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

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