Happy Gotcha Day Big Merp!

It was two years ago that Marlon, aka “Big Merp” came to live with us at CatSynth HQ! We had already known him for a while, but circumstances arose where he needed to find a new permanent home, and we were more than happy to oblige.

We first met him in 2018. He was living on the street in the Temescal section of Oakland, California.

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Life on the streets can be rough, and it showed on his face. But he was incredibly friendly and loved people, and enjoyed coming indoors to hang out. He was clearly a former house cat, likely abandoned. We’re glad we found him and gave him a home. The posh indoor life has been good to him.

Big Merp is a “synth cat” – he loves to get up on the main instrument desk to be close to the action. There is the iconic photo lounging with the Novation LaunchPad Pro and Arturia MicroFreak above, as well as many others.

Although he bonded with the humans right away (including visitors), things were a bit more difficult with Sam Sam. She was not happy with this newcomer to her home and tried her best to avoid him for quite a while. Over time, however, her confidence returned and the two grew more comfortable with each other’s presence. They may not be the best of friends, but they do at least accept one another and share space.

Please join us in wishing Big Merp a very happy second Gotcha Day!

Farewell to 2020, a year like no other

How does one summarize a year like this? Words like “unprecedented” seem trite, and we learned from our experience with 2016 that even a difficult year has its beautiful moments. 2020 started out normal enough, with our annual pilgrimage to NAMM but quickly veered into surreal territory, and that was before the first COVID-19 lockdown was announced…on my birthday. Everything that has happened since has happened in the shadow of the pandemic. Perhaps the lowest moment was losing our dear friend Serena Toxicat. But the year has also brought unique experiences and opportunities, such as making music with musicians I admire together on opposite sides of the country. Indeed, as I was grieving the sudden loss of Serena, I received a call from my then-new collaborator G Calvin Weston offering comfort and support, and we have developed a closer friendship along with our musical collaboration. That moment perhaps summarizes the complexity of 2020 as much as any.

It has also been a banner year for CatSynth TV with rapid growth in viewership and subscriptions, but also the craft of making the videos in a variety of structures: synth reviews, interviews, documentaries, and art pieces. Of course, a few things remain active on the blog, our cat-and-music pics, Wordless Wednesday, and the occasional article. But for the most part, the transition from blog to video is complete.

The year ends on a note of optimism for 2021. The vaccines are arriving (we just need to make sure people take them); things are a bit more hopeful politically in the country, and we can start to repair the damage of the past five years. The album I have been working on – a musical statement – is coming together and will be released in the first part of the new year. Our little household at CatSynth HQ is safe and healthy and closer than ever – even Sam Sam and Big Merp seem to be getting along better now. And of course, we’re going to continue to share more videos, images, and ideas.

2020 has reminded us that we cannot know what is in store, and that improbable things can have a tremendous impact on our lives. We will face what comes as best we can, and focus on what is most important. And thank you for continuing to be a part of this journey with us.

Happy 4th Gotcha Day, Sam Sam!

It’s the 4th anniversary of Sam Sam’s arrival at CatSynth HQ. It’s hard to believe it’s already been four years, but it’s also hard to imagine life here without her.

On December 7, 2016, I brought Luna’s ashes home. On that same day, a friend drove up from Southern California to San Francisco to deliver Sam Sam. Quite a transition.

Sam Sam was rather timid at first, spending most of her time under the bed, but coming out to eat but also to explore and give her little characteristic squeaks. It wasn’t surprising that she was a little skittish. She was thrust into a completely new place and situation, after a serious of stressful homes. But she soon adjusted and become comfortable, and her goofy and sassy personality blossemed.

This was a paradise for her, and she loved being spoiled. But in 2019, her world was once again upended with the arrival of Big Merp. She didn’t welcome this new “interloper”. It has taken a lot of time and work from all of us at CatSynth HQ over the past year, but we got them to the point where they could at least tolerate one another, and now they can even spend time together, if not somewhat warily.

“Little Sam Sam” continues to delight us all with her little voice and her cute antics. We love her dearly.

Please join us in wishing Sam Sam a very happy 4th Gotcha Day!

Farewell to 2019: Tipping Point

Our year-end collage is a long-standing tradition at CatSynth. And we had a lot of fun making this year’s edition, so many wonderful images to choose from. One of my best solo performances to date took place at the Compton’s Cafeteria series at the Center for New Music. Big Merp came to live with has at CatSynth HQ. And our adventures took us from the halls of NAMM to the bottom of Death Valley to the subways of New York.

As we mentioned at the end of last year, most of the energy has moved to CatSynth TV and our social media platforms (especially our Facebook page). The blog is mostly our core cat-and-synth pics these days, although I do enjoy sharing long-form articles now and then. And In 2020, I do plan to revive the “primary highways” series from eight years ago.

On the video side, things have been going very well. Here are the top videos for 2019:

  1. Rick and Morty Pocket Operator, Part 2
  2. Introduction to the KOMA Field Kit [Episode 106]
  3. Ginger Baker, In Memoriam
  4. EXCLUSIVE! Arturia Pigments 1.2 First Look
  5. Folsom Street Fair 2019
  6. NAMM 2019: Rossum Electro-Music Trident [Episode 116]
  7. Rick and Morty Pocket Operator Unboxing [Episode 166]
  8. Mutable Instruments Plaits [Episode 102]
  9. Strymon Magneto Loop & Sample Modes [Episode 125]
  10. NAMM 2019: Interview with Dave Smith of Sequential

By early autumn, I was also thinking about this year as a “tipping point.” The transition from the blog to the video channel is the most obvious, but it also applies also on the personal side. The arrival of Big Merp was one of the big stories, and it’s been a tough integration getting both cats to coexist, but things have been trending well in the past few months, with Sam Sam regaining her confidence and HQ becoming a more harmonious place again. Musically, I have moved in a direction that is perhaps closer to my roots in jazz, fusion, funk while maintaining the experimental electronic aspects. I have also moved to a point where studio work is how I spend most of my musical time, between the videos and other projects. Finally, I am getting older, as we all are, and that adds both perspective and a need to focus on health and wellbeing. In 2020, I may “do fewer things” than in the past, but I hope the things I choose to do make an impact both personally and beyond.

There is a lot to look forward to in the coming days: NAMM 2020 is around the corner, I have a full queue of demos to share, and I am laying the foundations for some major musical projects. And of course, we will continue to post cats and synths.

LadyJams (Brooklyn, New York)

It’s one of those serendipitous moments that happen in New York. At the end of last week’s Ambient Chaos show, I received an invitation from Neb Ula the Velvet Queen to come to LadyJams is a monthly get-together where women get together and perform in randomly selected groups. I loved the idea, and especially the coincidence of this meeting; so on Friday I grabbed my trusty Arturia MicroFreak and headed out on the L train to Bushwick.

The festivities took place at Synesthesia, a gallery and art space in the apartment of Mio Nakai. Amidst objects and curios from the turn of the 20th century – and an old-fashioned bar to match – was an exhibition of sculptures that evoked both a delicate graceful quality and a confounding misplacement of human forms. It was in the midst of this milieu that Ladyjams unfolded.

Photo by Laura Feathers

I made some more new friends that evening, including Laura Feathers, Teena Mayzing, and Yana Davydova, who performed on electronics, voice, and guitar, respectively. I performed with them and others over the course of the evening in several miniature improvised sets. You can hear an example in this video.

This truly spur-of-the-moment music, as I had never performed with any of these artists before. The MicroFreak was definitely the right choice of instrument, given its versatility and immediacy (as well as being extremely light). I had some light melodic spacey touches, as well as deep bass pedal tones and various sound effects. I particularly enjoyed a call-and-response with Yana Davydova on guitar – we both were able to match one another’s melodic fragments and respond with variations that moved the performance forward. I also tried to choose sounds and notes to complement the words of Teena Mayzing and others during vocal sections.

Photo by Laura Feathers

Neb Ula and I also had a chance to perform together, as seen in the photo above and following video clip.

Although New York – and perhaps Brooklyn in particular – is an exceptionally fertile place for an event like this, I am left wondering why not try to do something similar in San Francisco? I certainly know enough women and non-binary performers to make it a possibility, so perhaps it will happen.

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.

Art on Father’s Day

For Father’s Day, we have some “patrilineal” art to share. This assemblage was created by my dad, combining a painting of his with a handkerchief that belonged to my grandfather. The material of the handkerchief is decades old and decaying, and the tears and texture make for a very interesting blend with the colors and shapes of the painting below.

We at CatSynth wish a happy Father’s Day to all the human and feline dads out there.

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.

Feline Mother’s Day

“New Mom” by Steve Jurvetson on Flickr. (Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0))

Mother’s Day (the second Sunday in May) has become a celebration of motherhood and all things maternal. I enjoy seeing my friends’ photos of and with their moms; but also of feline moms, as in the photo above. Motherhood is one of those things that truly transcends species, and especially among fellow mammals, the patterns are instantly recognizable.

Our friend Marg at Marg’s Animals has this tribute to one of the cat mothers in her care, Lil Mum. And at Sweet Perfections, Truffle and Brulee pay tribute to their moms. And of course, our friends at Animal Shelter Volunteer have a message for all the moms, human and feline.

Sadly, mother cats who come to shelters with their kittens often find themselves left behind as their kittens are adopted out. The adult moms need love, too. When looking for a new feline friend, please consider adult and senior cats, and the moms left behind.

As for me, I’m content with my status as a cat mom (now the mom of two cats). And while I do my best to distinguish between this status my friends who are mothers to their own (human) children, I have on occasion been wished a “Happy Mother’s Day” and it makes me smile.

Matzoh Man and Thoughts on Passover

Passover is, perhaps, the most “visible” Jewish holiday for me. After all, we have featured the Matzoh Man in many photos and short video clips here on CatSynth, and now twice in a row for CatSynth TV.

For this year’s episode, we took audio output from our mechanical friend via a contact mic and sent it into the KOMA Field Kit. We then split the signal into audio, which was run through our modular synthesizer – specifically, the Rossum Electro-music Morpheus – and the Field Kit’s own envelope follow and actuator section, ultimately driving the solenoid. It was a fun little demo both to make and to watch.

Matzoh Man joins the synthesizers in a ritual of devotion and irreverence.

I also included a little demo of the ritual diet, with matzoh, prepared horseradish, and Kedem grape juice. But beyond that, anything is fair game for me during Passover as long as there are no piggies or shellfish, or leavened bread. No beer allowed, but non-kosher wine and spirits are fine. It becomes a bit of a game to see if for eight days I can follow these simple rules. To someone more Orthodox, or even the least bit devout, this simple approach could be transgressive, or even blasphemous. But from my point of view, not only is it plenty but I also sometimes wonder why I both at all. It’s not like I believe in the literal truth of the Biblical story, or have any fear of or respect for any religious authorities.

Somehow, though, I still feel compelled to participate. And not just participate, flaunt it, reminding friends that I can’t share pastries or bread products over the week because I’m Jewish. That feels important to remind people of. And it sometimes makes its way into my music, through titles like Kislev and Donershtik (Yiddish for Thursday) or organizing structures in stories. It’s fun. It’s “cool”. But also it feels more urgent, as the world around us seems more anti-Semitic now than it did during my youth. I’m deeply bothered by the attacks that seem to be increasing against Jews, both verbal and violent. But I’m also concerned with an increasing religiosity and sense of obedience among many who identify as Jewish. If being Jewish is just about being religious, or being obedient to a text or patriarchal authorities, then it does truly become time to ask “why bother?”. But for now, we do our best to both persevere and enjoy.

Chag Pesach Semeach.