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 🙂

No. 29 • 2021-02-19

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Virtual Music Education

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

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

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

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

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

(Socially) Distant Creations

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

What I’m creating…

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