Bonus Episode: David Bradley

So Where Do We Go From Here podcast

In this bonus episode, we chat with renowned theater director and producer, David Bradley, about performing arts during the pandemic and where we go from here on the stage.

Our apologies, the audio for this episode is a bit uneven (it was one of our practice sessions, and we were still figuring out the best ways to record for the podcast).

David Bradley brings decades of experience as a producer, theater director, writer and arts educator. Throughout his career he has specialized in boundary-crossing artistic collaborations frequently exploring civic and community themes. He’s a long-time member of the resident ensemble at People’s Light, where he’s directed over 30 productions, including The Diary of Anne Frank, The Crucible, Young Lady from Rwanda, Doubt, and The Giver. He is the producing Director of Arts & Learning at World Cafe Live. David teaches at Arcadia University and is a graduate of Yale University, and in 2020 received a Leadership Award from the Arts + Business Council of Greater Philadelphia, which recognizes individuals who demonstrate remarkable leadership, exceptional innovation, and a commitment to the community in Philadelphia.

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Ep. 1: Natalie Nixon

So Where Do We Go From Here podcast

In our inaugural episode, we speak to Dr. Natalie Nixon, renowned creativity strategist, author, and speaker, about the year that’s been and how creativity is critical for where we go from here.

Natalie Nixon changes lives through ideas so that people build their creative confidence for years to come, get paid their worth and make an impact. She is a creativity strategist; global keynote speaker; author of the award winning The Creativity Leap: Unleash Curiosity, Improvisation and Intuition at Work; and has been featured in Forbes and in Fast Company. As president of Figure 8 Thinking, LLC she advises leaders on transformation- by applying wonder and rigor to amplify growth and business value. A hybrid thinker, Natalie consistently applies her background in cultural anthropology and fashion. She began her career in education and as a hat designer. Previous to Figure 8 Thinking, she was a professor for 16 years. She is an early-stage investor at two social impact ventures. She’s valued for her ability to work at the intersection of commercial value and stakeholder equity.

Listen here or subscribe

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No. 37 • 2021-06-28

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No More Tests

It looks like most schools and colleges will be returning to fully in-person classrooms this Fall. 15 months of remote learning has been, more often than not, frustrating and exhausting, but also illuminating. The key question is will we take any practical learnings from those experiences back into the classroom with us, or will we simply revert to former pre-pandemic norms?  I will try to tackle some of those questions over a series of posts this summer.

Since April 2020, I’ve taught 4 classes remotely, and I’m pleased to report I offered exactly zero tests and quizzes. How do I know if my students learned anything? Rather than 1 or 2 high stakes exams per term, almost all my assignments were projects, large and small. Full disclosure: In recent years, I haven’t typically given many exams and quizzes (though still a few), so I was pre-disposed towards this approach.

It’s not because I’m worried about cheating… In fact, I believe concerns over cheating have been overblown. Organizations’ use of “nanny” software to prevent cheating has done a terrible disservice to learning (e.g., Dartmouth Medical School’s “scandal” where they’ve had to fully retract and apologize for accusations of cheating). Not only do they convey to students a disturbing lack of trust, such systems betray a fundamental lack of understanding of the technology (and promote unrealistic expectations of what’s possible). Furthermore, it’s a classic case of forcing a square peg into a round hole: the online medium (the very nature of which is about open access to information and resources) is simply not well-suited to the traditional “closed book” exam.

Whether in-person or online, exams unfairly advantage some students. Many (through friends, siblings, social groups, etc.) have access to “exam books”, collections of previous tests & problems from the course and professors, while other students (particularly first-gen college students) are unaware these exist. Clearly, those with access to prior examples have a fundamental advantage over those without. It’s impossible to control what’s out there and quite difficult (and time consuming) to come up with entirely new exam questions for the same course material. Thus, exams may not be an assessment of a student’s ability to apply the knowledge they’ve learned, but rather their exposure to similar questions.

I believe asking students to apply and demonstrate their learning through projects offers a better assessment of their understanding of course concepts. There’s no singular “right’ answer, so it’s never a question of rote memorization or “cookie cutter” work. In a well-crafted project assignment, students can demonstrate competency, but also create and express their work in their own ways, emphasizing their own perspectives and interests. Good projects remain relevant year after year, so they don’t need to be changed as often as exam questions. And reviewing prior examples is not detrimental or “cheating”, but actually helpful. Current students can learn from and be inspired by previous years’ projects, and they still have to do the work to create their own successful project.

In my Applied Digital Signal Processing class (for undergraduate seniors), for several years we’ve had a final project to implement an audio compression system (like mp3). This also worked well for this year’s online class. Each time, I give out “prizes” to the best performing systems, following established performance criteria (amount of compression, sound quality, compute time, etc.). Our big change this year was to recast the other assessments (a midterm exam and problem sets) into a series of weekly “labs” (mini-projects) that built more coherently towards the final project. Going online freed us from the prior materials, to reimagine an entirely project-based course. The final project results were similar to previous years and student feedback was (very) positive. I intend to use this framework for future versions of the class, whether online or in person.

First-Year Engineering Design (my Spring 2021 class) focuses on student-proposed design projects, supported by other deliverables (research, design schematics, parts lists, reports, presentations, etc.). This year, rather than final project presentations, which would have been tedious over Zoom, each group created a “Kickstarter”-style video, highlighting the objective, design, and function of their projects. We first had them make a short “project teaser” video midway through the term, to develop experience and obtain feedback. These videos opened the door to all kinds of creativity (both in terms of the projects and their films), but also kept the presentations focused. Our final meeting was a “film festival”, where the entire class watched and judged all of the group videos, with prizes for those receiving the highest ratings. I believe the video presentation format worked really well, and is another aspect I’ll incorporate in future versions of the class, whether in-person or online.

I think one of the greatest challenges in education is understanding how to apply concepts learned in one class more broadly, and I believe well-designed project assignments are one way we can better train our students for the future. In the workforce, how often do you take an exam? Now, how often do you create or participate in a project (a report, a presentation, a design, a program, etc.)? There is a long history to project-based learning, but my online teaching experiences have inspired me to completely eliminate exams and quizzes from my future courses. I understand this may not be the best fit for all classes, but I also believe there are many more classes than not where a project or collection of synthesis activities would be more effective for learning, leading to greater retention, application, and creativity. 

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Tech As Art: Supporting Artists Who Use Technology as a Creative Medium [National Endowment for the Arts] A virtual event to discuss a new NEA report about the creative ecosystem existing at the intersection of arts and technology, with presentations from prominent arts funders and artist-technologist pairs (tomorrow, Tue 6/29, free registration).
  • Songbird [Stay At Home Choir] The latest from the massive online choir, covering the Fleetwood Mac classic. This one includes over 1400 singers in collaboration with The King’s Singers.
  • Zoom Love Story [Stanford Fleet Street Singers] New video (and Taylor Swift tribute) from my former group. Romance still blooms in college classrooms (or not)… even on Zoom 😉 
  • Piano Piece Based on the Fibonacci Sequence [Peter Bence] A composition (and virtuoso performance) inspired by the mathematical sequence where each entry is the sum of the previous 2 numbers (1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, etc.), by YouTube superstar pianist, Peter Bence.

What I’m creating…

My new podcast with Melinda Steffy will be launching next week! Here are some members of Philly’s creative community, we’ll be interviewing:

  • Natalie Nixon, author & creativity strategist
  • ELLECT (Steve Tyson), artist & hip-hop educator
  • David Bradley, theater director & producer
  • And more!

Check the podcast page next week for info to subscribe!

No. 36 • 2021-06-11

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So, where do we go from here? (A new podcast!)

Last newsletter, I teased some big news for this summer…

It goes without saying that the past 15 months have been… unprecedented. We’ve all had to adapt to a new and evolving set of constraints, and many have had to endure and persevere through significant changes to their work, social lives, and creative experiences. But we have also developed new skills and discovered new ways of doing things; things we previously didn’t think possible. As we begin to return to more traditional, in-person activities, how can we take what we’ve learned during the pandemic and create, collaborate, and just do things better?

To explore this topic, I’m teaming up with Melinda Steffy, Founder & Principal of Concentric Strategy, which brings creative problem solving to organizational strategy & communications. She previously served as Executive Director of music education nonprofit LiveConnections, which she guided for 8 years from start-up through its merger with music venue World Cafe Live. Melinda’s 18-year career in the nonprofit sector has been deeply shaped by her perspective as a visual artist and musician.

Together, we’re launching a new conversation series So, where do we go from here? As co-hosts, we’ll talk to members of Philadelphia’s creative community (broadly defined) about what they’ve learned and what changes are informing their efforts moving forward. We’ll connect with authors, performers, educators, industry and government leaders, and more. By sharing experiences and ideas for the future, we seek to highlight pathways and opportunities to find creative solutions for the many challenges we still face, individually and collectively.

Our chats will be 45-minute Zoom conversations, open to all for live streaming and Q&A. After each live session, we will post lightly edited recordings as a podcast for those who aren’t able to join live or just want to listen on their own time. We plan to group these conversations into “Series”, the first of which will launch in July.

As a sneak preview, we’re hosting an “open dress rehearsal” on June 17 at 12:15pm for our live conversation with our mutual friend, David Bradley. David brings decades of experience as a producer, theater director, writer, and arts educator to his work. Throughout his career he has specialized in boundary-crossing artistic collaborations which frequently explore civic and community themes. He’s a long-time member of the resident ensemble at People’s Light, where his more than 30 productions as director include The Diary of Anne FrankOf Mice And MenYoung Lady from Rwanda, and The Giver. David is a co-founder of LiveConnections and been a producer on all of LiveConnections’ collaborative albums with Philadelphia schools. He teaches at Arcadia University and is a graduate of Yale University.

We are aiming for fun and informative conversations that we hope will resonate with many of us in Philadelphia as we emerge from pandemic constraints. More amazing guests are lined up for July, which we’ll announce in a few weeks, and we look forward to some great discussions. We invite you to join us in kicking off this new adventure next week!

Register here (free) for our sneak preview conversation (via Zoom) and check out our podcast webpage for more information.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Broadway’s Back [The Tonight Show] I don’t usually like these kinds of musical parody collages, but this one is so earnest and captures the excitement of returning to live theater!
  • First 8 Minutes [In the Heights] In case you didn’t hear, the film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Tony Award-winning musical premiered this week, directed by Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians). Here’s the first 8 minutes of the movie!
  • We Got Time [The Crossing] This looks amazing… A new piece by Matana Roberts honoring Breonna Taylor, presented as a linear work, which the audience walks through, safe and social-distanced, at The Woodlands in West Philadelphia. Here’s a more detailed description by Peter Crimmins from WHYY Arts. (June 11-13)
  • AI Song Contest 2021 [Wallifornia MusicTech & Deepmusic.ai] 38 teams from across the world have been collaborating with AI to create new songs. Check out some really interesting creations, and vote for your favorites to determine the winner (vote by July 1).
  • Whole New Worlds [A Cappella Science] Again, I generally dislike song parodies (changing the words to existing songs), but you have to admire the incredible effort put into this virtual a cappella medley, a mashup of astronomy and songs from Aladdin. This is from 2017, but I’m now following this channel!

What I’m creating…

There have been quite a few music announcements recently from AppleAmazon, and Spotify, specifically service enhancements like “Lossless”, “HD” or “HiFi” audio and new “Spatial Audio” content. I posted several Twitter threads commenting on these new features:

No. 35 • 2021-05-28

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#StopAsianHate

May is Asian & Pacific American Heritage month. It feels particularly timely this year given the surge of hate incidents targeting Asians in recent months. I’ve been unsure how to write about it, but I’ve tried to collect my thoughts here.

There are so many ways in which I am incredibly fortunate and privileged. My parents came to the U.S. seeking more education and new opportunities, and they fully achieved those goals with highly successful careers. So, by sheer luck of the birth lottery, I grew up loved, supported, comfortable, and I received a world-class education and so much more. I am so grateful to my parents, as well as earlier generations of Asian immigrants who forged the path in the face of tremendous challenges.

I’m gratified by the recent successes of Asians in the arts and media: film, television, music, journalism, theater, etc., which broadens representation and people’s perceptions of diversity in this country. I want to pay tribute to some early media and arts pioneers from my youth: George Takei, Seiji Ozawa, Connie Chung, and so many others. Obviously, the Asian American identity is not monolithic, encompassing an enormous diversity of cultures and traditions. My ancestry is Korean, and we have a strong identity and a proud heritage. In childhood, I’d often try to emphasize those distinctions (although “I’m not Chinese, I’m Korean, you ignorant a**hole!” was maybe not the best response to racial insults). So, it wasn’t automatic to feel kinship with other Asian communities, but I think more and more members of the AAPI community are feeling it now.

For certain, we’ve all encountered racism. We are very different peoples and individuals, and it is daunting to feel that you are seen as “the same”. It is also exhausting. In my case, I haven’t been the recipient of much directed hatred, but mostly subtle “otherness”. My name received a lot of attention growing up; not all of it negative, but most of it unwanted for a kid growing up in the Midwest who was just trying to fit in. I even tried using my English middle name (Edmund) for a summer after 1st grade (fortunately, it didn’t take). I think even then I knew it wasn’t going to change my how people would initially see me.

There are optimistic signs that historical divisions sewn to isolate minority groups is breaking down, and our shared struggles are uniting groups of color to support each other. Greater acknowledgement and recognition of widespread, structural racism has brought so many together in common advocacy to #StopAsianHate. Any form of targeted racial or ethnic violence or discrimination, whether Anti-Black, Anti-Asian, Anti-Semitic, Anti-Muslim, Anti-Latinx, or any other kind, hurts us all, and we must stand together. #RacismIsAVirus

Unfortunately, education remains an area where minority status continues to divide groups, particularly with regards to “elite” schools and universities. Admissions to highly selective Universities (anti-affirmative action lawsuits against Harvard and other institutions) are one example where people of color have been pitted against one another. The controversies over admissions to New York Ciry’s magnet schools are another. Although Asians are (in some places) well-represented in higher education, particularly in STEM fields, AAPI student enrollment nationwide is equal to our representation in the US population (7%). But I submit that Asian representation in faculty and administration, has been achieved largely by assimilating into the norms, practices, and traditions of fundamentally elitist and exclusionary institutions. In some instances, Asians have become the very obstacles we once faced.

A pernicious undercurrent exists in academia, where some start to believe we have greater knowledge and insight than others on all things. It can lead to a particularly galling form of hypocrisy… far too many see themselves as “intellectual”, “progressive”, “culturally-responsive”, and “accepting”, and yet propagate the practices of exclusion every single day. The hallowed halls of higher education remain some of the most unwelcoming and judgmental spaces, particularly for Black and Brown people.

Academic institutions can be very slow to change, and those who have long been part of the existing system can be unwilling to change. Everyone in higher education, regardless of race or ethnicity, should be pushing for greater diversity and inclusivity. We must acknowledge that some groups face a far less welcoming environment in our classrooms. I believe AAPI faculty members, in particular, must stop siding with higher ed traditionalists regarding “academic standards” and “rigor”, which are simply dog whistles for exclusion.

For make no mistake, Anti-Asian biases still permeate higher education. As a tenured Full Professor and Director of a University Research Institute, I still regularly have meetings or engage in correspondence where people mispronounce or misspell my first name (it’s just one word, no space!). Despite the fact that it’s two very common English syllables, people manage to mangle it all the time (or infuriatingly will just give up on my first name and call me “Kim”). It still irritates me, just like it did when I was 6 years old. After nearly 5 decades of rationalizing or brushing these off as innocent mistakes, I have finally learned to call it what it is: Racism.

Sorry, I’m a week late with this newsletter! Our academic year is still wrapping up (quarter system… ugh), but I’ll be back in 2 weeks with some big news for the summer!

(Socially) Distant Creations

What I’m creating…

Our Young Dragons 2021 Summer STEAM camp will be all virtual, in the online world of Minecraft, Pocket Edition. While there are other Minecraft-based programs, nearly all of them require the PC version, an impediment for many families. We have developed brand new, custom activities specifically for the phone, tablet, and console version of Minecraft to enable much broader access.

Young Dragons is a free, 4-week online summer camp for rising 6th-8th graders living or attending school in the West Philadelphia Promise Zone (19104), an area served by Alain Locke Elementary, Morton McMichael School, Martha Washington Elementary, Science Leadership Academy Middle School, and Belmont Charter School. More information here.

No. 34 • 2021-05-07

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My Year of Creating at a Distance

This newsletter debuted almost exactly a year ago today (issue No. 1 was posted May 6, 2020). I started it because, despite the restrictions of the pandemic, I was witnessing incredibly creative work enabled and taking new form via technology. Some of these works inspired me to do everything I could to remain creative and productive, whatever the constraints of social distancing. I think it’s important for each of us to reflect on our efforts over this period, so here’s some of what I’ve created over the past year:

Group a cappella videos

Solo a cappella videos

Participated in several large online choir productions. Here’s my favorite:

Crafted a song in Minecraft

Music jam videos with my research lab

Developed videos and interactive content for 3 online classes

More online talks and workshops than I can remember. Unfortunately, most are not available for streaming, but here are a few:

Co-created a live talk mini-series, Creative Conversations for a Changing World (with Jessica Zweig, Play On Philly)

Developed an iOS app to help people participate in virtual choir projects.  I also released an Android version, but it turned out to require much more time and attention than I can give it, and I won’t be able to maintain it in the future (sorry Android users).

Developed a text-based markup format for music lyrics + chord charts

Web apps on the OpenProcessing platform (written in P5.js)

As we gradually transition back to in-person interactions from a year+ of social distancing, this newsletter will also evolve. I will, of course, continue to highlight and share my thoughts about novel creative work enabled by technology. My posts will remain a mashup of arts, tech, equity, and just plain cool stuff, but I’ll try to highlight efforts that build upon the learnings of the past year. Heading into the summer, I feel a growing sense of optimism, and I look forward to what happens next!

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Sogno di Volare [Stay at Home Choir] The latest massive choral collaboration by our friends in London, featuring 3600 singers with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra performing this stirring anthem by composer Christopher Tin. The organization is also launching a new album project, featuring 5 large scale collaborative performances.
  • Behind the Scenes of the Strings On-Line installation [RITMO – University of Oslo] I linked to this experimental installation of self-playing guitars last summer. Here is a short film about how it was put together.
  • Bridging the Distance: Folk Music, the People’s Music [World Cafe Live Education] Our friends from World Cafe Live have adapted one of their Bridge Sessions for young audiences as a virtual celebration of the diversity, themes and spirit of folk music from a variety of cultures. Featuring teaching artists Elena Moon Park, Joe Tayoun and Ami Yares, the program is aimed at students in grades 2-6.
  • Villanova A Cappella Palooza [Villanova University] Livestream recording of their in-person (outdoors) festival, featuring all 8 student a cappella ensembles. Glad to see they were able to make a live performance work safely. Live music is coming back soon!

What I’m creating…

See above 😀

More seriously, I have several new projects in process right now: music, tech, videos, and even a livestream conversation series. I’m just tied up with the end of the academic year, so I’m looking forward to summer to launch some of these efforts. Of course, I’ll post things here when they’re released!

No. 33 • 2021-04-23

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Above: From the New York Times, number of COVID-19 vaccines administered in the US. Note how it is trending downwards in recent weeks.

STEAM and the Vaccination Race

The COVID-19 vaccines are a triumph of science and technology. This is, by far, the fastest a vaccine has ever been developed and deployed on a mass scale. Vaccines are now available to all over 16, and I recently received my second shot. I hope you’re getting yours, too, and I’m looking forward to greater activity in the coming months. It’s also looking like teenagers will be able to get the vaccine this summer, greatly increasing the probability of an in-person return to school in the Fall.

But make no mistake, we are in a race against the virus: we must vaccinate most of the country/world faster than the virus can spread and mutate into more resistant variants. So while there’s cause for optimism, time is critical. This makes the recent decision to pause (and likely, unpause) the Johnson & Johnson vaccine all the more frustrating.

There’s been vigorous debate on whether a full pause was the right approach. My fear is that this decision will reduce public confidence in this vaccine and the COVID-19 vaccines, in general.  We were already starting to plateau in doses administered, as the “early adopters” have received theirs. Approximately 40% of adults have received at least one dose. We’re now at the stage of trying to vaccinate those who are difficult to reach or are more cautious, reluctant, or suspicious of the vaccine. What’s particularly frustrating is that the J&J is the better vaccine at this stage. It requires only a single dose, and it can be stored using normal refrigeration, not super cold storage. It is the best weapon against the virus for hard to reach areas and populations. 

Of course, potentially catastrophic side effects must be taken seriously. And there were 6 reported cases of serious blood clots that may have been related to the J&J vaccine, with one death. Any of those incidents is tragic, and I feel for those affected, but that’s out of 7 million doses administered. That’s an extremely rare occurrence, and many times less than your chance of dying from COVID. But the CDC decided to pause the J&J out of “an abundance of caution”. 

I understand the reasoning behind the pause. Ignoring potential side effects would have been catastrophic, also providing future fuel to vaccine deniers. It’s a difficult and terrible choice and complicated one. But this is where a perspective beyond the expertise of the members of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (physicians, scientists, and public health specialists) may have been beneficial. The core question goes beyond the scientific: it is literally how do we weigh the needs of the many vs. the needs of the few? It involves emotion and group psychology, not just the raw data or any one individual’s response.

In STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, and Math) fields, we are trained to avoid emotion. The traditional belief is that emotions hinder logical and unbiased decision making (e.g., Mr. Spock or Data from Star Trek). But that ignores the other perspective: emotions are fundamentally human, and to ignore emotion is to deny our humanity (see again, Star Trek). In the case of vaccine side effects, there’s a great deal of complexity to weigh. But what seemed missing from the decision and announcement surrounding the pause was a narrative that could acknowledge the side effects while still maintaining confidence and support for the vaccine.

It’s challenging to distill a complicated decision into an emotional core, and STEM trainees (I’m including medicine here) are not particularly good at developing such narratives. But you know who are?  Artists, writers, and performers. There should have been a storyteller in the room. Or even better, the training of scientists and policymakers involved should not only have been traditional STEM, but STEAM (STEM + Arts), integrating artistic experiences. There are also writers and fluent in science and medicine who could have been brought into the decision making process.

How many books, plays, and movies are tales of “the greater good”? Protecting humanity from the virus is the greater good and that sometimes entails heroic sacrifices. Those who suffered ill-effects from the J&J vaccine are heroes and should be celebrated as such. Taking this narrative approach may have been better for both advising the public of the situation, maintaining confidence in the vaccine, and most critically, staying ahead in the race against the virus.

Unfortunately, according to some polls, the pause has undermined confidence in the J&J vaccine, and may be a significant setback in achieving herd immunity. Of course, we’ll see how this will ultimately impact the vaccination race over the next several months, but this incident strengthens my belief that STEM professionals would benefit from broader STEAM training.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • No Tears Left to Cry [TONEWALL] A divine virtual performance of this Ariana Grande song by “the super-charismatic queer a cappella band” of the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus.
  • Phantom of the Opera Medley [Jared Halley] Another a cappella masterpiece (more than 9 minutes!) by the premier solo a cappella YouTuber. This time, it’s a medley of classic songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s megahit musical.
  • One Day More [Stuart & Heather] More musical theater! I’m one of those people who has fantasized about singing all the parts to this Act One finale of Les Misérables (just ask the staff at ExCITe). These two (fantastic singers) actually did it… really well!
  • Gloria & Et in terra pax [VOCES8 & Academy of Ancient Music ] This joyous Easter performance of Bach’s B-minor Mass, part of the Live From London series, really brightened my day. It truly is “peace on Earth and goodwill to all” expressed in music.
  • The Rite of Spring Toy Orchestra [Chris Ott] I’m sure you’ve always wanted to hear the beginning of the 2nd movement from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, performed with toys. Perfection… or something.

What I’m creating…

Sorry, I’m working on several projects, but nothing that’s ready for public consumption. Watch this space!

No. 32 • 2021-04-09

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Above: one moment from Drexel a cappella group 8 To The Bar’s video submission to the ICCA 2021 competition. 

The Other March Madness

The world of a cappella (singing ensembles without any instruments) is a showcase for the human voice and group collaboration. It’s a unique musical subculture requiring a wide range of skills: vocal arranging, live performance and stage direction, choreography and dance, humor, imagination, and of course, great singing. The genre has a particularly strong presence in higher education, where there are over 1000 collegiate a cappella singing groups. 

I’ve been fortunate to sing with several groups. In college, I was particularly drawn in by the ability to present rich musical performances, without having to carry instruments or set up any gear. This makes it easy to perform anywhere and to tour, visiting other schools and venues. In fact, much of what I know about music directing, graphic design, marketing, and studio recording comes from my collegiate a cappella experiences.

There’s a well-established annual multi-stage competition called the International Championship of Collegiate A Capella (ICCA), as featured in the book and movie Pitch Perfect. (There are also annual high school and pro competitions, too, all organized by Varsity Vocals.) Participating in the event can be an incredible experience, and the live performances are truly astounding and have some of the most enthusiastic audiences ever.

But the 2021 ICCA competition is different: it’s all virtual, with groups submitting a 4-minute video performance. I’ve linked to a few examples in recent weeks, but wanted to highlight the creativity that I see emerging to take the genre to new places. Remember, this isn’t what singing groups normally do… most have just learned to make videos this year.

While some are in the standard “Zoom squares” format, you’ll also find a variety of remote and socially distant collaboration, video effects, and high quality musical production. Things I could’ve only dreamed of in college are now within reach for ambitious college groups (and even high school ensembles). From the competition rules: “all audio and video recording, mixing, and editing must be done by group members”, so it’s all the creative work of students. Similar to how a cappella entered popular culture through movies and TV, I believe some of these ICCA submissions will redefine the virtual ensemble video. I’m certain some of these methods will be incorporated into popular music videos.

The regional quarterfinals took place a few weeks ago in March, and you can watch all 250 of the competitors videos and see the results of those advancing. The semifinals are tomorrow (April 10), and those will be live streamed via the Varsity Vocals YouTube channel. I look forward to seeing what happens next!

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • A Native Hill [The Crossing] The trailer for a new album by the Grammy Award-winning Philadelphia ensemble in collaboration with composer Gavin Bryars, featuring a beautiful water color animation by artist Will Kim.
  • Singing will be a vital, national therapy for this miserable year [ClassicalFM] An interview with composer Gareth Malone about his new piece Locus Iste, his latest project in collaboration with the Stay At Home Choir.
  • SonoBus sound test [Royal Academy of Music Aarhus/Aalborg] For the super nerdy… here is video of a test session with remote participants using SonoBus (which I’ve heard good things about) for real-time music collaboration. It shows that some degree of synchronization is possible… within limits. 
  • How the Skagit Valley Chorale Learned to Sing Again Amid Covid [NY Times Magazine] A long, media-rich feature on how a chorus linked to an early superspreader event has put together a virtual video concert. Loads of great info and insight!
  • Live From London Spring Highlights [VOCES 8, English Chamber Orchestra] I still really miss live ensemble music! Here are some lovely excerpts from an exceptional concert. You can still purchase this and other performances from the Live from London Spring series, through April 30

What I’m creating…

Heading deep into the Wayback Machine for this one… I had the incredible fortune of competing in the very first ICCA finals at Lincoln Center (in 1996) as a member (and music director) of the Stanford Fleet Street Singers. I don’t think there’s any video of our performance, but here’s a track (another ’80s throwback!) from our album, which won several Contemporary A Cappella Recording Awards in 1995, including Best Male Collegiate Album.

No. 31 • 2021-03-26

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NFTs: Not the Future of Techno-Art

Let me start with a disclaimer… I am not an art connoisseur. Nor am I a cryptocurrency expert. And I admit that I really don’t get Banksy.

There’s been an irrational amount of hype surrounding NFTs, “Non Fungible Tokens”, which are a way of uniquely authenticating individual pieces of digital content. They are based on the blockchain, the same mechanism underlying cryptocurrencies (Bitcoin, etc.). NFTs are generating a wave of interest in “CryptoArt”, promising the ability to create unique or limited editions of digital artworks. Recent examples include auctions reaching $600,000 for a digital painting created by a humanoid robot and (insanely) $69M for a digital work by the artist Beeple (see above and judge for yourself).

So you might think that I, a self-proclaimed “creative technologist” who believes in the symbiotic nature of art and technology, would be a proponent for NFTs.

But as it stands now, I think it’s baloney. BS. A bubble that is going to burst, badly.

In this newsletter and elsewhere, I’ve stressed that blindly translating something from the in-person / physical world into a digital / remote setting usually leads to bad results. A stage play and a TV show are two very different things. Similarly, presenting your traditional classroom lecture over Zoom doesn’t work, it requires changes to be as effective.  Different affordances and concessions are needed for content to feel authentic to the medium. Yet, the NFT craze is the result of applying the physical standards and conventions of high art (particularly paintings, sculptures, and installations) to the digital world. It’s going to go badly.

An original painting by an artist (of any period) is truly unique. Even good copies or prints of it will differ substantively from the original. The original is then a scarce item, which endows its value: some are willing to pay (at times ridiculous sums) to lay claim to that uniqueness.  NFTs attempt to impose that uniqueness onto digital artworks: one digital copy can be authenticated as the “original” and thus someone could be the sole “owner” of a digital painting. But the nature of digital is that everything is *exactly* copyable, and it is trivial and nearly cost-free to replicate the bits of a digital file (this is the driving force behind the Information Age). NFTs try to graft an artificial scarcity on top of something that’s fundamentally abundant, digital bits. Thus, you may be the owner of an “original” digital painting, but I could have an *exact* copy of it. No difference. None. Nada. The only difference is that you have the bragging rights provided by the “certificate of ownership”. Well good for you. If it’s a good piece of art, I think I’ll enjoy my exact copy just as much as you enjoy your original.

NFTs also try to impose the values of a select few upon a medium (the Internet) that is designed for the many. When a small group of people tries to declare what’s “good” and “high value” by themselves and thrust that upon the world, well… that rarely goes well. Such an approach drives elitism and inequity. We’ve tolerated it in the world of high art because, well, really only a small number of people truly care (sorry). That NFTs try to create such distinctions in direct opposition to objective reality is the height of elitist hypocrisy (again, the digital art files are *the same*). So, it’s a hype primarily driven by those who want to be known as elitist tastemakers.

But artists need to be paid, right? First off, there aren’t many artists being paid adequately in the old system, so I can’t believe that sliding the values of the old system into the digital world will change anything. Secondly, the fundamentals of digital creation introduce new paths to monetization. Successful YouTubers (creators, gamers, and yes, educators) have taken advantage of the infinite replicability of digital content to build large audiences and make a (good) living. I want artists to be paid, but I want many more of them to earn a living wage. I don’t want a system where a select few get to make millions for their works. If this was the 17th Century, perhaps that’s the best way to do it, but there are far more artists than patrons, and very few will find a wealthy NFT benefactor. Creating a fake scarcity bubble with NFTs further encourages the cult of the “superstar” artist. 

Finally, NFTs impose a hidden cost to all of us: they are bad for the environment. Seriously. They require enormous amounts of superfluous computation, which requires power, which takes natural resources. I’m not talking about your laptop, rather massive data centers run by corporations, where much computation is devoted to the number crunching required for crypto-currencies and crypto-art. A large data center can match the power requirements of a small-mid size city (100 MW). At least Bitcoin serves a purpose: it really can make digital financial transactions far more efficient and secure, which has real value. The only value of NFTs is imparted by human vanity: the small cabal of those who wish to decree something valuable and those who want credit for grabbing it “first!”

Historically, systems based upon artificial scarcity haven’t lasted long, and this one won’t either. Instead, I simply propose this: pay for art. Purchase works that you enjoy. Buy subscriptions to content. Support digital creators via platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon. And when it’s safe, attend performances and events. Art should be an investment, but not one seeking a financial return… the return comes through a better understanding of both the human condition and oneself. And that is always worth investing in.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • 30 Musicians Jam to the Mii Channel Theme [Alex Moukala] The well-known composer and producer asked musician friends around the world to jam over this funky version of the Nintendo Wii’s Mii Channel music, resulting in this awesome jam session!
  • 74 Seconds to Judgement [Arden Theater] Originally mounted as a stage production in 2019, this work has been reimagined as a streaming radio play. The play’s title references the killing of Philando Castile, who was fatally shot by a police officer during a traffic stop just 74 seconds after being pulled over (through March 28).
  • The Island We Made [Opera Philadelphia] I am simply astounded by the work produced for the Opera Philadelphia Channel this season. This unique art-opera film combines the ethereal electronic music of composer Angélica Negrón and narration by drag superstar (and fellow Uni High alum!) Sasha Velour to explore familial relationships and a multi-generational depiction of “Mother” (available through May).
  • A Symphony for Saint-Georges [Curio Theater] Joseph Bologne de Chevalier Saint-Georges was a composer, violinist, conductor, champion fencer, and colonel in Europe’s first all-Black regiment. born to an enslaved mother in the 1700s. This production is a physically distanced play/installation that combines video footage with sculpture, video, music, set design, and projections (through April 25).
  • Love I’m Given [Wolfgang A Cappella, NC State] The International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella competition (depicted in the movie Pitch Perfect) is all-virtual this year, and there are some amazing videos being created by college groups everywhere. I randomly came across this one, which takes the medium to new heights. And here’s another great video from the Villanova Supernovas.

What I’m creating…

We recently released our ExCITe 2020 Annual Report, capturing amazing work of our Center’s students, staff, and faculty throughout a year of unprecedented challenges. I believe we adapted creatively and found hope in our ability to continue with our work, albeit in different ways. The long overdue societal focus on racial injustice and equity validated our ongoing initiatives.

You can read the 2020 Annual Report here, and all of our annual reports (since 2015) are available online.

No. 30 • 2021-03-05

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A Year of Social Distancing

One year ago I was preparing to travel to Austin, Texas for the 2020 SXSW conference. I wasn’t quite packed, but I was confirming itineraries and hotel reservations when the conference was cancelled (the first of many). And since then, pretty much everything changed.

Conferences: We’ve now had about 9 months of virtual conferences, and I have to say it’s been pretty good. We’ve learned that much of the content (talks, slides, posters, etc.) translates well to an online format. Of course, the social component (catching up with friends / colleagues and meeting new ones) requires greater intentional effort, but it’s all possible. I think many, if not most, conferences (particularly in academic specialties) will continue as virtual or hybrid virtual/in-person events. The benefits of broader and more equitable participation and lower overall costs (travel and hosting) outweigh the downsides.

Performances: What can you do without a live audience? Streaming (both TV/film and live performance) is bigger than ever, and many arts organizations quickly developed video production expertise. But I’d argue the breakthrough medium of social distancing is the collaborative performance video. The explosion of such content, from elementary school choirs to professional works, is testament to our human desire to create together, no matter the constraints. The format enables a more participatory culture, and although it’s a process, more and more people are finding ways to contribute. I believe some form of this medium will continue, even after it’s permissible to gather in person.

Workplace: In early March 2020, how many people had even heard of Zoom?  Now, we’ve all learned to reflexively mute our microphones and be 100% certain our cameras are really off when we think they are. Dealing with audio issues like background noise, feedback, and delay are part of the daily routine. Only slightly less visible are the tools of collaboration: Slack, Teams, Google Drive, and other platforms that allow groups to work together, remotely. For the most part, the organizations that have maintained a high level of productivity through the pandemic were already familiar with such tools. For many others, it’s been a long process of learning to adapt and playing catch up.

Now, I’ll be one of the first to return to some in-person activities, once it is safe to do so. Hopefully, that time is now within sight. But resilience isn’t about returning to the same state as before; it’s the ability to cope with change, adapt, and identify a path forward. I believe that is what will be needed most in a post-pandemic world. It will be another new normal, and will introduce new challenges and opportunities. Those who solely seek to go back to the way things were will be forever playing catch up to the way things are.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Lift Every Voice and Sing [Berklee College of Music] A beautiful a cappella performance from Berklee’s We Will Rise Summit: Black Artists and the Soul of Our Music.
  • Sons of Liberty Cypher [Ham4Progress] Been a while since we had a Hamilton reference! Check out this original piece by cast members from various productions of the musical. From The Joy In Our Voices, an evening of hope, inspiration, and community celebrating Black art and artists (the whole program is worth watching).
  • Think & Respect [Commonwealth Youth Choirs] As mentioned above, there’s been an explosion of virtual collaborative videos. This Aretha Franklin medley by the combined forces of Keystone State & NJ Boychoirs and PA & Garden State Girlchoirs, is part of GFS’ Virtual A Cappella Fest program, featuring middle, high school, and collegiate groups across the region and beyond (again, the whole program is worth watching)!
  • Star Spangled Banner [QW4RTZ] One more a cappella treatment… Much merriment has emerged from the rendition of our national anthem at CPAC. Here’s Canadian a cappella group QW4RTZ’s heroic international rescue attempt to salvage this, shall we say, tonally ambiguous performance.

What I’m creating…

We’re nearing the end of the Winter academic term at Drexel, so I haven’t had much bandwidth to devote to other projects. So here’s a short video from a series I recorded about a year ago, performing one song from each of my 10 favorite albums. Another tribute to my formative years, the 1980s 🙂