NAMM 2019: Arturia MicroFreak (First Look)

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

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

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

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

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

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

NAMM 2019: Qu-Bit Electronix

One of our first stops at NAMM 2019 was to visit our friends at Qu-Bit Electronix. This year they had three new modules to share.

The first of the three was the Prism (center in the picture above). It combines three audio processors that are mapped to a three-dimension “prism” control space. One axis controls a comb filter, another a bit crusher, and the third is time/speed control. The audio processors operate on a buffer, which can either be continuously updated from audio input or “frozen” in time and looped. Finally, there is a multi-state filter that can either operate at the beginning or end of the signal chain. Of the three, this one perhaps intrigued me the most with the possibilities of mapping these different functions to CV input (e.g., from a Maths or a sequencer) in ways that push traditional music. You can hear a bit of it, along with the other two modules, in our video which features all three modules.

The second module was the Chord, or rather the new incarnation of the chord. It’s a four-voice polyphonic oscillator with both traditional waveforms (continuously morphable) and a new set of wavetables. The oscillators can be stacked into chords, or in this new version each controlled separately for polyphony in the music-theory sense of the word – yes, with the right sequencer, this module can do four-voice counterpoint. The chord mode includes a variety of standard western four-voice chords (i.e., with a seventh degree), but also the ability to add custom chords that include microtones or dense tone clusters. It’s also more compact than the original, slimmed down to just 14hp.

The final module was the Bloom, a sequencer that could generate variations on the fly using a proprietary fractal algorithm. The amount of variation, from none to completely random, can be controlled dynamically via CV, as can the number of steps in the sequence, for quite a range of variety. And with two channels, it would seem to pair nicely the Chord.

As always, it’s fun to visit with Qu-Bit and see what they up to, especially as they are CatSynth superfans. And we look forward to seeing these modules out in the wild over the course of the year. The Prism is due in March, the Chord in late spring, and the Bloom in the fall.

Kwang Young Chun Aggregations and Infinite Blue, Brooklyn Museum

After seeing Kwang Young Chun’s Aggregations at Sundaram Tagore Gallery (read our review of that show), I knew I needed to check out his solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. I expected more of the same style of abstract triangulated paper constructions, but on a larger scale. And I was not disappointed.

Kwang Young Chun: Aggregations. Installation view.

These large other-worldly constructions are formed from small tightly folded prisms of mulberry paper.  This thin and delicate paper is prized as an artistic material but also has mundane uses as wrappers.  Chun primarily sources his paper from old books.

Close-up of Aggregation 15-JL038 . Kwang Young Chun

The freestanding central piece, which I believe was Aggregation 15-JL038 (his titles all rather cryptic alphanumeric combinations), was particularly intense and seemed like a cratered surface of a large asteroid. The remaining pieces were wall-mounted, but still combined light and shadow, roughness and smoothness, in a similar way.

Aggregation 09-D071, Blue (2009)

There is something I find deeply captivating about Chun’s sculptures. They seem like something I might have generated on the computer, but they are made of paper. They seem solid and heavy, but fragile at the same time. I also liked the juxtaposition of blue with the otherwise grayscale elements. I found myself sitting in the middle of the gallery and contemplating each of them for a long time, longer than I usually sit with individual pieces on a whirlwind trip through a museum.

Aggregation 17-NV089 (2017)

Blue seemed to be the color of the day. Even before reaching Kwang Young Chun’s exhibition, I was greeted by Infinite Blue, a survey of art and design objects from the museum’s collection.

Installation view

I have long been drawn to blue – along with purple, it is a color I welcome into my own art and design, and one of the few colors that I wear. It’s also historically a rarer color and one that is not often found in nature (other than the blue tint of the sky and water). The exhibition goes through different places and periods of art and craft incorporating blue, often juxtaposing traditional objects with contemporary art. For example, the Chinese porcelain in the image above was paired with contemporary paintings by Chinese artist Su Xiaobai.

Su Xiaobai. Moonlight Halo, 2013.

I tend to be most drawn to objects that are more abstract and geometric. As such, the section featuring 19th-century American decorative arts did nothing for me. By contrast, I enjoyed seeing a Korean 19th-century porcelain bottle with 20th-century American designs in blue glass.

Installation views

I do, however, have a soft spot for fish.

The most powerful element tying the entire exhibition together was the opening piece, one of Joseph Kosuth’s neon text works 276 (On Color Blue).

Joseph Kosuth. 276 (On Color Blue), 1993.

And this is perhaps a fitting way to close this article. There was more to see and share from this visit to the Brooklyn Museum, but we shall save that for a subsequent article.

Rova Saxophone Quartet and Life’s Blood Trio at VAMP, Oakland

As 2018 draws to a close, we look back a recent show we saw at VAMP (vintage – art and music – for the people) in Oakland. It was the subject of our most recent CatSynth TV.

As one can see at the start of the video, it was pouring rain that night. And it did not let up for the entire evening. But that did not stop an intrepid collection of music lovers from settling into VAMP’s small and quirky space to hear two great ensembles.

Rova Saxophone Quartet

The venerable Rova Saxophone Quartet have been performing together for 40 years, so it’s not surprising that they have coalesced into a sound all their own. Each of the four members, Bruce Ackley, Steve Adams, Larry Ochs, and Jon Raskin, have their own character, but as a group they function as one instrument. This is true even during fast runs, as they did in the latter half of the set, and when various members drop out or “solo” for a section.

Life's Blood Trio

Rounding out the evening was the Life’s Blood Trio, led by Rent Romus (saxophones) and featuring Safa Shokrai on upright bass and Timothy Orr on drums. This is a version of the larger Life’s Blood Ensemble pared down to its essentials. But there is still a rich and full sound in the spartan setting, with the three members filling the full harmonic and textural space. Romus’ performance is always expressive and frenetic, filled with emotion. Shokrai played an amazing extended bass solo. Orr kept things grounded, including during a solo of his own.

VAMP is a bit of a performance in an of itself, with its odd collection of items for sale and a record collection that requires one to sift through and look for surprises. They’ve been holding on, even as Oakland changes in myriad ways. We look forward to seeing more music there – and perhaps playing there again – in 2019

μHausen (micro-Hausen) 2018

Today we look back at this year’s μHausen, a “micro-festival” of experimental electronics that takes place every summer deep at a secure undisclosed location in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  It was the subject of our most recent CatSynth TV episode.

As suggested in the video, I was thinking a lot about our natural surroundings as we made music with our thoroughly artificial electronic instruments.  The trees, the air, the light, all seemed to be of a piece with the music at times.  I also thought about the fact that I had not been able to attend the last three installments.  In 2015 and 2016 I had to cancel or decline because of medical issues, and I’m not sure what happened in 2017.  But I was back now and was great to see and hear everyone.

First up was Peter Elsea, recently retired from his longtime position as a professor of electronic music at UC Santa Cruz.  On this occasion, he performed with a small rig that included a modular synthesizer and an electronic wind instrument.

Peter Elsea

His set featured tones that were timbrally rich and often noisy, but still pitched.  This worked well with the wind controller which allowed the noisy tones to swell and fade musically.  But there were also some beautiful moments of quiet pure tones that evoked the natural surroundings.

Next up was Later Days, a project featuring Wayne Jackson with his iOS-based evolutionary synth  MendelTone, which allows patches to “breed” and evolve.

There was an urgent “machine-like” quality to the music, with low drones oms mixing with high swirls of sound and various percussive hits.  Wayne is also the founder of this event and often its leader, but this year he ceded organizing duties to R Duck (of the R Duck Show), who performed next.


[Photo by Later Days (Wayne Jackson)]

The first segment of his set featured beautiful drones of processed guitar. There were quick runs, but they were absorbed into the overall sound.  Over time, the tone and structure darkened, with more complex timbres and harmonies set against slow but anxious guitar riffs.  He also teamed up with Later Days to deliver his perennial incantation featuring chocolate.  (Did I mention that we at CatSynth love chocolate?)

Next up was synthesizer virtuoso Doug Lynner, who performed on a Eurorack-based Serge modular synthesizer.


[Photo by Later Days (Wayne Jackson)]

I have long come to expect very complex and intricate sounds from Doug, often set in a very sparse texture where one can clearly hear the details.  That was certainly the case in this performance, which opened with light sounds reminiscent of birds and whale songs.  It could have come from the surrounding woods rather than the synthesizer on stage (OK, the bird sounds could have, probably not the whale sounds).  After a period of rapid modulation, the music settled into a different pattern, with a contrapuntal texture of long ascending tones reminiscent of sirens.

Lynner was followed by Paul Nicholson who had a large Korg-centric rig that included both a Minilogue, an MS-20 and an SQ-1 sequencer among other instruments.

His opening piece was more traditionally harmonic compared to the preceding sets, with slowly changing harmonic patterns that evoked late-20th-century minimalism (think Steve Reich and John Adams).  The second portion of the set featured some harsher sounds and noise centered around Nicholson’s modular synth.

Then it was time for me to take the stage.  I brought a rig that included the large 9U modular, a Casio SK-1 and my trusty Moog Theremini.


[Photo by R Duck]

As with most of my recent solo work, I select one of my more formal compositions as a point of departure.  In this case, it was “White Wine”, with the melody set against one of the SK-1’s drum beats.  This them morphed into a broken and complex break of sound and eventually to a pure improvisation with the modular and theremin, though the beats never really disappeared.  As I was when listening to the other sets, I was thinking about the natural surroundings – in my case being the “city girl” mastering my place in space and sound, even if just for a few brief minutes.

The final set featured Lemon DeGeorge on harmonica and electronics.

Lemon DeGeorge

The harmonicas (like a true player of the instrument, he had more than one) added a unique dimension to the music, and the electronics followed with long breathy tones.  The sounds appeared to build up layers upon layers into something heavy and enveloping, but never overwhelming.  Compared to Nicholson’s sounds, DeGeorge’s lone tones and patterns were thoroughly inharmonic but no less beautiful or musical.

Overall it was a fine afternoon of weird electronic music in the woods, and not just for the music itself but for the fellowship with friends who I don’t get to see that often.   I remained in the mind space of the show, the environment, and the sounds for a while on the drive back, at least until reaching I-880 and heading first into Oakland and later home to San Francisco, where I snapped back into my everyday urban life.

 

New Video Review of Solo: A Star Wars Story

Our latest CatSynth TV episode features a review of the latest offering in the Star Wars franchise, Solo: A Star Wars Story.

The video has some spoilers in it, so we advise waiting to watch it until you have seen the movie.  For now, here are some non-spoiler takeaways:

  • The movie continues to fill in the storyline between Episode III and Episode IV, along with the Rebels TV series and Rogue One.
  • Donald Glover is great as Lando Calressian!
  • Star Wars does a good job with its gangsters and bar and club scenes, going all the way back to the Mos Eisley cantina.  There is no shortage of such scenes in this movie.
  • It’s a smaller scale story than the main movies or even Rogue One.  And force-wielders are less prominent than in any other movie or series.
  • Sadly, no cats.

We do recommend it for Star Wars nerds like us, as well as casual viewers. 😺

#KSW45 and CatSynth: A Personal History

As Kearny Street Workshop gets ready to celebrate its 45th anniversary, we at CatSynth look back in the many ways our histories have intertwined in the past decade, from a shy outsider writing reviews to becoming Board President!

In August 2009, I attended a guided tour of the Present Tense Biennial, an exhibition co-curated by the Chinese Cultural Center and an intriguing-sounding organization named Kearny Street Workshop – it seemed an apt name for organization hosting an exhibition on Kearny Street.  I wrote an article about it which was seen by the folks at KSW including then-executive-director Ellen Oh, who invited me to cover their flagship program APAture the next month.

I did go to several of the APAture programs, including the opening night and visual-arts showcase and the music showcase, writing more articles, making new friends, and probably drinking a bit too much.  This was an entirely new community quite apart from the experimental-music and jazz circles in which I traveled, or the other contemporary visual artists I was meeting.  I went on to attend KSW’s rollicking SF Thomassons Performance Tour in January 2010, and also befriend Truong Tran (himself a former executive director) at the opening of his first solo exhibition Lost and Found.

It was during these and other events that I became more acquainted with the history of the organization beyond the art and artists it was currently supporting.  I learned about the Asian American movement, about the history of the neighborhood from which KSW derived its name and about the fall of the I Hotel.  Kearny Street Workshop was not simply an arts organization, or eventhe “oldest organization in the U.S. focused on Asian American artists”, but a multi-generational group dedicated to local activism and community through the arts.  I became a regular donor and continued to attend events, including A Sensory Feast, and continued to write and share reports.  But in many ways, I was still an outsider looking in.

That all changed in 2013 when APAture returned after a four-year break and I was a performing artist for the opening night.

I performed an experimental electronic set with tabletop and modular synths and a dotara (Indian folk stringed instrument) for a large and diverse audience.  I felt more connected to the KSW community, but that was about to become even more so as then program director (and later executive director) TJ Basa invited me to get more deeply involved, recruiting me to join program committees, including the ever-popular Dumpling Wars.  This led to joining the board of directors in 2014.

During this time, KSW was in a process of rebuilding from its board down to its individual programs and partnerships, and returning to its activist and community-focused routes.  Under TJ and new programming manager (now Artistic Director) Jason Bayani we began to focus programming in this direction, including the resurgent APAture festival (which I performed at again that year).

[2014 Kearny Street Workshop / Antoine Duong]

Later that year, I became Board President and Chair as we grew the board into its strongest and most active team in many years.  It was quite an unexpected turn that I would never have anticipated when I first started attending events five years earlier.  KSW became a family, and I was now about as much an “insider” as one could be.  I learned a lot about individual and institutional fundraising, forging relationships with other groups, and the herding of cats that is a small and scrappy but ambitious arts non-profit.  But I still found joy in participating directly in events and writing reviews, including for last year’s APAture festival.  It coincided with the launch of CatSynth TV, and we featured the opening night and book-arts showcase in two of our early episodes.

Tomorrow night is our 45th Anniversary Gala, to be held at the Chinese Cultural Center, where I first encountered KSW nine years earlier.  In a way, it is coming full circle.  But instead of writing a review, I am writing a speech to recognize the 45 years and multiple generations of history.  If you are in San Francisco tomorrow evening and wish to join us, there are still a few tickets available for the general program.

 

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NAMM 2018: Yudo KAMI-OTO and Neuman

We are always on the lookout for something (or someone) different at NAMM, especially in the deep dark depth of Hall E.  This year we found it in the booth of Yudo, a company out of Japan that presented prototypes for two radically different concepts.

The flagship Neuman synthesizer features a standard keyboard with an instrument-spanning touch screen.  It looks like an iPad stretched out to fit a full-sized keyboard.

The keyboard plays well, and there were standard sounds such as electric pianos, brass, etc.  The touchscreen controls for the patches were fascinating, but not particularly intuitive.  It was hard to see using it for sound design in its current incarnation.  But it is a prototype with an estimated two years or more of development ahead, so we will see where things go.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the KAMI-OTO, a small cardboard based keyboard controller to use with iPads.  It is a simple cardboard cutout that folds around a simple electronic main board and includes a stand for your tablet.  There are wired and Bluetooth models that go for $28 and $36, respectively via the company’s Kickstarter campaign.

We did have a chance to try it out.  It is adorable, and it does look like a fun and simple DIY project to assemble. And there is some delight in being able to decorate it in whatever manner one desires.  As a keyboard, however, the latency was extremely high, which would render it less than usable for us in a performance setting.  Nonetheless, for composing on the run, it could come in handy.

More info about both products can be found at https://www.yudo.jp/en/.

Grex and Two Aerials, Octopus Literary Salon

Last Thursday we at CatSynth returned to the Octopus Literary Salon in Oakland to hear two groups whose work we follow, Grex and Two Aerials.  The show was also the subject of our most recent CatSynth TV video, which can you see below.

There are similarities between in terms of style and songcraft, and they worked well in tandem.  Two Aerials, led by Mark Clifford (vibraphone) and Crystal Pascucci (cello, voice), had a jazzier vibe and more reminiscent of art-rock and prog of the early 1970s.  Clifford’s frenetic but luscious vibes are a lot of the reason for this, but solid backing from Brett Carson on keyboard and Jordan Glenn on drums added to the overall sound and structure.  There were sounds and textures reminiscent of Henry Cow, especially during the songs that featured Pascucci on voice.  There were also sections that reminded me of Frank Zappa’s best lineups from the early to mid-1970s.
 
 two aerials
 
Grex has gone through a few iterations of style and personnel in the time I have known them.  The current incarnation features principals Karl Evangelista on guitar and Rei Scampavia on keyboards, but they each take on additional musical duties with electronics, foot-driven percussion, and voice.
 
Grex
 
Musically, they also have a style that falls somewhere in the realm of art rock, but with a dreamier, more psychedelic feel.  They move effortlessly back and forth between very tender lyrical songs and frenetic pedal-heavy guitar solos from Evangelista, as well as space in between those poles.  We particularly enjoyed the quote of Princess Leia’s theme during their final song.
In all, it was a fun evening with friends and music.  And the Octopus Literary Salon is fast becoming a frequent destination for us for eclectic and intimate musical performances.  We look forward to more.

Dollar Days, Blackstar, and Luna

David Bowie, Blackstar

A lot has already been written about David Bowie’s final album Blackstar. But it seems particularly poignant in a personal way at this moment in my life.

I should start by saying it’s a great album. I would even assert that it was his best since the classic albums of the 1970s. it mixes complex and dark elements with some catchy hooks like on Low. The jazz and fusion elements on Blackstar, which features a band led by saxophonist Donny McCaslin, also take me back to another of my favorites, Station to Station, with its funky vibe. Indeed, some of the initial responses to the album that focused on his use of a jazz band seemed to leave out the connection to his funky bands of the mid 1970s. But coming back to the present moment, it’s the song “Dollar Days” on Blackstar that seems to stand out the moment. It is melancholy and its verses feature ballad-like chord structure, descending root notes resolving back on itself. The chorus has a simultaneously anxious and soaring quality. And the lyrics seem to be self-reflective and prescient of his coming death just two days after the album’s release, especially when coupled with the next track “I Can’t Give Everything Away.”

Cash girls suffer me, I’ve got no enemies
I’m walking down
It’s nothing to meet
It’s nothing to see
If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to
It’s nothing to meet
It’s nothing to see

I’m dying too
Push their backs against the grain
And fool them all again and again
I’m trying to
We bitches tear our magazines
Those oligarchs with foaming mouths come now and then
Can’t believe I just run second, now I’m forgetting you
I’m trying to
I’m dying too

Dollar days ’til final checks, honest scratching tails, the necks, I’m falling down
It’s nothing to meet
It’s nothing to see
If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to
It’s nothing to meet
It’s nothing to see

I’m dying too
Push their backs against the grain
And fool them all again and again
I’m trying to
It’s all gone wrong for on and on
The bitter nerve is never enough, I’m falling down
Don’t believe in just one second round for getting you
I’m trying to
I’m dying too

Specifically, that line “If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to” hits home. Bowie died in New York and had probably not seen the English evergreens in a while, and was aware that he likely wouldn’t. One part of Luna’s decline that has affected me greatly is the realization that we won’t experience some of our favorite things together anymore. Some have already gone, such as playing with toys, clamoring for favorite treats, and running up and down the stairs at night. I have no way of imagining what this feels like to her, but it can’t be good. And that, too, is a painful realization. Sadly, cats don’t have the ability to express their feelings in words, let alone with the lyricism and eloquence of David Bowie. The sharing of his thoughts about his mortality is one of the gifts in Blackstar, along with the music itself.

Luna’s continued decline has good days and bad, and we are spending as much time together as we can, including sitting on the floor and listening to music, cuddling and purring.