No. 29 • 2021-02-19

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Virtual Music Education

Like everyone who participate in music ensembles regularly, I miss it terribly. There really is something magical about getting people together to make music. While some instrumental groups have managed to safely assemble in person, singing remains one of the most dangerous ways of spreading COVID (I don’t know of any groups that are singing together in person, only virtually).

Many experienced musicians are finding ways to cope and adapt, but for those still in the early stages of learning an instrument, singing, or playing in ensemble, the pandemic disruption could severely inhibit musical development. Given the challenges in reopening public schools, it’s not surprising that music lessons, orchestras, and choruses have been put on hold in many places. Others have shifted to virtual lessons, and while it’s not quite the same as being together, the back and forth interaction of lessons is a better fit for Zoom (it’s actually possible, as opposed to singing/playing together as a group, which is not). The most innovative educators are developing new forms of collaboration and performance, using technology to connect ensembles across schools and organizations.

The a cappella group I sing with, The Tonics, thought we might use the current limitations of our ensemble singing to raise awareness of the challenges in music education. Since we can’t sing together in person this season, we’re creating a series of virtual videos as fundraisers for local organizations. With the release of our latest video this month, we’re calling upon others to support the fantastic team at Play On Philly (POP), who provide musical instruction to K-12 students in our city. Throughout the pandemic, POP students have continued to participate in virtual instrument lessons and ensemble practice completely tuition-free. We hope you’ll join us in supporting this amazing organization!

And here’s to all music educators, especially those who are still providing lessons and rehearsals, safely, through the pandemic. Thank you for all you’re doing!

My publishing schedule has shifted to every other Friday. The next issue of Creating at a Distance will be posted in two weeks on March 5th.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Original iPhone Ringtones – A Cappella [MayTree] This may be the most a cappella-tech throwback mashup ever… Korean vocal group MayTree recreating the original iPhone ringtones. Also check out their renditions of Windows XP sounds and many other songs.
  • Trepak (Russian Dance) from The Nutcracker [Pennsylvania Ballet] This is a few weeks old, but here’s a lovely virtual holiday greeting from the PA Ballet dancers and orchestra (hard to imagine doing this with all the snow on the ground right now)!
  • Playing Music Together Online Is Not As Simple As It Seems [NPR’s Jazz Night in America] This video is from last summer, but it’s a nice explainer on the difficulties of live (real-time) music collaboration on the internet, with some jazz musicians who are making it work (within some constraints).
  • Creative Conversations for a Changing World, No. 1 [B.PHL Innovation Festival On-Demand] Last Fall, Jessica Zweig (Program Director at Play On Philly) and I co-hosted a 3-part series of discussions with innovators in the arts and non-profit sectors. The first of those events with David Devan (Opera Philadelphia), Valerie Gay (Barnes Foundation), and Melissa Talley-Palmer (Bartol Foundation) is now available for streaming.
  • Live From London Spring [VOCES8 & friends] The next installment of VOCES8’s online streaming festival of amazing vocal and chamber music has started, with premieres every week featuring some of the world’s finest ensembles (February 13 – April 22).

What I’m creating…

Made this for my wife on Valentine’s Day, and she granted permission to share it with everyone. One of my favorite ’80s early synth pop tunes that’s also become an a cappella classic. None of the groups I’ve sung with had this in the repertoire, so here’s my arrangement performed at my desk… with a few extra twists!

No. 28 • 2021-02-05

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STEAMshop 2021

Followers of this newsletter know that I frame my work not in terms of STEM, but rather STEAM: Science, Tech, Engineering, Arts, and Math. But STEAM is much more than simply exposure to the different disciplines; it’s the potential of better research, learning, creative work, and even products through the integration of disciplines. As you’ve probably noticed, I’m a strong advocate for learning about STEM concepts through creative work. This framework forms the core of the ExCITe Center’s activities, and since 2015 we’ve hosted an annual workshop on Presidents’ Day for educators in the region to highlight exemplary transdisciplinary work in education.

Our upcoming 7th Annual STEAM Education Workshop on February 15 (9am-12pm) will be a little different. First off, it will be all-virtual. Second, this year’s event will focus on specific integrations spanning learning science, pedagogical practice, racial equity, and social justice. I am thrilled that the program will feature a keynote by renowned author and researcher, Dr. Bettina Love (University of Georgia), co-founder of the Abolitionist Teaching Network, who will address an audience of those in Pre-K-12 as well as higher education:

We Gon’ Be Alright, But That Ain’t Alright: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom
Dr. Love’s talk will discuss the struggles and the possibilities of committing ourselves to an abolitionist goal of educational freedom, as opposed to reform, and moving beyond what she calls the educational survival complex. Abolitionist Teaching is built on the creativity, imagination, boldness, ingenuity, and rebellious spirit and methods of abolitionists to demand and fight for an educational system where all students are thriving, not simply surviving.

The program also includes brief presentations and a panel discussion with Drexel faculty. Participation is free and ACT 48 credits are available for Pennsylvania teachers. All are welcome to register here (the event is free, although space is limited).

Dr. Love’s talk is brought to you through the generous support of the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Center for Black Culture, the College of Arts & Sciences, the College of Engineering, the Office of Research & Innovation, the Office of University & Community Partnerships, the School of Education, West Philadelphia Action for Early Learning, and the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Caledonia [Stay at Home Choir with VOCES8] I’ve been really looking forward to this latest collaboration between our friends VOCES8 and the many thousand-member Stay at Home Choir! Premieres Feb. 6 at 1:30pm (for the US Eastern Time Zone). 
  • Save the Boys [Opera Philadelphia Channel] Wow, Opera Philadelphia is really nailing this streaming thing…. This is the first of four digital commissions set to debut on the channel in 2021. Newark-born Composer in Residence Tyshawn Sorey, premieres a new work inspired by an 1887 poem by abolitionist, writer and Black women’s rights activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (premieres Feb. 12).
  • Virtual Choirs & Orchestras [Alternative Classical] A nice summary of virtual singing and instrumental ensemble opportunities. It’s focused on the UK, but when you’re collaborating virtually, national borders have little meaning.
  • Eye of the Tiger [Jared Halley] Another great one-man a cappella performance from this prolific YouTuber. A classic 80s tune associated with Philly’s most famous fictional athlete (it’s from Rocky III).
  • NFL 2020 [Bad Lip Reading] In honor of this weekend’s Super Bowl… there’s always something for everyone in Bad Lip Reading’s videos. They also sometimes make music videos, like this classic.

What I’m creating…

I mentioned the videos I’m creating for my class this term, Applied Digital Signal Processing (DSP), a senior-level undergraduate engineering course. Ultimately these will form a “video textbook” for this class, but those of you really interested in DSP can check out the first 5 episodes here.

No. 27 • 2021-01-21

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Uncertainty

I don’t recall entering a new year and academic term with this much uncertainty. We have a new President (finally!) and the hope of a coordinated and competent federal response to the coronavirus pandemic. Vaccines are being administered, but when and how will they reach the broader population? Our economy is wrecked, although much-needed relief legislation may soon take effect. We’re still mostly teaching online, which amplifies many structural inequities, so we’re trying to get students back into schools and onto college campuses in the coming weeks / months. But what’s the right balance between safety and delayed learning? There are so many questions, and the answers will take time to play out.

Last year was a forced mashup: a mixture of all kinds of tools, technologies, and methods applied in unintended ways to overcome new challenges. Virtual choirs and ensembles emerged into the mainstream as one example of an arts-tech mashup. Developing the skill to produce broadcast quality live or recorded streaming content in-house is another. Recall that at the start of 2020, most people hadn’t heard of Zoom and were unfamiliar with Slack and Teams, but now almost everyone has gained some proficiency with these tools for online collaboration. And there are countless ways their intended uses have been transformed for remote teaching and learning. Remember, creativity is connecting things.

I believe (and fervently hope) we will be able to return to in-person work, events, and performances with live audiences sometime in 2021. But I also believe that online creation, collaboration, and learning will continue to play a growing role this year and well beyond, particularly in ways that enable things not possible otherwise. As a self-proclaimed “creative technologist”, I am a highly biased commentator on this topic, but I have to believe the creativity and the technology we’ve developed to overcome some of the challenges of social distancing will continue to be valuable. When we return to in-person classrooms or live performance venues, what we’ve learned will feedback into what we do in the “real” world.

Despite the uncertain future, I remain certain that it will continue to demand a great deal of creative adaptation and the ability to wield technology in productive and positive ways. This year will bring new works and tools that will push the limits of what’s possible, and I still look forward (cautiously) to what the future will bring.

I am honored to be featured on Apple’s higher education website for “pushing the boundaries of creative expression”. Click here to read more about how faculty leaders are using technology to make a positive change in the world.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Peace On Earth [Ragazzi Continuo] Unlike most virtual concerts, this was performed and recorded live. How is that possible? A system called JackTrip (developed at Stanford’s CCRMA) enabled the ensemble to sing together from their own homes with minimal audio delay. After months practicing with this new technology they performed this concert live in December. (Yes, my research group has also been experimenting with this system.)
  • Soldier Songs [Opera Philadelphia Channel] I’ve been really looking forward to this new version of composer David T. Little’s exploration of the life of the soldier combining theater, opera, and rock. Presented in a new film for streaming and based on interviews with veterans of five wars, the piece boldly examines the impact of trauma, the exploitation of innocence, and the difficulty of expressing war’s painful truths. (Available with a Season Pass through May or with a seven-day rental for $25.)
  • #ISing. Hallelujah [la Caixa Foundation] A unique and beautiful twist on virtual choirs, projecting singers large scale inside a cathedral, the Basilica de Santa Maria Del Mar, for a performance of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.
  • The Mandalorian Light Show [Steve Beers] Holiday lights meet Ludwig Göransson’s rousing theme for The Mandalorian, the fantastic Disney+ series set in the Star Wars universe. And how can you not love baby Yoda?
  • The Mandalorian on iPhone [iSongs] And here’s how to create the theme song entirely on your iPhone in the GarageBand app. Just one of many amazing videos in this YouTube series.

What I’m creating…

For my class this term, Applied Digital Signal Processing, instead of lectures, I’m  creating a series of short videos. I’ll release the full series at the end of the term, but here’s my intro theme for these videos.

No. 26 • 2021-01-06

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A Year of Distanced Creativity

2021 brings hope for many things… vaccines, a functioning federal government(!), and perhaps a return to something close to life without a raging pandemic. But in this first newsletter of the New Year, I take a look back at some of the most noteworthy creative collaborations of 2020 and how the medium of virtual performance evolved incredibly quickly over the course of 9 months.

For any series, it’s important to recap the events of the previous season. So, as I embark on Season 2 of this newsletter, think of this as my recap of things highlighted in Season 1.

Happy New Year!

2020 was also the year drone light shows became widespread. The image above is from a particularly impressive performance created for Edinburgh’s Hogmanay (Scottish celebration of the New Year).

Most Notable (Socially) Distant Creations of 2020

  • March 30: From us, for you: Beethoven Symphony No. 9 [Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra] This was one of the first collaborative performance videos to go viral. The accompanying caption perfectly captures the feeling of the moment: “We’re adjusting to a new reality and we’ll have to find solutions in order to support each other. Creative forces help us, let’s think outside of the box and use innovation to keep our connection and make it work, together. Because if we do it together, we’ll succeed.”
  • March 30: And now, MOZART at a social distance: A Virtual Symphony [Cunningham Piano Online Ensemble] This performance of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, organized by Cunningham Piano, was the first large-scale (111 performers) virtual music video from Philadelphia I’m aware of, which inspired me to start this newsletter.
  • June 6: I Still Can’t Breathe [Chester Children’s Chorus] This piece originally premiered in 2016 in response to the killing of Eric Garner, written and directed by CCC’s founder and artistic director, John Alston. This revised version for 2020, released in response to the murder of George Floyd with additional video and a new opening message, was also featured on PBS Newshour.
  • Juneteenth (June 19): To Be or Not #ToBeBlack [The Public Theater] Shakespeare’s quintessential monologue, performed by Black actors reflecting on the struggle for racial justice. From the caption: “Listen as Black actors across the nation explore the truth in the painful reality of being Black in America with Shakespearean text. Timeless words that were never intended for us, yet the notion ‘To Be or Not To Be’ carries infinite weight throughout Black American history.”
  • June 27: Helpless [Original Broadway Cast of Hamilton with The Roots & Jimmy Fallon] An exuberant all-acoustic performance of one of the show’s hit songs that pushes beyond the standard Zoom grid that we’ve become accustomed to (with some instruments improvised from household supplies). Of course, this was also part of the lead-up to the release of the filmed stage performance of Hamilton (now available on Disney+). And the Hamilton team continues to release virtual performances of other songs from the show, to encourage electoral participation.
  • July 19: Virtual Choir 6: Sing Gently [Eric Whitacre] The composer’s groundbreaking Virtual Choir in 2010 first established the collaborative music video format, which became mainstream in 2020 due to the pandemic. VC6, Sing Gently was written and conceived for this moment of separation and social isolation. Whitacre started writing only in March, collected video submissions over a few weeks in May, and then released the final piece in July with 17,572 singers. Some background and details of its production were covered in a feature segment on CBS This Morning. I celebrate this work as an example of how music and technology can bring (so many) people together, in these disconnected times.
  • August 3-October 31: Live From London [VOCES8 & friends] An online streaming festival of amazing vocal music, with concert premieres every week featuring some of the world’s finest vocal ensembles: VOCES8, The Swingles, The Gesualdo Six, Apollo5, and Chanticleer. Although those performances are no longer streamable, the holiday sequel Live From London – Christmas, remains available through January 15, 2021, with 16 concerts featuring a starry line-up from the UK, the US and across Europe. It’s truly some of the best vocal music you’ll ever hear, with even more groups like the Choir of Westminster Abbey to the phenomenal Take 6.
  • September 23: Lift Every Voice and Sing [105 Voices of History National HBCU Concert Choir] A stirring virtual performance by conductors and singers representing the nation’s Historically Black Colleges & Universities of the song that’s become known as the “Black National Anthem” (written by James Weldon Johnson and Music by Rosamond Johnson, arranged by Roland M. Carter).
  • October 23: Opera Philadelphia Channel premieres. Long before COVID-19, but amidst a challenging arts landscape, Opera Philadelphia demonstrated a willingness to embrace non-traditional, innovative approaches. Digital Festival O was a rapid and timely response to the necessities of the pandemic. In lieu of a live 20-21 season, the company rapidly pivoted to launch a streaming service featuring premieres and reimagined works filmed specifically for this format. The content has been original and phenomenal, with more premieres and performances yet to come in 2021! It’s a bold step to develop new content and audiences for this evolving, digitally-native medium.
  • December 15: Global Ode to Joy [Stay at Home Choir] This list concludes as it began: with Beethoven. This production was part of a global celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday, with artists of all disciplines to share videos that inspire joy. It features a new English setting of the Ninth Symphony’s Ode to Joy by former US poet laureate Tracy K. Smith. The performance features the Stay at Home Choir, an organization that only came into being in 2020 and has produced stunning performances throughout the year with thousands of participants. It’s a hopeful message for the New Year of what’s possible through creative collaboration.

What I’m creating…

Happy New Year! I recently put together this video with fellow 1980s and 90s alumni of my high school Madrigals group, to celebrate the holidays and the 100 Year anniversary of
University Laboratory High School. I’m so glad that creating at a distance has enabled me to reconnect with old friends and bring us some joy at the start of the year.

No. 25 • 2020-12-16

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Making some space for joy

I’m a sucker for holiday performances. In my years with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, I sang too many Boston Pops Holiday concerts to count (imagine forcing that holiday cheer, again and again… for 12 performances in 10 days), and I get the cynicism of the season, especially in this annus horribilis. But ever since moving to Philly I’ve missed participating in holiday concerts, and this year, without the opportunity to gather socially, the loss of in-person performances feels particularly poignant.

Despite our current restrictions, many arts organizations are producing new content for this holiday season and delivering it a variety of novel ways. This issue highlights my picks for viewing and listening (some free and some paid), coming from Philly and from afar, that I’m particularly interested in checking out over this holiday break.

I’ll leave you with the immortal words of Francis Xavier Cross (Bill Murray from the 1998 classic, Scrooged):

“It’s Christmas Eve! It’s… it’s the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we… we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be. It’s a… miracle. It’s really a sort of a miracle. Because it happens every Christmas Eve…

If you believe in this spirit thing, the miracle will happen and then you’ll want it to happen again tomorrow. You won’t be one of these bastards who says “Christmas is once a year and it’s a fraud”, it’s NOT! It can happen every day, you’ve just got to want that feeling. And if you like it and you want it, you’ll get greedy for it! You’ll want it every day of your life and it can happen to you! I believe in it now! I believe it’s going to happen to me now! I’m ready for it!

Frank Cross

Happy Holidays!

Holiday (Socially) Distant Creations

  • A Philly Pops Christmas: Spectacular Sounds of the Season [The Philly Pops, pictured above] The organization undertook great efforts to recordthis year’s holiday concert at The Grand Opera House in Wilmington. Music Director David Charles Abell welcomes back Broadway star Mandy Gonzalez (Hamilton reference!) for her third Christmas with the POPS. Performances are streamed daily for free (Dec. 18 – Jan. 1), as a gift from the Philly Pops to all!
  • The Hip Hop Nutcracker, recorded live at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. This holiday mash-up is a contemporary dance spectacle set to Tchaikovskyʼs timeless music. A unique and joyful event, this production set in New York City is performed by a supercharged cast of a dozen all-star dancers, a DJ, a violinist, and MC Kurtis Blow (!), who opens the show with a short set ($25, streaming performances every evening at 7pm, Dec. 15 – Jan. 3).
  • Love in the Park [Opera Philadelphia Channel] This 5-episode “musical loveletter to Philly” features 16 members of the Opera Philadelphia chorus, conducted by Chorus Master Elizabeth Braden and accompanied by pianist Grant Loehnig, performing beloved opera arias and choruses alongside musical theater selections. While not explicitly holiday-themed (it was filmed in Dilworth Park in September, hence the scenes with beautiful weather), I think it still fits perfectly with the season. Available now via the Opera Philadelphia Channel (available now: $15 for 7 days of access, or get a season pass to watch all channel content for the year).
  • Live from London – Christmas [VOCES8 and many friends] A holiday sequel to this summer’s fantastic Live from London vocal festival, with 16 concerts featuring a starry line-up from the UK, the US and across Europe. It’s truly some of the best vocal music you’ll ever hear, from the Choir of Westminster Abbey to the phenomenal Take 6. The festival also supports the VOCES8 Foundation’s global message of music education for all (December-January, $100-150 to stream concerts through Jan. 15).
  • World Cafe Live – House Concerts [World Cafe Live] This series features 8 streams over 2 weeks (one each night Wedesday-Saturday, beginning Dec. 9 and ending Dec. 19). The lineup is all WCL regulars – artists who have played our stages many times over the years, some of whom would be doing holiday shows at the venue around this time. These are pre-recorded sets from the artists’ home setups (free to watch, but donations which will be split between the artist & WCL)
  • A Christmas Celebration with John Rutter [The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra] World-renowned English composer and conductor John Rutter, celebrated vocal group VOCES8 and a stellar line-up of special guests, and the many thousand voices of the Stay At Home Choir, all join the RPO for this unique online performance (£10, available through Dec. 22).
  • Global Ode to Joy [Live with Carnegie Hall] A global celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday, with artists of all disciplines to share videos that inspire joy (including a unique collaboration between our Philadelphia Orchestra and digital artist Refik Anadol). Also features a new English setting of the Ninth Symphony’s Ode to Joy by former US poet laureate Tracy K. Smith, with the thousands of voices of the Stay at Home Choir (free to stream).
  • A Soulful Christmas [Kimmel Center] The annual Soulful Christmas choral concert, featuring hundreds of choir singers from area churches, will be an online program this year with hosted by music director Dr. J. Donald Dumpson and WDAS radio DJ Patty Jackson, with special guest Bishop Norman Hutchins. Honoring the tradition, on Dec. 20 they will share recordings of previous performances as a live broadcast on WDAS(105.3 FM) at noon and via an on-demand stream.
  • The Prom [Netflix] I love an unapologetic song and dance show (this is a movie version of the Broadway hit musical). While it’s not super-deep (nor holiday-themed), the feel-good spirit certainly fits with the season. Directed by Ryan Murphy, the creator of Glee, so if you can imagine an episode of that show with Meryl Streep, Kerry Washington, and Nicole Kidman, it’s pretty much this.

What I’m creating…

I’ll return to my holiday lights project later… In the meantime, here’s one of my musical projects for the holiday season. I performed this many many times as a member of the Stanford Fleet Street Singers, though usually with a group… not by myself!

Hope it brings you some joy!

No. 24 • 2020-12-02

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Ready Player… Meh

Happy December!  Over the long Thanksgiving weekend I was eager to start (and then managed to slog through) reading Ready Player Two. My one word review:

Meh.

This is Ernest Cline’s sequel to his best seller, Ready Player One. For me, the original was a highly entertaining nostalgia trip, combining callbacks to ’80s pop culture (my formative years) with an all-consuming virtual reality world (called the Oasis). I thoroughly enjoyed that book (let’s not talk about the movie), and like another popular VR media touchstone, The Matrix (one of my all-time favorite movies), it probes the questions: If a virtual simulation becomes indistinguishable from the physical world, is there a difference? What does that mean for us as individuals? As a society? As a planet?

(And yes, there are horrible parallels between our current online world and The Matrix / The Oasis, but that’s a topic for another day.)

While not quite the dumpster fire of The Matrix sequels, Ready Player Two similarly retreats from these somewhat interesting philosophical questions and instead falls back to basically the following: Virtual reality is awesome (and might save the planet!).

We’re still very far from a virtual world indistinguishable from our physical reality. Unfortunately, the popular notion of “VR is awesome” has done a disservice to education, particularly in our current state of mostly remote, online learning. It has reinforced the notion that the best (only?) virtual learning experience is to simulate the physical classroom and the conventions and interactions of that setting (one person speaking to many, forcing eye contact with students, dispensing Socratic questions, etc.). I get why most instructors go there… it’s familiar and what we’re used to. But ultimately, it doesn’t make sense.

We’ve learned that the best way to travel through water is by swimming, not by trying to run through it. If our physical medium changes, we don’t expect to do the same things. Carrying over the conventions of in-person teaching into an online setting is like trying to run in a swimming pool: you can kind of do it, but it’s slower and distorted (and there’s a lot of extraneous flailing about).

But what if instructors learned how to properly “swim” in this online medium? And what does “swimming” look like in the medium of remote learning? We are still in the process of figuring that out, and it takes practice and effort and time (I’ll bet you didn’t learn to swim in one day). But rather than starting with “How can we adapt our existing class / curriculum to be offered online” (running in a swimming pool), I believe we must start with “What are alternative pathways to learning the course material?” and then develop content, tools, and practices that are authentic to this online environment.

(This is primarily directed towards higher education, where I have the greatest experience, and perhaps high school. I believe online learning is much different, and in many cases inappropriate for younger students.)

“Swimming” requires an understanding of the conventions of online interaction: text over voice. Video over lecture. And projects over problem sets. Those who’ve already incorporated project-based learning in their instruction have a head start. Let’s face it, our students have to do much of this on their own, so there’s never been a better time for interest-driven projects.

(And I mean actual project-based learning, where students are given agency to develop their own problem/project and create a solution, not where students are given materials and a set of IKEA-style instructions to construct a pre-determined artifact.)

“Swimming” also requires creativity and a willingness to experiment, which is why I’ve been so fascinated with artistic collaborations since the start of the pandemic. I think there are better examples of such creativity and experimentation happening in the arts, at all levels (so many high schools produced virtual musicals this Fall). But that willingness to try something new (and learn from failure) needs to be present for all subjects.  

Sadly, some are talking about this as a “lost” academic year, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be an authentic opportunity for learning and growth, both for instructors and students. While it’s incredibly difficult to get people to see possibilities beyond their own experiences of in-person instruction, that’s exactly what we’re asking of our students; that’s education. In this year of disruption, let’s embrace the fact that we’re on a shared journey. Let’s lean into the distinctions between IRL (“in real life”) and online. If we learn to “swim”, and figure out ways to learn better together online, it won’t be a lost year.

I publish the Creating at a Distance newsletter every two weeks. The next issue will land on December 16.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • WPA 2.0: Envisioning a New Era of Public Arts Funding [Mural Arts & Carpenters’ Hall] A virtual panel discussion on how FDR’s Works Progress Administration could serve as a model for sustained public investment in our nation’s cultural infrastructure, moderated by Jane Golden (Today, 12/2 at 5:30pm). 
  • Global Ode to Joy [Live with Carnegie Hall] Originally conceived as performances across six continents, this global celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday has gone online, inviting artists of all disciplines to share videos that inspire joy. Featuring a performance with the thousands of voices of the Stay at Home Choir (Thursday, 12/3 at 7:30pm).
  • Teaching music over Zoom is hard, but Drexel app makes it easier for Philly high school students [Philadelphia Inquirer] In-depth article about the virtual choir collaboration between local schools and Grammy Award-winners, The Crossing, using my Virtual Chorister app.
  • Live from London – Christmas [VOCES8 and many friends] A holiday sequel to this summer’s fantastic Live from London vocal festival, with 16 concerts featuring a starry line-up from the UK, the US and across Europe. The festival also supports the VOCES8 Foundation’s global message of music education for all (December-January).
  • LightsOn [Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance & Philly Culture United] Express your support for the arts by joining this letter writing campaign to Philadelphia City Council advocating for arts and culture to be included in any comprehensive relief package for the city.
  • A Jazzy Holiday Overture [Drexel Jazz Orchestra and ACE-Lab] This virtual concert features Duke Ellington’s “Nutcracker Suite” in an immersive 3D environment using visual animation by Drexel colleague Nick Jushchyshyn and his students in the Animation, Capture & Effects Lab (Thursday, 12/3 at 7pm).
  • ABBA A Cappella Medley [Jared Halley] Pure ’70s fun. I only recently stumbled upon singer-producer Jared Halley’s many creative works (always 16 tracks of him, a cappella), but I’ll be following now, for sure.

What I’m creating

Messing around with Arduino and 600 individually addressable LEDs for a new home project for the holidays. I’ll be back with an update in two weeks…

ECE-101 Fall 2020 seminar speakers to date

No. 23 • 2020-11-18

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Constraints as Opportunities

We know the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many to re-imagine creative works in mid-development. In 2017, my friend Dr. Ellen Fishman received a Discovery Grant from Opera America to develop Marie Begins, a new interactive jazz opera with librettist Julia Curcio. Ellen is a composer, new media artist, fellow Apple Distinguished Educator, and Director of Arts & New Media at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, an ideal background for exploring the possibilities of audience interaction in opera through technology. Here’s the description of Marie Begins:

As a modern woman, Marie lives in a world of endless possibilities. But on her 30th birthday, she realizes how little she has actually achieved. The audience guides Marie’s trajectory in this interactive work, making choices for her at the end of each two- to six-minute scene to help her pull her life together.

The work was conceived as a live presentation, in which audience members participate through real-time polls on their smartphones, guiding the critical moments of Marie’s journey. Thus, the story would follow a unique path for each performance. Early in the process, Dr. Fishman and her team developed an online pilot demonstration by filming and recording early scenes of the work. providing a great prototype for the key concepts of the work.

After a series of live performance workshops in 2018, the premiere of Marie Begins was set for this month with Westminster Opera Theater at Rider University. Once it became clear that performing for an in-person audience would not be possible in 2020, Dr. Fishman, along with conductor Susan Ashbaker and stage director Audrey Chait, embarked upon a creative adaptation, a hybrid live streaming and interactive performance.The performers, students from Westminster Choir College, will be following the choices from audience polls to direct the story and act accordingly.

And even with such technology and creativity, compromises must be made… The conductor and performers (safely and socially-distanced) recorded the music for the opera to ensure the highest possible sound quality for the presentation. Fortunately, Dr. Fishman had gained familiarity and experience with socially-distanced (but still collaborative) recording for this and other musical projects. For the premiere, the performers will be acting and following in sync with their recordings.

I’ve written previously about how technology creates opportunities for new kinds of art… particularly works authentic to the affordances and constraints of an emerging medium. Perhaps it’s not such a stretch for Marie Begins, which was conceived and developed with technology in mind, but this presentation feels particularly appropriate for our current world of videoconferencing and online polls. I am eager to see how the opera lands in this novel format. 

The work premieres online (free) this Friday (11/20) and Saturday (11/21), with a pre-performance talk by Dr. Fishman at 7pm about her experiences composing interactive works.  Hope you’ll join me in attending the premiere!

The newsletter is now on a bi-weekly schedule, so the next issue will land on December 2. I wish you all a happy, safe, and socially distant Thanksgiving!

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Cycles of My Being [Music by Tyshawn Sorey, Lyrics by Terrance Hayes & Lawrence Brownlee] A new film version of this groundbreaking song cycle that centers on what it means to be a Black man living in America today. Premiering on the Opera Philadelphia Channel this Friday (11/20). Can’t wait to see it!
  • In the Key of Innovation [Settlement Music School] I’ll be hosting this online conversation with Natalie Painchaud, coauthor of Eat, Sleep, Innovate: How to Make Creativity an Everyday Habit Inside Your Organization, and Settlement CEO Helen Eaton (11/19 at 1pm).
  • Roots [Musica Sacra] A virtual concert performance of this remarkable short piece by composer Ola Gjeilo, commissioned by a consortium of partners through Chorus America.
  • The Road Home [The Copley Singers] Just in a choral mood… Another beautiful hymn by composer Stephen Paulus with lyrics by Dennis Browne, featuring some old singing friends from Boston.
  • Why Does Choral Music Sound So Good? [Barnaby Martin] Speaking of choral music… Here’s a wonderfully produced YouTube explainer on the acoustics, mathematics and physiology of ensemble vocal music.
  • Hallelujah Chorus at Macy’s [Opera Philadelphia Chorus] It’s hard to believe this was 10 years ago… and it’s now hard to imagine an indoor space this crowded. But it still warms my heart at the start of this holiday season. Please mask up and be safe, everyone!

What I’m creating

The guest lectures for my ECE-101 class, “Electrical & Computer Engineering in the Real World”, are all available to stream online. It’s an introductory seminar for first-year students featuring premier guest presenters that highlights the impact of our field. We have two more speakers this term:

  • Nov. 18 (today, 2pm): Dr. David Delaine, Assistant Professor of Engineering Education, The Ohio State University
  • Dec. 2 (2pm): Dr. Chris Dancy, Assistant Professor of Computer Science, Bucknell University

Register here to live stream the upcoming presentations.

ECE-101 Fall 2020 seminar speakers to date

No. 22 • 2020-11-04

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We can do this better

Another sleepless election night and incredibly close race. You’d think that 230+ years into our democracy, the fundamental process of voting would be reliable, robust, and routine. But as recent elections have demonstrated, for many the process of voting is not routine, nor is it easy. Elections are perhaps the single greatest collaborative act, and anything involving 130M+ people is going to have a great deal of complexity. Given the increasingly high stakes and close margins, how can we ensure that future elections are not as susceptible to misinformation, confusion, and disenfranchisement?

I made the decision to cast a vote in person on Election Day. Actually, I requested and received a mail-in ballot for both the Pennsylvania primary and general elections. I believe in mail-in balloting… as states like Oregon and Washington have demonstrated it is normally reliable, secure, and robust to interference. But over the past few months we’ve seen outrageous efforts to disrupt a straightforward process: crippling the US Postal Service to increase uncertainty of delivery, monitoring of drop boxes to intimidate those trying to avoid those delivery uncertainties, and legal efforts to block any pre-processing of mail-in ballots to delay the count (to delegitimize those votes). This is what ultimately persuaded me to cast an in-person ballot using an electronic voting machine (with printed verification), after voiding my mail-in ballot. I wanted to make certain that my vote would be counted as quickly as possible on Election Day. (Voting early in Pennsylvania was equivalent to mail-in voting, meaning those votes would be counted more slowly.) And as we’re seeing now, the morning after, the in-person tabulated vote is showing a vastly different picture of our state (with Trump far ahead) than the close outcome likely after a full count of all mail-in/early votes. Unfortunately, this has already opened the door to ridiculous claims of impropriety, playing upon people’s impatience and fear. (And yes, it is very concerning how close this election is, but that’s a topic for another time.)

So why is this so difficult?  Well it’s a complicated problem, with countless variations and nuances on an enormous scale.  One would think that technology could help in this situation, and it does (mostly behind the scenes in the tabulation of results and the rapid aggregation of counts across districts, counties, and states). But if our bank accounts, credit cards, and Amazon purchases can live on our devices and “in the cloud”, shouldn’t we be able to vote that way? There are very good reasons we don’t (current technology would make elections even more susceptible to hacking overall), but the widespread perception is that voting should be easier. And within some people these difficulties kindle misplaced suspicions, misguided assertions of fraud, and ridiculous vote-stealing conspiracy theories.

The reason it’s so easy for us to interact, transact, and just act out much of our lives online is that there have been massive investments by tech companies in developing and refining that infrastructure. We see something we like, provide a quick authentication with our fingerprints or faces, and we make payment and receive our goods, sometimes even on the same day. Much effort has been made into making the User Experience (UX) as smooth and painless as possible that it also makes us feel that everything should be so easy. 

A substantial amount of industry resources go towards recruiting top technical talent graduating from Colleges and Universities. Yes, many of the world’s greatest young minds devote their talents towards making it easier for us to shop. Why aren’t we putting the same amount of investment into advancing the voting process, efficient tabulation, and election security?  It would seem to be the ultimate UX problem, one that the very future of our society depends upon solving.  Well, if you’re a good computer scientist or UX designer you’re not going to make Google or Facebook money by working on voting infrastructure. But that’s what’s needed… the very best UX designers, coders, and cybersecurity experts working to advance the most integral process of our democracy. 

We need a way, beyond individual altruism, to incentivize the country’s brightest minds to work on this. There are longstanding models like the Peace Corps, Teach for America, the armed forces, and AmeriCorps, that subsidize education for a commitment to service. I propose a DemocracyCorps, dedicated to ensuring that everyone can vote and that every vote counts. Graduates would commit to 2 years of working towards improving the electoral process (making technical improvements, combined with voter engagement and expansion efforts). Given the exceedingly high (and rising) costs of higher education, it would create lucrative career pathways for a broader and more diverse representation of students (especially in fields like computing). Tech companies could (and should) also offer 1-year sabbaticals to current employees to work on election systems (it’s really the least they could do given the social media-fueled mess of the last few elections). An additional incentive would be the chance to work with (and recruit from) DemocracyCorps graduates.

So here we once again, sleep-deprived and anxious, awaiting the results of a far-too-close election. While there’s no perfect system for voting, at the least we should be trying harder to improve the process. Much effort is put into making our devices into essentially addictive slot machines. Let’s turn that energy towards something much more important: making our elections truly reliable, robust, and routine.

I’ve shifted the newsletter to a bi-weekly schedule,
a pace that I hope is sustainable for the long term.
My next newsletter will be posted on November 18.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Philadelphia Lullaby Project [World Cafe Live] Beautiful new lullabies written by Philadelphia-area parents and caregivers with songwriters/teaching artists from the area. Created in partnership with Carnegie Hall’s Weill Music Institute.
  • Decrypted By Us: A community by and for students from groups underrepresented in Computer Science. They make videos that represent and speak to underrepresented CS students to encourage them to pursue their interests and goals. 
  • Beyond the Sea [VOCES8 Scholars] A virtual collaboration of UK and US singers participating in VOCES8’s training program. Missed this a few months ago when it premiered, but it’s a great arrangement of Bobby Darin’s classic. 
  • 17 Players in Five States, Composing Over the Internet [NY Times] A peek behind the scenes of the modern music ensemble Alarm Will Sound’s process of working with composer Tyshawn Sorey to record his Autoschediasms.
  • E.T. Theme [Samara Ginsburg] The latest of her virtual collaborative cello performances… I think we could all use a little nostalgia and inspiration today.
  • Dear Theodosia [Hamilton cast members] Another virtual performance from the musical, featuring those Burrs and Hamiltons from the different productions. They’ve covered much of the show in virtual performances… I look forward to the virtual rendition of Farmer Refuted 😉
  • Pachelbel’s Chicken [YouTube] This is a few years old, but it’s just that kind of day…

What I’m creating

I don’t intend to always focus this section on Virtual Chorister app announcements, but I do have a big update for iPad in the works… The next version will allow you to load and view a musical score alongside following and recording videos. The new version will be available in the App Store within a week. 

Virtual Chorister for iPad with score view… Coming soon!

No. 21 • 2020-10-21

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Independent Creatives

In media and technology there are a small number of dominant players, huge companies with vast resources that define much of our world in terms of what we see, hear, and use. In fact, tech has become media: not just social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), but they are now the gatekeepers for music (Apple and Spotify), video (YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon), and games (Sony and Microsoft). It takes enormous investment to create the infrastructure for such platforms, and big tech has gotten very good at leveraging computing at the scale needed to serve billions of people.

But we know that such dominance also leaves big gaps… spaces for individuals and small groups to create and make content that may not premiere on Disney+, but enrich the ecosystem. Independent works are absolutely necessary to inject different and diverse ideas into the media and tech landscape. But this requires a different kind of technology… the kind that disintermediates, enabling even individuals to create very high quality work, connect with and market to supporters, and easily publish their work to a worldwide audience. I contend there’s never been a better time to be an independent creative, but it requires a knowledge of this specific kind of tech: how to create, share, and scale the reach of your work.

Remember, creativity is just connecting things, and Philly is a fantastic city in which our highly diverse arts, media, tech, and civic communities can interconnect. This afternoon, as part of the program for Amplify Philly @ Home No. 4, I’ll be hosting a conversation about independent creatives in media and tech in Philadelphia with two very special guests:

  • Dr. Frank Lee is Founding Director of the Entrepreneurial Game Studio, co-founder of Drexel’s highly ranked game design program, and an ExCITe Center colleague. He’s the creator of Skyscraper Tetris (on the Cira Centre), which earned him a Guiness World Record for the largest architectural video game display in history. He’s been named by Polygon as one of the 50 most admirable people in gaming as well as one of Philadelphia Magazine’s Top Innovators.
  • Dave Silver is the co-founder of REC Phillythe space for creatives in Philadelphia. Located in a beautiful new space in the renovated Fashion District mall, they provide resources that help members to design, create, record and produce work, get booked for live shows, network with other creatives, and receive industry services. Dave has also co-organized Amplify Philly, highlighting Philadelphia’s music and startup communities annually at SXSW.

RSVP here and tune in at 2pm for what’s sure to be a great discussion!

Click here to watch Amplify Philly live!

Note: I’ve shifted the newsletter to a bi-weekly schedule.
I hope that’s a pace that is sustainable for the long term. 

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • The Opera Philadelphia Channel: I’ve written about this before, but this new streaming service is now live! This month the channel kicks off with a newly created recital program, Lawrence Brownlee & Friends, and a 2015 filmed performance of La traviata at the Academy of Music, which was fantastic!
  • ‘Little Shop,’ Big Relief [NYTimes] How the Weathervane Theater (NH) put on a safe performance of the musical, Little Shop of Horrors, for a live audience.
  • The Room Where It Happens [Hamilton] Another collaborative music video from the original cast of Hamilton to help get out the vote, featuring Philly’s own Leslie Odom, Jr. Bonus content: Another Hamilton co-video of The Schuyler Sisters, with cast members from the multiple productions! These pandemic performance videos now cover a significant portion of the musical!
  • The Love [Black Eyed Peas & Jennifer Hudson] An updated remix of their 2003 classic, Where is the Love?, for the current moment. I still have a soft spot for this song.

What I’m creating

Virtual Chorister for Android is now available on the Google Play Store! Let’s call this a preview version… There are many different Android devices, and I’ve only been able to test it on a small number. It’s also my first Android app, and I’m sure there are many kinks still to be ironed out!

Android users, please give it a try, and send feedback if you encounter any issues.

A circular Virtual Chorister icon for Android!

No. 20 • 2020-10-07

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Looking to Others

Next Tuesday (Oct. 13, 4-5pm) is our third Creative Conversation panel, the final scheduled event of our mini-series with Play On Philly. In past discussions, we’ve been joined by leaders of premier arts & education organizations who are actively exploring new ways of performing, learning, and sharing in the era of social distancing. Previous events have focused on artistic innovation and new forms of collaboration during the pandemic.

A common thread throughout these discussions is that there’s much to learn from the response to the pandemic from different sectors. Thus, the theme of our third Conversation is Looking to Others, moderated by Jessica Zweig, program director of Play on Philly.  It will feature another outstanding group of panelists whose efforts span a wide range of organizations and areas: 

Obviously, the pandemic has impacted all sectors, and each community encompasses a range of needs and desires. Some of those will be defined by the objectives of an affinity group, whether it’s the arts, civic engagement, racial and social justice, or combinations thereof. But all efforts are mediated by the traditions of that community (concerts, exhibits, rallies, advocacy campaigns, and protests) as well as the technologies of our time (the Internet, streaming, social media, etc.).

This fully aligns with our transdisciplinary approach to problem solving: that we develop better solutions by understanding and integrating the learnings and practices across different areas. It’s also in keeping with the founding principle of the ExCITe Center: that creativity stems from the re-mixing of ideas and activities from one domain to another. I’m very eager to hear what are panelists will have to say, and I hope you’ll join us for what is sure to be another great conversation!

RSVP here for the Creative Conversation on Tuesday, Oct. 13 at 4pm

With the start of the academic year, it’s challenging to keep up with a weekly schedule. Starting now, I’ll publish every two weeks, so the next newsletter will be Wednesday, October 21.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Smile [William P. Ramsey] A beautiful rendition of this classic song by the Founder of the Voices of Soul Concert Chorale, submitted to the #SmileChallenge offered by the Matt Jones Orchestra.
  • Philly Music Teacher Gives Her Students a Voice Amid Virtual Learning [NBC10] Nice profile of Suzanne Spencer, Vocal Music Director at the Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush (School District of Philadelphia), on the opportunities and challenges of teaching music remotely.
  • To the Polls (2020) [Mural Arts] An exhibit featuring six large-scale temporary mural installations at LOVE Park by Philadelphia artists to excite the electorate and explore their reasons for voting.
  • Star Trek: The First Generation (deepfake) [Futuring Machine] An AI-powered mashup, placing the faces of the original Star Trek cast (Shatner, Nimoy, etc.) into scenes from the 2010-era reboot movies. Shows what’s now possible through deep learning/deep fakes, and its both amazing and terrifying.
  • Jump (1984) [Van Halen] With the sad news of Eddie Van Halen’s passing, I felt compelled to include this. Not the best example of Eddie’s talents, but it was such an impactful song in my childhood, and EVH’s solo still manages to steal the scene from David Lee Roth’s strutting. RIP.

What I’m creating

I’m a member of The Tonics, an a cappella group in the Philadelphia region. This year the group is celebrating 30 years of singing and performing together (I’ve been privileged to be a part of the last 8+ years).

Since we can’t sing together during the pandemic, we just created our first virtual a cappella video. We’re using this release to raise awareness and support for the West Philly Promise Neighborhood throughout October, so we hope you’ll take a look!