King Crimson returns to the Fox Theater, Oakland

Our incredibly musical two weeks that began with Herbie Hancock concluded with King Crimson’s return to the Fox Theater in Oakland. We at CatSynth saw their last visit in 2017 and were excited to hear what the brought this time around.

It was a pleasure to see King Crimson back in action again, albeit with another lineup change.  This time around, Bill Reiflin was not with the group, and so there was no full-time keyboardist.  His duties were taken over by drummer Jeremy Stacey, and, at times, winds player Mel Collins. Of course, Robert Fripp was there, holding court seated stage left next to his tower of gear, as were longtime members Tony Levin on bass and Chapman stick and Jakko Jakszyk on lead vocals and guitar. Rounding out the trio of drummers were Gavin Harrison and Pat Mastelotto.

The group once again made a great overview of their 50-year history.  I was particularly pleased to hear “Cat Food” from the 1970 album In the Wake of Poseidon played. “Cat Food Cat Food…again!” The music is malleable and adaptable to the current band’s instrumentation and abilities.  Choruses are reharmonized, as was the case with “Cat Food”; vocal numbers are re-arranged into extended instrumental pieces, as in “The Construction of Light”; new melodies were added, as in “Indiscipline”; and so on. There were also new lyrics to the chorus of “Easy Money”. The combination of the three drumsets was even tighter than the previous tour, and more nuanced as well with each playing entirely different parts in a three-voice counterpoint that occasionally coalesced into a massive syncopated thunder. It should also be noted that the drums were a bit lighter because of Stacey’s keyboard duties.

The sound in the first set was a bit challenging at times; the winds and vocals in particular suffered.  Thankfully, this was all corrected going into the second set. And just when it seemed they were going to get through the entire night without playing “21st Century Schizoid Man”, they returned with the tune as their encore, with extended abstract solos and instrumental sections.

As always, King Crimson is very strict about photography during their concerts, but at the very end, they ritualistically share a moment taking pictures of the audience while we picture them. This time both Tony Levin and Robert Fripp snapped pictures of the audience as we returned the favor.

King Crimson on stage at the end of the show
King Crimson photographs us photographing them

Here is a photo of the audience from Tony Levin’s blog. We are somewhere in the lower left of the orchestra.

Tony photographs the audience
Tony photographs the audience [Tonylevin.com]

[Jason Berry contributed to this story]

Herbie Hancock at the Greek Theater, Berkeley

It’s been a wonderfully musical couple of weeks for us at CatSynth. Two days in the recording studio, our recent performance…and all of this bookended by concerts featuring our musical heroes. Today we visit the first of those concerts featuring Herbie Hancock at the Greek Theater in Berkeley.

Those who have been longtime readers of this site or familiar with some of my recent music will recognize the tremendous influence of Herbie Hancock, especially his Mwandishi and Head Hunters bands of the 1970s. For a concert in 2019, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect. But from the moment the maestro took the stage, I was not disappointed.

Together with his current band – Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, James Genus on bass, Lionel Loueke on guitar and multi-instrumentalist Terrace Martin on horns and keyboard – he revisited many of the old classics, but with new twists. Some, like Chameleon and Cantelope Island, pretty much followed their classic forms and were a delight. Others, like Butterfly and Sunlight were quoted more subtly or obliquely, teasing us a bit through solos, chord changes, and excursions before landing on the tune’s head just long enough of us to recognize it and use it as a point of departure for the next section. This is something that we have heard Wayne Shorter do in his more recent performances as well – just enough of a hint of the original tune for us to notice before departing into new musical territory. It was pretty much everything I would hope for from this concert.

The music that I so love and admire (and try to play) but not as a museum or conservatory piece but as something dynamic and vital. He did a full rendition of Actual Proof, complete with introductory description – this piece is perhaps one of my favorites of his, in part because it is so rhythmically confounding – it is in 4/4 but the way the main riff spreads over bars, it can be hard to tell where the measures begin and end. I also enjoyed how he broke out the keytar and the vocoder from the late 1970s in several songs.

It wasn’t all updates on old favorites, as there was newer material as well. And he remains a consummate showman, giving his personal energy back to the crowd. Towards the end of the set, he led all of us in a wave while beaming from ear to ear – this then served as the introduction to a final encore jam of Chameleon where Kamasi Washington and others joined him on stage.

Kamasi Washington’s own set was also full of energy and complex music – perhaps a bit overshadowed for me by Herbie, but still a favorite of the crowd many of whom were sporting Washington’s t-shirts. He had an interesting band with two drummers (Tony Austin and Ronald Bruner Jr) and Cameron Graves on keyboard/synth. Rounding out the band was Ryan Porter on the trombone, Patrice Quinn on vocals, and Miles Mosley on bass. Perhaps the most touching moment was when Washington’s father, Rickey Washington, came out to join the band on soprano saxophone.

The opening set featured Robert Glasper and his band. A local favorite, his music weaved together elements of jazz with hip-hop. Centered around Glasper on keyboards, his group brought together different elements such as upright bass and turntable.

Overall, the show taken as a whole was one of the best live concerts I have seen in a while, which each group building on the foundation set by its predecessor, culminating in Herbie Hancock’s musical odyssey (there was, however, no Arp Odyssey this time). Even as an even chill settled into the Greek Theater during his set, I barely noticed. As as I practiced for my own music the coming week, I couldn’t help but notice myself doing more of those chromatically rising fast runs that are so characteristic of his solos. It’s not copying, but rather influence and tribute – a subject for another article at another time.

Compton’s Cafeteria Series

This past Thursday, the Center for New Music launched Compton’s Cafeteria Series, a set of occasional concerts featuring transgender performers. And I was there both the cover the show and be a part of it!

For those who are not familiar with the story, Gene Compton’s Cafeteria was a small restaurant chain and its Tenderloin location at the corner of Taylor and Turk Streets was one of the few places where transgender individuals, and especially transgender women, could safely congregate. There was, however, some tension between transgender patrons and the staff, who often called the police, with arrests and harassment ensuing. In 1966, this pattern led to the Compton’s Cafeteria Riots.

In the 1960s the Compton’s Cafeteria staff began to call the police to crack down on transgender individuals, who would frequent the restaurant.[8]Management felt that transgender customers were loitering and causing them to lose more desirable business. In response, they implemented a service fee directed at transgender individuals and blatantly harassed them in an attempt to get them to leave the restaurant.[8] In response to police arrests, the transgender community launched a picket of Compton’s Cafeteria.[9] Although the picket was unsuccessful, it was one of the first demonstrations against police violence directed towards transgender people in San Francisco.[9] On the first night of the riot, the management of Compton’s called the police when some transgender customers became raucous. Police officers were known to mistreat transgender people.[10]When one of these known officers attempted to arrest one of the trans women, she threw her coffee in his face.[2] According to the director of Screaming Queens, Susan Stryker, the cafeteria “erupted.”[5]

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compton%27s_Cafeteria_riot

This was nearly three years before the Stonewall Inn Riots in New York but has not gotten nearly the visibility in the time since. There is a plaque on the sidewalk in front of the former site at 101 Turk Street, and there is now an honorary street renaming of the 100 block of Taylor Street as Gene Compton’s Cafeteria Way – we featured the sign in our most recent Wordless Wednesday post.

More importantly, the immediate vicinity has been recognized by the city as a “Transgender Cultural District.” As the Center for New Music is located in the heart of this new district, it seemed natural for them to host a series celebrating transgender visibility (and audibility), and I am grateful to the staff there and to my friend David Samas for proposing this and making it happen.

The show itself was a successful event featuring vary different performances, although they all made extensive use of hardware synthesizers. You can see some of the highlights in my latest video.

The evening started with a set by Rusty Sunsets (aka Cara Esten). Her performance was divided into two sections, the first featuring acoustic guitar and voice, and the second incorporating synthesizers and drum machines. Both parts were unified by Esten’s folk-song style, with a series of compositions about her upbringing in Oklahoma and loves lost and found. Perhaps the poignant was a love song inspired by the 1911 Triangle Factory fire in New York where 146 workers, the vast majority of whom were women, perished. My favorite was the final song which brought together a Moog Mother-32 and other synthesizers with plaintive but optimistic singing.

Rusty Sunsets

Next up was Pitta of the Mind (Amanda Chaudhary and Maw Shein Win). We performed a short set with a featured color of blue – set against the fuschia background lighting and my automated multicolor blinking lights. Musically, it had a very punctuated quality with abstract sounds from the modular and Arturia MicroFreak against some of Maw’s poems that featured open space and short lines. We mixed it up for the final piece, which had lusher and more emotive quality with longer lines and acoustic piano – these pieces are a strength for us and we always include at least one.

Pitta of the Mind (Amanda Chaudhary and Maw Shein Win)

Then it was time for the final set, featuring my solo electronic performance. I started with the solo version of White Wine (and a cup of white wine). The Casio SK-1 was sampled and remixed in Ableton Live, with the statement of the melody and cords, followed by a cacophony leading into two distinct rhythmic sections: first a funk/disco sound featuring MicroFreak bass and a jazz piano improvisation; and then a Stereolab inspired electric-organ solo leading into a final section of tape-delayed metallic sounds (Strymon Magneto and Pocket Gamelan from Crank Sturgeon).

After that, it was on to the cat-infused and disco-and-French-House inspired Donershtik. The piece is just a lot of fun, a classic 70s analog melody (in this case on the Arturia MiniBrute) in Phrygian mode followed by playful modular improvisation (anchored by the MOK Wavewazor) going into the electric piano disco/house section.

Overall, I think this was one of the best of my live solo sets, tightly choreographed with a relatively diverse and robust setup, and well-defined and well-rehearsed pieces. Once again, structure and hard work paid off.

But I also fed off the positive energy and enthusiasm of the crowd, which brought together regular friends and fans with members of the transgender community. It was a beautiful night overall, and I look forward to both being present and helping organize the next in this series.

2019 Outsound New Music Summit in Review

It’s been a little over a week since the 2019 Outsound New Music Summit and it seems a good time to look back over all five nights of adventurous musical programming. If you haven’t already seen our summary video with highlights from all ten acts, please check it out.

The concert series kicked off with a performance by the duo B Experimental Band, a large project led by Lisa Mezzacappa (bass) and Jason Levis (drums). They have been performing as a duo for a long time, taking on different challenges as their musical relationship has evolved. The latest is bringing their improvisational focus to a large group, i.e., maintaining spontaneity and musicality of improvisation while herding cats.

duo B Experimental Band

What I most noticed about this set was how sparse and spacious it was. In the first piece, space played an important visual as well as musical role, with different pairs of performers scattered around the concert hall. And towards the end, the full group thinned out to a single solo line from Polly Moller Springhorn on flute. The complete ensemble also included Bruce Ackley, Randy McKean, Cory Wright, and Joshua Marshall on woodwinds; Theo Padouvas and Rob Ewing on brass; and Gabby Fluke-Mogul (violin), Murray Campbell (octave violin), Shanna Sordahl (cello), and Kjell Nordeson on percussion.

By contrast, the second set featuring saxophone quartet Social Stutter was densely packed with rich harmonies and melodies. Composer and bandleader Beth Schenck makes the quartet – which also includes Phillip Greenlief, Cory Wright, and Casey Knudsen – function as a single instrument with some exquisitely beautiful chords and melodic lines. There was also space for each of the members to shine individually, with Knudsen’s fast runs, Greenlief’s unique timbres and keywork, and Wright solidly holding down the foundation on baritone sax. I was quite taken by this performance and now inspired to write my own compositions for saxophone quartet.

We always aim for a diversity of styles of music and instrumentation throughout the week, loosely categorized into nightly themes. For example, both of the bands that could be characterized as “rock music” were on the same night, but the two groups were still quite contrasting. Gentleman Surfer, a trio featuring Jon Bafus (drums), Barry McDaniel (guitar), and Zack Bissell (synthesizers) delivered a hard-driving set – my favorite moments were those where all three played unison syncopated rhythms complete with silences that were as intense as the sounds.

Gentleman Surfer

By contrast, Vegan Butcher’s set had a more plaintive, cerebral quality, due in large part to composer and bandleader John Shiurba’s “January Scale” and lyrics taken from his dream state just before waking up. The scale removes C-sharp, A-sharp, and F-sharp from the available twelve tones. This provides some interesting musical challenges. For example, a song centered in the “key” of F would have to avoid B-flat (A-sharp), and some keys like D become challenging indeed! The selection of chords to work around these gives the band’s music the plaintive sound. Their final song was particularly memorable, especially the section where rhythmic chords undergird the lyrics “I’m coming down from my stilts now, baby!” I found myself singing that for days afterward.

Vegan Butcher. Photo by Charles Smith

The next night again featured two contrasting sets. First was a very spare improvisation featuring Francis Wong on saxophone and Lenora Lee on dance/movement. Wong and Lee are longtime collaborators and have been working on both improvised and larger-scale compositions for two decades.

Francis Wong and Lenora Lee

This performance, which made use of the space around the hall as well as the stage, was extraordinarily subtle and quiet as both the sound and movement bounced off the silent space – but at the same time forceful in the message it delivered, decrying all forms of violence and discrimination against immigrants and refugees from the Chinese Exclusion Act and the internment center on Angel Island to the images of mistreated children out our southern border today.

As with duo B and Social Stutter, the sparse nature of Wong and Lee’s performance was in sharp contrast to the lush landscapes of Andrea Centazzo’s solo set, with live percussion – drums, gongs, and his signature stacks of cymbals – set against both live and recorded electronics.

Andrea Centazzo

Centazzo’s solo performances often involve multimedia projections with the music. Sadly, this was not able to happen for this concert, but one could still “hear the images” of nature and remote places in his sounds, from the initial thundering drums to the gong array set against what sounded like singing monks.

The next night brought Polly Moller Springhorn’s much-anticipated Tomography Fortunae to the Outsound stage, or more specifically to the floor in the middle of the hall as the audience looked on from the edges. Her composition combines a variety of sounds with ritualistic movement and concept, all codified in a graphic score. The most unique element was the fact that all performers had to be named “Tom.” This comes from a longstanding observation that many of the musicians in the Bay Area new-music scene happen to be named Tom (or Matt, or David). The Toms on this occasion were Tom Djll, Tom Dimuzio, Tom Duff, Tom Dambly, Tom Nunn, Tom Scandura, and Tom Weeks.

Polly and all seven Toms.

The piece unfolded as a series of three movements, each with more elaborate patterns of motion, ritualistic drawings, and numerical interplace. Most of the music was improvised within that framework, often bringing together pairs or trios of Toms for humorous interplay leading a loud and raucous finale with everyone playing. The whole experience was fascinating and fun.

Tomography Fortunae

The next set brought together percussionist William Winant with Zachary James Watkins on guitar and electronics. The two had performed together before, but I still did not know what to expect. The set opened with Winant on pine cone and drum, with Watkins gradually building up high-pitched noisy sounds to fill the spaces in between. The guitar soon emerged with stronger electronic sounds as Winant shifted to his gongs and metal percussion.

William Winant rocking the pine cone
William Winant and Zachary James Watkins

The sounds are fascinating but quite loud (especially for those of us who have maintained our high-frequency hearing) – and this was perhaps the most challenging moment of the entire festival. But things settled down again into a cloud of sound mixing percussion and electronics where the two became entangled.

The final night brought two veterans of the summit and of experimental jazz to the stage. Rent Romus (also the executive director of Outsound and the festival) teamed up with fellow woodwind multi-instrumentalist Keith Kelly for Deciduous, a set that unfolded as a collection of short stories, complete with characters, magic, and mischief. They were joined by Nava Dunkelman on percussion, Heikki Koskinen on e-trumpet, Gabby Fluke-Mogul on violin and Lisa Mezzacappa on bass.

Rent Romus
Deciduous

The final set brought back Vinny Golia and his wild collection of wind instruments to the Outsound Stage. In addition the more conventional baritone saxophone and bass clarinet, he also had a contrabass flute, a sopranino saxophone, and a rare G Mezzo-Soprano saxophone (which he describes in our preview video).

Vinny Golia trio. Photo by Charles Smith

Golia was joined by Miller Wren on bass and Clint Dodson (drums). Originally, our friend Steve Adams was going to join them on saxophones but was unfortunately unable to make it for medical reasons. Fortunately, he appears to be much better and back to performing since then, and we wish him the best.

It’s particularly interesting to be present all nights and hear how the different artists and styles of music follow one another on the same stage. And I am glad to have been a part of it again this year both as a listener and part of the organizing committee.

Manul Override at the Garden of Memory 2019

I have attended the Garden of Memory at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland many a summer solstice since moving to San Francisco – and written multiple reviews on these pages and even presented a CatSynth TV showcase last hear. But 2019 is the first time I have performed at this annual event as a named artist. It’s a very different experience from the inside looking out. This article describes the adventure.

My friend and sometime collaborator Serena Toxicat and I were excited to be accepted into this years program for our project Manul Override. We joined forces once again with Melne Murphy on guitar and also invited Thea Farhadian to sit in with us on violin.

I had a rather elaborate setup, anchored as usual by my trusty Nord Stage EX. The Sequential Prophet 12 has also become a mainstay of my smaller collaborations, providing rich ambient sounds. The Arturia MiniBrute 2, Moog Theremini, and a collection of Eurorack modules rounded out the rig.

Getting everything into place in the catacombs-like building – a renowned landmark designed by Julia Morgan – was a challenge in itself. Fortunately, I found parking nearby and was able to load everything onto carts or wheeled cases, and had plenty of help getting things downstairs where we were playing.

The acoustics of the space are also quite challenging. It is a set of oddly shaped stone chambers, some large, some small, so echoes abound from both the crowds and other performers. Figuring out how to balance our sound is not easy, and I don’t pretend to have gotten it right on the first try, but it’s a learning experience. But we did get ourselves sorted out and ready to play.

Photo by Annabelle Port

The set unfolded with an invocation, a drone in D mixolydian mode set to Serena’s text Mau Bast, read first in French and then in English. It seemed a perfect piece for the occasion. We then switched things up with a more humorous piece (Let’s Hear it for) Kitties, which was a crowd favorite. You can hear a bit of it in this video from the event.

I have learned how to best follow Serena’s style of speaking and singing, with a more open quality; and Melne and I know how to work together well both in terms of timing and timbre. Thea’s violin added an interesting counterpoint to the voice and electronics. Her sound was sometimes masked by the other instruments and the acoustics but when it came through it added a distinct character and texture. The remaining two pieces were more improvised. One was a free improvisation against one of Serena’s books Consciousness is a Catfish, and another was based on a graphical score with 16 symbols that I first created in 2010 but have revised and reused over the use. The newest version included a cartoon pigeon in honor of my bird-loving co-conspirator Melne.

The performance was well received. Crowds came and went throughout the evening, but many people stayed for extended periods of time to watch us, and others came back a few times. We played two hour-long sets, and in between I had a small amount of time to check out some of the other performs. In particular, I enjoyed hearing Kevin Robinson’s trio, with whom we shared our section of the space.

His spare group and arrangements with saxophone, upright bass, and drum, provided a distinct contrast to our thick sound. The moved between long drawn-out tones and fast runs with short notes that reverberated around the space in between. Robinson’s music often has a meditative quality, even when it is more energetic, so it fit well.

Around the corner from us was the Stanford Laptop Orchestra (SLOrk). They had a quiet set featuring performs seated on meditation cushions with laptops as well as various percussive objects as sound sources.

I was particularly inspired by Anne Hege and her Tape Machine, an instrument with a free-moving magnetic tape and several heads, pickups and tiny speakers. She sang into it at various points and moved the tape, created an instrumental piece that was part DIY-punk, part futuristic, and somehow quite traditional at the same time.

Her performance gave me ideas of a future installation, perhaps even to bring to the Garden of Memory in years to come…

Thea pulled double duty during the evening, also performing as part of a duo with Dean Santomieri, sharing a space with Pamela Z. Our friends Gino Robair and Tom Djll brought the duo Unpopular Electronics to one of the darker columbariums, and IMA (Nava Dunkelman and Amma Arteria) performed on the lower level. In retrospect, our group might have been better placed sharing a space with them, as we are both electronic groups (all women) with large dynamic range.

Overall, it was a wonderful experience, and with the opportunity to play as well as listen it’s my favorite to date. Thank you Sarah Cahill, Lucy Mattingly, and the rest of the crew at New Music Bay Area as well as the Chapel of the Chimes staff for letting us be a part of this event!

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.

Julius Caesar by Théâtre National de Bretagne

Today we look back at Théâtre National de Bretagne’s unusual production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. We at CatSynth had the opportunity to see it at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, California a couple of weeks ago.

It is a play we know well, having read the original and recently revisited Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s epic 1953 film version starring Marlon Brando, James Mason, and John Gielgud. In contrast to that version which places the play in a grand realization of ancient Rome with large sets and hundreds of extras, this production directed by Arthur Nauzyciel with set design Scott Zielinski, was abstract and spare: a mostly empty stage surrounded by a backdrop of empty theater seats. The cast was stripped down to a small set of players, some pulling multiple roles – both Portia and Calpurnia were played by Sara Kathryn Bakker, for example. Their costumes (by James Schuette) were inspired by the 1960s, as were the furniture. We see the characters as mostly upper-class individuals in suits and dresses in spare rooms with modernist furniture, something directly out of Mad Men. We first see Brutus (James Waterson), Cassius (Mark Montgomery), and Julius Caesar (Dylan Kyussman) in simple tuxedos, with Mark Antony (Daniel Pettrow) bounding in wearing an Adidas tracksuit – a nice touch that harkened back to Brando’s jockish first scene as Antony in the 1953 film. One cannot consider these things anachronistic, seeing as how the Shakespeare play in itself is an anachronism, with its mentioning of clocks, doublets, etc., not to leave out the fact that it was written and generally performed in English.  The drama is what is most important in the play, the interaction of the characters, and the mechanics of politics and public opinion. 

Theatre is fundamentally about illusion and representation.  Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, in older forms of theatre, minimalism accentuates the essence of what a dramatic piece is trying to convey.  All of the information is conveyed through the words and actions, with the dressing secondary.  As I believe it should be with Shakespeare.  So I felt the right tone was taken with the way the visual aspect was handled.

Sara Kathryn Bakker as Portia. Photo by Frédéric Nauczyciel.

Of course, the central element of such a play is the acting and interpretation of the text. Kyussman’s portrayal of Caesar brought the right mixture of pomp and gravitas to his character.  Waterson’s Brutus came across as conflicted in his feelings, ultimately choosing reason over loyalty. And Montgomery’s Cassius was a thoughtful but odd fellow. Bakker’s double-duty as Portia and Calpurnia was beautifully played but also served to highlight the overall lack of women characters in the play. Something I was ambivalent about was the decision to excise the scene with Cinna the Poet, and his being swept up by the angry mob and killed, having been confused with Cinna of the conspirators.  This scene is excised from many stage productions and most films of the play, for purposes of pacing, which is unfortunate.  I feel it is a crucial scene which shows the madness of crowds, the way opinio publica can be twisted by those who seek to further their own ends = “The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power”, indeed.

The lighting was also a major player in this production. For most of the early scenes, the stage was shrouded in a mixture of darkness and low lighting. It is only when we get to the Capitol and the chamber of the Senate that the lights become bright, drawing us to a very stylized and choreographed assassination of Caesar. This continues into the speeches of Brutus and Antony before changing again into an eerie fog-filled atmosphere for the war scenes of the final act.

The assassination of Caesar. Photo by Yann Peucat.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of this production was the use of a live jazz trio, who performed between acts, and occasionally between scenes. The musicians (Marianne Solivan on vocals, Dmitry Ishenko on bass, and Leandro Pelligrino on guitar) were all top-notch and performed extremely well.  But we were anticipating original music.  What was presented was a selection of standards.  In itself, this was not disappointing – and the joining in by Bakker as Portia and Montgomery as Cassius was fun.  However, the selection of pieces – which, lyrically, commented upon the action with a winking, postmodern irony – in some ways undercut the otherwise serious and austere quality of the production and interpretation of the play. After the scene between Brutus and Portia, we were given “You’ve Changed”.  In the entr’acte, we heard “Is That All There Is?”  I felt by the end of the performance, it had become something close to a parody.  

This sense that the music played against the other dimensions was highlighted in the final song-and-dance number, set to some recently recorded, faceless, autotuned pop song (I’m pretty sure it was a Lady Gaga song, but I can’t confirm). It really seemed to be negating much of what I feel is at the core of this play, very serious ideas about morality, duty, and civic responsibility.

This may be the director’s intention, I don’t know for sure, and I can’t say.  The director took many chances with the production and created a fairly unique take on a work which has been performed so many times, in different ways.  “How many ages hence shall this, our lofty scene, be acted over in states unborn and accents yet unknown”, indeed.

Overall we enjoyed the performance, the design, and the acting. And I like to see productions of Shakespeare’s plays take chances with new directions rather than simply redoing the same thing over and over again. But with any experiment, sometimes things work and sometimes things do not. The end result here was mixed and ambiguous. But perhaps that was the point.

[Jason Berry contributed to this review.]

Word Performances and The Nunnery

After a couple of months away from live performance, I found myself playing two shows in one weekend, both in the Mission District of San Francisco. They were an exercise in contrasts artistically, but both were delightful in different ways.

Word Performances is a “variety show” of poets, musicians, and dancers produced by Cybele Zufolo Siegel and Todd Siegel. The latest incarnation took place at the Lost Church, a favorite venue of mine for its cozy theater and visual vibe reminiscent of David Lynch.

Like any good variety show, it features a staple of regular players that includes both Cybele and Todd, but also Pitta of the Mind as a recurring act. There were of course new participants as well, especially among the poets. You can see a bit of everyone in our video from the evening.

As is clear from the short excerpts, there was a diversity of styles and subject-matter. There were the spartan settings of the readings by Rose Heredia, Jon Sindell, Crystal Jo Reiss, and William Taylor, Jr. Todd and Cybele also gave readings, but with violin accompaniment provided by Hannah Glass. And flamenco Dancer Damian Alvarez stole the show with his tightly choreographed dance to the music of James Brown.

For Pitta of the Mind – myself and poet Maw Shein Win – we performed a brand new set with new poems, and a new color theme of green. The instruments were the same as for our previous performances, combining the Nord Stage, Prophet 12, and modular synthesizers. The consistency in structure and instrumentation helps in our ability to quickly come up with a new set.

Other than my psychedelic lights not working as expected, it was a solid set overall, and we are always happy to be part of the Word Performances shows.


If Word Performances provided a diversity of styles and media, the show later that weekend was very focused on invented instruments, unusual sounds, and the birthday of our friend David Michalak. You can see a bit of everyone in our CatSynth TV video (with David giving the valedictory tag).

This was the first time I performed as a duo with Scott Looney, but I was quite happy with the results. We are both skilled improvisers and were able to blend our sounds and ideas together seamlessly, with my performing on an Arturia MiniBrute 2 and Scott on a custom string instrument with various preparations.

Our set as well as the one that followed us featuring Tom Nunn, David Michalak, and Aurora Josephson had a similar texture: a lot of wisps, scrapes, and staccato elements. It was interesting to see how much musically David could get out of a flat piece of cardboard! The opening set with Tom Nunn on skatchbox and Ron Heglin on voice also had a very pointed and sparse texture.

The final set featuring Ghost in the House had a softer, longer, and more liquidy quality. This time David Michalak was performing with a processed harmonica and lap steel guitar, with long tones matched by Polly Moller Springhorn on bass flute and Cindy Webster on musical saw – and this was no ordinary musical saw, it seemed built specifically for music.

Overall, it was a fun show, and of high quality musically. It’s a shame more people weren’t able to hear it live – it was a private event – but the video captures much of the experience in a compact form.

Codex Seraphinianus

We at CatSynth have been fascinated with the Codex Seraphinianus long before this beautiful edition made its way to CatSynth HQ.

The Codex is a masterpiece of book art by Italian artist, architect and industrial designer Luigi Serafini. It is an illustrated encyclopedia as a handwritten manuscript with hand-drawn color illustrations depicting a surreal imaginary universe of objects, creatures and concepts.

Most interesting of all, it is written in a completely invented script.

The script, consisting of squiggles and dots, sometimes detached and sometimes cursive, resemble a Western, Semitic or South Asian script, but one entirely of Serafini’s own imagination. It is easy to pick out repeated letters, such as the “E-like” character with one dot in its lower section; and curve-on-a-stem that appears to serve as a singular character in many portions of the first book.

Even without knowing the full meaning of the script or the illustrations, one can start to discern meaning. For example, on this page it is pretty clear that this creature tends to wilt (perhaps even suffer) in rain, but thrives in sunshine. (This is something I can sympathize with.)

Serafini himself has declared the writing in the Codex to be asemic, without a specific structure or meaning. And while I take him at his word, one cannot help but construct meaning from both the images and the writing. I have long been fascinated by other alphabets and writing systems and been able to find patterns (and even learn them to some degree) independent of the languages they represent. For example, I was able to learn a bit of the Tamil script when traveling in South India in my youth, though I never learned the sounds or the language. Similarly, I began to pick up Sinographic characters in my time in China but with no knowledge of how to pronounce most of them.

It is in this vein that I have begun to read the Codex from its start, treating it as a pure work of art with text and illustration as its medium. It’s actually a pleasurable and captivating experience to pour over the text and spot the patterns without being confined by the need for meaning. I made it through the first book (plants and anthropomorphic flora) and a bit into the second (animals). It is the fourth book (physics, chemistry) and the fifth (machines) that I most curious to “read” in depth, but I will take my time to get there.

NAMM 2019: Arturia MicroFreak (First Look)

One of the most talked-about releases at NAMM (at least within our circles) was the new MicroFreak from Arturia. So, of course, we at CatSynth had to check it out.

It is a unique-looking instrument. The panel is etched with a variety of iconography; and then there is the flat PCB in place of the traditional keyboard. No moving parts here. But it is quite expressive, including polyphonic aftertouch.

Beyond its looks and keyboard, the main feature of the MicroFreak is its digital oscillator. There are several different “types” for the oscillator, including wavetable, sampling, physical modeling, virtual analog, and something called “texturizer”. Within each there are selections for parameters labeled wave, timbre, and shape, that do different things in different types. These can be selected in real time via the knobs, and wave and timbre can also be destinations for modulation.

The digital oscillator followed in the signal chain by an analog filter, specifically an Oberheim SEM-style filter, which sounds quite good when the oscillator is set to a rich source. There also the usual array of modulators, including envelope (one-shot and cycled), LFO, and arpeggiator. The sequencer includes a bunch of compositional functions with cute names like “Spice” and “Dice” to help build and modify patterns, which then can be routed via the modulation matrix.

It is quite a powerful instrument, but attempting to play it was a bit intimidating at first. Unlike the MiniBrute (analog) or even the Sequential Prophet 12 (hybrid), the knobs weren’t quite as intuitive for someone used to a lot of subtractive or semi-modular synthesizers, especially the oscillator with its various modes and the composition functions. I suspect it was an easier first-experience for those who use beat and sample boxes like those from Elektron. Indeed, I was able to get more out of it by turning on the arpeggiator and then turning knobs. You can see a bit of my initial attempts in our recent video.

In order to really understand what this little beast has to offer, a deep dive in the studio would be required. We at CatSynth hope to be able to arrange that in the not-to-distant future, and will report back here and on CatSynth TV.