One of Martí Ruiz’s sonic inventions from his current exhibition at the Center for New Music in San Francisco. Please check out our recent CatSynth TV episode to see and hear more.
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
The band delivered an impressive and truly dynamic performance, going through a diverse mix of styles from our current repertoire. And that fact that the core of the lineup has stabilized means that the tunes are always getting tighter and more idiomatic, especially our “big” numbers Nubdug and EMS Deluxe – I always have a lot of fun in the latter with a big 1970s style electric-piano solo. But this set was more than just music – it continued the band’s pattern of adding new spectacle at each show. This time, we had a juggler, Colin Hogan, and my friend and frequent collaborator Serena Toxicat held up signs for audience participation. The juggling was a unique moment, with Hogan tossing lighted beanbags and other objects as we played a new version of the tune Marlon Brando
Overall, I had a wonderful time playing, as I’m pretty sure the entire band did. And we got a great response from the audience at The UPTOWN. Next, it was time for the Moe Staiano Ensemble to take the stage.
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.
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.
For the final night of the Outsound New Music Summit, we invited two jazz legends to collaborate with noted local musicians. Each of them has performed and recorded with a whos-who of jazz in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Sometimes such collaborations can go awry in practice, but we at CatSynth are happy to say that both were a resounding success.
Bobby Bradford has had a long career as cornet player and composer who enjoyed long collaborations with the likes of Ornette Coleman and John Carter. He has taught multiple generations of musicians, including Bill Noertker, who invited Bradford to lead a project for this year’s summit. The cornetist and bassist teamed up with cornetist Theo Padouvas and bassist Scott Walton to form Bobby Bradford’s Brass’n’Bass.
[Photo by Michael Zelner]
The performance focused on Bradford’s compositions, but as in any good jazz setting, each of the musicians brought their own creativity to the set. The instrumentation makes for a sparse texture, with each member of the group having to perform multiple duties on melody, harmony, and rhythm. But the result is an unusual sound. Bradford’s cornet led the way, with Padouvas filling in some of the space with fast runs and other sounds. Noertker and Walton took turns on the rhythm at times but also worked together as a unit. They also doubled as additional melodic instruments in the group. One memorable moment featured Noertker playing long bowed harmonics atop Walton’s back-and-forth plucked bass notes. There was a ballad with Bradford and Padouvas playing nearly the same line what seemed like a different scale and harmony to the basses, resulting in a very haunting effect. Another faster tune was reminiscent of Ornette Coleman in the 1960s (i.e., before the Prime Time era).
[Photo by Michael Zelner]
As Bradford is perhaps best known as a sideman and a teacher, it was great to see him lead the band with his own music on this occasion. The group did end with a more open improvisation, which Bradford himself admitted he wasn’t sure how it was going to turn out. It was short and sweet, with the musicians bouncing off one another but not overstaying their moments. Overall, I thought this group had a fine debut, and it will be interesting to see if they play together again, perhaps in Bradford’s home turf of Southern California.
The second set brought together pianist Marilyn Crispell with Kevin Robinson’s KREation Ensemble that also included Lee Hodel on bass and Tony Gennaro on percussion.
On the surface, this coming together would seem to be a more traditional jazz quartet, but Gennaro had an unusual percussion kit with a variety of hand drums, bells, and more. Indeed, there were times it seemed all four musicians were playing melody lines. And there was a lot of open space, with Robinson’s meditative poses acting as a fifth instrument.
Robinson has a very sparse, detailed and contemplative style of playing, even when he was playing faster sections. This contrasted with Crispell’s frenetic runs on the piano. Hodel was able to match her with percussive notes on the bass. I really liked the way the two of them interplayed. I found myself re-focusing throughout on Crispell to see what she would do next. There was something clever, even mischievous, about her playing, even when it was darker long chords.
The ever-changing style and energy throughout the set make sense in the context of the work being premiered. As stated in the program, “Through the Twisting Prisms is a collection of intervallic, rhythmic, harmonic labyrinths and mazes that explore ideas convergence, expansion, contraction, and meditation.”
Together, the two sets made a fine conclusion to this year’s Outsound Summit. And we had a full house at the Community Music Center, even in the balcony. We finish exhausted but satisfied at a job well done and a great week of music brought to life.
While I thoroughly enjoyed every night of this year’s Outsound New Music Summit, last Friday was special because I was on stage with my own band CDP. We shared the bill with Dire Wolves for a night of contrasting retro styles within the context of new and experimental music.
I often get asked what “CDP” stands for. And while it does stand on its own as a name, it does come from the initials of the original three members: Chaudhary, Djll, Pino. That’s me on keyboard and vocoder, Tom Djll (synthesizers), and Mark Pino (drums). Joshua Marshall joined the band in 2017, bringing his technical chops and versatility on tenor and soprano saxophone. As a road-and-map geek, it also stands for “Census Designated Place”.
We had five tunes for this concert. Three of them were from the series I call “the jingles”, including White Wine, North Berkeley BART, and our newest song, Rambutan (it’s a fruit from Southeast Asia). Marlon Brando and Konflict Mensch rounded out the set. Each featured a melodic and harmonic head followed by open improvisation – no fixed solos, even listens to one another and comes in and out. Our style is a blend of funk, fusion and experimental music reminiscent of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi and Head Hunters bands or Soft Machine 5 & 6, with a bit of 1970s Frank Zappa / George Duke mixed in. The music is a joy to play and I’m so glad to be able to be on a stage playing it.
We got off to a somewhat shaky start with White Wine, but we settled down quickly as we headed into the improvisation section. From that point on, things only got better with Marlon Brando and North Berkeley BART (which is always a local crowd pleaser). Rambutan was a lot of fun, including the funky 7/4 jam and the call-and-response chant with the audience. Mark held up the metric foundation, working with both me and Tom who took turns on the bass roll. Tom also got some great sounds in his solos, as did Josh who moved easily between growls and mellifluous melodic runs.
The vocoder, a Roland VP-03, held up pretty well – in some ways, I felt the scatting went even better than the lyrics – though there is still work to do keeping the voice intelligible in the context of the full band. I was exhausted and satisfied after the set, and look forward to doing more with our band.
You can read Mark Pino’s perspective on the set on his blog.
For the second set, Dire Wolves brought a completely different energy to the stage. Where CDP was exuberant and even frenetic at times, Dire Wolves welcomed the audience with a mellow and inviting psychedelic sound.
[Photo by Michael Zelner]
There was a sparseness to the music, with Jeffrey Alexander (guitar + winds), Sheila Bosco (drums), Brian Lucas (bass) and Arjun Mendiratta (violin) each staking claim to a distinct orchestral space within the soundscape. Alexander and Mendiratta had lines that melted seamlessly from one to the next; Brian Lucas’ bass was sometimes melodic. Bosco’s drums provided a solid foundation, but she also contributed voice and other sounds to the mix.
[Photos by Michael Zelner]
My mind was still processing the set we had just played, but the trance-like qualities of Dire Wolves provided a space for a soft landing and to return to a bit of balance. Sadly, it seems this was the band’s last performance for a while, at least with the current lineup. But I look forward to hearing more from each of these musicians in their other projects.
Both groups played to a decently sized and very appreciative audience – not the capacity crowds of the previous or following nights, but respectable. And I got quite a bit of positive feedback from audience members after our set. We still have one more night of the summit to cover, and then it’s onward to future events.
The Outsound New Music Summit continued on Wednesday with a night featuring explorations of electroacoustics and noise. Once again, the two acts were quite contrasting in their interpretations of the night’s theme.
SO AR (formerly Ze Bib) is the collaboration of electronic musician and cellist Shanna Sordahl and percussionist Robert Lopez. We had the chance to meet with them ahead of the summit and shared our encounter in this video:
The set unfolded as a series of conversations between Sordahl – first on cello alone and then with electronics – and Lopez. The ups and downs in the pitches, rhythms, and intensities seemed to imply spoken language at times. This was especially true during the more staccato and percussive sections at the beginning and end of the set.
The long tone sections brought in more of the electronics – Sordahl’s rig featured a Korg MS-20 and iPad. The percussion once again seemed to match the longer tones, with extended rolls, long drum tones, and additional percussion. But there were also moments where the texture diverged, between long electronic tones and rhythmic percussion runs.
Even at its most intense, there was a quiet quality to the music that seemed fit with the starkness of their stage presence and the darkened hall. Even at low volume, the moments of silence stood out, with a bit of tension in the air. Space and breath are an important part of how the duo approaches their music, and this comes out strongest in the quietest sections.
X A M B U C A is a solo electronic project by Chandra Shukla. We had the opportunity to first see him perform last year with Hans-Joachim Roedellius at The Chapel in San Francisco; we were glad to see him join the lineup for this year’s Summit.
[X A M B U C A]
On a completely darkened stage, X A M B U C A delivered a set that was simultaneously rich and minimalist. There were segments of long drones cut with high-pitched sweeps, and sections of fast drum-machine runs. The styles of various sections (which segued from one to the next continuously) included fragmented dance-music patterns, elements of rock, and noise. It is, of course, hard for me not to consider electronic music without also considering the instruments used.
Shukla’s rig was anchored by an Elektron Analog Keys, along with a Korg Electribe, a Stylophone, and sundry pedals. Looking at these instruments, I can better understand how he was able to move so freely from drum patterns and hits to long tones and dense pads to distortion and noise. It was quite a dynamic performance, showing the more “experimental side” of X A M B U C A compared to what we had experienced previously.
It was a solid night, and perhaps the most “out” of the Outsound Summit shows this year, as subsequent nights embraced more idiomatic forms of musical expression. We hope to bring you those reviews over the next few days.
Musical innovation can arise from pushing the boundaries of traditional musical instruments or inventing entirely new instruments. The opening concert of the 2018 Outsound New Music Summit featured two groups whose work falls squarely in the latter category.
Tim Thompson is a longtime innovator in the space of expressive control of music using custom hardware and software. His latest creation is the Space Palette Pro, a panel with four highly sensitive touchpads that control sound and visuals via MIDI. You can hear Tim’s explanation of his invention in this video:
The Space Palette Pro is an evolutionary step from the original Space Palette, which allowed users to move their hands through holes in a large panel to drive music and visuals via a Kinect motion sensor. The newer incarnation is smaller in size and replaces the space with pads, but in many ways uses the same principles of three-dimension gestural control. Indeed, much of the software from the original was repurposed for the new version. But the Pro is definitely more of a performance instrument, rather than a “casual instrument”, as Thompson explained both in the video and at the concert.
Musically, his performance was a series of several movements that segued from one to the next. Each had its own sonic and visual palette which Thompson performed in real time. So in a sense, this was an improvised performance, but one that was constrained by the sound, visuals, and patterns in each section.
The first section was soft with spare graphics, while the second was more pointed and percussive with geometric shapes. Further movements featured lush timbres and graphics, and popular-music idioms with synthesizers and electronic drums. Many of the segments were “quantized” to fixed scales and harmonies (as well as rhythms), though Thompson could introduce new pitches and scales into the mix using a MIDI keyboard, along for more melodic and harmonic variety.
The focus during the performance was squarely on the screen and the live visuals. These were beautiful and captivating. I would have liked to be able to see more of the performer and the instrument as well, as it was for me an important part of the set.
The second set brought us (mostly) out of the electronic world and back into the realm of acoustic musical instruments, albeit instruments of unique design. Pet the Tiger is a Bay Area collective of musical instrument inventors. Their recent work has centered around a set of instruments that use strict harmonic-series tuning. Together the instruments and musicians comprise a “harmonic-series gamelan.” You can see a demonstration of some of their instruments in this video.
The music is anchored by the harmonic compass, a set of metallophones designed and built by Stephen Parris and commissioned by group director David Samas. However, there were a wide variety of instruments, including string and wind instruments by Bart Hopkin and Peter Whitehead, and even a series of meticulously tuned loose plastic tubes.
For this concert, the ensemble performed an interpretation of the fairies’ subplot of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which includes many of the plays most memorable lines (including Puck’s final soliloquy). The text was subdivided into several songs, and they were indeed songs with melody and harmony, albeit in the slightly alien world of the harmonic series, which can be simultaneously soothing and anticipatory at the same time – it always feels like it is waiting to go to the next note. The songs were in a variety of styles and alternately song by Samas, Hopkin, and Whitehead. The instruments and their playing gets most of the attention, but I think the singing deserves praise as well. All three have great singing voices, and working in an alternate tuning is no small feat. I was particularly impressed with Bart Hopkin’s return to his songwriting roots, singing against a harmonically tuned guitar of his own making. And David Samas’ voice is always rich and sonorous. I have known this group and its members for several years now, and I have watched not only the instruments grow in precision and sophistication, but also musicianship in putting together an entire performance like this. The audience were very clear in their appreciation and approval as well.
In all, it was a beautiful night of music and instrumental innovation. We conclude with an exchange that occurred during the pre-show question-and-answer session when Outsound director Rent Romus asked the performers “why bother with the complexity of creating entirely new instruments?” I found Bart Hopkin’s answer quite memorable.
There are a lot of reasons to stick with conventional instruments. You could write a pretty convincing paper on why to stick with convention instruments including ones you might not normally think of…When you work with conventional instruments and you write for it, you can simply hand someone the score because there are trained musicians who can keep one eye on the score, one eye on the conductor, and “another eye” playing the instrument. They don’t have to look at their hands. There are a million advantages you wouldn’t even think of to working with conventional instruments. BUT, you know, with unconventional instruments you find musical territory you probably wouldn’t have found otherwise. And that really makes it worthwhile.
We at CatSynth agree and look forward to more unconventional musical territory in the future.
We are just a few weeks away from the 2018 Outsound New Music Summit! And as always, we kick off the countdown with the annual benefit dinner featuring live creative music by local artists. This year we were pleased to have Actual Trio perform.
Actual Trio is led by composer and virtuoso guitarist John Schott and features John Hanes on drums and Dan Seamans on upright bass. To simply label them as a “contemporary jazz trio” would be a disservice to all three musicians, who bring a wide range of compositional and performance experiences to this group. Their music ranges from laid-back grooves to fast frenetic runs to sparse percussive punctuated passages. Overall, they delivered a highly dynamic performance that was well received by all in attendance. You can hear a bit of it in our recent CatSynth TV video.
As Schott states in the video, there is something special about the trio format. Trios are three-legged stools which depend on the contributions of each member and their ability to listen and perform together. But it is still relatively sparse and spare compared to larger ensembles. Actual Trio has a very small toolset of drums, bass and guitar (although Schott brought quite a few bits of vintage and modern electronics along as well). But they get a lot out of what they have. Schott and Hanes function together as a rhythmic and melodic unit, and they seemed to be able to finish each others lines, whether fast runs or vamps. Seamans brought a melodic sensibility to his bass performance even while providing a solid foundation for the music. And they were just fun to watch and listen to.
The Outsound Benefit Dinner is a “thank you” of sorts to our core supporters in the community – an instance of the time-honored tradition of plying supporters and donors with food, drink and entertainment. All in attendance enjoyed the performance by Actual Trio and the food provided by Slippery Fish Catering. But this year, Outsound owes an even greater debt of gratitude to its individual donors and supporters as grants for small arts and music groups becomes even harder to come by than it has in the past. But we are looking forward to another excellent summit this year. Please visit the website for tickets and to find out more about the shows, which take place at the Community Music Center in San Francisco from July 22 through July 28, 2018.
It’s been a little while since we last attended Church of Thee Super Serge at Robotspeak in San Francisco, but we made a point of going this past weekend. For those who have not been there or read our past reviews, it’s an almost-ever-month show on a Saturday afternoon with live hardware-synthesizer performances. As the name suggests, some acts do include Serge synthesizers, but it is not required, and a wide variety of instruments are used. All three sets are featured in our most recent CatSynth TV episode.
The first set featured Lx Rudis performing on an Oberheim Xpander, a somewhat underappreciated instrument from the 1980s.
At its heart, the Xpander is a 6 voice analog synthesizer, but with a complex array of digital controls that can be programmed and applied independently to each voice. Lx Rudis took full advantage of these, especially the LFOs and lag generators, to create subtle and minimal metric patterns. He constantly moved voices in and out, configuring them on the fly, in a way that was very expressive and musical. I particularly liked the sections which had staccato rhythmic textures against slowly moving timbres deliberately out of sync with one another.
Next up was Franck Martin, who performed a solo set on a modular synthesizer with several standalone instruments.
Martin’s setup included a Moog Subharmonicon, which he built while attending Moogfest this year (we at CatSynth are a bit envious), as well as a DFAM (Drummer From Another Mother). There were also additional voices provided by Braids and Plaits modules from Mutable Instruments that he could bring in and out using a touch-plate interface. The result was a slowly changing beat pattern with an eerie inharmonic voicing and gentle undulation.
The final set featured our friends Gino Robair and Tom Djll teaming up as the brilliantly named Unpopular Electronics.
They had a wide variety of gear, including Serge panels in addition to Eurorack modules and standalone instruments from Bugbrand and others. In addition, Gino had an interesting small case that included touchpads.
The music was frenetic and intense, an avalanche of pops and hits and loud cloudlike tone clusters. And there were trumpet sounds entering into the mix at various points. But there was an exquisite detail to the madness with changes among the different instruments and sounds, and musical pauses and rests before the pair dived back into the frenzy. There were also many moments of humor and not just Djll’s book about why there aren’t any Zeppelin-style airships in the United States.
In between sets, it’s fun to browse around Robotspeak and see what’s for sale, or on display in the big glass case.
It’s also quite dangerous, as I am often tempted to leave with another module or instrument. On this occasion, I exercised restraint, but probably not next time…
A couple of weeks ago we saw a fun and intriguing performance by Denny Denny Breakfast at the Luggage Store Gallery in San Francisco. It was the subject of a recent CatSynth TV.
Denny Denny Breakfast is an ensemble project led by Robert Woods-LaDue. The personnel changes per event, but on this occasion, it included Sarah Dionne Woods-LaDue (dance), Mark Clifford (vibraphone), Crystal Pascucci (cell0), Jordan Glenn (drums), David Young (keyboard), Max Judelson (upright bass), and Rent Romus (alto saxophone). They had recorded an album together in December 2017 and the mix of improvisations and noted sections informed the live performance at the Luggage Store.
Several of the parts were improvised once again, but others were relatively fixed, including the final piece that was a note-for-note transcription of an improvisation from the recording sessions. There was also a piece originally conceived while the group was playing in the Finnish Hall in Berkeley but did not make it onto the album. It was a simple concept of repeated patterns slowly changing in speed between two groups of performs, creating a phase pattern in the acoustic space. The Finnish Hall has very unique acoustics, and so does the third floor of the Luggage Store Gallery, making it an ideal location to recreate the piece. Throughout there was a large variation in the music between pieces, ranging from melodic and theatrical to noisy and percussive, to minimal with large amounts of empty space. Each of these styles and textures left room for the dancers Sarah and Robert Woods-LaDue to be front and center.
We were happy to have been introduced to Woods-LaDue’s work, and are enjoying his recordings as well. There is a wide variation in style among the different albums, but that will be a topic for another review in the not-too-distant future.