The Making of Lake Merced

Today we talk about Lake Merced, as well as the recent video we made featuring it.

Lake Merced is located in the southwestern corner of San Francisco, in the vicinity of the SF Zoo and SF State University.

Lake Merced in San Francisco

Despite its odd shape and the fact that it borders three golf courses, it is actually a natural lake.  It is fed primarily by an underground spring.  In the 19th century, the lake briefly had an outlet to the ocean, approximately where the Great Highway breaks off from Skyline Boulevard, just south of the zoo.  The outlet is long gone, but the lake’s ecosystem retains some of its saltwater heritage among the fish and other wildlife that inhabit it. Lake Merced and its surrounding park remain one of the last and largest natural spaces left in the city (in spite of the golf courses), and is home to a variety of plant and animal life.  On the day I visited to shoot video, I encountered this egret.

But it is definitely an urban natural space, with sounds and sights from the surrounding city mixing with nature.  I am particularly fond of this view looking east over the lake to some apartment buildings.  It brings to mind Flushing Meadows in the New York City borough of Queens.

I have been spending more time in the western neighborhoods of San Francisco of late, and Lake Merced is one of the spots I revisit.  This is what inspired me to make it the subject of a CatSynth TV video, complete with original synthesizer music.

Here is see the final post-production on the video in Pro Tools.  Front and center is Tracktion’s BioTek software synthesizer, which I reviewed during NAMM 2016.  It was among the primary instruments used in this video where I blended its mix of natural and traditional-synthesizer sounds with the sounds of the field video.

I also made extensive use of the 4ms Spectral Multiband Resonator and Epoch Modular Benjolin (designed by Rob Hordjik).  They both have very elemental sounds that resemble air and water.  The Benjolin is chaotic by design, and a small turn of a knob can change it from liquidy to screeching, so it’s sometimes a challenge to get a good recording that fits the concept of the music.  The SMR is a lot of fun to play, especially using alternate tunings and changing the spread and morph parameters.  A clock is used to constantly shift the bands.

 

Rounding out the sound palette were the Arturia MiniBrute 2Mimimoog Model D, and Metasonix R53 vacuum-tube waveshaper and ring modulator.

The Moog Model D, the MiniBrute and several of the modules make cameos during the video, as does Sam Sam.  Watch the video all the way through to spot her 😺

This was a fun video to shoot and put together, something a bit more creative and abstract than our usual demos or live-show reports.  I have more of these waiting in the queue to be made…

 

Outsound Benefit Dinner with the Actual Trio

We are just a few weeks away from the 2018 Outsound New Music Summit!  And as always, we kick off the countdown with the annual benefit dinner featuring live creative music by local artists.  This year we were pleased to have Actual Trio perform.

Actual Trio is led by composer and virtuoso guitarist John Schott and features John Hanes on drums and Dan Seamans on upright bass.  To simply label them as a “contemporary jazz trio” would be a disservice to all three musicians, who bring a wide range of compositional and performance experiences to this group.  Their music ranges from laid-back grooves to fast frenetic runs to sparse percussive punctuated passages.  Overall, they delivered a highly dynamic performance that was well received by all in attendance.  You can hear a bit of it in our recent CatSynth TV video.

As Schott states in the video, there is something special about the trio format.  Trios are three-legged stools which depend on the contributions of each member and their ability to listen and perform together.  But it is still relatively sparse and spare compared to larger ensembles.  Actual Trio has a very small toolset of drums, bass and guitar (although Schott brought quite a few bits of vintage and modern electronics along as well).  But they get a lot out of what they have.  Schott and Hanes function together as a rhythmic and melodic unit, and they seemed to be able to finish each others lines, whether fast runs or vamps.  Seamans brought a melodic sensibility to his bass performance even while providing a solid foundation for the music.  And they were just fun to watch and listen to.


[Vintage amp and spring reverb units used by John Schott]

The Outsound Benefit Dinner is a “thank you” of sorts to our core supporters in the community – an instance of the time-honored tradition of plying supporters and donors with food, drink and entertainment.   All in attendance enjoyed the performance by Actual Trio and the food provided by Slippery Fish Catering.  But this year, Outsound owes an even greater debt of gratitude to its individual donors and supporters as grants for small arts and music groups becomes even harder to come by than it has in the past.  But we are looking forward to another excellent summit this year.  Please visit the website for tickets and to find out more about the shows, which take place at the Community Music Center in San Francisco from July 22 through July 28, 2018.

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.

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.]

Mensa Cat Monday: Making a Living Through Art

Mensa Cats: Morton Feldman and Milton Friedman

Today’s Mensa Cats cartoon by J.B. touches a dilemma many of us face as artists.  Can we make a living from our art?  Sadly, in the late-stage capitalism envisioned by Milton Friedman, it is particularly challenging by Morton Feldman.  We at CatSynth have day jobs.

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”.

 

Marlon Brando

Marlon Brando is a controversial figure in contemporary circles, but we did some great movies a long time ago (followed by some not-so-great ones, then a couple more classics, and then some really awful ones). But his work has intertwined with many things at CatSynth over the past couple of years. Consider this cartoon by J.B. (Jason Berry), part of our extended Mensa Cat series.

Marlin Brando

We leave the joke as an exercise to the reader. 😸

There is also the tune “Marlon Brando” initially composed by Jason Berry for Vacuum Tree Head, which I redid for my own band CDP.  Here is a live performance of us playing it at the Make Out Room in San Francisco.

CDP Marlon Brando May 1 from CatSynth on Vimeo.

And finally, our friends at the Cat Museum of San Francisco shared this feline photo today.

Fun with Highways: 45 on California 45

A few years ago, I traveled California’s Highway 41 on my 41st birthday. I had hoped to make this a regular tradition, but various circumstances have kept me from following through, until this year, when I drove the southern half of California Highway 45.  It wasn’t exactly on my birthday, and I didn’t complete the route, but was still a fun and eccentric way to celebrate the conclusion of my 45th year of life.  It was also a good excuse to try out the new travel-mapping feature in our Highway☆ mobile app.

Highway 45 begins in the small town of Knight’s Landing in Yolo County, so I first had to schlep up there via Interstate 80 and then turn north on Highway 113 near U.C. Davis.  113 is a major freeway at this point, but a bit further north it narrows to a two-lane country road before reaching the junction with 45.

CA 45 in Knight's Landing, CA

Knight’s Landing was actually a very small but cute town along the Sacramento River. Before embarking on the formal part of the trip, I stopped along the levee at Front Street to view the continuation of Highway 113 across the river.  Front Street was rather beaten up compared to the rest of the town center, perhaps due to the nature of the levee or to discourage unnecessary driving, but it made for a nice little walk.

I then returned to the car and finally turned onto Highway 45, heading northwest out of town.

The highway zig-zagged on a grid between fields on the western side of the Sacramento River, but far enough for the river to mostly remain out of sight.  But there were some lovely wide-open farmland vistas, made more dramatic by the bands of clouds in the sky marking what was a lovely day after a week of dreary weather.

It is when the landscape opened up that I was able to fully relax into the trip.  There is always a point along the journey during which stresses, mundane or otherwise, start to melt away and the road, landscape, and solitude take over the mind.  As Highway 45 is remarkably well signed, there was no ambiguity or uncertainty.  The result is a sense of flow and well being that allows one to both think about other ideas, like music, while remaining fully engaged in the moment.  It is something I have experienced many walking the streets of San Francisco, but not lately.  I certainly hope it isn’t gone – as much as I enjoy these long excursions to other regions, I would love to return to the sense of external flow in my own community as well.  Perhaps it is the familiarity or the many stresses and dramas, but I hope to regain it.

The highway turned due north in Colusa County, providing great views of the Sutter Buttes, considered to be one of the worlds smallest mountain rangers.

The Buttes are a small circle of volcanic lava domes that rise suddenly from the rather flat Sacramento Valley.  The contrast is fascinating, and I would love to come back and explore the geology at a warmer time of year.  Unfortunately, public access to the Buttes remains limited as far I can tell. (If any readers have any advice or new information about public access to the Sutter Buttes, please share in the comments.)

At this point, Highway 45 comes closer to the river, and between Grand Island and Grimes, comes right up against levees, before turning north again.  It is not surprising to see such high levees, as the entire region seems like a giant flood waiting to happen.

Further north, we join with California Highway 20, a major east-west highway in this rural part of the state connecting to Yuba City to the east and to Lake County far to the west.  The road became wider, smoother, and significantly busier as we continued on the duplex into the town of Colusa.

CA 20 and CA 45 in Colusa, California

Colusa is a picturesque town on the river, with a small but nice town center and a quiet park along the levee and riverbank.  It had warmed up considerably since I last got out in Knight’s Landing, so stopped for a bit to enjoy the sight and sound of the river.  You can see a bit in this Instagram video.

Sacramento River in Colusa, CA

A post shared by CatSynth / Amanda C (@catsynth) on

Nearby I found The Tap Room, a small pub that had a large selection of beers including some local brews.  I don’t think they had Sutter Butte Brewing, but they did have some selections from Berryessa brewing including this IPA.

IPA at the Tap Room, Colusa California

In the enjoyment of the trip, I had completely forgotten that it was St. Patrick’s Day.  But I was quickly reminded by the bartender who was decked in bright green regalia and informed me of the holiday pub crawl that would be happening that evening.  This was the talk of the local patrons who started trickling in as the afternoon wore on.  Everyone was friendly and welcoming, but a night of drinking was not going to be compatible with my plan to get back to the city safely at a reasonable hour.  So I bid farewell and headed out on Highway 20 back to I-5 and I-505 to return to the Bay Area.

Tired but accomplished, I crossed the Bay Bridge back into San Francisco and home later that evening.  That would usually be the end of the story, but after resting, we made the last-minute decision to go out again that night.  So I found myself getting dressed up and heading back over the bridge for the third time to Oakland to see Chrome with Helios Creed.  We met up with quite a few friends at the show and had a great time.  You can see a bit of Chrome’s performance in this CatSynth TV.

It was a great day of diverse geography and experiences, albeit a long one.  Not every day can or should be like this, but hope there are more to come this year…

See more Northern California in our Highway☆ app, available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. 

Highway☆ on Apple App Store .   Highway☆ for Android

Weekend Cat Blogging with Sam Sam: Studio in the Studio…

I have been spending a lot of time at the main software-development and video workstation of late.  As we have seen before, Sam Sam loves to drop by and say hi.

Sam Sam saying hi in the studio

She seems to really like the open shelves as much as I do.

As one can see, cat decor abounds in the studio.  But we also have some other items on display in these shelves.

Sam Sam enjoys peeking through the shelves

On the left (of course) is a Bernie Sanders action figure, made by Brooklyn-based FCTRY, as well as a signed card from the 1990s when we still just Vermont’s representative.   And to the right of Bernie is our Lego recording studio.

Bernie and Lego Studio

The studio is from a series of Lego kits specifically aimed at young women, and I loved the idea of having a “studio in the studio.”  It’s great the engineer is a woman, but we thought it needed one more addition.

Black cat in Lego studio

Yes, that’s a little Lego black cat!  A tribute to Luna, whom we still miss dearly. 💜

Apparently, even Lego cats shed.  But our life-size studio tends to be entropy-prone as well, especially before and after live shows.   It definitely needs another clean-up…but first we have a lot of creative projects ahead this weekend.  We hope you all have a happy and productive weekend as well.