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. 28 • 2021-02-05

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STEAMshop 2021

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.

No. 27 • 2021-01-21

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Uncertainty

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?
  • The Mandalorian on iPhone [iSongs] And here’s how to create the theme song entirely on your iPhone in the GarageBand app. Just one of many amazing videos in this YouTube series.

What I’m creating…

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.

No. 26 • 2021-01-06

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A Year of Distanced Creativity

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.

No. 25 • 2020-12-16

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Making some space for joy

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!

Frank Cross

Happy Holidays!

Holiday (Socially) Distant Creations

  • A Philly Pops Christmas: Spectacular Sounds of the Season [The Philly Pops, pictured above] The organization undertook great efforts to recordthis year’s holiday concert at The Grand Opera House in Wilmington. Music Director David Charles Abell welcomes back Broadway star Mandy Gonzalez (Hamilton reference!) for her third Christmas with the POPS. Performances are streamed daily for free (Dec. 18 – Jan. 1), as a gift from the Philly Pops to all!
  • 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.

What I’m creating…

I’ll return to my holiday lights project later… In the meantime, here’s one of my musical projects for the holiday season. I performed this many many times as a member of the Stanford Fleet Street Singers, though usually with a group… not by myself!

Hope it brings you some joy!

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. 21 • 2020-10-21

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Independent Creatives

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 Phillythe 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.

RSVP here and tune in at 2pm for what’s sure to be a great discussion!

Click here to watch Amplify Philly live!

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.

A circular Virtual Chorister icon for Android!

No. 17 • 2020-09-09

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Back to School

The 2020 B.PHL Innovation Festival is next week, Sept. 15-17.  Given the pandemic, this second year of B.PHL is entirely online and registration is free(!).  The program celebrates innovation in all its forms (technology, arts & entertainment, education, social justice, healthcare, and more) and features local leaders as well as global celebrities, like Pitbull, Nick Offerman, and Issa Rae.

Several events feature Drexel presenters:

  • A Night at the Museum(s), featuring Scott Cooper, CEO of the Academy of Natural Sciences with Clay Catongo, Penn Museum.
  • By Law, By Love – features Angel Hogan, department manager in the LeBow College of Business and current Drexel MFA student, presenting her short documentary about a boy’s quest to find his family after growing up in foster care (part of the B. PHL Film Fest).
  • Put Down Your Pencils: The 2020 Class(zoom), a conversation with Drexel President John Fry and U. Penn Provost Wendell Pritchett.

I am co-hosting an event with Jessica Zweig, Program Director of Play On Philly, to kick off our new panel mini-series, Creative Conversations for a Changing World. These discussions will focus on how arts and education organizations are innovating through the pandemic with organizational leaders from some of Philadelphia’s premier institutions. We’ll hear from those who are thinking in and out of the box about new ways of performing, learning, and sharing in the era of social distancing. Our kickoff event features an All-Star panel:

Our panel is Tuesday. September 15, 4pm (B.PHL festival registration is required, but it’s free!)  Of course, anyone can tune in… you don’t have to be in Philly. Please share the event info with anyone who’s interested, and also be sure to check out the rest of the B.PHL program for other great sessions. I hope to “see” you Tuesday at 4pm!

Also, pre-register below for our future series events below.  Mark your calendars!

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • The Global Armed Man [Stay at Home Choir] 5000 singers from 74 countries contributed to this musical celebration of the 20th anniversary of the premiere Sir Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace. The virtual mashup combines live concert footage from 2018 with at home recordings of thousands of singers.
  • Virtual POP [Play On Philly] Registration is open for the incredible local youth music instruction program’s 10th Anniversary year. Instruction begins virtually on Oct. 5.
  • Online Art History Classes [Barnes Foundation] An impressive collection of topics, each consisting of 4 weekly sessions this Fall.
  • Virtual Gallery [Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show] Featuring works from 101 artists from the US and Canada (Sept. 10-13).
  • Philadelphia Fringe Festival 2020 [Fringe Arts] Another reminder of the amazing all-virtual Fringe lineup this year (Sept. 10-Oct. 4).
  • Time Flies [Apple] The company’s next round of products will be announced in a virtual event (Sept. 15 at 1pm ET). Expect a new Apple Watch and new iPads.

What I’m creating

Virtual Chorister, my iOS app to help musicians participate in virtual collaboration projects has surpassed 2000 downloads! And don’t let the name fool you… it’s for instrumentalists, too! The latest update lets you also load guide videos from cloud services (Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud Drive, etc.) and adds support for Bluetooth headphones. An update coming soon will add other requested features.

Another frequent request is for an Android version. Unfortunately, that’s an entirely different development process that I don’t have experience with (essentially writing an entirely new app), but I’m thinking about it…

No. 16 • 2020-09-02

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Back to School

How is it September already? Many of us are scrambling to get ready for another most unusual school year. For me, that will involve teaching online (again). I do miss teaching in the classroom, much like I miss singing together with other people. I’ve also seen many professors, teachers, and students struggle with online classes, particularly last spring when there was little time to prepare. It’s actually quite similar to musicians attempting online collaboration for the first time. But we all get better at it, and as with virtual music ensembles, I’ve also witnessed enormous creativity in methods of teaching and engaging students online, towards a different, but not lesser, learning experience.

I firmly believe remote learning offers unique opportunities for creative instruction and learning. The first mistake many made, especially in the quick transition last spring, was to try to simply replicate the in-person experience. Online learning is different, fundamentally, just like a TV show is different from a performance staged in a theater. We must embrace those differences and adapt to incorporate the best features of the medium (see local efforts by Opera Philadelphia, the Wilma Theater, and others to produce new digital content).

I find it helpful to lean into the differences between in-person and remote instruction to identify the elements that that can be enhanced through online instruction. Here are some thoughts:

  • Different kinds of student engagement: Some aren’t comfortable speaking in class, but are happy to engage in text questions / conversations. We can also use messaging to keep conversations going outside of the class period.
  • Authoring new media: Rethinking textbooks and slides is long overdue. Experiment with new learning media, like U. Penn Prof. Robert Ghrist’s video textbook for calculus (above image).
  • Alternate modes of sharing and communicating: Online, we can easily share writing, documents, media, sketches, and code. These are the tools of the modern workplace, and we should embrace them for our students.
  • Special guest presenters: Speakers I couldn’t normally bring to campus (distance, cost, etc.), I can invite for remote presentations.

Ultimately, I believe remote teaching (and learning) makes us better instructors and students, whether in person or online. Most are past the angst. Let’s focus on the opportunities to make our classes this year into truly engaging and creative learning experiences. 

Visit Prof. Ghrist’s website for his amazing Calculus Blue project materials. More on the philosophy behind this work in this Twitter thread.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • 2020 Grand Finale Concert [Vox Virtual Online A Cappella Festival] A fantastic virtual concert featuring 10 international ensembles!
  • Philadelphia Fringe Festival 2020 [Fringe Arts] Fringe is going all virtual this year (Sept. 10-Oct. 4).   It’s an incredible lineup of events, exhibits, and more!
  • #RedAlertRestart [WeMakeEvents] I still miss live events. This is an advocacy campaign led by We Make Events to support relief for the live events sector, which lit up venues in red on Sept. 1. See also Save Our Stages.
  • B.PHL 2020 Innovation Festival [B.PHL] The second B.PHL Festival is all virtual with some amazing speakers and registration is absolutely free! (Sept. 15-17, more below.)

What I’m creating

Creative Conversations for a Changing World
Save the date: Tuesday, Sept. 15 at 4pm
Jessica Zweig (Play On Philly) and I are co-moderating a virtual panel discussion with David Devan (Opera Philadelphia), Valerie Gay (Barnes Foundation), and Melissa Talley-Palmer (Bartol Foundation) on innovating in arts and education through the pandemic. Registration is free!

No. 15 • 2020-08-26

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Virtual Chorister

Followers of this newsletter know of my fondness for virtual choir projects. Since the start of the pandemic, choirs and vocal ensembles, in particular, haven’t been able to sing together. As a singer, I really miss it. Unfortunately, it’s likely we won’t be able to gather safely for some time, and some organizations and schools have cancelled the entire year/season of rehearsals and performances.

Virtual choirs aren’t a substitute for live singing in ensemble, but they offer a different way to collaborate and contribute to something musical. As I’ve written previously, the format opens up new possibilities that can’t be realized in person. Sing in ensemble with a famous professional group. Collaborate with musicians on the other side of the globe. A choir of more than 17000 singers. Or, in the case of schools and youth choirs, just continue to sing and learn.

To be clear: virtual choir projects are not accomplished via Zoom or videoconferencing. Those systems have too much delay to make musical collaboration possible, and there are many hilarious examples to prove that. Instead, each singer records their own part separately, and these videos are then mixed together (by someone with some video editing experience and a lot of patience) into the final “performance” shared via YouTube, Instagram, etc. Earlier this summer, I presented an online workshop introducing the full virtual chorus process for music educators, as part of the Apple Distinguished Educators Festival of Learning. It’s not for the faint of heart.

The technology makes it possible, but it doesn’t make it easy, even just to participate as a chorister. It takes a bit of technical know-how to contribute to a project (certainly more than just showing up to rehearsal).

The process generally requires 2 devices: one to view a reference/conductor video (so that you sing in sync with everyone else) and another (usually your phone) to record your own performance. The need for 2 devices (and skill to use both in tandem) poses a barrier to participation for some.

Today, I’m releasing a new iOS app, Virtual Chorister, which attempts to make it easier by combining everything on a single device (an iPhone or iPad). The app enables you to watch & follow a reference video while you record your own singing. You don’t need to juggle the tech across multiple devices. The video is saved to your Photo Library, which you then share/upload in whatever way is designated by the project.

In particular, I’m hopeful this will help schools and youth choirs continue to sing and create this Fall. So, it is a free app. If you do use it for a project, I’d appreciate a shout out and an email to let me know about your project (and maybe get highlighted in this newsletter!). If you wish to contribute something to help continue development, there is an option to do so within the app.

And if you’re looking for a way to participate, here are a few virtual choir projects:

It’s not a substitute for actually singing together… nothing is. But maybe, such projects can keep us going until we can gather together and sing to our hearts’ content. I hope this app enables others to begin (or continue) creating at a distance.

Happy singing!

Download Virtual Chorister (for iPhone and iPad) via the App Store.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Words [London Youth Chamber Choir] Collaborative music video of an a cappella classic (originally performed by The Real Group). Nice video production (not Zoom rectangles)!
  • How a hidden Center City block became a pop-up concert hall [WHYY News] You just can’t stop the music!
  • Ubi Caritas [Kings Return, composed by Ola Gjeilo] This went viral a few weeks ago, but definitely worth another listen even if you’ve seen it. Just four guys who sing in stairwells… beautifully.
  • An Artful Pivot [The Indicator from Planet Money, NPR] A radio profile of how the Wilma Theater transitioned Is God Is from the stage to a radio play in response to the pandemic (special appearance by friend of ExCITe, Sunil Iyengar of the NEA).
  • Digital Festival O [Opera Philadelphia] It’s your last chance to stream 3 groundbreaking Philadelphia operatic premieres (ends Aug. 31)

What I’m creating

What, a brand new app isn’t enough for you?

OK, here’s a website I made, all about battling with remote-controlled LEGO robots. In truth, I published the site a year ago, but my son and I are still having fun with our LEGO robot battles!

We were inspired by one of our favorite TV shows, BattleBots. Season 5 was postponed due to COVID, but it’s coming back this Fall!