No. 26 • 2021-01-06

Subscribe to Newsletter

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. 12 • 2020-07-29

Subscribe to Newsletter

Watch Virtual Choir 6: Sing Gently a worldwide chorus of 17,572 persons united in song.

Virtual Choir 6: A Review

Eric Whitacre’s Sing Gently was released last week, the latest (sixth) and largest (17,572 singers!) collaborative work from the composer who created the genre with his first Virtual Choir in 2010. These works are widely celebrated as groundbreaking, and this technique has obviously come to greater prominence during the COVID-19 pandemic.

To be honest, I haven’t been the biggest fan of Whitacre’s previous Virtual Choirs (VCs). The compositions are fine, but the alignment between performances and visuals has gone from originally experimental (VC1) and ambient (VC3) to overreaching (VC2’s space theme) and bizarre (VC4’s computer-generated characters and cityscape). VC5 arrived at a more natural fit, layering the images of singers over our globe, but that was primarily an orchestral piece set to NASA images, with only a short choral segment.

VC6, Sing Gently. is different, perhaps because it 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 on July 19. The piece is a flowing choral song with piano accompaniment, simple, understated, and beautiful. The performance lasts only about 3 1/2 minutes (the remaining 7 minutes of the video are for credits… everyone gets acknowledged!).

The visuals for this work take greater prominence, moving away from the faux conductor and chorus placement of some previous videos, leaning into the current moment of separation. Each singer is depicted as a fractured and irregularly shaped piece (no Zoom rectangles!), but part of a larger mosaic that is fused together, healing the fissures between the individual pieces and later, larger sections.

I think it comes together quite beautifully. I also appreciate the incredible amount of work it must have taken to piece together so many source videos, especially dealing with irregular (non-rectangular) shapes. Current video editing software was not designed for these kinds of projects… (that’s an opportunity for a software developer, btw). A video with just 60 singers brought my desktop to its knees. I’m really not sure how you deal with 17,000+, and my hat’s off to the VC6 team.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I believe good virtual works unlock or enable something that we can’t do in the physical world. Sing Gently does that in two ways:

  1. Obviously, there is no live choral singing happening in the US or in many parts of the world. There is no other (safe) way to sing together, other than virtually.
  2. Scale: we can’t stage 17,572 singers for a performance (well, you could, but it’s impractical), and honestly, there are diminishing returns acoustically once you get to around 100 singers. One nitpick is that the scale of this chorus is not visually apparent until 2/3 into VC6. 

But perhaps the most significant aspect of the project is that many thousands of singers jumped at the chance to participate in this work in a short timeframe. Virtual choirs are a form where nearly anyone can contribute and experience being part of something much larger than themselves (plus, there’s the excitement of catching a glimpse of yourself, either in the visuals or at least the credits). I celebrate this work as a shining example of how music and technology can bring (so many) people together, in these disconnected times. As conveyed by the lyrics…

May we hear the singing
And may we always sing along
Sing, sing gently always
Sing, sing as one

More about Virtual Choir 6: Sing Gently, plus an interview with creator Eric Whitacre, on CBS This Morning.

(Socially) Distant Creations

What I’m creating

My TEDxDrexelU 2020 talk on Creating at a Distance is now available on ted.com. This was originally streamed on May 31 (feels like longer), but it encapsulates much of the thinking that led me to create this newsletter. Also, use your phone to play along with a performance I created especially for this talk (instructions in the video).

No. 11 • 2020-07-15

Subscribe to Newsletter

Watch Cunningham Piano Ensemble’s performance of Mozart’s Ave Verum Corpus (111 performers from 18 states and 9 countries). It was one of the first (March 30) large-scale virtual musical collaborations, which inspired me to start this newsletter.

Tools & Adaptation

Back in March, I think most of us were in the mindset of “use whatever we have on hand to make something (anything!) workable”, whether in education, the arts, business, or just our daily lives. And the tools we had on hand were videoconferencing, smartphones, messaging and social media, and (for some) audio and video editing software. We were highly constrained (by the situation and the tools), but those constraints were also a driver of creativity.

Four months into social distancing and isolation (in the U.S.), we are all adapting and slowly getting better at being productive in the new normal. As I’ve worked on recent creative collaborations, I’ve been thinking about how poorly suited the tools on hand are for the tasks we’re faced with (because they were designed for completely different applications):

  • Zoom (and Google Meet, Skype, etc.) was designed for moderated group meetings, not happy hours, classrooms, or live theater.
  • Social media is great for sharing finished work, but not well suited for distance collaboration or work in progress.
  • Video editing apps are ideal for traditional filmmaking (focusing on one subject), but it’s a pain to work with lots and lots of simultaneous subjects.

This is usually what happens with technology: first we try to replicate the analog medium within the digital (e.g., using Zoom as a direct substitute for the classroom or theater experience). But over time comes greater familiarity, experience, and the ability to experiment, and eventually we arrive at something that is digitally “native”. Some things are already starting to feel native to an online and distanced working world (the ubiquitous Zoom grid, for example, is also the default view for collaborative creative content). Eventually, new tools will emerge that better fit the differently mediated forms of expression and learning. This cycle enables a different kind of creativity, driven less by immediate constraint and more by the possibilities afforded by the new tools.

What will “online native” creative forms look like? We must start by questioning the basic assumptions of a medium. Writing and performing a play for online presentation is very different from a play for the stage. Same for a musical performance or online learning. I suggest we start with the following: What can’tbe done in a live setting that can be done online? Here are a few examples:

As science fiction author William Gibson has written, “The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed”. New possibilities are being unlocked by the experiments happening now. While I don’t know exactly what the online native forms will look like, ultimately they will “feel” right. They will make us think it’s been that way all along… Do you remember what it was like before smartphones? Didn’t think so 🙂

I don’t think in-person theaters or classrooms will go away… there’s nothing like the excitement of live performance, and we can’t achieve that experience remotely with current technology. But even when we are able to return to live venues, I’m certain these remote explorations will continue to evolve. There will be more and more adaptation to the new possibilities that the medium offers, and I think that creative output will be exciting to see.

Note: Next week I’m taking a break from the newsletter to focus on other projects. The next issue will be released on July 29.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • Being Alive [The Antonyo Awards, presented by Broadway Black in association with The Black Theatre Society] A stirring performance from Stephen Sondheim’s Company, featuring Ayana George, Angela Birchett, Drew Shade, and many others in support of #BlackLivesMatter.
  • To Be or Not #ToBeBlack [The Public Theater] Shakespeare’s quintessential monologue, performed by Black actors reflecting on the struggle for racial justice.
  • Morning Serenade #songsofcomfort [Pana Percussion Quartet] A lovely percussion arrangement and virtuosic performance of this piece from Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo & Juliet.
  • The Ladies Who Lunch [Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration] From a while back (late April), but more from Sondheim & Company… Stage and film stars Christine Baranski, Meryl Streep, and Audra McDonald performing a socially distant version of this classic Broadway tune for the composer’s 90th birthday (online) gala.

What I’m creating

This week brought the tragic news that Grant Imahara, engineer, roboticist, and Mythbuster co-host, died at 49. He contributed to Star Wars movies, but also worked to bust the Hollywood stereotype of “Asian engineer”. In his appearances, he was not only highly competent, but also brought charm and an infectious sense of excitement and fun to engineering. Learn more about his work here.

In memory of Grant, here’s our lab’s robot music video of The Hubos, playing “Come Together” (from 2012).