No. 9 • 2020-07-01

Subscribe to Newsletter

Hamilton! (what else?)

If you’ve been following this newsletter for any length of time, you know that I’m a fan of Hamilton. This is a big week for all fans, with the filmed performance of the Original Broadway Cast premiering on the Disney+ streaming service this Friday. Just you wait… just you wait!

Why has this show been able to transcend musical theater, attaining cultural prominence even beyond past Broadway megahits (Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera, Rent, etc.)? Maybe it’s the mashup of styles (hip hop, Brit pop, classic theater torch songs)? Or perhaps the unique reframing of the American Revolution as it relates to our current struggles of immigration, racism, bigotry, and equality? The inspired casting of people of color in the leading roles of our country’s founding fathers and mothers? Or just the story of the ultimate innovation-powered startup: the United States of America? Of course, it’s all of these elements and more.

An additional component relatively new to the arts world is the creative team’s avid use of Twitter (in particular, composer, librettist, and star, Lin-Manuel Miranda) to engage with the show’s ever-growing legion of fans. Not only does this open a window into the creative process and humanize the creators, it’s another avenue to connect the show to the current world and raise awareness and advocate on behalf of issues. It’s hard to imagine Stephen Sondheim or Andrew Lloyd Webber engaging with the public in such a manner, to explain a lyric or the research behind an historical moment!

Another unique innovation is the Hamilton Education Program(EduHam), an opportunity for students from Title I high schools to see the show (for just $10, “a Hamilton”) andcreate their own raps and performances that they share onstage (!) before they watch the musical. It’s an incredible way of broadening students’ exploration and understanding of American history and its relevance to our very modern challenges. With performances on hold for the COVID-19 outbreak, they recently launched EduHam at Home, a virtual version of the program.

The original plan was to release the film in theaters in 2021, but since live productions aren’t currently running, they made a bold (I think) decision to release the film early on the new Disney+ streaming platform. Cynics will say it’s just a way to make money during the shutdown, but it would have been much easier to wait and release the film in movie theaters to maximize profits (the traditional route of theater > pay per view > streaming). I credit Disney for trying something different to meet this moment.

On top of all this, the original cast just put out a new socially-distanced collaboration with The Roots, playing household instruments. It’s not only a fantastic performance of the show’s hit song “Helpless”, but pushes beyond the standard Zoom grid-style performances that we’ve become accustomed to. Even in isolation, Hamilton continues to innovate.

This is what we should aspire to: a synthesis of creativity, technology, inclusivity, virtuosity, emotion, and profound storytelling that integrates authentic learning. And despite this darkest of years, it helps me remain hopeful and excited for this Independence Day.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Thoughts on Racial Injustice Part III [via LinkedIn Live] A lunch conversation (today at 12pm!) with renowned designers John Maeda and Raja Schaar (Drexel Product Design Program Director and IDSA board member).
  • CO VID-88 [Ted Arthur and friends, via Facebook] A beautiful collaborative composition with 20 pianists, with each composing a short segment to add to the end of the video.
  • Lawrence Brownlee discusses race and opera [ABC News] The renowned operatic tenor (and artistic advisor to Opera Philadelphia) highlights the lack of diversity among artistic administrators. Also don’t miss The Sitdown with LB, his show on Facebook Live.
  • Code Blue [Wilma Theater] A new 13-minute digital work shot with the actors’ iPhones. According to director Blanka Ziska, the Wilma’s Artistic Director, the piece is “looking at our current moment of crisis that has been exacerbated by two kinds of viruses: COVID-19 and racism.”
  • C-U Sings Vol. 1: Let It Be [via YouTube] More than 50 musicians in my hometown of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois came together to produce this collaborative version of this Beatles’ classic as a fundraiser for local healthcare services.
  • MKBHD interviews Apple’s Craig Federighi [via YouTube] Preeminent YouTube tech reviewer Marques Brownlee remotely interviews Apple’s SVP of Software Engineering about the company’s recent announcements at this year’s (virtual) Worldwide Developers Conference.

What I’m creating

Wait For It… here’s a work (very much) in progress that I’ll post without further comment.

No. 4 • 2020-05-27

Subscribe to Newsletter

Virtual TEDx

Like everything else, conferences have been dramatically reshaped by COVID-19. Some have been cancelled or postponed and others restructured as virtual events. These are interesting experiments and likely to have a lasting impact, since conference travel (and housing) is expensive, tiring, and presents a high barrier to access. Ultimately, it depends a great deal on the particular conference whether it makes sense as a virtual event. One of the biggest experiments will be Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), normally an extremely hot (and expensive) ticket, which is going completely virtual (and free) this summer.

The canonical TED/TEDx Talk is already well established as a video-based medium, so a virtual conference with streaming video presentations makes a lot of sense to me. This Sunday (May 31 at 2pm) is TEDxDrexelU 2020, a free event featuring speakers representing our University and the Philadelphia region:

  • Nancy Volpe-Beringer, Fashion Designer and Project Runway contestant
  • Christopher J. Ferguson, Boeing Test Pilot and former NASA Astronaut
  • Dr. Eric A. Zillmer, Director of Athletics (Go Dragons!) & Professor of Neuropsychology
  • Jane Golden, Executive Director and Founder Mural Arts Philadelphia
  • Nadia Malik, Director of the Porch Light Program, Mural Arts Philadelphia
  • And yours truly.

I’m honored to be presenting alongside such prominent speakers, and I’m excited to hear from all of them. I can’t tell you anything about my presentation, except that it will be a different topic from my TEDxPhiladelphia talk last year. I’ll just say that I’ve thought a lot about how best to utilize the medium of a virtual presentation.

There will be a chance to interact online after each presentation.  I hope to “see” you there!

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • The Virtual Philadelphia Orchestra is a fantastic series of recorded performances and education programs from one of the best orchestras in the world. A recent offering is the April 2018 premiere performance of Philadelphia Voices, a “crowdsourced city symphony” by composer Tod Machover, which the ExCITe Center had a small role in developing.
  • Fill the Walls with Hope, Rage, Resources, and Dreams [The Philadelphia Citizen] An inspiring project, displaying the work of local artists and poets around the city to uplift, educate and provoke. Click here to view some of the exhibitions.
  • Virtual Tours and Town Halls [National Constitution Center] While the Center is closed, they’ve posted 360° virtual tours of four of their exhibits, and the Virtual Town Halls welcome guest speakers on topics related to our nation and its history.
  • Knight Rider for 8 Cellos [YouTube] – London-based cellist/arranger Samara Ginsberg has been posting some awesome 8-part cello videos, including this one released last week. As a child of the ’80s, and a big fan of K.I.T.T., I felt an obligation to share this. Her performance of The Imperial March is also great.
  • 2020 CX Report [formerly Design In Tech] This week, friend of ExCITe John Maeda posted his annual review of computational and consumer experience trends (he usually presents this at SXSW). As always, it’s stuffed full of great insights, and he’s also posted a 13 minute highlight version.

What I’m creating

We have an ExCITe tradition of occasional Friday musical jam sessions at the Center. Truly live collaboration isn’t really possible over the Internet (there’s too much delay to stay in sync), so my Music & Entertainment Technology Lab students and I have been experimenting with “pass the baton” sessions where we add instrument tracks to quickly hear and build upon each other’s work. It’s not ideal, but you can judge for yourself if it worked well enough for this week’s video.

  Johnny B. Goode