, with enough flexibility to be used to generate spring-reverb-like sounds as well as function as a looping device via a mode switch.  You can see our first attempts with the Magneto in this video.

Strymon put a lot of attention to detail both in terms of sound design and usability into this device.  And as one would expect from a Eurorack module, just about every function can receive external CV input, making it more of a musical instrument in its own right than it would be in a studio rack or even a guitar pedalboard.  We were able to observe the delay and looping functions in great detail, but it was more challenging to discern the tape-effect functions, such as “wow-flutter” and “crinkle”.  Part of that is just the chaotic environment of NAMM (even in the more calm depth of Hall E).  Hopefully, we will get a chance to try those out in more detail in the near future.

For more information, please check out https://www.strymon.net/products/magneto/

NAMM 2018: Arturia MiniBrute 2 and RackBrute

We continue to work our way through our experiences from NAMM 2018 with the Arturia MiniBrute 2.

Arturia MiniBrute 2 and RackBrute

The original MiniBrute made quite a splash a few years ago with its all-analog signal path, usability, and low price.  It also had a sound that was distinct from other low-cost analog synths, in part because of the “Brute Factor” knob.  That knob is back in the MiniBrute 2 along with a Steiner-Parker filter that together with the Brute oscillator gives the instrument its sound.  But there is now a second oscillator, and, perhaps more significantly, a modulation matrix and patch bay.

The built-in synthesizer topology includes a lot more modulation than the original, and the patch bay allows for reconfiguration and expansion with the RackBrute Eurorack cases that integrate 3U or 6U or modules with the MiniBrute in a single case.  This does seem to be a trend we are seeing with built-in patch bays to full analog mono synths (the Moog Mother-32 being the prime example).  One can also interpret the MiniBrute 2 as incorporating ideas from the flagship MatrixBrute writ small.  The ecosystem also includes an alternate form-factor, the 2S, which has drum pads reminiscent of the BeatStep Pro instead of the keyboard.

We were only able to scratch the surface at NAMM, and also had a bit of difficulty with our video.  So we are hoping to provide a more in-depth look at this instrument both here and on CatSynth TV in the not too distant future.