RIP Cecil Taylor (1929 – 2018)

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

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

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

 

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

 

RIP Bento, the Keyboard Cat

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

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

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

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

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

Steely Dan: My Old School 1973 – RIP Walter Becker

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

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

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

NAMM 2017: Moog Music Tribute to Synthesizer Pioneers

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

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

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

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

Farewell to 2016: Annus Horribilis

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

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

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

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

RIP Alphonse Mouzon, Vera Rubin, Carrie Fisher

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


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

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


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

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



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

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


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

RIP The Bear (1995-2016)

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

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

Thoughts on the Oakland Ghost Ship fire

Long time readers may know that fire is among my biggest fears. I fear fire in every rickety wooden space where I go to play or hear music. Most are fairly safe, with alarms, sprinklers and clear corridors. And even in those few cases where there weren’t, my attention shifted to the music, fellowship and always had a wonderful time. That’s why we go. It’s what we do, it’s what we love. We, artists, have no choice but to create and participate. It could have been any of us.

Oakland warehouse fire
[By Janna487 [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

By last count, the fire at the Ghost Ship in Oakland on December 2 claimed 36 lives. We at CatSynth send our thoughts and condolences to their families and close friends. I was worried for many dear friends who might have been there. They fortunately have all checked in safe in the week since, but they are grieving deeply in the aftermath for their friends who were lost. I feel for them, and try my best to remember those who perished with whom I crossed paths like Cherushii (aka Chelsea Dolan), Cash Askew, and others. But this is not my story. It is the story of my friends who knew them best. The personal remembrances they have posted are not mine to share. I did find this article helpful in understanding the victims better. Their stories are another reminder that it could have been any of us.

As we grieve, we in the arts community brace for a round of crackdowns on spaces, from both authorities and landlords. Ghost Ship was an outlier – most spaces while operating in the margins do more often than not operate with a concern for safety and cleanliness and civility. These are the spaces that are now under attack – it’s starting to happen beyond Oakland, with reports from New York, Denver, and here in SF. My own neighborhood in San Francisco was a warren of old factory buildings and warehouses that contained a thriving underground scene in the 1980s at a time when I just a kid in New York buying a first synth. I saw the waning days of that scene, with some of the last large artist-studio buildings being displaced in the past couple of years to make way for offices and condos. Fire is not necessary for authorities to displace artists, but it can certainly make it easier. But even the most safety-minded among us can’t compete easily in places when both the powerful and the populists do not value artists. New York has done better. The grim artists’ spaces of the lower east side may have long given way to boutiques, restaurants, and other upscale spaces but artists are still colonizing spaces and they have “paths to legality.” If authorities here want to help safety in a way that doesn’t show contempt for artists, a similar system of support for bringing things up to code and then operating would be useful as well.

Although I maybe starting to “age out” of some of the underground spaces of the Bay Area – even if my spirit wants to be there, my body and mind are not as enthusiastic – I still cherish many of my past experiences both as a performer and an attendee. My first time out and about in the world as Amanda was at a large warehouse space in West Oakland in 2011, and shortly afterwards I performed at a very nice space in an old factory in East Oakland as her. Some of my early shows in the mid 2000s at underground spaces in San Francisco were very informative for my solo practice today – a few of them even written up here on CatSynth, but I hesitate to link directly to them as authorities may use them in their crackdowns.

This is already a perilous time for those of us in marginalized communities, such as people of color and LGBTQ individuals. Coming together to create and enjoy, even in the edges of society, is one way we cope and thrive; and now we have to fear that may become more challenging as well. So some will forced further out to the edges. And another tragedy will happen.

It could have been any of us.

King Crimson: Cat Food (RIP Greg Lake)

A rare 1970s live performance of Cat Food, probably my favorite King Crimson song (for unsurprising reasons). RIP Greg Lake.

Bringing Luna Home

Today I brought Luna home, on what would have been her official 12th birthday. She has a place of honor on one of our most prominent shelves, with her remains as part of a shrine.

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Her ashes are in the wooden box in the center. It has a picture frame, which I still have to fill. There were over 500 photos of Luna posted on CatSynth, and many more in my archives. It will take some time. To the right is her paw print, part of the normal custom from cremation of a beloved pet. And the small vial contains a bit of her beautiful fur that I saved from when she was alive.

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She has good company, with her shrine between some of our prized feline objects: a large maneki neko from Tokyo and a cat silk painting from Suzhou in China.

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To say this is emotional is an understatement. But I hope I continue to do my best by her remains and her memory.


Included with Luna’s remains was a lovely printed copy of the story of the Rainbow Bridge. As the Mourners’ Kaddish is to Jews, the story of the Rainbow Bridge is to animal lovers of all heritages. There are variations, but we reproduce this poetic version below.

By the edge of a woods, at the foot of a hill,
Is a lush, green meadow where time stands still.

Where the friends of a man and woman do run,
When their time on earth is over and done.

For here, between this world and the next,
Is a place where each beloved creature finds a rest.

On this golden land, they wait and they play,
Till the Rainbow Bridge they cross over one day.

No more do they suffer, in pain or in sadness,
For here they are whole, their lives filled with gladness.

Their limbs are restored, their health renewed,
Their bodies have healed, with strength imbued.

They romp through the grass, without even a care,
Until one day they start, and sniff at the air.

All ears prick forward, eyes dart front and back,
Then all of a sudden, one breaks from the pack.

For just at that instant, their eyes have met;
Together again, both person and pet.

So they run to each other, these friends from long past,
The time of their parting is over at last.

The sadness they felt while they were apart.
Has turned into joy once more in each heart.

They embrace with a love that will last forever,
And then, side-by-side, they cross over… together.


We were helped through Luna’s end-of-life process by the wonderful people Golden Gate Home Hospice and Euthanasia. I found myself heading to their office yesterday to pick up Luna’s remains. They are located in the western part of San Francisco that includes the Sunset and Richmond districts. We often refer to them collectively as “The Avenues.” It’s a part of the city I rarely find myself in these days (although Luna’s general-practice vets were out there as well) but it long captivated me, even before I moved to the city.

It was a dreary, rainy day as I made my way towards the ocean on 19th Avenue, Lincoln Avenue, Sunset Boulevard and then Irving Street. Within sight of the water I stopped at bodega for some needed sustenance. The walls displayed pride in their Sunset neighborhood. The rain turned from a light drizzle to a heavy downpour as I left the bodega and headed to the Great Highway. I turned into Golden Gate Park by that bizarre windmill that symbolizes the western edge of the city. In the rain, the park was quiet and a deep green. I headed out of the park north on 25th Avenue towards Geary Boulevard in the Richmond and my final destination. The Russian heritage in the immediate neighborhood was unmistakable, from the large Orthodox church to the storefronts.

In the office, I was treated warmly and kindly, as any bereaved person should be. But right after picking up Luna’s box, a cat came out from the back of the office and created me enthusiastically, even chatting a bit. I was informed that she doesn’t give this treatment to everyone – knowing cats as well as I do, I don’t doubt that at all. In what was a dark and emotional time, it was a moment of delight to be once again in the presence of a cat.