In this episode, we speak to Sarah Williams of Opera Philadelphia about creating and commissioning new work amidst the pandemic and developing what is essentially a new genre of short operatic films.
Sarah Williams is the Director of New Works & Creative Producer at Opera Philadelphia. Since 2014, she has cultivated 15 award-winning world premieres, numerous co-commissions and creative works, making the company an industry leader in producing new work for the physical and digital space. In continuing to expand artistic practice and celebrate the intersection of the arts, Sarah champions digital experiences including creating the digital commission series in which the New York Times said, “One of the great treasures of the pandemic has been Opera Philadelphia’s digital shorts.” She’s been widely recognized as a multidisciplinary leader and producer who in 2020 was named one of Philadelphia Business Journal’s Women of Distinction. In 2019 Sarah was named among the top 30 Professionals of the Year by Musical America. Sarah serves on the board of American Composers Forum and the executive board of Young Women Composers Camp, is a member of New Opera Dialogues, and a mentor for Utopia Arts.
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Above: Oct. 27, 2021 at the ExCITe Center: Reba Cherry (client of Better Tomorrows), Randy Debrauwere (Business Relationship Director, Unisys), and Mark Wheeler (City of Philadelphia, Chief Information Officer)
The Digital Divide Should Scare All of Us
It’s the time of year for scary movies and spooky stories, but here’s a frightening trend in the real world: the impact of technology is driving inequity (actually increasing the digital divide). The long-term implications of this on our society (on prosperity, democracy, social justice, privacy, and more) scare the heck out of me. I had the great privilege of writing an opinion piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer on this topic, which was published earlier this week. It’s the first of the “Rebuilding Philly” series, led by Drexel’s Lindy Institute for Urban Innovation, featuring essays by Drexel faculty addressing a range of regional challenges. The thesis of my piece will come as no surprise to regular readers: The digital divide is largely misunderstood; rather than devices and connectivity, our focus should be on training and skills development to achieve digital equity. Below, I’m including a few items that were cut from the piece for length:
The 5 largest tech companies (Alphabet-Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft) posted more than $160 billionin profits last year. Their combined market cap is now over $9 trillion (the gross domestic product of Japan, the world’s 3rd largest economy, is just over $5 trillion). While they are the most profitable companies in the world, they are some of the least diverse: the employees of these (and most) tech companies are overwhelmingly white and Asian men.
It’s not just them. I work in higher education, the feeder to the tech industry. In 2002, a small fraction of degrees in computing were awarded to Black students (3.6% of bachelors, 1.3% of Masters, and 1.3% of PhDs). As of 2020, it’s essentially unchanged: 4.1% of bachelors, 1.8% of Masters, and 1.8% of PhDs). Getting into college requires a solid K-12 education, and many college-going students greatly benefit from out-of-school resources that some communities take for granted (after school programs, summer camps, internships, etc.). The lack of diversity in tech is a directly related to the absence of similar opportunities for poorer families (disproportionately students of color) and marginalization at every level of training.
Coincidentally, we hosted a digital divide-awareness event at the ExCITe Center yesterday, our first in-person event with external partners since the pandemic. We hosted partners from Digitunity, the city’s Office of Innovation & Technology, the Electronic Access Foundation, and Better Tomorrows to celebrate the generous donation from Unisys of 700 laptops to those in need. It is through broad partnerships like this that Philadelphia can become a model city for Digital Equity, and our efforts at ExCITe are fully aligned with this goal. This year, we continue the Digital Navigator help desk and will expand our efforts with new K-12 programs and connectivity and technical support for the elderly. We are seeking additional resources to further expand our programs. Stay tuned to our ExCITe Center newsletter for the latest on these initiatives.
(Socially) Distant Creations
Thriller [Jared Halley] Halloween special… Another virtuoso solo a cappella video performance, this time covering the Michael Jackson classic (the original music video scared the heck out of
Digital Inclusion Policy Priorities [National Digital Inclusion Alliance] A great list of specific policy recommendations to ensure a more equitable digital future for our nation.
No Time To Die [All That Gaz] Honestly, I found the movie disappointing, but this is an interesting version of the theme song (originally by Billie Eilish). It’s a neat vocal arrangement, and extra props for the video, which uses only Animoji!
The Marriage of Figaro [Opera Philadelphia] Watching this wonderful staging of Mozart’s comic opera, filmed in 2017, I’m starting to actually think about attending live performances again. Now streaming on the Opera Philadelphia Channel.
What I’m creating…
We’ve started recording the Fall 2021 series of So Where Do We Go From Here?, my podcast with co-host Melinda Our Especially Spooky (Minecraft) Survival Server is now active. It’s the Drexel campus, overrun by zombies, giant spiders, skeletons, and all sorts of creepy crawlers. Use your knowledge of the Drexel buildings to gather the items you need to fight off the mobs and survive… if you can! Join the Drexel Build Discord to get instructions to join.
May is Asian & Pacific American Heritage month. It feels particularly timely this year given the surge of hate incidents targeting Asians in recent months. I’ve been unsure how to write about it, but I’ve tried to collect my thoughts here.
There are so many ways in which I am incredibly fortunate and privileged. My parents came to the U.S. seeking more education and new opportunities, and they fully achieved those goals with highly successful careers. So, by sheer luck of the birth lottery, I grew up loved, supported, comfortable, and I received a world-class education and so much more. I am so grateful to my parents, as well as earlier generations of Asian immigrants who forged the path in the face of tremendous challenges.
I’m gratified by the recent successes of Asians in the arts and media: film, television, music, journalism, theater, etc., which broadens representation and people’s perceptions of diversity in this country. I want to pay tribute to some early media and arts pioneers from my youth: George Takei, Seiji Ozawa, Connie Chung, and so many others. Obviously, the Asian American identity is not monolithic, encompassing an enormous diversity of cultures and traditions. My ancestry is Korean, and we have a strong identity and a proud heritage. In childhood, I’d often try to emphasize those distinctions (although “I’m not Chinese, I’m Korean, you ignorant a**hole!” was maybe not the best response to racial insults). So, it wasn’t automatic to feel kinship with other Asian communities, but I think more and more members of the AAPI community are feeling it now.
For certain, we’ve all encountered racism. We are very different peoples and individuals, and it is daunting to feel that you are seen as “the same”. It is also exhausting. In my case, I haven’t been the recipient of much directed hatred, but mostly subtle “otherness”. My name received a lot of attention growing up; not all of it negative, but most of it unwanted for a kid growing up in the Midwest who was just trying to fit in. I even tried using my English middle name (Edmund) for a summer after 1st grade (fortunately, it didn’t take). I think even then I knew it wasn’t going to change my how people would initially see me.
There are optimistic signs that historical divisions sewn to isolate minority groups is breaking down, and our shared struggles are uniting groups of color to support each other. Greater acknowledgement and recognition of widespread, structural racism has brought so many together in common advocacy to #StopAsianHate. Any form of targeted racial or ethnic violence or discrimination, whether Anti-Black, Anti-Asian, Anti-Semitic, Anti-Muslim, Anti-Latinx, or any other kind, hurts us all, and we must stand together. #RacismIsAVirus
Unfortunately, education remains an area where minority status continues to divide groups, particularly with regards to “elite” schools and universities. Admissions to highly selective Universities (anti-affirmative action lawsuits against Harvard and other institutions) are one example where people of color have been pitted against one another. The controversies over admissions to New York Ciry’s magnet schools are another. Although Asians are (in some places) well-represented in higher education, particularly in STEM fields, AAPI student enrollment nationwide is equal to our representation in the US population (7%). But I submit that Asian representation in faculty and administration, has been achieved largely by assimilating into the norms, practices, and traditions of fundamentally elitist and exclusionary institutions. In some instances, Asians have become the very obstacles we once faced.
A pernicious undercurrent exists in academia, where some start to believe we have greater knowledge and insight than others on all things. It can lead to a particularly galling form of hypocrisy… far too many see themselves as “intellectual”, “progressive”, “culturally-responsive”, and “accepting”, and yet propagate the practices of exclusion every single day. The hallowed halls of higher education remain some of the most unwelcoming and judgmental spaces, particularly for Black and Brown people.
Academic institutions can be very slow to change, and those who have long been part of the existing system can be unwilling to change. Everyone in higher education, regardless of race or ethnicity, should be pushing for greater diversity and inclusivity. We must acknowledge that some groups face a far less welcoming environment in our classrooms. I believe AAPI faculty members, in particular, must stop siding with higher ed traditionalists regarding “academic standards” and “rigor”, which are simply dog whistles for exclusion.
For make no mistake, Anti-Asian biases still permeate higher education. As a tenured Full Professor and Director of a University Research Institute, I still regularly have meetings or engage in correspondence where people mispronounce or misspell my first name (it’s just one word, no space!). Despite the fact that it’s two very common English syllables, people manage to mangle it all the time (or infuriatingly will just give up on my first name and call me “Kim”). It still irritates me, just like it did when I was 6 years old. After nearly 5 decades of rationalizing or brushing these off as innocent mistakes, I have finally learned to call it what it is: Racism.
Sorry, I’m a week late with this newsletter! Our academic year is still wrapping up (quarter system… ugh), but I’ll be back in 2 weeks with some big news for the summer!
(Socially) Distant Creations
#Ham4Progress in conversation with Jon M. Chu [Hamilton] A conversation with the director of Crazy Rich Asiansto talk about AAPI representation in the industry, with Hamilton cast members Marcus Choi and Taeko McCaroll. Chu’s next feature is In the Heights, the movie adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s first Tony Award-winning musical.
They Still Want to Kill Us [Sozo Creative] This week was the world premiere of this short film of an aria by composer and activist Daniel Bernard Roumain, performed by mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, and directed by filmmaker Yoram Savion, to mark the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Stream for free on the Opera Philadelphia Channel (through July 31).
Our Young Dragons 2021 Summer STEAM camp will be all virtual, in the online world of Minecraft, Pocket Edition. While there are other Minecraft-based programs, nearly all of them require the PC version, an impediment for many families. We have developed brand new, custom activities specifically for the phone, tablet, and console version of Minecraft to enable much broader access.
Young Dragons is a free, 4-week online summer camp for rising 6th-8th graders living or attending school in the West Philadelphia Promise Zone (19104), an area served by Alain Locke Elementary, Morton McMichael School, Martha Washington Elementary, Science Leadership Academy Middle School, and Belmont Charter School. More information here.
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.
Followers of this newsletter know that I frame my work not in terms of STEM, but rather STEAM: Science, Tech, Engineering, Arts, and Math. But STEAM is much more than simply exposure to the different disciplines; it’s the potential of better research, learning, creative work, and even products through the integration of disciplines. As you’ve probably noticed, I’m a strong advocate for learning about STEM concepts through creative work. This framework forms the core of the ExCITe Center’s activities, and since 2015 we’ve hosted an annual workshop on Presidents’ Day for educators in the region to highlight exemplary transdisciplinary work in education.
Our upcoming 7th Annual STEAM Education Workshop on February 15 (9am-12pm) will be a little different. First off, it will be all-virtual. Second, this year’s event will focus on specific integrations spanning learning science, pedagogical practice, racial equity, and social justice. I am thrilled that the program will feature a keynote by renowned author and researcher, Dr. Bettina Love (University of Georgia), co-founder of the Abolitionist Teaching Network, who will address an audience of those in Pre-K-12 as well as higher education:
We Gon’ Be Alright, But That Ain’t Alright: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom Dr. Love’s talk will discuss the struggles and the possibilities of committing ourselves to an abolitionist goal of educational freedom, as opposed to reform, and moving beyond what she calls the educational survival complex. Abolitionist Teaching is built on the creativity, imagination, boldness, ingenuity, and rebellious spirit and methods of abolitionists to demand and fight for an educational system where all students are thriving, not simply surviving.
The program also includes brief presentations and a panel discussion with Drexel faculty. Participation is free and ACT 48 credits are available for Pennsylvania teachers. All are welcome to register here (the event is free, although space is limited).
Dr. Love’s talk is brought to you through the generous support of the A.J. Drexel Autism Institute, the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Center for Black Culture, the College of Arts & Sciences, the College of Engineering, the Office of Research & Innovation, the Office of University & Community Partnerships, the School of Education, West Philadelphia Action for Early Learning, and the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design.
(Socially) Distant Creations
Caledonia [Stay at Home Choir with VOCES8] I’ve been really looking forward to this latest collaboration between our friends VOCES8 and the many thousand-member Stay at Home Choir! Premieres Feb. 6 at 1:30pm (for the US Eastern Time Zone).
Save the Boys [Opera Philadelphia Channel] Wow, Opera Philadelphia is really nailing this streaming thing…. This is the first of four digital commissions set to debut on the channel in 2021. Newark-born Composer in Residence Tyshawn Sorey, premieres a new work inspired by an 1887 poem by abolitionist, writer and Black women’s rights activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper (premieres Feb. 12).
Virtual Choirs & Orchestras [Alternative Classical] A nice summary of virtual singing and instrumental ensemble opportunities. It’s focused on the UK, but when you’re collaborating virtually, national borders have little meaning.
Eye of the Tiger [Jared Halley] Another great one-man a cappella performance from this prolific YouTuber. A classic 80s tune associated with Philly’s most famous fictional athlete (it’s from Rocky III).
NFL 2020 [Bad Lip Reading] In honor of this weekend’s Super Bowl… there’s always something for everyone in Bad Lip Reading’s videos. They also sometimes make music videos, like this classic.
What I’m creating…
I mentioned the videos I’m creating for my class this term, Applied Digital Signal Processing (DSP), a senior-level undergraduate engineering course. Ultimately these will form a “video textbook” for this class, but those of you really interested in DSP can check out the first 5 episodes here.
I don’t recall entering a new year and academic term with this much uncertainty. We have a new President (finally!) and the hope of a coordinated and competent federal response to the coronavirus pandemic. Vaccines are being administered, but when and how will they reach the broader population? Our economy is wrecked, although much-needed relief legislation may soon take effect. We’re still mostly teaching online, which amplifies many structural inequities, so we’re trying to get students back into schools and onto college campuses in the coming weeks / months. But what’s the right balance between safety and delayed learning? There are so many questions, and the answers will take time to play out.
Last year was a forced mashup: a mixture of all kinds of tools, technologies, and methods applied in unintended ways to overcome new challenges. Virtual choirs and ensembles emerged into the mainstream as one example of an arts-tech mashup. Developing the skill to produce broadcast quality live or recorded streaming content in-house is another. Recall that at the start of 2020, most people hadn’t heard of Zoom and were unfamiliar with Slack and Teams, but now almost everyone has gained some proficiency with these tools for online collaboration. And there are countless ways their intended uses have been transformed for remote teaching and learning. Remember, creativity is connecting things.
I believe (and fervently hope) we will be able to return to in-person work, events, and performances with live audiences sometime in 2021. But I also believe that online creation, collaboration, and learning will continue to play a growing role this year and well beyond, particularly in ways that enable things not possible otherwise. As a self-proclaimed “creative technologist”, I am a highly biased commentator on this topic, but I have to believe the creativity and the technology we’ve developed to overcome some of the challenges of social distancing will continue to be valuable. When we return to in-person classrooms or live performance venues, what we’ve learned will feedback into what we do in the “real” world.
Despite the uncertain future, I remain certain that it will continue to demand a great deal of creative adaptation and the ability to wield technology in productive and positive ways. This year will bring new works and tools that will push the limits of what’s possible, and I still look forward (cautiously) to what the future will bring.
I am honored to be featured on Apple’s higher education website for “pushing the boundaries of creative expression”. Click here to read more about how faculty leaders are using technology to make a positive change in the world.
(Socially) Distant Creations
Peace On Earth [Ragazzi Continuo] Unlike most virtual concerts, this was performed and recorded live. How is that possible? A system called JackTrip (developed at Stanford’s CCRMA) enabled the ensemble to sing together from their own homes with minimal audio delay. After months practicing with this new technology they performed this concert live in December. (Yes, my research group has also been experimenting with this system.)
Soldier Songs [Opera Philadelphia Channel] I’ve been really looking forward to this new version of composer David T. Little’s exploration of the life of the soldier combining theater, opera, and rock. Presented in a new film for streaming and based on interviews with veterans of five wars, the piece boldly examines the impact of trauma, the exploitation of innocence, and the difficulty of expressing war’s painful truths. (Available with a Season Pass through May or with a seven-day rental for $25.)
#ISing. Hallelujah [la Caixa Foundation] A unique and beautiful twist on virtual choirs, projecting singers large scale inside a cathedral, the Basilica de Santa Maria Del Mar, for a performance of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.
The Mandalorian Light Show [Steve Beers] Holiday lights meet Ludwig Göransson’s rousing theme for The Mandalorian, the fantastic Disney+ series set in the Star Wars universe. And how can you not love baby Yoda?
For my class this term, Applied Digital Signal Processing, instead of lectures, I’m creating a series of short videos. I’ll release the full series at the end of the term, but here’s my intro theme for these videos.
2021 brings hope for many things… vaccines, a functioning federal government(!), and perhaps a return to something close to life without a raging pandemic. But in this first newsletter of the New Year, I take a look back at some of the most noteworthy creative collaborations of 2020 and how the medium of virtual performance evolved incredibly quickly over the course of 9 months.
For any series, it’s important to recap the events of the previous season. So, as I embark on Season 2 of this newsletter, think of this as my recap of things highlighted in Season 1.
Happy New Year!
2020 was also the year drone light shows became widespread. The image above is from a particularly impressive performance created for Edinburgh’s Hogmanay (Scottish celebration of the New Year).
Most Notable (Socially) Distant Creations of 2020
March 30: From us, for you: Beethoven Symphony No. 9 [Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra] This was one of the first collaborative performance videos to go viral. The accompanying caption perfectly captures the feeling of the moment: “We’re adjusting to a new reality and we’ll have to find solutions in order to support each other. Creative forces help us, let’s think outside of the box and use innovation to keep our connection and make it work, together. Because if we do it together, we’ll succeed.”
March 30: And now, MOZART at a social distance: A Virtual Symphony [Cunningham Piano Online Ensemble] This performance of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus, organized by Cunningham Piano, was the first large-scale (111 performers) virtual music video from Philadelphia I’m aware of, which inspired me to start this newsletter.
June 6: I Still Can’t Breathe [Chester Children’s Chorus] This piece originally premiered in 2016 in response to the killing of Eric Garner, written and directed by CCC’s founder and artistic director, John Alston. This revised version for 2020, released in response to the murder of George Floyd with additional video and a new opening message, was also featured on PBS Newshour.
Juneteenth (June 19): To Be or Not #ToBeBlack [The Public Theater] Shakespeare’s quintessential monologue, performed by Black actors reflecting on the struggle for racial justice. From the caption: “Listen as Black actors across the nation explore the truth in the painful reality of being Black in America with Shakespearean text. Timeless words that were never intended for us, yet the notion ‘To Be or Not To Be’ carries infinite weight throughout Black American history.”
June 27: Helpless [Original Broadway Cast of Hamilton with The Roots & Jimmy Fallon] An exuberant all-acoustic performance of one of the show’s hit songs that pushes beyond the standard Zoom grid that we’ve become accustomed to (with some instruments improvised from household supplies). Of course, this was also part of the lead-up to the release of the filmed stage performance of Hamilton (now available on Disney+). And the Hamilton team continues to release virtual performances of other songs from the show, to encourage electoral participation.
July 19: Virtual Choir 6: Sing Gently [Eric Whitacre] The composer’s groundbreaking Virtual Choir in 2010 first established the collaborative music video format, which became mainstream in 2020 due to the pandemic. VC6, Sing Gently 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 in July with 17,572 singers. Some background and details of its production were covered in a feature segment on CBS This Morning. I celebrate this work as an example of how music and technology can bring (so many) people together, in these disconnected times.
August 3-October 31: Live From London [VOCES8 & friends] An online streaming festival of amazing vocal music, with concert premieres every week featuring some of the world’s finest vocal ensembles: VOCES8, The Swingles, The Gesualdo Six, Apollo5, and Chanticleer. Although those performances are no longer streamable, the holiday sequel Live From London – Christmas, remains available through January 15, 2021, with 16 concerts featuring a starry line-up from the UK, the US and across Europe. It’s truly some of the best vocal music you’ll ever hear, with even more groups like the Choir of Westminster Abbey to the phenomenal Take 6.
September 23: Lift Every Voice and Sing [105 Voices of History National HBCU Concert Choir] A stirring virtual performance by conductors and singers representing the nation’s Historically Black Colleges & Universities of the song that’s become known as the “Black National Anthem” (written by James Weldon Johnson and Music by Rosamond Johnson, arranged by Roland M. Carter).
October 23: Opera Philadelphia Channel premieres. Long before COVID-19, but amidst a challenging arts landscape, Opera Philadelphia demonstrated a willingness to embrace non-traditional, innovative approaches. Digital Festival O was a rapid and timely response to the necessities of the pandemic. In lieu of a live 20-21 season, the company rapidly pivoted to launch a streaming service featuring premieres and reimagined works filmed specifically for this format. The content has been original and phenomenal, with more premieres and performances yet to come in 2021! It’s a bold step to develop new content and audiences for this evolving, digitally-native medium.
December 15: Global Ode to Joy [Stay at Home Choir] This list concludes as it began: with Beethoven. This production was part of a global celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday, with artists of all disciplines to share videos that inspire joy. It features a new English setting of the Ninth Symphony’s Ode to Joy by former US poet laureate Tracy K. Smith. The performance features the Stay at Home Choir, an organization that only came into being in 2020 and has produced stunning performances throughout the year with thousands of participants. It’s a hopeful message for the New Year of what’s possible through creative collaboration.
What I’m creating…
Happy New Year! I recently put together this video with fellow 1980s and 90s alumni of my high school Madrigals group, to celebrate the holidays and the 100 Year anniversary of University Laboratory High School. I’m so glad that creating at a distance has enabled me to reconnect with old friends and bring us some joy at the start of the year.
I’m a sucker for holiday performances. In my years with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, I sang too many Boston Pops Holiday concerts to count (imagine forcing that holiday cheer, again and again… for 12 performances in 10 days), and I get the cynicism of the season, especially in this annus horribilis. But ever since moving to Philly I’ve missed participating in holiday concerts, and this year, without the opportunity to gather socially, the loss of in-person performances feels particularly poignant.
Despite our current restrictions, many arts organizations are producing new content for this holiday season and delivering it a variety of novel ways. This issue highlights my picks for viewing and listening (some free and some paid), coming from Philly and from afar, that I’m particularly interested in checking out over this holiday break.
I’ll leave you with the immortal words of Francis Xavier Cross (Bill Murray from the 1998 classic, Scrooged):
“It’s Christmas Eve! It’s… it’s the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we… we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be. It’s a… miracle. It’s really a sort of a miracle. Because it happens every Christmas Eve…
If you believe in this spirit thing, the miracle will happen and then you’ll want it to happen again tomorrow. You won’t be one of these bastards who says “Christmas is once a year and it’s a fraud”, it’s NOT! It can happen every day, you’ve just got to want that feeling. And if you like it and you want it, you’ll get greedy for it! You’ll want it every day of your life and it can happen to you! I believe in it now! I believe it’s going to happen to me now! I’m ready for it!
The Hip Hop Nutcracker, recorded live at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. This holiday mash-up is a contemporary dance spectacle set to Tchaikovskyʼs timeless music. A unique and joyful event, this production set in New York City is performed by a supercharged cast of a dozen all-star dancers, a DJ, a violinist, and MC Kurtis Blow (!), who opens the show with a short set ($25, streaming performances every evening at 7pm, Dec. 15 – Jan. 3).
Love in the Park [Opera Philadelphia Channel] This 5-episode “musical loveletter to Philly” features 16 members of the Opera Philadelphia chorus, conducted by Chorus Master Elizabeth Braden and accompanied by pianist Grant Loehnig, performing beloved opera arias and choruses alongside musical theater selections. While not explicitly holiday-themed (it was filmed in Dilworth Park in September, hence the scenes with beautiful weather), I think it still fits perfectly with the season. Available now via the Opera Philadelphia Channel (available now: $15 for 7 days of access, or get a season pass to watch all channel content for the year).
Live from London – Christmas [VOCES8 and many friends] A holiday sequel to this summer’s fantastic Live from London vocal festival, with 16 concerts featuring a starry line-up from the UK, the US and across Europe. It’s truly some of the best vocal music you’ll ever hear, from the Choir of Westminster Abbey to the phenomenal Take 6. The festival also supports the VOCES8 Foundation’s global message of music education for all (December-January, $100-150 to stream concerts through Jan. 15).
World Cafe Live – House Concerts [World Cafe Live] This series features 8 streams over 2 weeks (one each night Wedesday-Saturday, beginning Dec. 9 and ending Dec. 19). The lineup is all WCL regulars – artists who have played our stages many times over the years, some of whom would be doing holiday shows at the venue around this time. These are pre-recorded sets from the artists’ home setups (free to watch, but donations which will be split between the artist & WCL)
A Christmas Celebration with John Rutter [The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra] World-renowned English composer and conductor John Rutter, celebrated vocal group VOCES8 and a stellar line-up of special guests, and the many thousand voices of the Stay At Home Choir, all join the RPO for this unique online performance (£10, available through Dec. 22).
Global Ode to Joy [Live with Carnegie Hall] A global celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday, with artists of all disciplines to share videos that inspire joy (including a unique collaboration between our Philadelphia Orchestra and digital artist Refik Anadol). Also features a new English setting of the Ninth Symphony’s Ode to Joy by former US poet laureate Tracy K. Smith, with the thousands of voices of the Stay at Home Choir (free to stream).
A Soulful Christmas [Kimmel Center] The annual Soulful Christmas choral concert, featuring hundreds of choir singers from area churches, will be an online program this year with hosted by music director Dr. J. Donald Dumpson and WDAS radio DJ Patty Jackson, with special guest Bishop Norman Hutchins. Honoring the tradition, on Dec. 20 they will share recordings of previous performances as a live broadcast on WDAS(105.3 FM) at noon and via an on-demand stream.
The Prom [Netflix] I love an unapologetic song and dance show (this is a movie version of the Broadway hit musical). While it’s not super-deep (nor holiday-themed), the feel-good spirit certainly fits with the season. Directed by Ryan Murphy, the creator of Glee, so if you can imagine an episode of that show with Meryl Streep, Kerry Washington, and Nicole Kidman, it’s pretty much this.
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 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
In media and technology there are a small number of dominant players, huge companies with vast resources that define much of our world in terms of what we see, hear, and use. In fact, tech has become media: not just social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), but they are now the gatekeepers for music (Apple and Spotify), video (YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon), and games (Sony and Microsoft). It takes enormous investment to create the infrastructure for such platforms, and big tech has gotten very good at leveraging computing at the scale needed to serve billions of people.
But we know that such dominance also leaves big gaps… spaces for individuals and small groups to create and make content that may not premiere on Disney+, but enrich the ecosystem. Independent works are absolutely necessary to inject different and diverse ideas into the media and tech landscape. But this requires a different kind of technology… the kind that disintermediates, enabling even individuals to create very high quality work, connect with and market to supporters, and easily publish their work to a worldwide audience. I contend there’s never been a better time to be an independent creative, but it requires a knowledge of this specific kind of tech: how to create, share, and scale the reach of your work.
Remember, creativity is just connecting things, and Philly is a fantastic city in which our highly diverse arts, media, tech, and civic communities can interconnect. This afternoon, as part of the program for Amplify Philly @ Home No. 4, I’ll be hosting a conversation about independent creatives in media and tech in Philadelphia with two very special guests:
Dr. Frank Lee is Founding Director of the Entrepreneurial Game Studio, co-founder of Drexel’s highly ranked game design program, and an ExCITe Center colleague. He’s the creator of Skyscraper Tetris (on the Cira Centre), which earned him a Guiness World Record for the largest architectural video game display in history. He’s been named by Polygon as one of the 50 most admirable people in gaming as well as one of Philadelphia Magazine’s Top Innovators.
Dave Silver is the co-founder of REC Philly, the space for creatives in Philadelphia. Located in a beautiful new space in the renovated Fashion District mall, they provide resources that help members to design, create, record and produce work, get booked for live shows, network with other creatives, and receive industry services. Dave has also co-organized Amplify Philly, highlighting Philadelphia’s music and startup communities annually at SXSW.
Note: I’ve shifted the newsletter to a bi-weekly schedule. I hope that’s a pace that is sustainable for the long term.
(Socially) Distant Creations
The Opera Philadelphia Channel: I’ve written about this before, but this new streaming service is now live! This month the channel kicks off with a newly created recital program, Lawrence Brownlee & Friends, and a 2015 filmed performance of La traviata at the Academy of Music, which was fantastic!
‘Little Shop,’ Big Relief [NYTimes] How the Weathervane Theater (NH) put on a safe performance of the musical, Little Shop of Horrors, for a live audience.
The Room Where It Happens [Hamilton] Another collaborative music video from the original cast of Hamilton to help get out the vote, featuring Philly’s own Leslie Odom, Jr. Bonus content: Another Hamilton co-video of The Schuyler Sisters, with cast members from the multiple productions! These pandemic performance videos now cover a significant portion of the musical!
The Love [Black Eyed Peas & Jennifer Hudson] An updated remix of their 2003 classic, Where is the Love?, for the current moment. I still have a soft spot for this song.
What I’m creating
Virtual Chorister for Android is now available on the Google Play Store! Let’s call this a preview version… There are many different Android devices, and I’ve only been able to test it on a small number. It’s also my first Android app, and I’m sure there are many kinks still to be ironed out!
Android users, please give it a try, and send feedback if you encounter any issues.