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. 9 • 2020-07-01

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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.