Category Archives: around the museum

Melting the Sun

Down around the back of the Vulcan, a former iron foundry in east Oakland’s post-industrial wasteland, if you can find the door and know the secret knock, it is possible of a Friday evening to catch the lyric melancholy and faster-than-light travel of the band EchoCosmic at play. Synching digital beats and mixing board effects with live instruments, these musicians bring well-honed skills and a constant quest for meaning to their music.

In 1997 a quest for meaning through music produced Root Beer, the early band in which brothers-in-music Chris Pendergraft and Mike Blodgett began to work together. Through the writing and performance of the band’s signature protest rock songs, Mike Blodgett’s guitar style developed lyric eloquence, with bright sprays of descending sounds arcing like brief light pulses in the cold and indifferent openness of deep space.

Inherent in the name Echocosmic is the powerful sense of great distance and vast lapses of time.  Cosmic is defined as: the whole universe;immeasurably extended in space or time; vast; harmonious.   All of these elements have a place in the band’s compositions.  The word echo comes to us from the mythological Greek nymph who pined away for the beautiful, indifferent Narcissus until only her voice remained. With this etymology, it is no wonder that the echo carries an implicit sense of melancholy.

But an echo also relates to sound in a manner of interest to music-makers; it is uniquely produced by reflecting sound waves from a surface, where the returning sound may be only a fragment of the original.  And herein lies the heart of the matter, for in the songs of Echocosmic we hear the report of the interstellar traveler, returning across inhuman distance and still more inhuman time.

 These songs are evocative of struggle, mourning, and memory, chronicling the birth of black holes or the explosive nirvana of a star going nova.  ”Red Shift,” with its descending chords and cascading shower of deep notes, feels like we are listening to the recorded end of some ancient civilization or an entire planet, perhaps as viewed by an anguished alien race of future spacefarers.

A red shift refers to a change in light wavelengths, moving toward a slower, cooler portion of the spectrum. The sun is a frequent, even baseline reference in space rock, and Echocosmic heeds this tradition.  Another of their songs is meant to communicate the point of view of bacteria colonizing a sun: in the heat of the solar flares, the space bacteria awaken, grow and make a new home.

In 1968, Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun came out on the album Saucerful of Secrets by Pink Floyd, pioneering progressive rock’s shift toward what would be termed “space rock;” and at the time their solar fires and deep cold space attracted the attention of people ranging from NBA Hall of Fame star Dennis Rodman to Exorcist movie star Linda Blair.

Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun is a ten minute extravaganza of “out there” sound which builds to a violent end that actually comes, impossibly, as a climax. This distinctly disciplined approach to a pulsing momentum with abstract sound became a genre that encompasses much of Echocosmic today.

Susannah Israel

Oakland, California


Singing in the Rain: Briget Boyle and El Duo



It’s a rainy Friday as I find a parking place along the shady, moist street in Berkeley, California. The trees hang low and wet above the bumpy concrete sidewalks. It’s a picture of domestic comfort, lights coming on in the windows of the old wooden California bungalows, flowers blooming, oncoming twilight.  I consult my notes again, for this little house in front of me sure doesn’t look like a music venue. But it’s the right number.

I open the door and am greeted by Ariel Wang with friendly warmth and enthusiasm. I recognize her from another night at the Starry Plough, when late-night conversations spilled over to the Prince Street house of music, three doors down. I spent that night on one of their couches, waking up to welcome and hot coffee the next morning. Here, other couches line the small living room and a pile of pillows is ready on the polished hardwood floor. A tiny stage area is defined by keyboard, drum kit, and mounds of professional gear. In a second room are more couches and lots of chairs. Beyond I find the kitchen, where tomatillo soup is ready with all the fixings. Beer is in the frig.

I’m on time – make that early – so I get a beer and go back to talk with Ariel. Since I last saw her, she’s been working hard as a graduate student in music, choosing San Francisco State University over the more expensive conservatory. She’s elated to find that the quality of instruction at SFSU is second to none, and working hard. She’s writing music, wants to compose, and her first instrument is the violin. She also plays piano, a beloved adjunct that makes writing music more straightforward for her. We talk about her search for housing when the Prince Street place became unaffordable, and how happy she is to be here, in another house of music. Brianville got its name during the tenure of four Brians, she tells me, and is now a packed house of dedicated working musicians, teaching and studying and living the music.

The place has filled up as we talk, and now almost every seat is full. I find a place in front of the microphones as Briget Boyle is introduced. She’s a local gem I’ve somehow missed, a singer songwriter with an acoustic guitar tonight, accompanied by cellist Lewis Patzner. She begins with a brief story; at birth, she explains, she was not breathing. A priest was summoned by her distraught parents, concerned now for her soul. The song is called Breathless, and from the first deep sounds of the cello, plucked and bowed, entwined with the light, delicate tones of her clear voice, I am mesmerized.

Boyle’s matter of fact lyrics describe not only her nearly fatal birth experience but detail the accident, a fender-bender, that the priest was in on his way to the hospital.  She sings about trying to breathe our way through life, how every day can leave us breathless. Patzner’s cello sounds its own agreement, flying beneath her like a magical music carpet.

Boyle seems pleased and surprised by the applause we give, preceded by a moment of utter silence while we realize the song is over, and we don’t want it to end.  She thanks the guests and fellow musicians crowding the rooms. She’s celebrated, among other things, for working with different people and music, from Balkan singing to the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir. The place is full of smiles. She and Patzner play four more songs, including the beautiful piece “Ether.”

Now Boyle invites Harlow Carpenter to join them on trumpet. The trio plays a long, complex song in which both the cello and the trumpet take solos. The trumpet and cello fuse into a deep, sweet, passionate sound that freezes my spine and makes my throat ache, before gently returning me to the guitar, and the sound of Boyle’s indrawn breath, back on a couch, in a little house on a tree-lined street in a California city on a dark, rainy night.

We are silent. Then cries of “Bravo” burst out and the long applause embarrasses the musicians.  Boyle again introduces Lewis Patzner, cello; Harlow Carpenter, trumpet, and herself, Briget Boyle,. She has CD’s for sale for ten dollars. She tells us not to miss the next act, the newly formed El Duo on percussion and keyboards. It’s hard to recall in the moment that that’s who I came here for.  I tell her my name and thank her for the music, buy her album called  “The Parts Interior,” and begin reading the liner notes while El Duo gets ready to take the stage.

I’m sitting in the second room now, on a new couch, and I meet a trumpet player and composer named Mike, and his friend Brett. The whole atmosphere is one of delight and celebration, and everyone seems to be talking about music. We cover pentatonic scales, Ethiopian jazz and the history of oppression under the Derg Regime after Selassie, and the astonishing sweetness of Harlow Carpenter’s trumpet playing.  It’s crowded and noisy and exhilarating.

When El Duo is introduced there is a lot of happy cheering. The two musicians are nattily attired in matching black suits with white shirts, a formal look that says symphony orchestra, late-night club or futuristic Men In Black. It’s clear they care about their presentation, and they look good together: tall, slim dark-haired Harrison Murphy on keyboards, and tall, athletic Randy Schwartz, a scarf around his brow, on drums. They also play together in the longstanding band Sun Hop Fat, and tonight they’ll bring us their new, original material.

Murphy sits behind three keyboards on the left, and Schwartz starts out with high energy and fast, complex polyrhythms. Murphy hits the keys and pours out strange, elusive harmonies, layered in an unstoppable torrent of sound. The mixture makes you want to shake your head, as if you could clear your ears and get the sound to fit in better.  There’s a beat, a very definite beat, but it’s hard to follow, it seems like two different beats, and then it changes. Are we listening to more than one song at once?

Murphy swivels between the keyboards, very rarely using a recorded track that he cues and stops quickly. He stands up to play the melodica, a human-powered little mouth keyboard with an attached tube, and I can see how much effort it takes to get the sound right, especially on a sustained note. His arms, shoulders, chest and even chin get into the act, as he gives the sound one more squeeze.

Schwartz sits so calmly, anchored in the middle of a flashing ensemble of motion, holding it all down and grounded, his eyes ahead. He’s playing so much so fast that again it must be a track, but the only time he uses a prerecorded track it’s obvious, as he turns to start and then to stop it. We’re hooked already, yet it takes more than a minute to learn to listen. This is a dissonance of harmonies, or maybe a harmony of dissonances? Nothing really goes together the way you expect, but it’s given to us all at once. As I listen, it’s as if a giant music python wakes, stretches and undulates. The beats and notes shudder, almost balance, topple. The melody pulls us along, sometime blues, sometime ragtime, sometimes cosmic space jamming, sometimes very sad.

Just as it all seems too much for mere mortals, they do it again. The muscular music python rolls, wriggles, scratches and strikes, and we hear the whole shape. Again, and we’re grinning in wonder like kids at a magic show, because we get it now, we can hear it, we can hear everything. It’s a room full of music lovers and friends, and no one needs to hide the emotional impact that this new sound has upon them.

I’m thinking about what to even call this – it could be cosmic, but that won’t do. Cosmic is always huge, so much greater than we can be, too big for a person to do or understand, but here is a space for wonder that needs our ears, bodies, blood and brains in order to be. I’m thinking that I should talk to the musicians, ask questions about theory, and sources, and influences, and musical culture. And maybe I will, but for now, I listen. We all listen. And we’re taken away, to some place that only these people with these instruments in this little town on this wet night can bring us to. It’s beyond words. And that’s why we call it music.

Susannah Israel 

Oakland,  California


    El Duo: The Others



what’s going on around the museum?

Jeweler and metalsmith Lilla Cory Warren takes to the air


Jeweler and metalsmith Lilla Cory Warren, when not aloft in a balloon, makes exquisite art to  wear and live with. Warren is inspired by residencies at the Penland School of Crafts,  the diverse creative community of east Oakland where she lives and maintains her studio, and the very adventure of life itself.


To see more on her site click

 Penland School of Crafts 

El Niño blows into east Oakland


Strong winds and rain bring time for reflection

The sound of wind and rain lashing the roof soothes me into ever deeper sleep, bundled in quilts in my cozy bed. But in the pre-dawn purple darkness my cats call for food as if they’ve never eaten before, so I’m up too. I make a pot of coffee and prepare to write. All around me the former foundry is quiet as I light the lamps, pull a blanket over my lap and start my computer.

I am the resident artist director at the Oakland Museum of Ceramics, so one might think that all I have to do in life is keep strange hours, feed cats, and create. But it is precisely because of my experience in residency programs that I so value our winter break at the museum.

It is a time of reflection, winnowing and curating the museum’s vast store of art, music, film, writing and more. Memories and ideas are everywhere. Notebooks get reviewed and new ideas get proposed or dreamed about.

Our 2016-2017 artist in residence is Kristopher Mandell of Oakland Art Pottery, shown here in the studio.

2016-2017 artist in residence Kristopher Mandell

Mandell brings a distinguished background in theater in the areas of directing, performing and writing to his residency. He is currently working with both functional and sculptural forms in stoneware and porcelain. He has devoted tireless hours of work to the museum and his gift for organization is a big part of how we were able to open this December with our first event. He has also been approved by both the cats.


Mandell is a voracious reader and has been devouring the collection of magazines and books while helping to move, categorize and shelve them. It’s a great collection! The library area is taking shape and now has lighting and comfortable seating. The studio/gallery floor is a work in progress. And there’s clay work going on. It’s a real pleasure right now just to take a coffee break and look at glaze formulas in old magazines, listening to the rain.

Wishing everyone a wonderful 2016,

Susannah Israel, Resident Artist Director