No. 23 • 2020-11-18

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Constraints as Opportunities

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Socially) Distant Creations

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

What I’m creating

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

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

Register here to live stream the upcoming presentations.

ECE-101 Fall 2020 seminar speakers to date

No. 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!