The Experimental Side of the Y2K-X Live Looping Festival

I have participated in the main Live Looping Festival in Santa Cruz in past years, but this is actually the first time I have attended the satellite event co-produced with Outsound at the Luggage Store Gallery. The performance, and the rest of the festival, took place in mid October.

The evening opened with a solo set by Chris Rainier on guitar. He began with some interesting and rather harsh sounds that through the looping processing grew into minor harmonies. On top of these loops, he layered more percussive, piano-like sounds and then a low bowed tone. The texture gradually got thicker, as often happens in looped music. The next layers of sound featured slide guitar effects reminiscent of old 1960s psychedelic recordings or old sci-fi sound tracks, and a harsh ebow sound that ultimately resolved to a consonance. Overall, Rainier’s performance had a quality reminiscent of a film or an old radio program – but without an overarching plot structure so one could easily get lost in the music (which is a good thing). He was also quite technically adept, switching quickly among several effects as well as guitar techniques.


[Chris Rainer. Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

The next set featured Krispen Hartung on guitar with Rent Romus on saxophone. The performance at first focused entirely on the pairing of the instruments acoustically (I sometimes count electric guitar as an “acoustic instrument”). Indeed the presence of the looping was very subtle at first. Romus’ saxophone runs matched and complemented Hartung’s atonal harmonies on the guitar. Then at times, the music switched into a more tonal and relaxed state reminiscent of older “cool jazz” performances. Here, the sampled loops become more apparent, as the jazz-like sounds were played back out of their original meter and sounding as if off in the distance. The music become quite intricate, with lots of percussive and staccato notes, and moving back and forth between extremely active and extremely sparse moments. The was a splattering of electronic sounds, but still mostly the original instruments, moving into more anxious dissonant harmonies before resolving back into more tonal jazz.


[Rent Romus and Krispen Hartung. Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

In addition to his own musical pursuits, Hartung runs the Boise Experimental Music Festival, which I should attend next time it comes around!

The final set featured Andreas Willers on guitar with guest collaborator Phillip Greenlief on saxophone. It interesting how all three sets featured guitar, and two of three featured guitar-and-saxophone duos (and for more symmetry, in each case it was an out-of-town guitarist paired with a local saxophonist). The set began with shaking and spinning strings, and a whistling sound. Greenlief entered by scraping a mouthpiece cover on the side of the side of his saxophone, and then blowing into the instrument itself without a mouthpiece. The sounds from the guitar were very soft, set against percussive wind sounds on the sax. The loops were quite short, and I did not notice them at first and then only as ambient sounds from the speakers. Gradually, the music become more intense, with lots of extended technique sounds on both instruments. Willers moved from playing the strings with objects to more standard but percussive guitar techniques, with a squeaking saxophone mouthpiece set against perfect forths. The next section had a very rhythmic, almost Flemenco, quality to it, followed by moments of unison between the two instruments where they seemed to stay together even through microtones.


[Andreas Willers and Phillip Greenlief. Photo: PeterBKaars.com]

The second piece began with Willers’ excellent virtuosic guitar playing against Greenlief’s performance whistle tones on the saxophone. This gave way to heavily distorted guitar set against microtonal saxophone notes. Through the looping process, subtle warbling tones were built up into a much larger and richer texture. Then, in the midst of a rather quiet section, Greenlief startled me (and several other audience members) with a rather loud POP! Indeed, the remainder of the piece was quite playful, with key effects and other techniques, and distortion guitar, all processed and represented via looping.

Storm Moon Concert

A little over a week ago, I attend the lastest in the Full Moon Concert series, the Storm Moon, at the Luggage Store Gallery. The Storm Moon concert was all about electric guitars, and featured two very different guitarists with their own interpretations of “gathering and releasing the storm.”

The first set featured guitarist Joshua Churchill in collaboration with filmmaker Paul Clipson. The music began with recorded samples, with changes in pitch and speed. The music in these samples formed a drone of minor chords, against which Churchill sprinkled metallic tones from the edge of the guitar. The overall effect was quite ethereal. With this sound as a backdrop, Clipson’s film began. The film was actually a Super 8mm film (i.e., not a video), which brings with it a certain image quality and style of editing that was does not often see in contemporary live music+visual performances. It started with simple geometric patters of light and shapes, notably rectangles and parallelograms that suggested office windows or overhead lighting. Against these emerging patterns, the music moved to guitar loops and longer tones set against the earlier metallic sounds. This gradually gave way to full chords and drones. Both the movie and the music become more intense, but the building blocks of guitar tones and shapes and light remained.

At one point, the film became entirely patterns of red and green, as the music continued to grow in intensity and fullness. There were sounds reminiscent of wave motion and some trills, but there remained overall a droning quality and a minor tonality. This gave way to beating patterns and a “loud wall of sound.”  As the film progressed, I began to notice more familiar objects and patterns, such as looking through a chain-link fence. As distinct images of urban lights and street scenes emerged, the music became louder, faster and nosier. I was then able to recognize familiar images from New York, the Chrysler Building and some of the bridges. At this point the music came to a loud and noisy climax after which the softer harmonies re-emerged and both the music and movie gradually came to a close.

This interplay of sound, light and image was followed by a solo performance by Peter Kolovos. We had heard his very dextrous and energetic style of performance during his set at last year’s Outsound Music Summit; he brought the same energy and technique to channel the peak of the storm moon’s energies on this particular evening. He began with short blips, scrapes and squeaks. The overall effect was staccato and percussive – quite the opposite of the previous set – and it was quite loud. Even as the notes grew longer, they remained percussive. Kolovos not only moved fast on the guitar itself, but also with his effects, quickly switching between effects such as heavy delays and distortions even within single notes. Gradually, the texture began to include sounds with longer duration, such as feedback and overdriven delay patterns. There were even some harmonic chords in there, though I quite liked his inharmonic sounds on the guitar, with or without effects. As the tones grew longer, the music felt even louder, feeling it more in my entire body than as sound. Then all of sudden, it became software, with percussion and a tone that reminded me more of analog synthesizers. Gradually things became louder again – in one section I heard what seemed like a standard rock chord progression – and then drew to a quick and decisive close.

Wordless Wednesday: Blue Rock

Weekend Cat Blogging and Photo Hunt: Electric

This weekend we at CatSynth sing the body electric (with apologies to Walt Whitman) and present another combined Weekend Cat Blogging and Photo Hunt.

Electricity and electronics are a central part of our existence:

Luna poses with an electric guitar, cables and our Mr. Echo delay pedal. Below we see Luna posing with another of our electronic devices, a Korg Kaos Pad:

Electricity permeates not only our music but art as well. Here we see a piece entitled Reflective by artist Roy Forest. It contains a red neon light running the length of bamboo tube.

For WCB, note the Suzhou cat and maneki neko on the shelf about the sculpture.

It’s interesting how there is a black and red theme throughout the images in this post. I only noticed that after completing it. It has a suggestion of fire to it, and fire and electricity have a strong connection.

More electricity. This morning, we were awakened by a large electrical storm with loud thunder and flashes of lightening. It’s a remarkable coincidence, as thunderstorms are quite rare in San Francisco. They lasted most of the morning, and some neighborhoods lost electricity. Our area was not affected by the outages, and in the end things just got a little damp.


Weekend Cat Blogging is hosted by our friends LB and Breadchick at The Sour Dough. We know they will appreciate the audio and music gear featured in this article.

Photo Hunt #178 at tnchick features the theme of electric, with the prototype image being an electric guitar.

Kashim, Othello and Salome are hosting the Carnival of the Cats this Sunday.

And of course the Friday Ark is at the modulator.

Containment Scenario: FUEL, Luggage Store Gallery

This performance, entitled FUEL, was part of the Containment Scenario performance series “which explores the current environmental situation through the lens of improvisational music-dance-theater.” This was the third part of a five-part series adopted from the book Containment Scenario: DisloInter MedTextId entCation: Horse Medicine by M. Mara-Ann, who also directed this performance.

This was a multimedia piece with voice, text, instruments, dance and reactive video (Luke Selden). It began with the vocal leads (M. Mara Ann and Sarah Elena Palmer) sitting down in the front of the stage with computer printouts, loudly ruffling and connecting them up with packing tape. As video of bucolic grass scenes and a close-up of a human are projected on the walls behind them (and onto their reflective white dresses), we hear their voices come in, speaking words disjointed and percussively. The voices gradually become more melodic, but all the while the “paperwork” continues. The other performs move slowly onto the stage, all wearing white shirts. As they take their positions, first the guitar (Noah Phillips), then the electronics (Travis Johns), then violin (Emily Packard) and percussion (Anantha R. Krishnan) all came in.

Musically the texture remained very gradual, interspersed with vocals, though the words became clearer and louder over time. This was aided by the fact that the text (presumably from the Containment Scenario source) became synchronously part of the music and the projected media. Text scrolling by on the right video projection was recited in various musical styles, harmonic, percussive, expressive, while the vocalists took turns typing their words into a laptop that would project onto the other screen, sometimes mixed with other videos. During this section, the instrumental music was much more sparse, often silent as the written and spoken words became the focus.

Later textual recitations returned from the video to the computer printouts. At times the words came out as whispers, sometimes more melodically, with the instrumentals returning into the mix. As the performers moved around the stage, there were dramatic visual moments where they became part of the video projection, their white shirts and dresses becoming screens on which the video was reflected and distorted and combined with the flat background.

The dancers (Julie Binkley and Rebecca Wilson) eventually took the printouts used for the back screen and began to wrap each of the musicians in a cocoon of paper. First Travis Johns on electronics was encased, then the each of the others in succession, eventually binding the two vocal leads into a bundle of their own printouts. The piece concluded with the dancers bringing out large number signs (I’m not sure what these were about), and handing them to the vocalists, after which the sounds and words gradually stopped.


The performance of Containment Scenario: FUEL was preceded by two fun sets of improvisational music.

The first set was by Drew Ceccato, playing an electronic valve instrument (EVI) by Steiner and an analog synth by Crumar – a beautiful and intriguing instrument. The set began with a low rumbling, which joined with “watery” sounds and pitch modulation expressively controlled by the EVI to create a subtle rhythm. Over time, this become louder, with wider pitch modulations, beating, percussive sounds before returning to the low rumbling. The music then changed completely for more traditional “analog sounds” with traditional pitched notes, like a conventional wind instrument, though with extremely high pitches at times. It was a very brief, and very intense set, without a moment wasted.

Ceccato was followed by a duo of Gino Robair and Christopher Riggs who was playing “guitar and a box of cool looking stuff”. Of course, Gino Robair had his collection of cool stuff as well, analog synthesizers along with metallic resonant objects and various means of exciting them. It started with a metallic roar, which I believe was created by Riggs’ rubbing the guitar strings. This was combined with the chaotic sound of the Blippo Box and other synths. The two performers appeared to come to an equilibrium of sorts, with sounds repeated and played off one another. Indeed, it was sometimes hard to tell who was playing what sound – and this is a good thing. Robair moved on from the synths to cymbals, with loud dramatic resonances set against the guitar rhythms. I heard a plaintive brass synth set against a more “chattery” guitar; a styrofoam instrument that was “insect-like” in both its appearance and sound; a funny voice vaguely like throat singing made with a tube and a coffee can; and more metal objects excited by motorized fans crawling along the floor. After a climx with angry resonances and a metal on metal thud, lots of motion, convulsing and fast scraping, the sounds faded out.


The turnout for this particular evening was quite impressive, it seemed that all the seats were filled, even the extra “kiddie seats” that the folks at the Luggage Store often put out.

Outsound Music Summit: Part 2

This is the second part of my report on the Outsound Music Summit, focusing on the first two concerts. For those who missed it, the first part described the Touch the Gear Expo on the Sunday before the formal concerts began.

The first concert, which was titled “Free Improvisation | Free Composition” began the way I often begin my own performances these days: with the ringing of a prayer bowl. This signified the start of Sacred Unit, the duo of Alicia Mangan on saxophones and the percussionist Spirit. Overall, this set consisted of free improvisation that blended avant-gard and more idiomatic jazz techniques with other folk and world traditions. I did find myself paying most attention to Spirit’s drumming and use of other elements for percussion, including his body and voice.


[click to enlarge]

The Rova Saxophone Quartet performed a new, set-length performance piece created especially for the Summit titled The Contours of the Glass Head. This is one of those pieces where it is difficult to tell where composition ends and improvisation begins. The group describes it as “the intersection of improvisation and composition, using improvisational games and strategies.” The members of the quartet demonstrated their powerful technical and musical skills as an ensemble and as four very strong players working together. At times one could focus on an individual solo or line from one performer, while at others the timbres and harmonies of the four saxophones seemed to act as one. As with some of the electronic performances the following night, there were sections of long drawn-out notes, and some very quiet subtle moments, which were interrupted by flurries of fast notes and punctuated phrases. Even if it was largely improvised, one could follow an imaged narrative to go along with the music.

Throughout the evening, I couldn’t help but notice the rather large wind instruments on the right side of the stage:


[click to enlarge]

In this photo, we see a bass saxophone, a tubax, and a contrabass flute. These were all instruments used by Vinny Golia in the final set of the evening. Golia performed solo and group Compositions for Woodwinds together with Thollem Mcdonas (piano), Damon Smith (bass), Rent Romus (saxophone, electronics), Garth Powell (percussion), and Noah Philips (guitar).


[click to enlarge]

The lively and energetic performances centered on free jazz , with free improvisation and interaction among the performers, but showcasing the unique aspects of each musician and instrument. In addition to Golia’s virtuosic performance wind instruments large and small, I also noticed prepared piano sounds from Mcdonas, and hard driving guitar and percussion from Philips and Powel, respectively, and Smith’s ever present and versatile bass.


The second program, “Industrial Soundscapes”, opened with Ferrara Brain Pan’s Form of Things Unknown. Long droning oscillators served as the foundation, on top of which he layered various shakers, bowls and other sounds, processed electronically. Ferrara Brain Pan is also an accomplished wind player, and incorporated bass clarinet into the set, which complemented the low-frequency oscillators. Sometimes they matched precisely, while other moments were as a counterpoint. Perhaps more than any of the other sets, this one matched my own current style of electronic music performance.


[click to enlarge]

Guitarist Peter Kolovos was introduced as having “surgical precision”. And it was an apt description. The staccato articulation of the guitar as well as the frequent changes of effects were very precise. There was never a moment where the sound was not changing, and changing quickly. At times it was quite loud and the effects quite heavy, but his dextrous performance was great to watch.

Conure focused on analog and digital noise, with lots of distortion, feedback, delays and lo-fi effects. There were sections of steady-state noise, but what most stood out were the moments with interesting transitions and glitches. I realized that Conure and I had crossed paths at an Outsound event last year.

Hans Fjellestad presented Slimspor Cosmonau, a short video with improvised electronic sound accompaniment. I actually wasn’t sure whether or not the music was scored out precisely to match the film, but I was assured by the artist that was entirely improvised, which is possible if one is intimately familiar with the visual material. The film appears as a computer screen, with controls around a central video area depicting lunar and astronomical images as well as biological and anatomical scenes.


[click to enlarge]

Late in the piece, I recognized a distinctive squeak that I thought might be a Metasonix effects box, and inspecting his setup after the performance confirmed that he did have one of these infamous boxes. Indeed, Fjellestad’s performance featured an eclectic mix of analog instruments – fitting for creator of the 2004 documentary MOOG.

Thomas Dimuzio concluded the program with his complex electronics and timbrally rich and evolving soundscape. Dimuzio uses a variety of technologies, including live sampling and looping, feedback and modulated effects. The piece started quite simply with a relatively harmonic chord, and the overall effect was very calm but also metallic. Then a swell, and metal resonances. The overall motion of the set was very slow, a strong contrast to Kolovos’ set earlier in the evening. This is not to say that there weren’t discrete textures and details within the music, but it was more like the details one would focus on while examining a natural scene, or perhaps the industrial urban landscapes where I enjoy walking. With it’s gradual place and close, this was an apt conclusion to the “industrial soundscapes” evening.

Blessing Moon – July 9, 2009

The past Thursday was the latest in the Full Moon Concert Series at the Luggage Store Gallery, curated by Polly Moller. This month’s theme was Blessing Moon.

The first set was by a new all-improv trio Free Rein. The group focuses on “Earth music for space people” and includes reeds/flutes, Danelectro 6 string bass, percussion,voice, cymbal, keyboard and theremin.


[Photograph by Jennifer Chu. Click to enlarge.]

Musically, the set began with microtones and synchronicity among the flute, theremin and another wind instrument. Melodic elements were sometimes present, performed on one of the flutes or the theremin. Other elements that stood out included the bowed cymbal, which blended with the other instruments in drones, a bird-like slide whistle against a saxophone, and undulating tones and the formation of harmonies between the percussion and low-frequency modulation. This fit with their statement of “spontaneously collaborating with the Moon, sculpting a sound that reflects back to Earth, playing tones that wax and wane through vibration, harmonic bodies phase shifting.”

The second set was performed by Valka, featuring Agnes Szelag and Marielle Jakobson (who have also collaborated as myrmyr) with guest Noah Phillips on guitar. Szelag was performing with an electric cello, Jakobson on violin, and all three performers together had an impressive array of pedals arranged centrally between the string instruments:


[click to enlarge]

From the program notes, “Valka’s Blessing Moon rituals are inspired by ripe dreams and the balance between dark and light.” This includes drones, effects, lots of long tones and big masses of sound, with a mixture of harmonicity and noise. I did focus on slow bends and other gradual changes of tone through the performance. The first piece did end on a dramatic note, with a rather loud insect-like sound that seemed to have taken the musicians by surprise.

and plays a molecular synthesizer

“Tuesday at Tom’s” is a series of performances in a private home in Berkeley. This past Tuesday I had the opportunity to perform along with other small groups whose performances all took advantage of this informal and intimate setting.

Polly Moller and I performed the “Ode to Steengo.” The piece was originally inspired by spam texts that were forward to the Bay Area New Music list that seemed to describe the adventures of a musician named Steengo – “he is a percussionist and plays a molecular synthesizer.” The texts include a mixture of dialog about a band performing together, and sci-fi and surreal images.


[Photograph by Jennifer Chu. Click to enlarge.]

The performance included live electronic processing of spoken word as well as flute, bells and heatsinks. In addition to looping and effects, I also used a Korg Kaos pad, which has become one of my most reliable live-performance tools, to represent the “molecular synthesizer” as well as other interpretations of phrases in the text.


[Photographs by Jennifer Chu. Click to enlarge.]

The performance was well received , and I did get to hear part of it in videos. The balance and interplay between the synthesizer notes, spoken word, and instruments was very tight – once again practicing does pay off.

We were preceded on the program by New York-based guitarist and sound artist Terrence McManus.


[click to enlarge]

Although his performance centered around the guitar, the instrument served as part of a system for generating abstract sounds with electrical and electronic effects. Musically, the sound ranged from quite noisy to very harmonic and serene, often with gradual shifts. There were sections where McManus did pick up the guitar and play it like a traditional guitar, with delays and other effects; he also at one point used a cell phone in conjunction with the guitar.

Following us was the duo of Johannes Bergmark and Tippi. Bergmark’s homemade instruments are always intriguing, a mixture of found objects, sculpted creations of wood and metal, and contact mic:


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By contrast, Tippi’s contribution focused on electronics, including circuit-bent instruments and hardware synthesizers (such as the Nord Micromodular):

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Musically, the combination was an intense mixture of sound objects and textures, with lots of strikes and crackles, rich metalic sounds, static and synthesizer noise, and toy sounds. I mostly focused on Bergmark’s performance and his motions with the various toys and appliances and metal constructions.

The final set was the trio RTD3, consisting of Ron Heglin, Tom Nunn and Doug Carrol performing free improvisation.


[click to enlarge]

I found myself focusing quite a a bit on Nunn’s custom electronic instruments, two of which looked like boxes with interesting controls on top, and the third was a series of live metal rods that could be struck or bowed; and Carrol’s rather unusual and theatrical positioning of his cello in some sections. Although there was an electronic component, the music itself sounded “acoustic”, as it was dominated by cello, and Heglin’s trombone (and occasional vocal) performance.

Cat-Guitar pic with Luna

Cables have an annoying tendency to multiply. Luna seems oblivious to them.

Something that a few of our friends (including Mr Echo) might appreciate: the red pedal in front is an SIB Mr Echo.

I am planning to use analog effects pedals in my upcoming performances this month. And I am using some extended-techniques on the guitar as sound material (I don’t plan to play it live).



Guitars at Cafe Du Nord

With a bit of quiet here at CatSynth over the next few days, I can finally catch up on the many reviews and other articles waiting in the queue. And the show at Cafe du Nord a week ago is one I definitely wanted to review, as it falls in the “I’m really glad I went” category.

First, it was the main new-music show I could find the Monday after July 4. It was just a coincidence that it was the “night of guitars,” so to speak. But an impressive array of guitar talent, with Nels Cline, Jeff Parker and Jim Campilongo. Musically, I was more interested the Scott Amendola Band, which included Cline and Parker. They moved back and forth being grooves and more free-form pieces, which for me is a good mix for “club music.” The Campilongo Electric Trio was a bit more conventional, with more of a jazz and country feel in some pieces. But Campilongo did come out to play with the Scott Amendola Band as well. Yes, three virtuosic guitarists all at once.

I also ran into some folks I had recently met at Blue Six. We had talked quite a bit about making music, but didn’t exchange contact info. Quite the coincidence to run into them again so soon at Cafe du Nord. This time we made sure to stay in touch afterwards…