No. 19 • 2020-09-30

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Virtual Concert Halls & Classrooms

What do virtual music & arts collaborations have to do with education?  My experiences as a musical performer have greatly influenced my teaching, but I believe the relationship extends much further than individual training… there are deep similarities in objectives and methods:

  • In the performing arts, we try to craft an experience worthy of an audience’s time and attention.  It’s the same goal for class instructors.
  • Throughout history, artists have integrated new technologies and tools to inform, challenge, and yes, entertain. Again, the same could be said for teaching.
  • In the arts, we must connect with our audiences at some level… to get them to care. This is also crucial for learning.

I contend this alignment has always existed, certainly well before COVID, but now I’ll go even further: our explorations for virtual arts collaborations will not only influence, but inevitably shape the way we teach and learn in the future, both online and in person. 

Working remotely with musicians has brought into focus both the challenges and possibilities of virtual collaboration. While many want to participate in virtual ensembles, a significant number are hesitant due to both technical and artistic challenges. We’ve needed time to build some familiarity with new processes and eventually create new tools (like the Virtual Chorister app) to make participation easier and more accessible.

But through inspiring large-scale projects, like those of the Stay at Home Choir (pictured above), I am convinced that these kinds of collaborations will continue to have an impact, even in a post-COVID world (whenever that comes).

In the virtual classroom, I am teaching a seminar for first-year undergraduates (over 100 students in the class). In person, I would never be able to have each student introduce themselves individually (that would take weeks). Online, I asked my students to fill in a shared spreadsheet with their hometown, nickname, and what they find most inspiring about engineering. It was fascinating to watch responses appear in real-time, with some contributions building upon others. It turns out even Google has its limits, and having 100+ students edit the same document simultaneously was too much, and some students were locked out. Oh well, live and learn… we’ll have to build a better tool for that!

These explorations all start in unfamiliar territory, but offer opportunities to experiment and learn together. To me, the links between arts and education have never been stronger or more clear: Good instructors are artists. They are creators of media. They are developers. And they are the ones who will create the future of learning. Eventually, we will return to stages, auditoriums, and classrooms, but those artists and teachers who have been experimenting all along will have even greater insight into crafting worthy experiences, integrating new technologies, and getting audiences to care. 

Thanks to all who joined the second of our Creative Conversations yesterday! Register here for our the final event of our mini-series on October 13.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Lift Every Voice and Sing [105 Voices of History National HBCU Concert Choir] A stirring performance of Roland Carter’s arrangement by conductors and singers representing the nation’s Historically Black Colleges & Universities.
  • PHLConnectEd and the Digital Navigator Program [Technology Learning Collaborative] A webinar about current efforts in Philadelphia to address digital equity issues, part of National Digital Inclusion Week (Oct. 7).
  • Parallax Podcast: The latest episode features urbanist and Drexel colleague, Alan Greenberger, Distinguished Fellow at Drexel’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation and Dept. Head of Architecture and Interior Design.
  • Air on a G String [The Swingles] Ward Swingle’s classic arrangement of J.S. Bach’s well-known work. Catch their full performance at the Live from London online festival of vocal music (available for streaming through Oct. 31)!

What I’m creating

My Virtual Chorister app is almost at 7000 downloads!

The most frequent by far, has been for an Android version. Today, I’m announcing that I am officially working on it…  I hope to have more news in the next few weeks!

No. 18 • 2020-09-23

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Fall Forward

The Philly weather leaves no doubt: Fall is here, and with it comes a non-stop stream of events, festivals, classes, and more. Next week we continue our online mini-series with Play On PhillyCreative Conversations for a Changing World, focusing on how arts and education are innovating through the pandemic. We’re joined by leaders of premier organizations who are actively exploring new ways of performing, learning, and sharing in the era of social distancing. At our kickoff event last week, we had a great conversation with David Devan (Opera Philadelphia), Valerie Gay (Barnes Foundation), and Melissa Talley-Palmer (Bartol Foundation). Each is pursuing and supporting new forms, venues, and media for producing creative work.

Our next Conversation focuses on Collaboration, with another amazing group. Each panelist is both an innovative musician and educator:

  • Jay Fluellen is Philly-born musician and composer and is Choir Co-Director & Music Technology Specialist at Northeast High School. Collaboration has been a hallmark of his work as composer, musician and educator, having worked on large scale projects with many Philadelphia area arts organizations, including LiveConnections, The Mann Center for the Creative and Performing Arts, The Bucks County Choral Society, Art Sanctuary, and the Philly Pops, among others.
  • Paul Smith is an innovative and creative performer, conductor, composer, and educator and co-founder of the award-winning vocal group, VOCES8. This August, he launched Live from London, an online streaming festival with some of the world’s finest vocal ensembles: VOCES8, The Swingles, The Gesualdo Six, Apollo5, and Chanticleer (from San Francisco). Paul is also serves as CEO of the VOCES8 Foundation. Since its inception in 2007, the Foundation has worked with 400,000 young people.

I am really looking forward to this conversation, which touches upon “all the things” I love (well, many of the things): music, ensemble singing, collaboration, and technology. We’ll highlight some amazing virtual projects and some truly novel ways musicians at all levels are finding to keep making music together.

Register here for the next event on September 29 at 4pm and mark your calendars for our third Creative Conversation on October 13. We planned a mini-series of 3 events, but we could be convinced to change our minds if there’s demand! 😉

(Socially) Distant Creations

What I’m creating

This term, I am teaching ECE-101: Electrical & Computer Engineering in the Real World, a weekly seminar featuring distinguished guest speakers on applied topics related to our field, primarily for our 100+ first-year students. The first class is today (9/23 at 2pm… I’m the first speaker), and everyone is welcome to tune in.

Our next speaker (9/30 at 2pm) is Ophelia Wells (pictured), an engineer at Merck Research Laboratories in Device Development who’ll be speaking about Engineering Vaccines at Pandemic SpeedRegister here for next week’s class!

No. 17 • 2020-09-09

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Back to School

The 2020 B.PHL Innovation Festival is next week, Sept. 15-17.  Given the pandemic, this second year of B.PHL is entirely online and registration is free(!).  The program celebrates innovation in all its forms (technology, arts & entertainment, education, social justice, healthcare, and more) and features local leaders as well as global celebrities, like Pitbull, Nick Offerman, and Issa Rae.

Several events feature Drexel presenters:

  • A Night at the Museum(s), featuring Scott Cooper, CEO of the Academy of Natural Sciences with Clay Catongo, Penn Museum.
  • By Law, By Love – features Angel Hogan, department manager in the LeBow College of Business and current Drexel MFA student, presenting her short documentary about a boy’s quest to find his family after growing up in foster care (part of the B. PHL Film Fest).
  • Put Down Your Pencils: The 2020 Class(zoom), a conversation with Drexel President John Fry and U. Penn Provost Wendell Pritchett.

I am co-hosting an event with Jessica Zweig, Program Director of Play On Philly, to kick off our new panel mini-series, Creative Conversations for a Changing World. These discussions will focus on how arts and education organizations are innovating through the pandemic with organizational leaders from some of Philadelphia’s premier institutions. We’ll hear from those who are thinking in and out of the box about new ways of performing, learning, and sharing in the era of social distancing. Our kickoff event features an All-Star panel:

Our panel is Tuesday. September 15, 4pm (B.PHL festival registration is required, but it’s free!)  Of course, anyone can tune in… you don’t have to be in Philly. Please share the event info with anyone who’s interested, and also be sure to check out the rest of the B.PHL program for other great sessions. I hope to “see” you Tuesday at 4pm!

Also, pre-register below for our future series events below.  Mark your calendars!

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • The Global Armed Man [Stay at Home Choir] 5000 singers from 74 countries contributed to this musical celebration of the 20th anniversary of the premiere Sir Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace. The virtual mashup combines live concert footage from 2018 with at home recordings of thousands of singers.
  • Virtual POP [Play On Philly] Registration is open for the incredible local youth music instruction program’s 10th Anniversary year. Instruction begins virtually on Oct. 5.
  • Online Art History Classes [Barnes Foundation] An impressive collection of topics, each consisting of 4 weekly sessions this Fall.
  • Virtual Gallery [Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show] Featuring works from 101 artists from the US and Canada (Sept. 10-13).
  • Philadelphia Fringe Festival 2020 [Fringe Arts] Another reminder of the amazing all-virtual Fringe lineup this year (Sept. 10-Oct. 4).
  • Time Flies [Apple] The company’s next round of products will be announced in a virtual event (Sept. 15 at 1pm ET). Expect a new Apple Watch and new iPads.

What I’m creating

Virtual Chorister, my iOS app to help musicians participate in virtual collaboration projects has surpassed 2000 downloads! And don’t let the name fool you… it’s for instrumentalists, too! The latest update lets you also load guide videos from cloud services (Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud Drive, etc.) and adds support for Bluetooth headphones. An update coming soon will add other requested features.

Another frequent request is for an Android version. Unfortunately, that’s an entirely different development process that I don’t have experience with (essentially writing an entirely new app), but I’m thinking about it…

No. 16 • 2020-09-02

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Back to School

How is it September already? Many of us are scrambling to get ready for another most unusual school year. For me, that will involve teaching online (again). I do miss teaching in the classroom, much like I miss singing together with other people. I’ve also seen many professors, teachers, and students struggle with online classes, particularly last spring when there was little time to prepare. It’s actually quite similar to musicians attempting online collaboration for the first time. But we all get better at it, and as with virtual music ensembles, I’ve also witnessed enormous creativity in methods of teaching and engaging students online, towards a different, but not lesser, learning experience.

I firmly believe remote learning offers unique opportunities for creative instruction and learning. The first mistake many made, especially in the quick transition last spring, was to try to simply replicate the in-person experience. Online learning is different, fundamentally, just like a TV show is different from a performance staged in a theater. We must embrace those differences and adapt to incorporate the best features of the medium (see local efforts by Opera Philadelphia, the Wilma Theater, and others to produce new digital content).

I find it helpful to lean into the differences between in-person and remote instruction to identify the elements that that can be enhanced through online instruction. Here are some thoughts:

  • Different kinds of student engagement: Some aren’t comfortable speaking in class, but are happy to engage in text questions / conversations. We can also use messaging to keep conversations going outside of the class period.
  • Authoring new media: Rethinking textbooks and slides is long overdue. Experiment with new learning media, like U. Penn Prof. Robert Ghrist’s video textbook for calculus (above image).
  • Alternate modes of sharing and communicating: Online, we can easily share writing, documents, media, sketches, and code. These are the tools of the modern workplace, and we should embrace them for our students.
  • Special guest presenters: Speakers I couldn’t normally bring to campus (distance, cost, etc.), I can invite for remote presentations.

Ultimately, I believe remote teaching (and learning) makes us better instructors and students, whether in person or online. Most are past the angst. Let’s focus on the opportunities to make our classes this year into truly engaging and creative learning experiences. 

Visit Prof. Ghrist’s website for his amazing Calculus Blue project materials. More on the philosophy behind this work in this Twitter thread.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • 2020 Grand Finale Concert [Vox Virtual Online A Cappella Festival] A fantastic virtual concert featuring 10 international ensembles!
  • Philadelphia Fringe Festival 2020 [Fringe Arts] Fringe is going all virtual this year (Sept. 10-Oct. 4).   It’s an incredible lineup of events, exhibits, and more!
  • #RedAlertRestart [WeMakeEvents] I still miss live events. This is an advocacy campaign led by We Make Events to support relief for the live events sector, which lit up venues in red on Sept. 1. See also Save Our Stages.
  • B.PHL 2020 Innovation Festival [B.PHL] The second B.PHL Festival is all virtual with some amazing speakers and registration is absolutely free! (Sept. 15-17, more below.)

What I’m creating

Creative Conversations for a Changing World
Save the date: Tuesday, Sept. 15 at 4pm
Jessica Zweig (Play On Philly) and I are co-moderating a virtual panel discussion with David Devan (Opera Philadelphia), Valerie Gay (Barnes Foundation), and Melissa Talley-Palmer (Bartol Foundation) on innovating in arts and education through the pandemic. Registration is free!

No. 15 • 2020-08-26

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Virtual Chorister

Followers of this newsletter know of my fondness for virtual choir projects. Since the start of the pandemic, choirs and vocal ensembles, in particular, haven’t been able to sing together. As a singer, I really miss it. Unfortunately, it’s likely we won’t be able to gather safely for some time, and some organizations and schools have cancelled the entire year/season of rehearsals and performances.

Virtual choirs aren’t a substitute for live singing in ensemble, but they offer a different way to collaborate and contribute to something musical. As I’ve written previously, the format opens up new possibilities that can’t be realized in person. Sing in ensemble with a famous professional group. Collaborate with musicians on the other side of the globe. A choir of more than 17000 singers. Or, in the case of schools and youth choirs, just continue to sing and learn.

To be clear: virtual choir projects are not accomplished via Zoom or videoconferencing. Those systems have too much delay to make musical collaboration possible, and there are many hilarious examples to prove that. Instead, each singer records their own part separately, and these videos are then mixed together (by someone with some video editing experience and a lot of patience) into the final “performance” shared via YouTube, Instagram, etc. Earlier this summer, I presented an online workshop introducing the full virtual chorus process for music educators, as part of the Apple Distinguished Educators Festival of Learning. It’s not for the faint of heart.

The technology makes it possible, but it doesn’t make it easy, even just to participate as a chorister. It takes a bit of technical know-how to contribute to a project (certainly more than just showing up to rehearsal).

The process generally requires 2 devices: one to view a reference/conductor video (so that you sing in sync with everyone else) and another (usually your phone) to record your own performance. The need for 2 devices (and skill to use both in tandem) poses a barrier to participation for some.

Today, I’m releasing a new iOS app, Virtual Chorister, which attempts to make it easier by combining everything on a single device (an iPhone or iPad). The app enables you to watch & follow a reference video while you record your own singing. You don’t need to juggle the tech across multiple devices. The video is saved to your Photo Library, which you then share/upload in whatever way is designated by the project.

In particular, I’m hopeful this will help schools and youth choirs continue to sing and create this Fall. So, it is a free app. If you do use it for a project, I’d appreciate a shout out and an email to let me know about your project (and maybe get highlighted in this newsletter!). If you wish to contribute something to help continue development, there is an option to do so within the app.

And if you’re looking for a way to participate, here are a few virtual choir projects:

It’s not a substitute for actually singing together… nothing is. But maybe, such projects can keep us going until we can gather together and sing to our hearts’ content. I hope this app enables others to begin (or continue) creating at a distance.

Happy singing!

Download Virtual Chorister (for iPhone and iPad) via the App Store.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Words [London Youth Chamber Choir] Collaborative music video of an a cappella classic (originally performed by The Real Group). Nice video production (not Zoom rectangles)!
  • How a hidden Center City block became a pop-up concert hall [WHYY News] You just can’t stop the music!
  • Ubi Caritas [Kings Return, composed by Ola Gjeilo] This went viral a few weeks ago, but definitely worth another listen even if you’ve seen it. Just four guys who sing in stairwells… beautifully.
  • An Artful Pivot [The Indicator from Planet Money, NPR] A radio profile of how the Wilma Theater transitioned Is God Is from the stage to a radio play in response to the pandemic (special appearance by friend of ExCITe, Sunil Iyengar of the NEA).
  • Digital Festival O [Opera Philadelphia] It’s your last chance to stream 3 groundbreaking Philadelphia operatic premieres (ends Aug. 31)

What I’m creating

What, a brand new app isn’t enough for you?

OK, here’s a website I made, all about battling with remote-controlled LEGO robots. In truth, I published the site a year ago, but my son and I are still having fun with our LEGO robot battles!

We were inspired by one of our favorite TV shows, BattleBots. Season 5 was postponed due to COVID, but it’s coming back this Fall!

No. 14 • 2020-08-12

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Civil Dialog

During the pandemic, we have become even more reliant upon (addicted to?) social media for, well… socializing. It’s nice to still connect with friends & family and stories of interest, but we know it’s also a source of tremendous angst, frustration, and rage-induced thumb sprains. Let’s face it, the notion of a civil conversation online has become somewhat of an oxymoron. 

Twitter is sometimes called a “public square”, but what if your tweets were actually writ large, projected into the physical Public Square?  Might that facilitate more productive conversations about social issues and challenges, regional and national concerns, and current events? That’s the premise behind the new project, Civil Dialog, created by my friend and colleague Dr. Frank Lee, Director of the Entrepreneurial Game Studio at the ExCITe Center, which premieres this evening through the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

You may be familiar with Prof. Lee’s previous work in putting classic games Pong and Tetris on Philadelphia’s Cira Centre skyscraper, creating the world’s largest video game display. A follow-up effort, Skyscraper Games, partnered with local schoolteachers to teach coding to middle schoolers, premiering their new game creations on the Cira Centre. His work integrating creativity, technology, education, and civic engagement embodies everything we aspire to at ExCITe.

Civil Dialog will display tweets on select topics in an animated, large-scale projection for 4 consecutive nights (9-10:30pm) on the western side of Nesbitt Hall at 33th and Market Streets on Drexel’s campus. Dr. Lee’s team of students and technologists developed a custom system and visual presentation to highlight visibility and active discussion for nearby viewers and those watching online. The intention is to start a conversation where local residents and remote participants can develop empathetic views and become co-creators of public spaces both virtual and physical on Drexel’s campus.

Topics have been curated by students from our Pennoni Honors College, whose recent panel events have been facilitating community discussions on challenging issues facing our nation: sexism in politics, criminal justice reform, environmental justice, gentrification and systemic racism. The project team will present discussion prompts and surveys and moderate the ongoing Twitter thread.

Though it was conceived before the pandemic, I believe the project is another great example of Creating at a Distance. All are welcome to participate: Follow the @Civil_Dialog Twitter account and reply to prompts starting this evening (Wed 8/12 through Sat 8/15). If you can’t view the building projection directly, you can watch a video stream via Twitch and Periscope (by following on Twitter). I look forward to conversing with you (at a distance)!

Next week is my monthly break to focus on other projects, but look out for our ExCITe Center monthly mailing. Creating at a Distance will return in two weeks, August 26.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • A Killer Party: A Murder Mystery Musical [Music: Jason Howland, Lyrics: Nathan Tysen] A new digital musical experiment for the isolation era with a stellar cast of Broadway veterans. All 9 short episodes to be released this month ($12.99 for the full season).
  • Hamilton Mask-Up Parody Medley [The Holderness Family] I am not throwing away this… mask! Right up my alley, as I am passionate about Hamilton and mask wearing.
  • Christopher Jackson: Live From the West Side [Kimmel Center] Hamilton nod #2… An online benefit performance by the original George Washington (Sat. 8/15 at 8pm, donation required). Proceeds will benefit the Kimmel Cultural Campus Road to Reopening Relief Fund.
  • And So It Goes [Stay At Home Choir with The King’s Singers] Beautiful rendition of a Billy Joel classic. I signed up to join the next Stay at Home Choir project.
  • Parallax Podcast [featured in Issue No. 1 of this newsletter] has been killing it with recent guests James Johnson-Piett, Omar Woodard, Keira Smalls, and Shannon Morales. Worth checking out, if you’re not already a subscriber!

What I’m creating

I can’t really take credit for this one, but one of my former PhD students, David Rosen, recently had his dissertation research on creativity and music improvisation highlighted in this fantastic video produced by the National Science Foundation. Also check out the startup he’s founded, Secret Chord Laboratories, which includes some familiar faces from our research lab!

No. 13 • 2020-08-05

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The Opera Philadelphia Channel

It’s a gross understatement to say that the pandemic has upended the arts and culture communities. Performing arts organizations dependent on live audiences have all been forced to reexamine fundamental assumptions and adapt quickly after cancelling some or all of the 2020-21 season. Many have turned to online content, primarily streaming performances from back catalogs, while sprinkling in a few experiments with virtual live/recorded performances (mostly available for free, but sometimes for a fee or donation).

Long before COVID-19, but amidst a challenging arts landscape, Opera Philadelphia has demonstrated a willingness to embrace non-traditional, innovative approaches. The company refocused around a new model in 2017, launching the inaugural O Festival. It was billed as operatic binge watching… a way to “Netflix the [live] opera experience”. In early May I wrote about their Digital Festival O (you can still stream 3 of their world premiere productions, through the end of August), a timely reaction to the necessities of the pandemic. I think this quick experiment has been invaluable for creating the path to the future.

Now, rather than Netflix-ing live opera, they are opera-tizing Netflix. The Fall 2020 festival can’t happen as planned, so the company has rapidly pivoted its 20-21 season to the new Opera Philadelphia Channel, a streaming service.

It’s a lineup of primarily premieres and reimagined works filmed specifically for this format, favoring new work over pre-existing recordings. The back-catalog may appeal to opera lovers, but it also lacks a sense of immediacy (after all, it’s already part of history and you can watch it later). The premiere of new work is an event, tied to a particular moment in time, which I believe to be crucial for the performing arts.

Most interesting to me, they will “commission and premiere four new digital works from some of today’s most dynamic composers”. My hope is that they will lean into the possibilities of the video format with these new commissions. Filmed versions of staged operas and recitals are really just a nostalgic substitute, but new digital works can define a new genre. Put another way, the native medium of opera is live performance, and it’s difficult to build audiences through something that’s a shadow of the real thing. But there’s an opportunity to create new fans of this emerging content medium that is digitally native.

It’s a bold move. This is the time to experiment, and to embrace new ways of creating. A season subscription is $99 (some will perceive as low and others will think it’s absurdly high). I think it’s priced correctly… Artists and arts organizations should be paid, and it’s going to take a lot to film and produce these works. Efforts like this are a big reason I’m a fan of the company, and I applaud Opera Philadelphia for jumping headfirst into this experiment.

(Socially) Distant Creations

What I’m creating

Last week, I presented an online session, Keep Singing! – Creating a Virtual Chorusfor the Apple Distinguished Educator Festival of Learning. It’s a one-hour tutorial, primarily for music educators, summarizing the process of creating a virtual chorus, from recording to audio mixing to video editing. I hope you’ll share it with anyone who might find it helpful.

No. 12 • 2020-07-29

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Watch Virtual Choir 6: Sing Gently a worldwide chorus of 17,572 persons united in song.

Virtual Choir 6: A Review

Eric Whitacre’s Sing Gently was released last week, the latest (sixth) and largest (17,572 singers!) collaborative work from the composer who created the genre with his first Virtual Choir in 2010. These works are widely celebrated as groundbreaking, and this technique has obviously come to greater prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic.

To be honest, I haven’t been the biggest fan of Whitacre’s previous Virtual Choirs (VCs). The compositions are fine, but the alignment between performances and visuals has gone from originally experimental (VC1) and ambient (VC3) to overreaching (VC2’s space theme) and bizarre (VC4’s computer-generated characters and cityscape). VC5 arrived at a more natural fit, layering the images of singers over our globe, but that was primarily an orchestral piece set to NASA images, with only a short choral segment.

VC6, Sing Gently. is different, perhaps because it 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 on July 19. The piece is a flowing choral song with piano accompaniment, simple, understated, and beautiful. The performance lasts only about 3 1/2 minutes (the remaining 7 minutes of the video are for credits… everyone gets acknowledged!).

The visuals for this work take greater prominence, moving away from the faux conductor and chorus placement of some previous videos, leaning into the current moment of separation. Each singer is depicted as a fractured and irregularly shaped piece (no Zoom rectangles!), but part of a larger mosaic that is fused together, healing the fissures between the individual pieces and later, larger sections.

I think it comes together quite beautifully. I also appreciate the incredible amount of work it must have taken to piece together so many source videos, especially dealing with irregular (non-rectangular) shapes. Current video editing software was not designed for these kinds of projects… (that’s an opportunity for a software developer, btw). A video with just 60 singers brought my desktop to its knees. I’m really not sure how you deal with 17,000+, and my hat’s off to the VC6 team.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I believe good virtual works unlock or enable something that we can’t do in the physical world. Sing Gently does that in two ways:

  1. Obviously, there is no live choral singing happening in the US or in many parts of the world. There is no other (safe) way to sing together, other than virtually.
  2. Scale: we can’t stage 17,572 singers for a performance (well, you could, but it’s impractical), and honestly, there are diminishing returns acoustically once you get to around 100 singers. One nitpick is that the scale of this chorus is not visually apparent until 2/3 into VC6. 

But perhaps the most significant aspect of the project is that many thousands of singers jumped at the chance to participate in this work in a short timeframe. Virtual choirs are a form where nearly anyone can contribute and experience being part of something much larger than themselves (plus, there’s the excitement of catching a glimpse of yourself, either in the visuals or at least the credits). I celebrate this work as a shining example of how music and technology can bring (so many) people together, in these disconnected times. As conveyed by the lyrics…

May we hear the singing
And may we always sing along
Sing, sing gently always
Sing, sing as one

More about Virtual Choir 6: Sing Gently, plus an interview with creator Eric Whitacre, on CBS This Morning.

(Socially) Distant Creations

What I’m creating

My TEDxDrexelU 2020 talk on Creating at a Distance is now available on ted.com. This was originally streamed on May 31 (feels like longer), but it encapsulates much of the thinking that led me to create this newsletter. Also, use your phone to play along with a performance I created especially for this talk (instructions in the video).

No. 11 • 2020-07-15

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Watch Cunningham Piano Ensemble’s performance of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus (111 performers from 18 states and 9 countries). It was one of the first (March 30) large-scale virtual musical collaborations, which inspired me to start this newsletter.

Tools & Adaptation

Back in March, I think most of us were in the mindset of “use whatever we have on hand to make something (anything!) workable”, whether in education, the arts, business, or just our daily lives. And the tools we had on hand were videoconferencing, smartphones, messaging and social media, and (for some) audio and video editing software. We were highly constrained (by the situation and the tools), but those constraints were also a driver of creativity.

Four months into social distancing and isolation (in the U.S.), we are all adapting and slowly getting better at being productive in the new normal. As I’ve worked on recent creative collaborations, I’ve been thinking about how poorly suited the tools on hand are for the tasks we’re faced with (because they were designed for completely different applications):

  • Zoom (and Google Meet, Skype, etc.) was designed for moderated group meetings, not happy hours, classrooms, or live theater.
  • Social media is great for sharing finished work, but not well suited for distance collaboration or work in progress.
  • Video editing apps are ideal for traditional filmmaking (focusing on one subject), but it’s a pain to work with lots and lots of simultaneous subjects.

This is usually what happens with technology: first we try to replicate the analog medium within the digital (e.g., using Zoom as a direct substitute for the classroom or theater experience). But over time comes greater familiarity, experience, and the ability to experiment, and eventually we arrive at something that is digitally “native”. Some things are already starting to feel native to an online and distanced working world (the ubiquitous Zoom grid, for example, is also the default view for collaborative creative content). Eventually, new tools will emerge that better fit the differently mediated forms of expression and learning. This cycle enables a different kind of creativity, driven less by immediate constraint and more by the possibilities afforded by the new tools.

What will “online native” creative forms look like? We must start by questioning the basic assumptions of a medium. Writing and performing a play for online presentation is very different from a play for the stage. Same for a musical performance or online learning. I suggest we start with the following: What can’tbe done in a live setting that can be done online? Here are a few examples:

As science fiction author William Gibson has written, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed”. New possibilities are being unlocked by the experiments happening now. While I don’t know exactly what the online native forms will look like, ultimately they will “feel” right. They will make us think it’s been that way all along… Do you remember what it was like before smartphones? Didn’t think so 🙂

I don’t think in-person theaters or classrooms will go away… there’s nothing like the excitement of live performance, and we can’t achieve that experience remotely with current technology. But even when we are able to return to live venues, I’m certain these remote explorations will continue to evolve. There will be more and more adaptation to the new possibilities that the medium offers, and I think that creative output will be exciting to see.

Note: Next week I’m taking a break from the newsletter to focus on other projects. The next issue will be released on July 29.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Being Alive [The Antonyo Awards, presented by Broadway Black in association with The Black Theatre Society] A stirring performance from Stephen Sondheim’s Company, featuring Ayana George, Angela Birchett, Drew Shade, and many others in support of #BlackLivesMatter.
  • To Be or Not #ToBeBlack [The Public Theater] Shakespeare’s quintessential monologue, performed by Black actors reflecting on the struggle for racial justice.
  • Morning Serenade #songsofcomfort [Pana Percussion Quartet] A lovely percussion arrangement and virtuosic performance of this piece from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo & Juliet.
  • The Ladies Who Lunch [Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration] From a while back (late April), but more from Sondheim & Company… Stage and film stars Christine Baranski, Meryl Streep, and Audra McDonald performing a socially distant version of this classic Broadway tune for the composer’s 90th birthday (online) gala.

What I’m creating

This week brought the tragic news that Grant Imahara, engineer, roboticist, and Mythbuster co-host, died at 49. He contributed to Star Wars movies, but also worked to bust the Hollywood stereotype of “Asian engineer”. In his appearances, he was not only highly competent, but also brought charm and an infectious sense of excitement and fun to engineering. Learn more about his work here.

In memory of Grant, here’s our lab’s robot music video of The Hubos, playing “Come Together” (from 2012).

No. 10 • 2020-07-08

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Art, Education, Tech, and Equity

Mid-Summer is normally a time for performances, festivals, and new works spanning all art forms and genres. But right now there’s no clear path in sight for the return of live audiences, especially with COVID-19 cases rising across the country. Conversely, with the start of Fall terms now just 1-2 months off, most in education are consumed with plans for reopening our schools, colleges, and universities for possible in-person instruction, thoughseveral prominent Universities have announced highly scaled back versions of an on-campus experience.

Both the performing arts and education have turned to technology as a partial solution (online classes and streaming performances). At the start of the crisis, most of us accepted the tradeoffs of moving (too) quickly online for classes this past spring. We could be forgiven for making it up as we were going along, because well… we were. When performance venues shut down, any new bit of content or diversion was received by audiences as a gift. And with ticket income essentially going to zero, any opportunity for engagement (and maybe even a tiny bit of revenue) was welcomed by arts organizations.

Technology can be used in amazing ways, enabling us to do and create things that weren’t previously possible. But the use of tech can also further divide us into haves and have nots. Much has been written about the Digital Divide, the inequitable access to high speed internet that hinders education, employment, and economic opportunity. I believe that internet access should be a right and a public utility, but also that the growing divide is about much more than access.

While we rely more and more on technology, it is also clear that the tech industry has an equity problem. The most profitable companies in the world are also some of the least diverse. We all use products and services from Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, while their employees are overwhelmingly white and Asian males. It’s not that I believe there’s ill intent, but when there’s a lack of diversity among the voices involved in the creation of new tech, the outcomes also serve a less diverse audience (and are sometimes downright scary). Racially biased facial recognition systems have led to false arrests. Amazon inadvertently built an AI for human resources biased against women

So, I don’t think about the Digital Divide in terms of devices and connections, but rather the pathway to generate knowledge, creativity, and opportunity. While smartphones are nearly ubiquitous, the software applications (and expertise) to assemble creative collaborations (the kind that I try to highlight in this newsletter) aren’t widespread. I fear that COVID-19 isolation is further increasing the digital access divide into a learning and cultural divide: those with essentially unlimited bandwidth, equipment, and training to participate in creative making and learning vs. those without.

For more information and resources, I spoke about this topic in my
TEDxPhiladelphia 2019 talk, Getting Woke to the Digital Divide.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • What to My People is the Fourth of July [Daveed Diggs] A powerful video monologue inspired by Frederick Douglass’ famous speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July”.
  • 8 Minutes 46 Seconds [Richard Young and friends, including Joseph Conyers of the Philadelphia Orchestra ] A moving collaborative performance by musicians from around the world of the “Albinoni Adagio” (by Remo Giazzoto), in tribute to George Floyd, lasting exactly 8:46.
  • With a Little Help From My Friends [The Muppets & James Corden] Heartwarming socially-distanced performance of the Beatles’ classic tune by our favorite characters.
  • Pipelinefunk [Armin Küpper, via YouTube] An amazing solo saxophone jam using a huge pipeline as a creative partner.
  • WAFM [Greg Chun] Original a cappella song and public service announcement that perfectly captures the current moment, by actor and composer (and Fleet Street alum) Greg Chun.

What I’m creating

Your (semi) weekly Hamilton reference… No way to convey the beginning and ending rhythms of this song with piano (at least not with my meager keyboard skills). So I combined last week’s intro and outro using Minecraft music blocks with piano and vocals. Sorry to make you Wait For It.