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.

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!

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.

Wordless Wednesday: Après Baschet

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.

Vacuum Tree Head and Moe Staiano Ensemble at The UPTOWN

Today we look back at the show featuring Vacuum Tree Head and the Moe Staiano Ensemble at The UPTOWN in Oakland. It was also the subject of our most recent episode of CatSynth TV. 

This was the most ambitious Vacuum Tree Head show to date, at least during the time I have been involved in the band.  There were ten musicians involved: Jason Berry conducting, Steve Adams (of ROVA fame) on baritone saxophone, Jason Bellenkes on various woodwinds, Amanda Chaudhary on keyboard, Richard Corny on guitar, Michael de la Cuesta on guitar and synth, Justin Markovits on drums, Joshua Marshall on saxophones, Amy X Neuburg on voice and blippo box, and John Shiurba on bass. 

Vacuum Tree Head.  Photo by Crystal Lee

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.

Moe Staiano Ensemble

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.

Club Foot Orchestra performs their Greatest Hits

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.

Outsound New Music Summit: Bobby Bradford’s Brass’n’Bass, KREation Ensemble with Marilyn Crispell

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).

Bobby Bradford
[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.

KREation Ensemble

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.

Kevin Robinson

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.

Marilyn Crispell

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.

 

 

Outsound New Music Summit: CDP and Dire Wolves

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”.

CDP at the Outsound New Music Summit

We had five tunes for this concert.  Three of them were from the series I call “the jingles”, including White WineNorth 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.

Amanda Chaudhary and Joshua Marshall, CDPWe 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.

Tom Djll's synth

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.

Dire Wolves

[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.

Jeffrey Alexander Sheila Bosco

[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.

Outsound New Music Summit: SO AR and X A M B U C A

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.

Shanna Sordahl
[Shanna Sordahl]

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.

Robert Lopez
[Robert Lopez]

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
[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.

 

Outsound New Music Summit: Tim Thompson and Pet the Tiger

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.

Tim Thompson Space Palette Pro

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.

Pet the Tiger

Peter Whitehead

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.