Fun with Highways: Philadelphia

Philadelphia has played an important role for us at CatSynth this year, musically, personally, and now politically. All eyes have been on this city the last few days, and this morning they delivered the crucial votes to call the presidential election.

Downtown Philadelphia lies between two rivers, the larger Delaware and the smaller Schuykill. It is further boxed in by three major freeways, I-95, I-76, and I-676 / US 30. Just south if I-676 (which enters the city from the east on the Benjamin Franklin Bridge from New Jersey) are the famous historic sites including Independence Hall, where both the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution where written.

Independence Hall Clocktower in Philadelphia.jpg
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Independence_Hall_Clocktower_in_Philadelphia.jpg

But modern city is much more than these historic sites, revered as they are. It is one of the largest cities in the country and has its own unique culture. Great seafood, Italian food, and of course cheesesteaks. Also some important centers for modern art and architecture. There is the neo-classical Philadelphia Museum of Art (made famous by Rocky) but also the modernist Institute of Contemporary Art and the University of Pennsylvania.

Institute of Contemporary Art — Visit Philadelphia
https://www.visitphilly.com/things-to-do/attractions/institute-of-contemporary-art/

In addition to the facade of the museum, I like the modernist buildings nearby which are presumably part of the university. (Hey, didn’t someone supposedly graduate from Penn/ Wharton?).

And nestled among the tall buildings of downtown Philly is the Love sculpture by Robert Indiana. Originally part of the 1976 bicentennial celebrations in “the city of brotherly love”, it is now a permanent fixture in the city.

File:Philadelphia, The City of the Brotherly Love - USA - panoramio.jpg -  Wikimedia Commons
700https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Philadelphia,The_City_of_the_Brotherly_LoveUSA-_panoramio.jpg

Philadelphia is one of the larger and denser cities in the country, more akin to New York than to Los Angeles.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Philadelphia_from_South_Street_Bridge_July_2016_panorama_3b.jpg

One of the more famous skyscrapers is the PSFS building. Now a hotel, it was once a the headquarters of the Philadelphia Savings Fund Society. It is an official landmark.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PSFSBuilding1985.jpg

Of course, we would be remiss if we did not talk about the city’s music. In particular, I have a soft spot for Philly soul of the 1970s, as exemplified by the band MSFB.

They were the house band of Philadelphia Sigma Sound Studios, the seminal house for the city’s particular sound, heavy on strings and detailed production. In addition to MSFB, they spawned many important acts like the O’Jays, the Spinners, the Delfonics and Stylistics, many of whom worked with the great producer Philadelphia producer Thom Bell. The sound and musicians of the city also attracted so called “blue-eyed soul”, such as David Bowie’s Young Americans album, and Elton John’s hit Philadelphia Freedom which was recorded with MFSB. The latter truly seems like song for this moment of celebration.

Many great jazz and funk musicians also came out of Philadelphia and call the city their home. Among them is the drummer G Calvin Weston who worked with Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time, James Blood Ulmer, the Lounge Lizards and more. And he is working with me on my latest musical project as well. You can hear about his history and many other musicians from Philadelphia in our extended interview with him from this summer.

He has been adding the “icing on the cake” to several tracks on my new album scheduled to release in early January, hopefully in time for change of power in our country. But for the moment, I would just like to say how proud I am of the city of Philadelphia and to call them my friends.

Wordless Wednesday: Smoke and Haze in San Francisco

Above: the sun through the thick smoke over San Francisco this morning. Below: looking downtown from Potrero Hill.

RIP Manu Dibango 1933-2020

We say goodbye to another musical hero. Manu Dibango passed away today at his home in France, apparently of complications from Covid-19.

Like many others, I knew Dibango’s music initially through the song “Soul Makossa.” I had heard it on and off over the years, but it was after delving more seriously into the history of 1970s disco in 2010 that I rediscovered the song and its connection to the early disco gatherings of New York including David Mancuso’s Loft parties. It was a B-side of a single that Mancuso found and it became an instant proto-disco hit, and on regular rotation in my own playlist in the early 2010s. It also went on to be a major influence on R&B and funk. It was instantly recognizable with the chat “Soul Makossa”, Dibango’s growling saxophone and catchy horn hook.

Dibango was originally from Cameroon – indeed makossa is a traditional style of Cameroonian music and came up in central Africa’s jazz scene, including African Jazz in Kinshasa, Congo. Over the years he has collaborated with other heroes of ours including Fela Kuti and Herbie Hancock, with whom he recorded the album Electric Africa in the 1980s.

It is jarring to hear of Dibango’s death being so connected to the current crisis, and certainly not the last. His music represents, at least for me, simpler and brighter times, the optimism and nostalgia of the 1970s, and more. RIP.

Fun with Highways: Christopher Street, New York

The West Village is an odd place. Streets cross one another at odd angles, leading to situations where numbered streets intersect, and small triangular slivers of park space emerge. One such location is the park where Christopher Street, Grove Street, West 4th, and 7th Avenue all meet.

It’s a sliver of a park, but it includes the Christopher Street subway stop for the 1 IRT, a stop I have found most useful in recent years. And this angular collision of roads also has another significance.

On the northern side of Christopher Street is the Stonewall Inn. The riots 50 years ago turned from a notorious Mafia-run bar for the most outcast members of the queer community to perhaps the sacred site in the world for the LGBTQ community and members of sexual minorities.


Stonewall Inn
, site of the 1969 Stonewall riots, New York City, USA On the Window: „We homosexuals plead with our people to please help maintain peaceful and quiet conduct on the streets of the Village—Mattachine“ (Source: David Carter: Stonewall: The Riots that Sparked the Gay Revolution, St. Martin’s Press, 2004, ISBN 0-312-34269-1, S. 143)

As people converge on lower Manhattan for New York Pride and World Pride – and we gather ourselves here in San Francisco, it’s worth looking back at what happened 50 years ago.

The age of the clientele ranged between the upper teens and early thirties, and the racial mix was evenly distributed among white, black, and Hispanic patrons.[57][59] Because of its even mix of people, its location, and the attraction of dancing, the Stonewall Inn was known by many as “the gay bar in the city”.[60] Police raids on gay bars were frequent—occurring on average once a month for each bar. Many bars kept extra liquor in a secret panel behind the bar, or in a car down the block, to facilitate resuming business as quickly as possible if alcohol was seized.[8][10] Bar management usually knew about raids beforehand due to police tip-offs, and raids occurred early enough in the evening that business could commence after the police had finished.[61] During a typical raid, the lights were turned on, and customers were lined up and their identification cards checked. Those without identification or dressed in full drag were arrested; others were allowed to leave. Some of the men, including those in drag, used their draft cards as identification. Women were required to wear three pieces of feminine clothing, and would be arrested if found not wearing them. Employees and management of the bars were also typically arrested.[61] The period immediately before June 28, 1969, was marked by frequent raids of local bars—including a raid at the Stonewall Inn on the Tuesday before the riots[62]—and the closing of the Checkerboard, the Tele-Star, and two other clubs in Greenwich Village.[63][64]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stonewall_riots#Stonewall_Inn

What is notable is what the offenses were. The issues were not so much sexual practices as traditional gender norms. Women without at least three pieces of feminine clothing, men in drag were the targets. And khas vishalom they might even be dancing! It was all about control and conformity. I look back at it with a mixture of bewilderment, pity, disgust, and even contempt for people who were frightened and upset by these behaviors that they would criminalize it violently. And lest we get too smug, violence continues to this date in the United States, most notably the murders transgender women of color. And the attack on conformity is something to be celebrated rather than resisted – indeed that was part of what attracted to this world decades before I knew that I myself was a member of its motley lot.

Many are using the occasion of the 50th anniversary to remind everyone that Stonewall was a riot, a moment of fighting back, rather than simply a large parade. But the parades and celebrations are great, too, as a reminder of what has changed. Indeed, one of the most criticized elements of Pride in this decade of the 21st century is just how commercial and “corporate” it has become. Sure, it’s tacky at times and easy to be cynical about some corporations’ motives. But the point is that mainstream businesses want to be seen as being on the side of the LGBTQ community, the “right” side, and the “profitable” side. One day it will be those who were so frightened by and bothered by these expressions of love and individual identity that they must respond with violence and law who will be pushed to the margins. And push them we shall, but it a way that still preserves their dignity and individuality, lest we end up making similar mistakes.

Tiananmen Square Anniversaries

Ten years ago, I frequently traveling to China for work, and found myself in Beijing during the week of the twentieth anniversary of the protests and massacre in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. As the thirtieth anniversary is upon us, it seems a good opportunity to look back at that experience.

Tiananmen Square

Tiananmen Square is a YUGE space, mostly empty. It is bounded on the north by the Tiananmen Gate to the Forbidden City. On one side is the Palace of the Republic, the seat of the Chinese government, on the other is another imposing government building that I’m pretty sure was the culture ministry. To the south, before several temples, is the imposing tomb of Mao Zedong.

In front of the Forbidden City
Chilling out in front of Palace of the Republic
Gearing up for Expo 2010

What was most notable was how ordinary things were, just a mixture of Beijingers and tourists wandering about like any other day. Indeed the most subversive thing I saw during that visit was my own photo with our mascot in front of Mao’s portrait.

Mao and “mao”

There was almost no mention of the anniversary in any media. The big story around town seemed to be the preparations for Expro 2010 in Shanghai. One English-language newspaper had an article about the “last of the 1989 hooligans” being released from prison, but that was about it. My colleagues, who are younger and would have been small children at the time, barely even knew about it except as rumors. One did check out a video via internet tunneling and was shocked to know that her country could have done something like that – but she did accept that it was true.

It’s hard to say if my experience of young Chinese encountering Tiananmen Square as we know it is at all representative, as my friends and colleagues tended to be more educated, cosmopolitan, and a bit jaded. Indeed, one young woman from the more conservative countryside whom I befriended in Suzhou on that same trip seemed to be less cynical and more toeing the party line about respect for authority (and reverence for Mao). I suspect things are even tighter and more controlled now, given the current Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping. Only time will tell how the country comes to reckon with this particular chapter of its past.

I.M. Pei in Suzhou and Beyond

The second of our remembrances focuses on the architect I.M. Pei, who passed away this week. A true champion of modernism worldwide, I have admired his work both from afar and close up.

Perhaps the most vivid memory with his work was from the Suzhou Museum in Suzhou, China. It may not be his best known work, but it is a masterpiece in itself and a love letter to his hometown.

The exterior facade combines Pei’s trademark geometry and minimalism with more the more traditional designs and tropes of an adjacent palace and Suzhou’s famous gardens. It also makes extensive use of water as an architectural element both inside and outside the building.

The simple geometric shapes, as well as the use of water, stone, and glass, gave the entire complex a very warm and welcoming feeling, even as the rain came down around me. Inside, the simplicity of the galleries left ample mental space to enjoy the exhibits and artifacts, while the atrium was a work of art itself.

I admire the way he often brought modernist aesthetics and principles to traditional spaces. This is perhaps most dramatically seen in his glass pyramid that anchors the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Napoleon courtyard of the Louvre museum at night time, with Ieoh Ming Pei’s pyramid in the middle. Benh LIEU SONG [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The pyramid is perfect, a stark contrast to the severe facades around it, and perfectly balanced in size and space. While I know many traditionalists have hated on this addition over the years, I for one love it. I am an unapologetic modernist and often find myself sparring with traditionalists even here in San Francisco.

Pei’s modernism was intended to integrate with its surroundings, even as it stood in contrast to it. For example, he wanted his stark geometric design for the Mesa Laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (U.S.A.) to look “as if it were carved out of the mountain”.

Until reading others’ tributes and remembrances, I had forgotten about his role in the Javits Center in New York, a building I am quite familiar with both inside and out. It is a massive and imposing structure but crisscrossed with triangular details that remind me of the Suzhou Museum (built 20 years later). The project was plagued by challenges and controversies, and “during the inauguration ceremonies, however, neither [James] Freed nor Pei was recognized for their role in the project.” [source]

Jim.henderson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Triangles do seem to be a major recurring theme in his work, and perhaps part of why it appeals to me even within the scope of other modernists. Triangles are powerful and strong, and the often stand out in Western spaces dominated by rectangles. These elements also played a role East Building for the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., a project is loved by many, but similar to the Louvre, criticized by some traditionalists.

The building is a masterpiece of minimalism. Even some of those traditionalist critics have grown to love it in the years since it opened in 1978. And it serves its purpose, both as a home to art and a work of art itself.

The growing popularity of art museums presented unique challenges to the architecture. Mellon and Pei both expected large crowds of people to visit the new building, and they planned accordingly. To this end, he designed a large lobby roofed with enormous skylights. Individual galleries are located along the periphery, allowing visitors to return after viewing each exhibit to the spacious main room. A large mobile sculpture by American artist Alexander Calder was later added to the lobby.[93] Pei hoped the lobby would be exciting to the public in the same way as the central room of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The modern museum, he said later, “must pay greater attention to its educational responsibility, especially to the young.”[94]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I._M._Pei#National_Gallery_East_Building,_Washington,_DC

Defending modernism, even after a century, remains a tireless job. As we lose champions like I.M. Pei, it falls to those of us in later generations to make sure this beauty is preserved and celebrated.

RIP Tardar Sauce, aka Grumpy Cat

In the past 24 hours, we have heard about the passing of two of our heroes, who hailed from different walks of life and even different species. In the first of our two remembrances, we bid farewell to the beloved Tardar Sauce, aka “Grumpy Cat”, has passed away. This was posted on Grumpy Cat’s official Facebook page this morning.

Despite care from top professionals, as well as from her very loving family, Grumpy encountered complications from a recent urinary tract infection and unfortunately become too tough for her to overcome. She passed away peacefully on the morning of Tuesday, May 14, at home in the arms of her mommy, Tabatha.

Besides being our baby and a cherished member of the family, Grumpy Cat has helped millions of people smile all around the world, even when times were tough.

https://twitter.com/RealGrumpyCat/status/1129310647458467840

Tardar Sauce’s feline dwarfism gave her face a sunken appearance, that together with her markings always made her look “grumpy” and launched a great many instantly usable internet memes. Even former President Barack Obama channeled Grumpy Cat on at least one occasion.

In reality, she seemed like a very sweet and docile cat, at least in the television appearances that we saw. She became quite the celebrity and her face graced many publications and toys, including this stuffed version of Grumpy Cat that has now sat on my desk at home and three different workplaces.

It’s always sad when a family says goodbye to a beloved feline companion – it’s a pain I know well. We wish Grumpy’s human and feline family our thoughts and sincerest condolences for their loss, and will do our part to keep her memory alive.

Owlsynth Pics for Superb Owl Day

We at CatSynth feel there is no better way to celebrate Superb Owl Day than with “owlsynth pics”. Here is our stuffed owl atop our main modular system.

And with our trusty Roland Boutique VP-03 vocoder.

And with our Arturia MiniBrute 2.

(Definitely need to tidy up a bit there.)

Owls are quite captivating as they are so different from other birds, even from other birds of prey. We all know their unique front-facing faces and nocturnal behavior. But they also have amazing auditory capabilities.

Both the cat and the Barn Owl have much more sensitive hearing than the human in the range of about 0.5 to 10 kHz. The cat and Barn Owl have a similar sensitivity up to approximately 7 kHz. Beyond this point, the cat continues to be sensitive, but the Barn Owl’s sensitivity declines sharply.

Some Owl species have asymmetrically set ear openings (i.e. one ear is higher than the other) – in particular, the strictly nocturnal species, such as the Barn Owl or the Tengmalm’s (Boreal) Owl. These species have a very pronounced facial disc, which acts like a “radar dish”, guiding sounds into the ear openings. The shape of the disc can be altered at will, using special facial muscles. Also, an Owl’s bill is pointed downward, increasing the surface area over which the sound waves are collected by the facial disc. In 4 species (Ural, Great Grey, Boreal/Tengmalm’s & Saw-whet), the ear asymmetry is actually in the temporal parts of the skull, giving it a “lop-sided” appearance.

Owls and Hearing – The Owl Pages

We at CatSynth hope you all have a fine and enriching Superb Owl Day!

Fun with Highways: Belen, New Mexico

On this dreary, rainy afternoon, we turn our attention southeast to the small town of Belen, New Mexico.

Belen is near the geographical center of New Mexico, south of Albuquerque.  It is wedged between Interstate 25 to the west and the Rio Grande to the east. Business Loop 25 serves as the town’s Main Street, as well as the terminus for New Mexico state roads 314309, and 109.  In its past, it served as a major railroad hub, even earning the nickname “Hub City.” 

New Mexico is a place steeped in a unique character, bringing together Native American, Spanish, and Northern European heritage.  Its landscape is bleak and beautiful.  It has attracted generations of artists.  Judy Chicago is one of those artists, and she chose to make her home in Belen.

Chicago is one of the founders of feminist art, a collection of art movements that serve to both create and critique art from the perspective of women.  Early work by Chicago and others in this movement often turned assumptions upside down, sometimes slyly but sometimes not so subtly inserting womanhood into all types of artistic practice.  But she has also been involved in work beyond feminism, notably The Holocaust Project.

Perhaps her best-known piece is The Dinner Party, which is now a permanent installation at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.  I have had the opportunity to view it on multiple occasions.

The Dinner Party imagines women artists, thinkers, and leaders throughout history sitting at a large triangular table.  Each of the place settings bears the name of an accomplished woman and the contents of her plate represent a stylized version of her accomplished.  Additionally, the porcelain tiles surrounding the table identify nearly 1000 other women.  The plates and their contents are often described as representing female sexuality through vulva-like, floral, and butterfly forms.

Returning from Brooklyn to Belen, we pick up the story in this weekend’s New York Times, about an effort by the town to host a museum dedicate to its famous resident and the art she creates and supports.  This would seem to be a slam dunk for a town that appears to have fallen on hard times, but it apparently generated quite a bit of opposition.

The quarreling reflects not just the power of Ms. Chicago’s art to ignite emotions, but also the limits of tolerance in New Mexico, a state long known as a welcoming mecca for artists. Evangelical Christian leaders in Belen have mobilized to thwart the project, calling Ms. Chicago’s art pornographic and indecent.

“I love fine art, but I would never want to see a vagina hanging on my wall,” said John K. Thompson, 62, a retired stockbroker.

[link]

It seems odd that the state that celebrates Georgia O’Keefe would have a problem with vaginal imagery in art.   So why this place, and why now?

Paula Castillo [a sculptor who was born and raised in Belen] believes that the friction reflects the town’s own evolving dynamics…Belen has long been home to Hispanic families whose roots in New Mexico go back centuries. Religious affiliations are in flux, but many remain members of the Roman Catholic Church, which has not voiced opposition to the museum.

But after meeting with pastors from the evangelical churches opposing the museum, Ms. Castillo said she concluded that much of the resistance appeared to come from relative newcomers who brought more conservative sensibilities with them.

“There’s a level of nuance to what’s going on that’s been neglected,” Ms. Castillo said. “Belen and the rest of New Mexico can be very welcoming, but it’s easy to forget the influence that some churches now have.”

Indeed, I had come to think that despite the power of conservative Christians in our politics, the somewhat cartoonish cries of “indecency” in art were a sad joke from my past.   Not surprising, this has been an upsetting experience for Chicago herself.  I can only imagine what it feels like to feel welcomed in a community, only to have part of that community turn against you…

Responding to the critics, Ms. Chicago and Mr. Woodman in November withdrew their offer to work with Belen’s municipal government on the proposed museum. “The whole experience has been very painful,” said Ms. Chicago, explaining how she followed the debate over the museum and her work on social media while she was traveling in Brazil

It seems like a potential opportunity missed, especially as one sees how embracing minimalist Donald Judd put Marfa, Texas, on the map and has made it a cultural destination.  Indeed, Marfa is on my bucket list, especially after seeing it featured in one of the last episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s show.  Whether Belen gives up its chance to be another Marfa remains to be seen.

See more of New Mexico and many other fascinating places in our Highway☆ app, available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. 

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Wordless Wednesday: San Francisco Under Smoke

Eerie light in San Francisco at sunset this Saturday as the city was engulfed in thick smoke from the Camp Fire in Butte County.