As we busily prepare for the next Vacuum Tree Head show this coming Tuesday, I find myself looking back at my last show with a very different band, Manul Override earlier this month at the Make-Out Room in San Francisco. It was the subject of a recent CatSynth TV episode.
The evening began with an improvised set featuring saxophonist David Pate with keyboardist Steve Cohn.
Then it was time for Manul Override’s debut show. This was a new group I put together with my friend and collaborator Serena Toxicat on voice and former Surplus-1980 bandmate Melne on guitar.
We had a lot of fun on stage, and the energy spread to the audience, with dancing and meowing all around (all of our tunes had at least some connection to cats). I was particularly happy with the opening incantation, which featured a French rendition of Serena’s ode to the goddess Bast, and our 1980s-pop-style tune “Goodnigobbles”, which also featured Serena seductively delivering lyrics and spoken words in French. Melne had a chance to show her versatility throughout the set, including our extended funky jam in the middle of the set. As with all new musical projects, this is a work in progress, figuring out what works for us and what doesn’t, and how to make each show better than the previous one. But it was also fun visually, with our fashion statements, cat ears, and Melne’s lighting.
The final set featured Ornettology, a project led by guitarist and composer Myles Boisen. As the name suggests, the group is inspired by the music of Ornette Coleman, and reimagines many of his compositions. He was joined by a stellar cast of local musicians including Steve Adams and Phillip Greenlief on saxophones, John Haines on drums, Safa Shokrai on bass, and JohnFinkbeiner.
The band delivered a truly dynamic performance that featured some of Ornette Coleman’s more familiar tunes, including “Ramblin'” and “Mob Job” There were some great solos from each of the members of the group as well. You can hear some of Philip Greenlief and Myles Boisen soloing in our video.
The last few shows I have played at the Make-Out room always have a great audience – full houses that seem to appreciate having live music, whether they came to hear the specific artists or just happened to drop by. A few in the latter category seemed to quite enjoy our Manul-Override set, signing Serena’s leg cast (she had an unfortunate accident a couple of weeks before the show) and taking selfies with us. It was a fun night of music all aroundl.
We at CatSynth have been extraordinarily busy since the start of summer with work, music, and other obligations. As a result, our explorations of visual art have suffered a bit. But we start correcting that today with a report from the blockbuster René Magritte: The FifthSeason exhibition at SFMOMA. I’m glad I was able to get in to see it before it closes in two weeks!
The exhibition focuses on his later works, from World War II through the late 1960s. It is billed as “If you think you know Magritte (1898–1967), think again.” Yet, this period includes many of his most iconic works – other than perhaps his most famous La Trahison des images (aka “this is not a pipe”), including many of my favorites from the broader Magritte retrospective I had seen at SFMOMA in the early 2000s.
The work depicted above, Les valeurs personnelles, is perhaps my favorite of all. I find myself drawn to it not just because of the stark juxtaposition of larger-than-human-sized objects in a smaller-than-human-sized space, but for the various textures that defy painting. The objects themselves have the hyperrealistic sheen of graphics from the 1990s (we were all proud of our ability to render glass) with the more pedestrian room space and strangely realistic sky on the wall. These are the characteristics of many of Magritte’s pieces during his Hypertrophy period in the 1950s. It’s taken to an extreme in a piece that features one of his iconic green apples swelling to gargantuan proportions and pushing against the walls of a modest room.
And of course, there were many bowler-hatted gentlemen, some with green apples, some without.
The image of the bowler hat and the bowler-hatted man has appeared throughout Magritte’s career, but it was more closely associated with the artist himself in his later works, a form of self-portraiture.
In addition to the green apple, we see many objects and concepts that appear in other works from this period applied to the bowler-hatted man, such as the small round stone, birds, and negative spaces.
In both sets of works, we see the discrete juxtaposition of elements that may or may not fit with real-life experience. I see this is as “quintessentially Magritte” and consistent throughout most of his career. In that sense, I disagree a bit with the thesis of the exhibition that this later period was a break with surrealism, but rather a reimagining of it with different subjects and techniques and without the heaviness of the movement’s manifesto. If there was one section of the exhibit that truly represented a break from what I know of the artist, it was the first section that featured his vache period immediately following World War II.
I would never have guessed these grotesque parodies of van-Gogh-style impressionism were his work if they were not presented and explained. At the same time, it is not surprising that the experience of the war (Magritte remained in his native Belgium during the Nazi occupation). It feels like his weakest and least memorable work, but one theory suggests that his retrograde style during this period helped avoid Nazi attention and persecution. We are certainly glad he returned to form in his later years.
One of late series, collectively called The Dominion ofLight, brings together a nighttime city streetscape with a daytime sky.
It takes a moment of adjustment to realize the confounding of night and day in the image, as our eyes are so used to assumptions about the passing of time and light. The series is at once playful, but also a bit melancholy, pointing to the later years of a life and life’s work. Fortunately, there was one more chapter to come that was both more curious and more uplifting.
This bizarre series of boulders floating in space or sitting isolated on an apartment terrace is a return to form, but also an exploration of time and gravity and even more fundamental assumptions that we make in everyday life. Their lightness and starkness also make an interesting statement at the end of a career that spanned several decades and saw the massive changes of the 20th century. We should note that the bowler-hat portraits featured in this article were done during the same late period, and are stronger both as works in themselves and as a career-spanning statement.
The exhibit was overall a delight to experience. It was hung in a minimalist but also warm style without too much crowding or overwhelm, and it weaved a narrative even as I took in the works as individuals. It also marked a return a place of solace, the museum, after a long period of intensity and focus on other practices. I won’t stay away as long again.
Even as Septembers and Octobers go in San Francisco, this one has been crazy, careening between rehearsals and performances for various projects, growing in a new job, and dreading whatever new political development occurs. So our recent outing to hear SF Symphony perform the music of Igor Stravinsky was a bit of a respite. It was part of a two week-festival celebrating the music of Stravinsky that included not only the “big three” (The Firebird, Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring) but other less-frequently performed works. We were there for the night featuring The Firebird and enjoyed the bar’s special Firebird martini in celebration.
The Firebird, the first the “big three,” premiered in 1910 and while was considered avant-garde by some in Paris, it’s a very accessible work that draws more from 19th-century romanticism than from the innovations of the time. For us at CatSynth, this is about as conservative as our live music gets. But it is nonetheless an adventurous piece and very richly textured, especially in its focus on brass and wind instruments. As it was performed without staging, it was easier to concentrate entirely on the music. The early “Prince Ivan” sections had phrases and idioms that foreshadowed L’Histoire du soldat(The Soldier’sTale); then there is that iconic ending with the slow big chords.
If anything, it was the opening performance of Perséphone that was more unique an exciting. It far less often that Stravinsky’s other large-scale works, and it is complex to stage. For this performance, the symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas was joined by the great Leslie Caron as the narrator and Persephone, Nicholas Phan on tenor as Eumolpus and other characters, as well as San Francisco Symphony Chorus, San Francisco GirlsChorus, and the Pacific Boychoir.
Despite the massive number of performers between the orchestra and the choruses, Perséphone has a sparse and more minimal texture than The Firebird or the other big ballets. It also has a very deliberate and punctuated quality, with each note and each syllable of the text standing alone. It does have a joyous, lyrical quality at times – it is a celebration of spring. But it also has dark, unsettling moments, which is keeping with the mythological story of Persephone, the spring goddess and daughter of Ceres being brought to Hades by Pluto. The story is one of balance between light and dark, and between the seasons. But the text in this version is somewhat more ambiguous, emphasizing Persephone’s descending to Hades by choice. It does also celebrate her worldly existence as the bride of Triptolemus and joy of rebirth, and of course the springtime. Musically we are treated to a light touch without leaning too heavily on major/minor emotional tropes, much as the story projects its ambiguity between light and dark. The winds, and piccolos, in particular, were prominent. And as stated above the space within the music leaves ample time to consider each note and word. It was a quietly but powerfully dynamic performance; and orchestra, soloists and chorus were treated to many well-deserved rounds of applause.
It was our first trip back to the Symphony in a while, as their 2017 program was far more conservative and focused on traditional repertoire compared the numerous shows we had enjoyed in 2016. We do look forward to more adventurous and contemporary programming again soon.
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.
Greetings, and L’Shana Tovah! Today we look back to a show from last weekend at The Chapel in San Francisco where two bands interpreted selections from John Zorn’s Masada songbook. It was part of a four-day residency by Zorn at the Chapel in celebration of his 65th Birthday.
“Masada” has morphed and grown as a musical concept since Zorn’s original Ornette-Coleman-inspired group from the 1990s. There have been follow-up projects, notably Electric Masada that we at CatSynth are most familiar with. But it is as much a songbook as a collection of ensembles. The “Masada songbook” contains hundreds of short compositions, sometimes just fragments, scales, or concepts. Originally intended to be performed by the ensembles, these compositions can be interpreted by other bands. And on this night, the bands took them in decidedly rock direction.
First up was Cleric. The Philadelphia-based “avant-metal” band currently features Matt Hollenberg on guitar, Nick Shellenberger on keyboards and vocals, Larry Kwartowitz on drums, and Daniel Ephraim Kennedy on bass.
As their background implies, the performance was decidedly metal, a full-on triple-forte projection with growling vocals and fast runs punctuated by heavy drones. Nonetheless, it was top-notch musicianship and an adventurous choice of music. Within the mix, I found myself mostly focused on Shellenberger’s vocals and keyboards, though Kennedy’s six-string bass took center stage visually, and Hollenberg’s guitar performance added a solidifying aspect to the music. It was a solid set, and certainly an interpretation of the Masada songbook we have never heard before (and may never hear again).
Next up was Secret Chiefs 3, who brought a decidedly different sound and presentation to the stage.
Led by guitarist and composer Trey Spruance (formerly of Mr. Bungle and Faith No More) and heavily featuring Eyvind Kang on violin, the group weaved together jazz, rock, folk, klezmer, and Middle Eastern influences into their eclectic set. Rounding out the group on this night were Jason Schimmel on guitar, Matt Lebofsky on keyboards, Shanir Blumenkranz on bass, Ches Smith on percussion, and Kenny Grohowski on drums.
It was an inspired and highly dynamic performance from these hometown favorites, and the band seemed a good match for the Masada songbook. There is an explicit thread of mysticism and the esoteric in both Zorn’s music and the work of SC3, so this is not surprising. I even recognized a couple of songs from Electric Masada recordings. The orchestration was brilliant and clever, bringing out each of the musicians as well as the Jewish influences of the songs. There were contrapuntal moments where the musicians played different lines and rhythms but coming together for short emphatic choruses with syncopated lines. It was crisp, tight, but also fun. And one could sense that the audience – a packed crowd on both levels of the Chapel, was having a great time along with them. The set was also the perfect length, keeping up the energy without petering out or overstating their welcome, leading to a single climax note that ended the music and cued Zorn and the musicians from Cleric back to the stage for a final group bow.
Overall, a fine night of music. As with many multi-day festivals, I regret not being there for the other nights, but glad I was able to make it to the one that I did. September is always the busiest month for music (and art) in San Francisco, and we will have much more to experience and share in the coming weeks.
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.
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).
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 Brandoand 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 Wolvesbrought 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.
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.
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.
Last Thursday night at the Outsound New Music Summit, musicians and music lovers came together to celebrate the life and legacy of one of our own, Ralph Carney. He was a fixture of the Bay Area new-music scene who could be spotted performing in many groups and venues, and he also enjoyed success and notoriety in popular music with Tom Waits, the B-52s, and others. He is also one of the most infamously colorful characters in the scene. He passed away suddenly at the end of 2017 in an accident, leaving many both shocked and saddened. This tribute concert featured a performance by Rubber City, of which Ralph was a member, and a memorial ensemble featuring local musicians who performed his compositions.
In the week leading up the concert, we had the chance to speak with David Slusser of Rubber City and Phillip Greenlief, who arranged Carney’s music for the memorial ensemble. You can hear from them in these videos.
Rubber City opened the evening with a rendition of Beautiful Ohio, sounding much like they did in the video. It was a fitting opening as Slusser, Carney, and drummer Chris Ackerman were all Ohio expatriates. They were joined by bassist Richard Saunders and reedist Sheldon Brown.
The second piece, a rather bluesy tune, also evoked their Ohio origins and gave Saunders and Brown a chance to shine in solos. The next was much darker and more atonal/arhythmic in nature but still had a very playful quality to it. Another featured Slusser and Brown both playing soprano saxophone at the same time, a rare combination! For the last piece, they set aside the saxophones for bass clarinet and flute.
Even during moments of seriousness, there was a lot of fun and energy in the music, which was fitting for the artists on stage as well as the one they were paying tribute to. It was a tremendous performance overall, and one I am not likely to hear repeated soon.
Slusser, Brown, and Saunders returned in the second set for the memorial “octet” that actually had nine members. They were joined by Phillip Greenlief and Rent Romus on saxophones, Suki O’kane on drums, Myles Boisen on guitar, and Karina Denike and Michael McIntosh from Carney’s “Serious Jass Project.” The performance was dominated by the horns in what I dubbed the “wall of saxophone.”
The group began on a somber note with Carney’s Lament forCharleston, written shortly after the massacre at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015. But even this dark piece had exuberance and could not fully contain the energy of the large group. From there, they continued on a rollicking trip through Carney’s compositions, including his oddball marches and an old-timey song about driving down Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles that was sung by Greenlief with great effect.
In keeping with Ralph Carney’s wide-ranging musical interests, there were a number of vintage jazz-style and mid-century tunes complete with swaying horn-section choreography. Karina Denike’s singing and vintage presentation added to the overall effect and classic style of the performance.
Many of us were simply caught up in the joy of the music and the celebration. Upon reflection, one realizes how different this was from the typical Outsound set with its references to swing, bebop, and early rock-and-roll. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with that – I have long professed that “new” and “experimental” musicians should not feature traditional idioms and structures in their music. This was an unequivocally great show, and the fact that it was on the Outsound stage was all the better.
Both bands played to a full and very appreciative house. Throughout the evening, on stage and in the audience, people shared their memories of seeing Ralph play or performing with him, and how much he is missed. I am confident that he would have loved our musical tribute and celebration, though he probably would have expressed his appreciation in an appropriately dry and confounding way.
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.