Club Foot Orchestra performs their Greatest Hits

Last weekend the Club Foot Orchestra teamed up with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, to perform some of their “greatest hits”, contemporary live performances to silent film classics.  A full day of live music by the venerable and indefatigable ensemble! 

The Club Foot Orchestra was started 25 years ago in 1983 by Richard Marriott (brass, winds), and still includes original member Beth Custer on woodwinds.  They were joined in this performance by Sheldon Brown (woodwinds), Will Bernard (guitar), Chris Grady (trumpet), Gino Robair (percussion), Kymry Esainko (piano/keyboard), Sascha Jacobsen (bass), Deirdre McClure (conductor), and Alisa Rose (violin).   They performed some of their most memorable scores, including interpretations of the German expressionist classics Metropolis and Nosferatu.  We at CatSynth were not able to attend Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s futurist masterpiece and a personal favorite of mine.  But we were on hand for Nosferatu, the iconic and controversial horror film directed by F. W. Murnau and starring Max Schreck as the eternally creepy Count Orlock.

The history of Nosferatu is as intriguing as the film itself.  It was an unauthorized adaptation from Bram Stoker’s original Dracula, and although the names and some details were changed, in many ways it conforms more closely to both the story and spirit of the original than many later interpretations.  Perhaps too closely, as the Stoker estate successfully sued Murnau’s production company and won a judgment that included an order to destroy all copies of the film.  Fortunately, some prints had already been distributed internationally and have been used for restorations of the original.  The version screened on this occasion was a beautiful restoration from the 2000s that included color tinting for various scenes.  The colors added an even more eerie and otherworldly quality to the film.  It worked particularly well for the Transylvanian scenes and those in and around Orlock’s castle.

The orchestra delivered a highly dynamic and varied performance paired with the images.  There were many sparse sections that fit with the tension of the film, and I particularly liked the spots that featured single lines, such as percussion hits, extended-technique winds, or synthesizer samples.  But the sections where the ensemble came together to deliver punchy and sensuous jazz lines were especially fun.  It added an element of humor and modernism, which is inevitable for a twenty-first-century viewing of a movie from nearly 100 years ago.  The mixture of noises and extended sounds with bits of Eastern European melody and harmony worked especially well for strangely colored Transylvanian scenes.

As a small group, each of the wind players had multiple instruments.  Richard Marriott had a quite an arsenal of flutes and lower brass, and both Beth Custer and Sheldon Brown had bass clarinets in addition to their other instruments.  Gino Robair also had in an impressive array of percussion instruments (though no electronics on this particular occasion).

It was a delightful evening of music and visuals that worked well together – a more concrete film-centered version of the discipline we had a seen a week earlier in Andy Puls’ abstract set at the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival.  And while I’m sorry to have missed Metropolis on this occasion, Nosferatu was probably even more of an “event” in the space of the Castro Theatre.  We look forward to hearing more of Club Foot Orchestra’s scores in the near future.

Outsound New Music Summit: The Breath Courses Through Us

This past Monday, the Outsound New Music Summit featured a screening of The Breath Courses Through Us, a documentary by Alan Roth about the New York Art Quartet.  From the Outsound Summit website:

The Breath Courses Through Us” (2013) is a documentary film about the early 1960s avant-garde jazz group, the New York Art Quartet. The film focuses on the group’s 35-year reunion, while reaching back through their recollections of their foundations and innovative musical ideas. The year 2014 is the 50th anniversary of this group, and a revolutionary period in jazz music, which declared its existence in the October Revolution in Jazz, in October 1964. “The Breath Courses Through Us” mirrors the newly open improvisationary style of “free jazz” that subverted the traditional structure of jazz. Unfolding in free time and enveloped in their music, the film helps the viewer better understand the human element of the creative process, by focusing on their interactions in the present.

It was an interesting experience on multiple levels, as the structure of the documentary mirrors that of our musician- and band-focused CatSynth TV episodes, but on a larger scale.  It weaves interviews with members of the ensemble with archival footage, live performances from the early 2000s, and even scenes from a casual dinner among the members of the group discussing their music and plans for their reunion in 1999.  In many ways, the latter is the foundation for the history and interviews, and we keep returning to the dinner throughout the film.

Musically, it connects the current scene of free and avant-garde jazz to the creative foment of 1960s New York.  We hear from the founding members: John Tchicai, Roswell Rudd, and Milford Graves, along with one of the original bassists Reggie Workman and poet Amiri Baraka.  The five reunited for the early 2000s concerts as well as the documentary.  We get to hear their distinct personalities.  Tchicai brings a serious and brooding discipline, Rudd an exuberance and enthusiasm for playing, and Graves his quirky and humorous character. Workman was one of three bassists that performed with the group during its brief existence in 1964 and 1965; Baraka often read poems to the quartet’s improvisations, including his famous “Black Dada Nihilismus”, parts of which are included in the documentary.  It seemed like an improbable coming together that depended on a series of coincidences and connections, but together they informed a style and practice of music that was “revolutionary” in its time, and still in many ways sounds fresh.

Although the documentary has been out for a few years now, this was its first public screening on the west coast.  Hopefully, this will lead to future screenings.  Even immersed as I have been in the music influenced by the New York Art Quartet, I was not as familiar with them as I should be.  I think it will be a valuable experience for those who perform and listen to free jazz, as well as though who are new to it.

More information on the film, including screenings, can be found at the official website.

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. 😺

Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi SPOILER Review

Our latest CatSynth TV focuses on The Last Jedi, the latest episode in the main Star Wars series. It doesn’t cover everything, but it does contain SPOILERS! Please enjoy responsibly.

Red Robot Show presents Vacuum Tree Head Live @ HSP2017!

The Red Robot Show and Vacuum Tree Head are back! This time Jason Berry brings footage from our March show at HSP2017, and is joined by Marlon Brando in this full-length episode.

The members of the band for this performance are:

Jason Bellenkes : Alto Saxophone and Clarinet
Jason Berry: Conductor
Amanda Chaudhary: Keyboards and Vocoder
Richard Corny: Electric Guitar
Michael de la Cuesta: Guitar, Synth, Vibraphone, Sitar, etc.
Richard Lesnik: Bass Clarinet
Justin Markovits: Drum Kit
Joshua Marshall: Soprano and Tenor Saxophones
John Shiurba: Bass Guitar

Video credits:
Cameras by Amanda Chaudhary and Jason Berry
Edited by Berry / Chaudhary
Audio Engineering by Amanda Chaudhary
Animated and Directed by Jason Berry

Special Thanks:
Mika Pontecorvo
Mark Pino

Brought to you by White Wine. Crisp. And Refreshing.

Mensa Cat Monday: He Could Have Been a Contender…

'Marlin' Brando

Mensa Cat Mondays return, with a new comic by J.B. (Jason Berry of Vacuum Tree Head).

He coulda been somebody…

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.

San Francisco Symphony performs 2001: A Space Odyssey

1912-1617_highlights-film_690x300
[Image courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony]

Today we look back at the live soundtrack performance of 2001: A Space Odyssey by the San Francisco Symphony. The performance featured the full orchestra on the direction of Brad Lubman along with the San Francisco Symphony Chorus directed by Ragnar Bohlin.

Kublick’s film is of course a masterpiece, as is the film’s score, which comes from a variety of sources, including Richard Strauss and György Ligeti (one of our musical heroes). Hearing it live in a concert hall with the movie on a big screen is a different experience. The orchestra seats did allow us to both see the film clearly and get spatial effects particularly from the chorus. Indeed, some of most powerful sounds was the choral sections featuring Ligeti’s eerie clouds of pitches. What was also particularly apparent in the live setting was just how sparse the score is. Much of the film has no music at all.

The scenes on the space station – overall an under-appreciated part of the film – popped out more strongly as a result of live score, contrasting the (Johan) Strauss music leading up the docking with sparse texture of dialog and machine sounds of station’s interior. Perhaps, however, part of the fun of these scenes is how dated they look, more like an idealized airport interior from the 1960s. By contrast, the scenes aboard the Discovery seem more contemporary. And the audience of 2016 had quite a bit of fun at HAL’s expense, as we live in an age where computers with both voices and voice recognition are becoming part of our daily lives (”Hey Siri, what do you think about HAL 9000?”).

2001: A Space Odyssey was presented as part of the Symphonies ongoing feature film series. Sadly, we were not able to attend the talk beforehand with professor of music Kate McQuiston, or the appearance by Keir Dullea on an earlier date.

Optical Sounds: Dementia (Frith, Custer, Stanley)

Optical Sounds is a monthly series at the Center For New Music in San Francisco, curated by Tania Chen with Benjamin Ethan Tinker featuring live improvisation to soundless films. We had the opportunity to attend the most recent installment, which featured a trio of Fred Frith, Beth Custer and Christina Stanley interpreting the 1955 dialogue-less film “Dementia” by John Parker.

DementiaWe at CatSynth often enjoy unusual films, but “Dementia” is weird even among weird films, though the Variety description “May be the strangest film ever offered for theatrical release” seems a bit hyperbolic. The film follows the inner thoughts and actions of a woman as she wanders through dark corners of Los Angeles with even darker characters, while recalling violent events of her childhood. The film is part psychological thriller, part film noir, and part surrealist experiment, constantly jumping between the tropes of all three.

The original soundtrack featured music by George Antheil and a section with Shorty Rogers and his band who also appeared in the film. For this performance however, the original soundtrack was absent with Frith, Custer and Stanley providing the music. The constantly-changing nature of the film was reflected in the music, with eerie vocals by Beth Custer, percussive hits by Custer and Fred Frith, and a mixture of processed violin and analog synthesizer by Stanley. Overall, the music was energetic, with moments of chaos, but also some mellower pads by Stanley on synth. They did blend some film-score tropes into the performance, such as eerie sounds for the internal memories and thoughts of the main character, tense bits of sound for the dark streets of the city, and jazzy cabaret style riffs for the night-club scenes – the latter were definitely my favorite parts of the music.

The dialog-less nature of the film does facilitate such an improvised score, but the oddness of its structure must have made it challenging. But the trio pulled it off. I am glad to have been able to attend the performance and look forward to more in this series.

Outsound New Music Summit: Vision Music 

The final night of the Outsound New Music Summit featured three sets combining music with visuals. The room was dark, with all illumination coming from the visuals on the screen and the sonic elements abstractly arrayed around them.

The evening opened with Mika Pontecorvo’s project Bridge of Crows performing an improvised set to a segment Pontecorvo’s film The Bedouin Poet of Mars: The Last Poet.

Mika Pontecorvo
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

The film’s story is a bleak tale of a poet who is the last survivor of a once-thriving civilization on Mars, searching for a home for himself and the last surviving plant. He sees the results of several self-destructive civilizations on his journey. Despite the dark subject matter, the visuals themselves were lively and abstract at times, with lots of interesting visual and image processing.

Bedouin Poets of Mars : The Last Poet

The music moved in and out of a variety of textures and dynamic levels, though the focus remained on the visuals throughout. Joining the regular ensemble was Bob Marsh, wearing one of his trademark suits and performing on a string instrument made from a tree.

Bob Marsh
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

One disadvantage of the darkened environment was that I did not get to see much of Marsh or his instrument, which I would have liked to. Rounding out the ensemble were Kersti Abrams on winds, Elijah Pontecorvo on electric bass, Greg Baker on electronics, hydrophone and clarinet, Mark Pino on percussion, and Mariko Miyakawa on vocals.

Next up was Tender Buttons, a trio featuring Tania Chen on small instruments, with Gino Robair and Tom Djil on analog modular synthesizers. The trio performed sounds against live interactive video by Bill Thibault.

Tender Buttons
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

The set was anchored by Chen’s piano, which ranged from intricate and complex to loud and aggressive, augmented by small toy instruments. The piano interlaced with Thibault’s abstract visuals, which started out simply but grew more complex over the course of the set. Throughout, the visuals displayed words from Gertrude Stein’s poem Tender Buttons, but were increasingly mixed with the more complex elements.

Tender Buttons
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

Robair and Djll provided a variety of adept sounds from modular synthesizers and circuit-bent electronics to complement the piano and video.

The final set featured live interactive video by Bill Hsu with James Fei on reeds and Gino Robair returning on percussion.

James Fei with Bill Hsu visuals
[Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

I am quite from the minimalist quality in Bill Hsu’s visuals. The began with very simple geometric elements, but soon hope added a bit of controlled chaos that led to very organic elements on the screen.

Bill Hsu visuals

Befitting the visuals, the music in this set was more sparse, with moments of quiet and loud solo bursts from Robair and Fei. Robair percussion worked best with the early geometric elements, and Fei’s complex runs on saxophone worked well with the more organic visuals.

I enjoy sets that integrate visuals and music into a single unit. It can sometimes be a challenge to take everything in, much less write about it afterwards. But I hope this gives a little insight into the evening. It was a good closing concert for this years Summit, and was appreciated by those who came only that night as well as the loyal audience members who were there most or all days. This concludes the 2015 Outsound New Music Summit, and I look forward to its return next year.