As 2018 draws to a close, we look back a recent show we saw at VAMP (vintage – art and music – for the people) in Oakland. It was the subject of our most recent CatSynth TV.
As one can see at the start of the video, it was pouring rain that night. And it did not let up for the entire evening. But that did not stop an intrepid collection of music lovers from settling into VAMP’s small and quirky space to hear two great ensembles.
The venerable Rova Saxophone Quartet have been performing together for 40 years, so it’s not surprising that they have coalesced into a sound all their own. Each of the four members, Bruce Ackley, Steve Adams, Larry Ochs, and Jon Raskin, have their own character, but as a group they function as one instrument. This is true even during fast runs, as they did in the latter half of the set, and when various members drop out or “solo” for a section.
Rounding out the evening was the Life’s Blood Trio, led by Rent Romus (saxophones) and featuring Safa Shokrai on upright bass and Timothy Orr on drums. This is a version of the larger Life’s Blood Ensemble pared down to its essentials. But there is still a rich and full sound in the spartan setting, with the three members filling the full harmonic and textural space. Romus’ performance is always expressive and frenetic, filled with emotion. Shokrai played an amazing extended bass solo. Orr kept things grounded, including during a solo of his own.
VAMP is a bit of a performance in an of itself, with its odd collection of items for sale and a record collection that requires one to sift through and look for surprises. They’ve been holding on, even as Oakland changes in myriad ways. We look forward to seeing more music there – and perhaps playing there again – in 2019
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.
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, ColinHogan, 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.
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.
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 JohnFinkbeiner.
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.
Even as Septembers and Octobers go in San Francisco, this one has been crazy, careening between rehearsals and performances for various projects, growing in a new job, and dreading whatever new political development occurs. So our recent outing to hear SF Symphony perform the music of Igor Stravinsky was a bit of a respite. It was part of a two week-festival celebrating the music of Stravinsky that included not only the “big three” (The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring) but other less-frequently performed works. We were there for the night featuring The Firebird and enjoyed the bar’s special Firebird martini in celebration.
The Firebird, the first the “big three,” premiered in 1910 and while was considered avant-garde by some in Paris, it’s a very accessible work that draws more from 19th-century romanticism than from the innovations of the time. For us at CatSynth, this is about as conservative as our live music gets. But it is nonetheless an adventurous piece and very richly textured, especially in its focus on brass and wind instruments. As it was performed without staging, it was easier to concentrate entirely on the music. The early “Prince Ivan” sections had phrases and idioms that foreshadowed L’Histoire du soldat(The Soldier’sTale); then there is that iconic ending with the slow big chords.
If anything, it was the opening performance of Perséphone that was more unique an exciting. It far less often that Stravinsky’s other large-scale works, and it is complex to stage. For this performance, the symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas was joined by the great Leslie Caron as the narrator and Persephone, Nicholas Phan on tenor as Eumolpus and other characters, as well as San Francisco Symphony Chorus, San Francisco GirlsChorus, and the Pacific Boychoir.
Despite the massive number of performers between the orchestra and the choruses, Perséphone has a sparse and more minimal texture than The Firebird or the other big ballets. It also has a very deliberate and punctuated quality, with each note and each syllable of the text standing alone. It does have a joyous, lyrical quality at times – it is a celebration of spring. But it also has dark, unsettling moments, which is keeping with the mythological story of Persephone, the spring goddess and daughter of Ceres being brought to Hades by Pluto. The story is one of balance between light and dark, and between the seasons. But the text in this version is somewhat more ambiguous, emphasizing Persephone’s descending to Hades by choice. It does also celebrate her worldly existence as the bride of Triptolemus and joy of rebirth, and of course the springtime. Musically we are treated to a light touch without leaning too heavily on major/minor emotional tropes, much as the story projects its ambiguity between light and dark. The winds, and piccolos, in particular, were prominent. And as stated above the space within the music leaves ample time to consider each note and word. It was a quietly but powerfully dynamic performance; and orchestra, soloists and chorus were treated to many well-deserved rounds of applause.
It was our first trip back to the Symphony in a while, as their 2017 program was far more conservative and focused on traditional repertoire compared the numerous shows we had enjoyed in 2016. We do look forward to more adventurous and contemporary programming again soon.
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.
The 19th annual San Francisco Electronic Music Festival concluded yesterday, and we at CatSynth were on hand for the final concert. There were three sets, each showcasing different currents within electronic music, but they all shared a minimalist approach to their musical expression and presentation.
The evening opened with a set by Andy Puls, a composer, performer and designer of audio/visual instruments based out of Richmond, California. We had seen one of his latest inventions, the Melody Oracle, at Outsound’s Touch the Gear (you can see him demonstrating the instrument in our video from the event). For this concert, he brought the Melody Oracle into full force with additional sound and visuals that filled the stage with every changing light and sound.
The performance started off very sparse and minimal, with simple tones corresponding to lights. Combining tones resulted in combining lights and the creation of colors from the original RGB sources. As the music grew increasingly complex, the light alternated between the solid colors and moving patterns.
I liked the sound and light truly seemed to go together, separate lines in a single musical phrase, and a glimpse of what music would be if it was done with light rather than sound.
OMMO, the duo of Julie Moon and Adria Otte brought an entirely different sound and presence to the stage.
The performance explored the “complexities and histories of the Korean diaspora and their places within it.” And indeed, words and music moved freely back and forth between traditional and abstract sounds and Korean and English words. Moon’s voice was powerful and evocative, and quite versatile in range and she moved through these different ideas. The processing on her voice, including delays and more complex effects, was crisp and sounded like an extension of her presence. Otte performed on laptop and analog electronics, delivering a solid foundation and complex interplay. A truly dynamic and captivating performance.
The final set featured a solo performance Paris-based Kassel Jaeger, who recently became director of the prestigious Groupe de Recherches Musicales (GRM). Sitting behind a table on a darkened stage, with a laptop, guitar and additional electronics, he brought forth an eerie soundscape.
The music featured drone sounds, with bits of recognizable recorded material, as well as chords and sharp accents. The musique concrète influence was abundant but also subtle at times as any source material was often submerged in complex pads and clouds over which Jaeger performed improvisations.
It is sometimes difficult to describe these performances in words, though we at CatSynth try our best to do so. Fortunately, our friends at SFEMF shared some clips of each set in this Instagram post.
Greetings, and L’Shana Tovah! Today we look back to a show from last weekend at The Chapel in San Francisco where two bands interpreted selections from John Zorn’s Masada songbook. It was part of a four-day residency by Zorn at the Chapel in celebration of his 65th Birthday.
“Masada” has morphed and grown as a musical concept since Zorn’s original Ornette-Coleman-inspired group from the 1990s. There have been follow-up projects, notably Electric Masada that we at CatSynth are most familiar with. But it is as much a songbook as a collection of ensembles. The “Masada songbook” contains hundreds of short compositions, sometimes just fragments, scales, or concepts. Originally intended to be performed by the ensembles, these compositions can be interpreted by other bands. And on this night, the bands took them in decidedly rock direction.
First up was Cleric. The Philadelphia-based “avant-metal” band currently features Matt Hollenberg on guitar, Nick Shellenberger on keyboards and vocals, Larry Kwartowitz on drums, and Daniel Ephraim Kennedy on bass.
As their background implies, the performance was decidedly metal, a full-on triple-forte projection with growling vocals and fast runs punctuated by heavy drones. Nonetheless, it was top-notch musicianship and an adventurous choice of music. Within the mix, I found myself mostly focused on Shellenberger’s vocals and keyboards, though Kennedy’s six-string bass took center stage visually, and Hollenberg’s guitar performance added a solidifying aspect to the music. It was a solid set, and certainly an interpretation of the Masada songbook we have never heard before (and may never hear again).
Next up was Secret Chiefs 3, who brought a decidedly different sound and presentation to the stage.
Led by guitarist and composer Trey Spruance (formerly of Mr. Bungle and Faith No More) and heavily featuring Eyvind Kang on violin, the group weaved together jazz, rock, folk, klezmer, and Middle Eastern influences into their eclectic set. Rounding out the group on this night were Jason Schimmel on guitar, Matt Lebofsky on keyboards, Shanir Blumenkranz on bass, Ches Smith on percussion, and Kenny Grohowski on drums.
It was an inspired and highly dynamic performance from these hometown favorites, and the band seemed a good match for the Masada songbook. There is an explicit thread of mysticism and the esoteric in both Zorn’s music and the work of SC3, so this is not surprising. I even recognized a couple of songs from Electric Masada recordings. The orchestration was brilliant and clever, bringing out each of the musicians as well as the Jewish influences of the songs. There were contrapuntal moments where the musicians played different lines and rhythms but coming together for short emphatic choruses with syncopated lines. It was crisp, tight, but also fun. And one could sense that the audience – a packed crowd on both levels of the Chapel, was having a great time along with them. The set was also the perfect length, keeping up the energy without petering out or overstating their welcome, leading to a single climax note that ended the music and cued Zorn and the musicians from Cleric back to the stage for a final group bow.
Overall, a fine night of music. As with many multi-day festivals, I regret not being there for the other nights, but glad I was able to make it to the one that I did. September is always the busiest month for music (and art) in San Francisco, and we will have much more to experience and share in the coming weeks.
Today we look back at this year’s μHausen, a “micro-festival” of experimental electronics that takes place every summer deep at a secure undisclosed location in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It was the subject of our most recent CatSynth TV episode.
As suggested in the video, I was thinking a lot about our natural surroundings as we made music with our thoroughly artificial electronic instruments. The trees, the air, the light, all seemed to be of a piece with the music at times. I also thought about the fact that I had not been able to attend the last three installments. In 2015 and 2016 I had to cancel or decline because of medical issues, and I’m not sure what happened in 2017. But I was back now and was great to see and hear everyone.
First up was Peter Elsea, recently retired from his longtime position as a professor of electronic music at UC Santa Cruz. On this occasion, he performed with a small rig that included a modular synthesizer and an electronic wind instrument.
His set featured tones that were timbrally rich and often noisy, but still pitched. This worked well with the wind controller which allowed the noisy tones to swell and fade musically. But there were also some beautiful moments of quiet pure tones that evoked the natural surroundings.
Next up was Later Days, a project featuring Wayne Jackson with his iOS-based evolutionary synth MendelTone, which allows patches to “breed” and evolve.
There was an urgent “machine-like” quality to the music, with low drones oms mixing with high swirls of sound and various percussive hits. Wayne is also the founder of this event and often its leader, but this year he ceded organizing duties to R Duck (of the R Duck Show), who performed next.
[Photo by Later Days (Wayne Jackson)]
The first segment of his set featured beautiful drones of processed guitar. There were quick runs, but they were absorbed into the overall sound. Over time, the tone and structure darkened, with more complex timbres and harmonies set against slow but anxious guitar riffs. He also teamed up with Later Days to deliver his perennial incantation featuring chocolate. (Did I mention that we at CatSynth love chocolate?)
Next up was synthesizer virtuoso Doug Lynner, who performed on a Eurorack-based Serge modular synthesizer.
[Photo by Later Days (Wayne Jackson)]
I have long come to expect very complex and intricate sounds from Doug, often set in a very sparse texture where one can clearly hear the details. That was certainly the case in this performance, which opened with light sounds reminiscent of birds and whale songs. It could have come from the surrounding woods rather than the synthesizer on stage (OK, the bird sounds could have, probably not the whale sounds). After a period of rapid modulation, the music settled into a different pattern, with a contrapuntal texture of long ascending tones reminiscent of sirens.
Lynner was followed by Paul Nicholson who had a large Korg-centric rig that included both a Minilogue, an MS-20 and an SQ-1 sequencer among other instruments.
His opening piece was more traditionally harmonic compared to the preceding sets, with slowly changing harmonic patterns that evoked late-20th-century minimalism (think Steve Reich and John Adams). The second portion of the set featured some harsher sounds and noise centered around Nicholson’s modular synth.
Then it was time for me to take the stage. I brought a rig that included the large 9U modular, a Casio SK-1 and my trusty Moog Theremini.
[Photo by R Duck]
As with most of my recent solo work, I select one of my more formal compositions as a point of departure. In this case, it was “White Wine”, with the melody set against one of the SK-1’s drum beats. This them morphed into a broken and complex break of sound and eventually to a pure improvisation with the modular and theremin, though the beats never really disappeared. As I was when listening to the other sets, I was thinking about the natural surroundings – in my case being the “city girl” mastering my place in space and sound, even if just for a few brief minutes.
The final set featured Lemon DeGeorge on harmonica and electronics.
The harmonicas (like a true player of the instrument, he had more than one) added a unique dimension to the music, and the electronics followed with long breathy tones. The sounds appeared to build up layers upon layers into something heavy and enveloping, but never overwhelming. Compared to Nicholson’s sounds, DeGeorge’s lone tones and patterns were thoroughly inharmonic but no less beautiful or musical.
Overall it was a fine afternoon of weird electronic music in the woods, and not just for the music itself but for the fellowship with friends who I don’t get to see that often. I remained in the mind space of the show, the environment, and the sounds for a while on the drive back, at least until reaching I-880 and heading first into Oakland and later home to San Francisco, where I snapped back into my everyday urban life.
Today we visit with our feline friends in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland. First up is Marlon, formerly known as “Fluffy.”
Despite living outdoors, he is healthy and well-fed, and clearly has a past that includes life as a pet cat. He loves people and didn’t need much convincing to spend time indoors. Indeed, he is living it up with his indoor time, getting food and scritches and soft blankets to relax on.
He is a big fellow but has a tiny voice that sounds more like “merp” than “meow”. I don’t yet have any video of his vocals, but you can see him thoroughly enjoying himself in this Instagram video with the music of John Schott playing in the background.
You can hear more of John Schott and his Actual Trio in this CatSynth TV video. In the meantime, let’s check in with Sophia, formerly known as “Hissy.”
As one can see in this photo, she is a beautiful cat, with Siamese-like markings and a graceful bearing. We think she might have once been a pet as well, but she is still extremely skittish around people. I mostly just get a glimpse of her from a distance and she runs off at any attempts to get closer. But she usually remains hidden nearby when Marlon is around. The two of them seem to have a special bond, despite their divergent attitudes towards humans.
We hope all our human and feline friends have a lovely weekend.