Vacuum Tree Head and Moe Staiano Ensemble at The UPTOWN

Today we look back at the show featuring Vacuum Tree Head and the Moe Staiano Ensemble at The UPTOWN in Oakland. It was also the subject of our most recent episode of CatSynth TV. 

This was the most ambitious Vacuum Tree Head show to date, at least during the time I have been involved in the band.  There were ten musicians involved: Jason Berry conducting, Steve Adams (of ROVA fame) on baritone saxophone, Jason Bellenkes on various woodwinds, Amanda Chaudhary on keyboard, Richard Corny on guitar, Michael de la Cuesta on guitar and synth, Justin Markovits on drums, Joshua Marshall on saxophones, Amy X Neuburg on voice and blippo box, and John Shiurba on bass. 

Vacuum Tree Head.  Photo by Crystal Lee

The band delivered an impressive and truly dynamic performance, going through a diverse mix of styles from our current repertoire.  And that fact that the core of the lineup has stabilized means that the tunes are always getting tighter and more idiomatic, especially our “big” numbers Nubdug and EMS Deluxe – I always have a lot of fun in the latter with a big 1970s style electric-piano solo.  But this set was more than just music – it continued the band’s pattern of adding new spectacle at each show.  This time, we had a juggler, Colin Hogan, and my friend and frequent collaborator Serena Toxicat held up signs for audience participation.  The juggling was a unique moment, with Hogan tossing lighted beanbags and other objects as we played a new version of the tune Marlon Brando

Overall, I had a wonderful time playing, as I’m pretty sure the entire band did.  And we got a great response from the audience at The UPTOWN.  Next, it was time for the Moe Staiano Ensemble to take the stage.

Moe Staiano Ensemble

This was also an ambitious set, building on Moe’s previous ideas but with an even larger ensemble of guitars:  Jay Korber, William Bohrer, Melne Murphy, Damon Wood, Robin Walsh, Drew Wheeler, Bill Wolter, John Shiurba, Josh Pollock, David James, Marc Zollinger, and Karl Evangelista.  That, my friends, is a lot of guitars!  But they were also joined by Steve Lew on bass and Jeff Lievers on drums.

Moe’s large scale composition followed a classical form of three movements: a loud opening fanfare, a calm and moody second movement, and amore dynamic finale.  It featured many of the idiomatic elements I have come to know and appreciate in his compositions from my time playing in Surplus 1980, including the repetitions coming in and out of phase.  During the first movement, there was a driving eight-note patterns with phasing that created an intense but pointillated wall of sound.  The second movement, which contained slower notes and lots of open space, was exceptionally beautiful, and my favorite part of the performance.  You can hear some of it in our video.

It was a wonderful night of music in Oakland, and I was happy to be a part of it both as a performance and an audience member.  There was a fairly decent turnout, especially for a Tuesday.  It’s not every day you can get this cast of musicians on a stage at once, as both groups did, but I look forward to the next time they do.

David Pate & Steve Cohn / Manul Override / Ornettology at the Make-Out Room

As we busily prepare for the next Vacuum Tree Head show this coming Tuesday, I find myself looking back at my last show with a very different band, Manul Override earlier this month at the Make-Out Room in San Francisco.  It was the subject of a recent CatSynth TV episode.

The evening began with an improvised set featuring saxophonist David Pate with keyboardist Steve Cohn.

Then it was time for Manul Override’s debut show.  This was a new group I put together with my friend and collaborator Serena Toxicat on voice and former Surplus-1980 bandmate Melne on guitar.

We had a lot of fun on stage, and the energy spread to the audience, with dancing and meowing all around (all of our tunes had at least some connection to cats).  I was particularly happy with the opening incantation, which featured a French rendition of Serena’s ode to the goddess Bast, and our 1980s-pop-style tune “Goodnigobbles”, which also featured Serena seductively delivering lyrics and spoken words in French.  Melne had a chance to show her versatility throughout the set, including our extended funky jam in the middle of the set.  As with all new musical projects, this is a work in progress, figuring out what works for us and what doesn’t, and how to make each show better than the previous one.  But it was also fun visually, with our fashion statements, cat ears, and Melne’s lighting.

The final set featured Ornettology, a project led by guitarist and composer Myles Boisen.  As the name suggests, the group is inspired by the music of Ornette Coleman, and reimagines many of his compositions.   He was joined by a stellar cast of local musicians including Steve Adams and Phillip Greenlief on saxophones, John Haines on drums, Safa Shokrai on bass, and John Finkbeiner.

The band delivered a truly dynamic performance that featured some of Ornette Coleman’s more familiar tunes, including “Ramblin'” and “Mob Job” There were some great solos from each of the members of the group as well.  You can hear some of Philip Greenlief and Myles Boisen soloing in our video.

The last few shows I have played at the Make-Out room always have a great audience – full houses that seem to appreciate having live music, whether they came to hear the specific artists or just happened to drop by.  A few in the latter category seemed to quite enjoy our Manul-Override set, signing Serena’s leg cast (she had an unfortunate accident a couple of weeks before the show) and taking selfies with us.  It was a fun night of music all aroundl.

Scott Amendola’s Orchestra di Pazzi at Slim’s, San Francisco

Our first music report of the year features the final show we saw in 2017. Scott Amendola assembled a cast of seasoned improvisers for a concert at Slim’s in San Francisco that took us on quite a journey over two full-length sets. It was the subject of our last CatSynth TV.

As one can hear in the video, there were a variety of textures throughout the two sets. My favorites were the forceful rhythmic sections, some of which came at the very start of the performance. There were also quite a few “operatic” segments that featured the voice of Pamela Z, who was also manipulating samples through various electronic processes. Aurora Josephson’s vocals provided a counterpoint with different timbres and style.

Aurora Josephson and Pamela Z

The ensemble includes three electric guitars (Henry Kaiser, John Schott, and Fred Frith) and three percussionists (Jordan Glenn, Robert Lopez, William Winant). As we have often remarked, doubling and tripling of such powerful instruments can be treacherous, especially in an improvised setting. But it worked here, as everyone had a distinct sound, and the good sense to always listen and lay out when appropriate. In fact, to my ears the music, especially during the more operatic less rhythmic sections, was dominated by the concert string section, consisting of Christina Stanley and Alisa Rose on violin, Crystal Pascucci on cello, Zach Ostroff on string bass, and Soo-Yeon Lyuh on haegeum. At various points, Mark Clifford cut through the harmonies and timbres on the ensemble with frenetic solos on vibraphone.

 Crystal Pascucci

The ensemble was rounded out with the wind section, which included the entire Rova Saxophone Quartet: Bruce Ackley, Larry Ochs, Steve Adams, and Jon Raskin. I felt like I didn’t hear as much of a distinct voice from the saxophones as I did from the other sections, but that was perhaps because they blended with the violins and cello.

In all, it was a fine night of music to wrap up the year. As we often do at Slim’s, we enjoyed the concert from the balcony over dinner and drinks, but we also had the chance to mingle with our many friends in the ensemble and the audience. We look forward to more music from everyone in their own projects in 2018.

Friendly Galaxies: Celebrating Sun Ra at 100

This year marks the centennial of the birth of Sun Ra, an artist whom we at CatSynth quite admire. There have been many tributes this year, and Reconnaissance Fly was fortunate to have played in one of them this past Wednesday.

“Friendly Galaxies”-Celebrating Sun Ra at 100 was “a celebration of the cosmic musical force of Sun Ra and his legacy….bands,beer,the sounds of joy!!! universal convergence” at the Center for New Music here in San Francisco. It featured three groups who combined his music and poetry with their own artistry. We even had Saturn cookies!

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And Reconnaissance Fly was up first! We definitely got into the theme of the evening, with otherworldly and science-fiction themes. And our set included two of Sun Ra’s pieces from the album Lanquidity: the title track and Where Pathways Meet.

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We also included selections from our own music that matched the sound and vibe including Itzirktna and Undeciphered. You can hear our performance of Undeciphered in this video.

Overall, this was one of our better-performed shows, and we received a great response from the audience.

We were followed by Electropoetic Coffee, a music-and-poetry duo featuring Ross Hammond and NSAA.

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As usual, Hammond’s guitar work was virtuosic and filled with lush and complex moments. I am pretty sure the poetry and spoken featured some of Sun Ra’s own writings, a topic that was part of the groups introduction. It was interesting to hear the combination of words and music. At times they came together strongly, at others seemed to drift a bit in different direction. Overall, I did like the performance and how it fit into the evening. But I do think would have been stronger if it was shorter – I don’t think the 45 minute duration served them well and it would have been better to keep it compact and energetic.

The final set was a special group for the evening, the UBU RA BIG BAND. It featured Joe Lasquo on piano and electronics, with Jon Raskin, Steve Adams, Lisa Mezzacappa, John Hanes, Myles Boisen, Aaron Bennett, Dan Plonsey, and David Slusser, along with a vocal team that included Katt Atchley.

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This was truly a treat to hear. These are of course all top-notch musicians who can hit the appropriate sounds and rhythms for jazz as well as dive into free-improvisation. Their arrangements of Sun Ra’s compositions were tight and energetic, and just fun to listen to. And this band really grooved, in that funk/jazz/fusion way that I adore. One of my favorites was the final piece, UFO, a straight-ahead disco tune from 1979. I wanted that one to keep going.

Overall, this was a fun show and a joyous celebration, and something I think we were all proud to be a part of. We had a full house, all of which seemed to be very much in the moment as well. Certainly a memorable night and a fitting tribute. A special thanks to Jan Michaels for organizing this event and to the Center for New Music for hosting us!

2009 Annual Transbay Skronkathon

It is mid-summer, and so once again the annual Transbay Skronkathon and BBQ comes around, with a full day of experimental and weird music at 21 Grand in Oakland. There are always a few from outside the Bay Area, or who are appearing in this setting for the first time, but overall it is a who’s who of local experimental and avant-guard musicians and familiar faces. We spend the whole day performing and listening to music, and dining on a variety of grilled food items in the neighboring alley.

I arrived at 4PM, which was already three hours into the event. I was just in time to catch most of Respectable Citizen, a duo of Bruce Bennett and Michael Zbyszynski performing live improvisation with keyboard/electronics and saxophone, respectively. The set started with ethereal noisy computer sounds in the background, with the noises increasingly insistent and louder over time, culminating in a defined whistle sound and a wave that became something akin to electrical noise. The electronics were complemented by the saxophone improvisation; there was a moment where the sax and electronics together formed a sound like an emergency siren. Then things became quiet again with the noise growing into an ever louder rumble.

Next was electric-guitar looping performance by George Ludwig. It was very similar to the looping guitar performances I hear annually at the Live Looping Festival in Santa Cruz, with drones and long tones; mostly harmonic, though there was some good clean distortion effects as well.

I made sure to be in for the next group, T.D. Skatchit, featuring Tom Nunn and David Michalak on custom instruments called skatch boxes. I had just seen Nunn and his custom instruments at the “Tuesdays at Toms” performance. This performance featured similar instruments, made primarily of cardboard and performed with combs and other implements. The result is a series of scratches, streches, scrapes, squeaks and other noises, all very musical. With two performances and multiple instruments, harmonies start to form. Even when not looking directly at the performers (which is quite interesting to do), the performance had a very “visual” quality. The overall texture reminded me of the sounds of the woods at night. I could hear scampering mechanical creatures. Although the structure of the music was very static, the performance was very expressive.

The next set was a trio of Jacob Felix Heule (drums), Tony Dryer (double bass) and
Jay Korber (tenor sax). This set qualified as actual “skronking”, with very rapid notes (especially on the drums) and the belting of inharmonic and variable pitch tones on the sax. Lots of details to listen to. But above all, skronking tends to be very loud, so I did end up listening to second part of the set from the alley, where I also had a chance to socialize and check out the barbecue.

However, the loudest set of all was yet to come, and it wasn’t even officially on the program. Someone in a ski mask with a table-saw on an old turntable record player claimed to be the next set Sndrft eeoo, though it turned out he wasn’t. Nonetheless, we were treated to ear-threateningly loud high-pitched noises that sent everyone out into the alley to join those of us already there for conversation and sausages (the official food of choice at the Skronkathon). Outside, the sound was somewhat bearable, and vaguely interesting. Sndrft eeoo and Mike Jacobs did get to play an abbreviated set once the impostor left the stage (much to our collective relief).

Hanuman Zhang described his set as found objects, toy piano, circuit-bent toys
noise, mayhem, and roaring silence. He was introduced by Tom Duff as playing “a big pile of junk” – but a nonetheless musical pile of junk. He started with stones and bass drum, making rhythms. He then moved to to bins and metal objects, all the while maintaining a basic rhythm. He bashed in a large plastic bottle really good. There were also some electronic circuit-bent toys, and a toy piano (acoustic toy piano being an instrument I am quite fond of). As the toys came to the forefront, the rhythm began to break down and the texture more sparse.

From loud skronking and found objects, we then had a very contrasting set from Protea, with Serena Toxicat and thereminist Joey D’Kaye performing ambient electronic music. Sporting a Hello Kitty tunic, Serena Toxicat gave an evocative performance with vocals and dancing . The vocals and theremin both consisted of long tones that followed one another without exactly matching. Overall, there were minor harmonies, etherial textures, gradual changes and a bit of tension.

We then switched back from ambient electronic to skronking (but it is really “skronking”?) with a free-improvisation set by z bug with David Leikam, Zachary Morris, Sheila Bosco and Craig Latta. Once again, lots of fast loud notes, with the bass acting as a third drum set (there were two drum sets in this group), and some performance with a Moog synth. Although the set was very loud at times, there was really a good range with sudden drops in volume where one could here bells and chimes sounding. However, I could not at all hear the vocals. I did like the sudden switch during the performance to a steady disco beat.

Tom Nunn and David Michalak returned as part of RTD3. Overall, the performance was similar to their set the previous tuesday, with Nunn and Michalak performing free improvisation together Ron Heglin on trombone and Doug Carrol on electric cello. However, Nunn’s instrument in this set was quite different. It was a much larger board that he played vertically. It looked a bit like a modernist painting with some elements that seemed derivative of Kandinsky, but it had a very clearly marked eye and geometric shapes. The texture of music was more sparsem and there was a good moment with soft trombone. it sounded like “a radio from the past.” There was a section that sounded vaguely ethnic (in the way that a contemporary western audience might label some music as “ethnic”) and then hit a watery pattern on Nunn’s instrument.

John Hanes and Steve Adams performed “dueling laptops” (and an iPhone). Moments in the music reminded me a bit of one of my favorite Stockhausen recordings, but there were also drums and beats, timbrally rich drones and bowed tones and loops. It reminded me a bit of the “Off-ICMC” concerts (often the more interesting performances) I would hear when I used to attend the computer-music conferences.

I did not get to hear as much of PG13 in detail as I would have liked because I was busy setting up for our upcoming set. The trio consisted of Phillip Greenlief on saxophone, John Shiurba on guitar and Thomas Scandura on drums. It seemed during the introduction that there was some question as to whether they should be described as “1970s rock” or not, but musically they did have a strong driving 4/4 beat with heavy drums and loud guitar. Greenlief also played very rhythmic accented lines on the saxophone that fit with the guitar and drums. So with my only partial listening, it did have a lot of “rock-like” elements, which were welcome, and a good lead in to our own set.

This was our first time performing re-named as Reconnaissance Fly and as a trio rather than a quartet, with myself, Polly Moller (flute, voice, heatsink) and Bill Wolter (guitar, custom electro-mechanical “boat”). We are currently looking for a bassist/composer to round things out.

The set consisted of four pieces based on “spoetry” or poetry found in spam emails – most email spam (or blog-comment spam) is completely worthless text, but occasionally there are very poetic passages that can be used for creative work. I did two pieces setting spoetry to graphical scores in which the performers improvised based on interpretations of graphical elements, and Polly and Bill each did more idiomatic pieces. All the practicing and rehearsing paid off, and the set was quite tight and full of energy, with fun and theatrics – and I’m glad I brought the full keyboard for playing more traditional jazz piano at various spots alongside the more esoteric electronic sounds from the Kaos pad. Probably the most memorable moments were repeated riffs on “Ca-a-na-da-a”, and the rolling jazz bass and guitar in “Emir Scamp Budge”. And it seemed like we had a pretty decent audience.

We were followed by the all-acoustic sfSound group. As an acoustic group with winds, strings and percussion, they have a really rich palatte of textures and timbres. One can hear small percussive phrases emerge from a series of long tones. The winds (Kyle Bruckmann,
Matt Ingalls, Christopher Jones, and John Ingle) sometimes match the percussion (Kjell Nordeson) , sometimes the strings (Alexa Beattie, Monica Scott). The performance was very subtle with lots of dynamic range and empty spots, and quite a contrast to our set with its loud electronic improvisations and theatrics.

sfSound was immediately followed by another powerful accoustic set, featuring Karen Stackpole with her impressive array of gongs, Jen Baker and Ron Heglin on trombones, and Tom Djll on trumpet. An unusual instrumentation, “Brass and Bronze” (as introduced by Tom Duff). The set began with the gongs followed by really soft long notes on the three brass instruments. The gongs resonated as Stackpole moved along their perimeters, producing beautiful long stretched out tones. They formed inharmonic chords anchored by drones on the brass. The texture became less sparse over time with bowing of gong and faster swells on trombone and notes on trumpet. This eventually turned to loud hits and gong strikes, and more expresive phrases.

The final set of the Skronkathon featured Gino Robair and Amy X Neuburg on dueling Blippo Boxes. The Blippo Box is a custom analog synthesizer by Rob Hordijk that features chaotic oscillators and a wide range of non-linear modulation options – I wouldn’t mind having one of these myself. The Blippo Boxes produce constantly modulating sounds that are difficult to control in advance, the performer must react to whatever is produced using his or her best musically instincts. As the boxes can occasionally go unstable, being able to react quickly is key. Fortunately, we have two master musicians whose listening and improvisational instincts can be called upon to handle such situations. The result was a very expressive mixture of machine noise and rumbles, gargles, clicks and chirps – the chaotic sound actually becomes familiar after listening for a few minutes (though in fairness I should say years of listening to such music). And there were many moments where the oscillations of the two boxes seemed surprisingly on sync, with the waveforms and modulations slowing down to the level of musically distinct notes.

And once the Blippo Boxes went silent, this marathon event came to a quiet end.