A cat sits in the command char or a small studio featuring the Serum wavetable software synthesizer, a large Eurorack system, an Arturia BeatStep Pro, Strymon Big Sky, and more. We are particularly curious about that small device with the grid of purple buttons. The cat, on the other hand, looks ready for a nap.
It is that time of year when I invariably return home to New York for a visit. And this time it began in dramatic fashion with a return to the Ambient Chaos music series at Spectrum. Perhaps not quite a return, as Spectrum as since moved to a new location on the waterfront in Brooklyn. But it was still the same concept, hosted by Robert L. Pepper of Pas Musique, with a variety of local and visiting musicians performing adventurous electronic music.
The evening opened with a duo featuring Public Speaking (aka Jason Anthony Harris) and pianist Gabriel Zucker.
The unfolded in with sparse but structured piano set against electronic sounds evoking metal machinery. Both elements started out slow and quiet with lots of empty space but increasingly got more dense and urgent. After a brief interlude, a new phase of the music began with vocals set against fast piano runs. The vocals began very expressive and plaintive but soon morphed into a complex electronic sound under vocal control. Underneath this, an incessant thudding drum emerged.
Next up was The Tony Curtis Experience, a trio led by Damien Olsen on keyboard and electronics, Jeremy Slater on guitar and electronics, and Neb Ula the Velvet Queen on theremin – specifically, a Moog Theremini with which we at CatSynth are quite familiar.
Their performance mixed long tones on theremin, slide guitar + electronics, and synthesizer pads with loud percussive moments. The early portion of the set evoked some fantastic futuristic nightclub with crystalline hits and pedal tones. But Olsen’s keyboard brought it back to the present and near past with melodic and harmonic playing reminiscent of mid-20th century cabaret as well as synth-pop of the 1980s. The theremin, acting as both sound source and controller, provided antiphonal counter-subjects to these familiar sounds; and the guitar drones glued everything together. It was a fun set, especially with Olsen’s playful performance and his use of familiar idioms.
Then it was my turn to take the stage. And I compacted the setup for travel, with the Arturia MicroFreak, laptop, Novation LaunchPad Pro, tiny modular with Qu-bit Prism and Strymon Magneto, a new handmade touch synthesizer, and Crank Sturgeon Pocket Gamelan.
I planned a slimmed-down version of my solo set from the Compton’s Cafeteria Series show in August, including White Wine and an evolving improvisation over an 11/8 groove.
Overall, the set went well – a highly dynamic performance with a lot of melodic elements, jazz riffs, and noise solos layered over rhythms. A few items misfired, but all recoverable. I particularly enjoyed the sections of melody and jazz improvisation where I floated back to the sounds of the 1970s; it seemed the audience appreciated that, too. Finally, it was also just fun to be playing in New York again after an extended break. Watching the video of the set (which will be shared soon as an episode of CatSynth TV), I particularly thought this noisier and more “electronic” version of the 2019 set worked well in Spectrum and especially with the every-changing “spectrum” of light from yellow to violet and everything in between.
The final set of the evening featured 4 Airports, a duo of guitarist Craig Chin and synthesist Nathan Yeager. Chin performed with guitar and an array of pedals, while Yeager brought a large synthesizer setup complete with a modular system.
Perhaps more than the preceding sets, they lived up to the “ambient” in Ambient Chaos. Chin’s guitar gestures were subtle as he guided the sound into the electronic arena of the pedals, and Yeager’s synthesizer sounds were complex but still lending themselves to long ideas even when the tones and timbres moved between quick and slow. From the chaotic undertones and singular and dreamy landscape emerged, with occasional ebbs and flows and punctuations.
Overall, it was a wonderful night of music in this corner of the Brooklyn waterfront, with an intimate crowd in the cavernous but cozy space. I would also be remiss if I did not give a shout out to Sofy Yuditskaya for her video projections that reflected the music on stage. I certainly hope the gap until my next performance here is much shorter than the last.
[Photos by Banvir Chaudhary and Amanda Chaudhary]
[Full video coming soon. Please subscribe to CatSynth TV to be noticed when it is available.]
This past Thursday, the Center for New Music launched Compton’s Cafeteria Series, a set of occasional concerts featuring transgender performers. And I was there both the cover the show and be a part of it!
For those who are not familiar with the story, Gene Compton’s Cafeteria was a small restaurant chain and its Tenderloin location at the corner of Taylor and Turk Streets was one of the few places where transgender individuals, and especially transgender women, could safely congregate. There was, however, some tension between transgender patrons and the staff, who often called the police, with arrests and harassment ensuing. In 1966, this pattern led to the Compton’s Cafeteria Riots.
In the 1960s the Compton’s Cafeteria staff began to call the police to crack down on transgender individuals, who would frequent the restaurant.Management felt that transgender customers were loitering and causing them to lose more desirable business. In response, they implemented a service fee directed at transgender individuals and blatantly harassed them in an attempt to get them to leave the restaurant. In response to police arrests, the transgender community launched a picket of Compton’s Cafeteria. Although the picket was unsuccessful, it was one of the first demonstrations against police violence directed towards transgender people in San Francisco. On the first night of the riot, the management of Compton’s called the police when some transgender customers became raucous. Police officers were known to mistreat transgender people.When one of these known officers attempted to arrest one of the trans women, she threw her coffee in his face. According to the director of Screaming Queens, Susan Stryker, the cafeteria “erupted.”
This was nearly three years before the Stonewall Inn Riots in New York but has not gotten nearly the visibility in the time since. There is a plaque on the sidewalk in front of the former site at 101 Turk Street, and there is now an honorary street renaming of the 100 block of Taylor Street as Gene Compton’s Cafeteria Way – we featured the sign in our most recent Wordless Wednesday post.
More importantly, the immediate vicinity has been recognized by the city as a “Transgender Cultural District.” As the Center for New Music is located in the heart of this new district, it seemed natural for them to host a series celebrating transgender visibility (and audibility), and I am grateful to the staff there and to my friend David Samas for proposing this and making it happen.
The show itself was a successful event featuring vary different performances, although they all made extensive use of hardware synthesizers. You can see some of the highlights in my latest video.
The evening started with a set by Rusty Sunsets (aka Cara Esten). Her performance was divided into two sections, the first featuring acoustic guitar and voice, and the second incorporating synthesizers and drum machines. Both parts were unified by Esten’s folk-song style, with a series of compositions about her upbringing in Oklahoma and loves lost and found. Perhaps the poignant was a love song inspired by the 1911 Triangle Factory fire in New York where 146 workers, the vast majority of whom were women, perished. My favorite was the final song which brought together a Moog Mother-32 and other synthesizers with plaintive but optimistic singing.
Next up was Pitta of the Mind (Amanda Chaudhary and Maw Shein Win). We performed a short set with a featured color of blue – set against the fuschia background lighting and my automated multicolor blinking lights. Musically, it had a very punctuated quality with abstract sounds from the modular and Arturia MicroFreak against some of Maw’s poems that featured open space and short lines. We mixed it up for the final piece, which had lusher and more emotive quality with longer lines and acoustic piano – these pieces are a strength for us and we always include at least one.
Then it was time for the final set, featuring my solo electronic performance. I started with the solo version of White Wine (and a cup of white wine). The Casio SK-1 was sampled and remixed in Ableton Live, with the statement of the melody and cords, followed by a cacophony leading into two distinct rhythmic sections: first a funk/disco sound featuring MicroFreak bass and a jazz piano improvisation; and then a Stereolab inspired electric-organ solo leading into a final section of tape-delayed metallic sounds (Strymon Magneto and Pocket Gamelan from Crank Sturgeon).
After that, it was on to the cat-infused and disco-and-French-House inspired Donershtik. The piece is just a lot of fun, a classic 70s analog melody (in this case on the Arturia MiniBrute) in Phrygian mode followed by playful modular improvisation (anchored by the MOK Wavewazor) going into the electric piano disco/house section.
Overall, I think this was one of the best of my live solo sets, tightly choreographed with a relatively diverse and robust setup, and well-defined and well-rehearsed pieces. Once again, structure and hard work paid off.
But I also fed off the positive energy and enthusiasm of the crowd, which brought together regular friends and fans with members of the transgender community. It was a beautiful night overall, and I look forward to both being present and helping organize the next in this series.
At NAMM, one tries out a lot of instruments and walks away wanting to have a good number of them. The novelty fades quickly, but some you find that you continue to really want. The Magneto module from Strymon is in the latter category.
The Magneto is a four-head tape delay simulator. Its controls are very intuitive and playable, with enough flexibility to be used to generate spring-reverb-like sounds as well as function as a looping device via a mode switch. You can see our first attempts with the Magneto in this video.
Strymon put a lot of attention to detail both in terms of sound design and usability into this device. And as one would expect from a Eurorack module, just about every function can receive external CV input, making it more of a musical instrument in its own right than it would be in a studio rack or even a guitar pedalboard. We were able to observe the delay and looping functions in great detail, but it was more challenging to discern the tape-effect functions, such as “wow-flutter” and “crinkle”. Part of that is just the chaotic environment of NAMM (even in the more calm depth of Hall E). Hopefully, we will get a chance to try those out in more detail in the near future.
Strymon has long been known for their effects pedals, which are highly regarded. Now they have entered into the worked of Eurorack synth modules with the Generalissimo.
The Generalissmo (cute name, by the way) is a four-head tape echo simulator with a range of additional features. The four delay tops can be switched on and off and independently controlled. There are also independent controls for each tap/head’s playback time. The taps each send an individual clock out, allowing one to drive a sequencer that in turn feeds into the delay unit for interesting rhythmic effects. A clock input allows this all to be controlled externally.
There are additional global controls that affect the quality of the sound, including familiar speed and feedback as well as tape age, crinkle and wow and lutter; and even a separate spring reverb control. Quite a lot in one unit. I wasn’t able to hear the tape age, crinkle and wow&flutter knobs work in the demo, though the main controls worked well and the unit sounded great. It was very smooth and the clock sync is quite a nice touch. There also a “sound-on-sound” mode that turns it into a tape loop simulator, though I wasn’t able to try that out.
An interesting question for me is what this module provides that the combination of a Make Noise Echophon and Phonogene do not (I currently own both of those). Clearly it packs more into one unit, and on the echo side has the four taps. But the clock(s) make be what set it apart musically, as well as the differences in sound characteristics. I hope to see and hear more if this module when it is released later this year.