Farewell to 2019: Tipping Point

Our year-end collage is a long-standing tradition at CatSynth. And we had a lot of fun making this year’s edition, so many wonderful images to choose from. One of my best solo performances to date took place at the Compton’s Cafeteria series at the Center for New Music. Big Merp came to live with has at CatSynth HQ. And our adventures took us from the halls of NAMM to the bottom of Death Valley to the subways of New York.

As we mentioned at the end of last year, most of the energy has moved to CatSynth TV and our social media platforms (especially our Facebook page). The blog is mostly our core cat-and-synth pics these days, although I do enjoy sharing long-form articles now and then. And In 2020, I do plan to revive the “primary highways” series from eight years ago.

On the video side, things have been going very well. Here are the top videos for 2019:

  1. Rick and Morty Pocket Operator, Part 2
  2. Introduction to the KOMA Field Kit [Episode 106]
  3. Ginger Baker, In Memoriam
  4. EXCLUSIVE! Arturia Pigments 1.2 First Look
  5. Folsom Street Fair 2019
  6. NAMM 2019: Rossum Electro-Music Trident [Episode 116]
  7. Rick and Morty Pocket Operator Unboxing [Episode 166]
  8. Mutable Instruments Plaits [Episode 102]
  9. Strymon Magneto Loop & Sample Modes [Episode 125]
  10. NAMM 2019: Interview with Dave Smith of Sequential

By early autumn, I was also thinking about this year as a “tipping point.” The transition from the blog to the video channel is the most obvious, but it also applies also on the personal side. The arrival of Big Merp was one of the big stories, and it’s been a tough integration getting both cats to coexist, but things have been trending well in the past few months, with Sam Sam regaining her confidence and HQ becoming a more harmonious place again. Musically, I have moved in a direction that is perhaps closer to my roots in jazz, fusion, funk while maintaining the experimental electronic aspects. I have also moved to a point where studio work is how I spend most of my musical time, between the videos and other projects. Finally, I am getting older, as we all are, and that adds both perspective and a need to focus on health and wellbeing. In 2020, I may “do fewer things” than in the past, but I hope the things I choose to do make an impact both personally and beyond.

There is a lot to look forward to in the coming days: NAMM 2020 is around the corner, I have a full queue of demos to share, and I am laying the foundations for some major musical projects. And of course, we will continue to post cats and synths.

(Almost) Wordless Wednesday: An Exercise in Contrasts

Posing with my friend and collaborator Serena Toxicat at the Outsound benefit dinner a couple of weeks ago. Although about the same height, size, and silhouette, our color and texture were true contrasts. Black vs white, solid vs patterned. Yin and yang.

You can see our video from the performance at the benefit dinner below.

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!

Weekend Cat Blogging: Cat Town

We recently joined our friend Serena Toxicat for a visit to Cat Town in Oakland. Our visit was featured in a recent episode of CatSynth TV.

Cat Town is an organization that helps foster and adopt out cats in the East Bay, with a particular emphasis on cats with special needs or those who otherwise have a hard time in a traditional shelter setting. From their official website

Cat Town Adoption Center and RAWR Cafe are dedicated to helping cats in Oakland and the surrounding areas find both foster and forever homes. They are particularly focused on cats with special needs or who otherwise don’t do as well in a standard shelter setting.

https://www.cattownoakland.org

The way it works is that you come to the cafe, order coffee and other treats, and then move into the cat area during a reserved appointment time. One initially comes into the bright and spacious open play area, adorned with murals and unique cat furniture depicting Oakland landmarks and local color.

Serena Toxicat with one of the denizens of Cat Town

But the cats are the real stars.


Many of the cats have the “clipped ear” suggesting they were fixed as part of TNR programs for outdoor cats.


The cats are well cared for, and are doing well in this environment where they receive a lot of individualized attention. In addition to the play area, there are quiet spaces for rest and alone time, as well as a newer second adoption space with rooms for the cats. This space, too, is adorned with interesting feline-and-local-themed murals.

Cat Town works closely with local animal services, as well as Adam Myatt — aka the Cat Man of West Oakland who co-founded the space. We have encountered and supported work documenting the street cats of his neighborhood over the years.

If you are in Oakland or the surrounding areas, we do recommend a visit to Cat Town. Bookings and purchases at the cafe support the cats, and you might end up with a new companion. For more information please visit cattownoakland.org.

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.

David Pate & Steve Cohn / Manul Override / Ornettology at the Make-Out Room

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 John Finkbeiner.

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.

Serena Toxicat and #OaklandCatFashionWeek

Today we look back at the recent art and fashion show featuring the work of Serena Toxicat. I was fortunate to be a part of this show as a model, and it was featured in Episode 9 of CatSynth TV.

Serena Toxicat is a multi-disciplinary artist, working as a writer, visual artist, musician, and now a fashion designer – longtime readers may recognize her via our reviews of her band Protea. Her paintings were featured on the walls of Farley’s East in Oakland as the fashion show took place in the lobby. She also had her music, books, and cat-themed tarot cards on hand.

One sees themes that repeat throughout her work in various media. There are of course the cats – I particularly liked the painting featuring manuls or Pallas cats – and felines reminiscent of Egyptian iconography. But there are themes running through as well with the bright high-contrast colors and dreamlike arrangements of forms. The feline, color, whimsy and spiritual dimensions are all of a piece and come together in her life experience as well as her outward creativity.


[Photo from @serenatoxicat on Instagram]

The show itself was a fun experience. Each of us modeled two looks over the course of the evening, with more formal runway-style processions interspersed with more freeform dance sections.

A good time was had by all.

In addition to Serena and myself, the models included Ariel McEtchin, Gina Ghorbani, Charlena Verrette, Kristine Katalyst, Maya Imani, Sam Isis, and Jessa Nico.

Although the art show is now over, you can see and learn more about Serena Toxicat’s work via her Facebook page.

Oakland Internet Cat Video Festival

The 2nd Annual Oakland Internet Cat Video Festival took place a little over a week ago. Large numbers of cat lovers and cat-video enthusiasts descended on a block of West Grand Avenue along The Great Wall in celebration of cats, and of course your author was there, complete with crazy-cat-lady dress and bag.

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The daytime part of the event had more of a street fair atmosphere, with numerous booths providing food and miscellaneous cat-themed products under a bright but cloudy sky. There were also numerous organizations involved in fostering and adoption of cats, including the East Bay SPCA (one of the main beneficiaries of the event) Cat Town, and Oakland-based group that finds foster and forever homes for local cats and is also opening what may be the first cat cafe in the United States!

Cat Town

Many of the organizations brought adoptable cats and kittens for viewing. We certainly hope some found homes that day.

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The celebrity rock star of the event was Li’l Bub, who was on hand for visitors to meet.

Li'l Bub

Our friend Serena Toxicat of Protea performed a feline-themed set of music for voice and electronics. Among her songs was a tribute to the manual (or Pallas Cat) with the warning not to get too close to one despite its awesomeness.

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Other daylight fun included a photo booth from the makers of 9lives cat food, inviting visitors to Instagram and tag themselves as #MorrisAndMe (and of course #catvidfest).

Finally, the sun set and the actual videos began. The videos were from a curated reel featured at the Minneapolis Cat Video Festival hosted at the Walker Art Center., and featured many familiar videos such as Henri the existential cat and Grumpy Cat, but also new discoveries.

Henri the existential cat

What makes this experience unique is not the videos themselves, which so many of us know from our time on the Internet, but the act of getting together and watching them with others, and laughing together at the cat antics.

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I am certainly looking forward to this event coming back again next year!

CatSynth pic: Kitten on the Keys


[Click to enlarge]

Submitted by Serena Toxicat via Facebook.

OK, this may in fact be a train control console, but it’s interesting how much it looks like a synth or MIDI controller. It would be interesting to retrofit one of these to be a musical instrument.

CatSynth pic: Nakima and microphone

It’s really a “cat and music” pic, but we did want to feature this photo of Nakima submitted by Serena Toxicat of Protea:

“The late Nakima, our best singer, was an F1 Jungle hybrid (pre-Chausie). He was about 3/4 African Jungle cat.”

Protea appeared at the 2009 Annual Transbay Skronkathon, which was reviewed here.