Thursday, May 21, 2009

Twittering away...

I've got a good, substantive blog post in the works (read: it's all in my head, and it strikes me as completely brilliant in that formless state, but it may never see the light of laptop), but this semi-vacation period seems like a good time to reflect on the Twitter experience. I suppose I could begin with this disturbing stat: I posted 24 Twitter updates yesterday! (Honestly, I thought that number would be closer to 12 until I just checked. Yikes.)

The day was a bit exceptional, for reasons I'll explain, and I'm in that school vacation mode, even though I haven't finished all my grading and even though the house/yard/children/etc could desperately use my attention. Although I'm sure I've never before had 24 "tweets" in one day, I have racked up a total of 346 in less than two months. So, here's an attempt to figure out why and to ramble on about the Twittersphere.

As has been well-documented here, the "Twitter an Opera Plot" contest is what got me to sign on, and it's also what has really defined my Twitter world so far. Alas, I was not a winner of the Big Round 2 version of the contest, but it was a remarkable experience to be a part of such a large-scale creative activity. Think of how much time, knowledge, and invention went into creating these hundreds of little distillations. I admire the winning entries, but I hope it doesn't sound like sour grapes to suggest that it's the total sum of entries that's the real prize here. Read through that big list and you're sure to learn something new, but also to be struck by opera's wonderful combination of simple, emotional directness and convoluted, excessive absurdity.

Most importantly, the best entries are a reminder of how much creative energy can be sparked by tight constraints. As it happens, the contest also sparked some wonderful generosity on the part of one of the winners; he donated his grand prize of tickets to Washington National Opera's Turandot and grand ball to a Washington D.C. public school music teacher. (Got to admit I had my eye on that prize; the grand ball is on my wedding anniversary, and we have relatives [housing & free babysitters] in the D.C. area. Oh well.) Now, there's absolutely nothing not to love about this story, so forgive the following comments, which might seem petty. However, it's sad to me that after a contest that produced such a unique and multi-faceted body of work, the big story (from the media perspective) is that a deserving teacher gets to go to a ball.

Again, the teacher story is fantastic, but this is hardly the most efficient way to have made that happen. The Washington National Opera could just as easily have donated that prize package to a teacher to begin with. As at least one Twitterer has remarked, the WNO has actually done some very slick P.R. work here (helped out by a very generous operaplotter). The point is, people do nice and generous things for other people every day, some more nicely packaged for the news than others. I understand that Anne Midgette almost certainly doesn't even write that Washington Post article if she doesn't have the Cinderella story as the lead, but it's sad to me that: 1) she didn't provide a link to the online archive of operaplot entries, and 2) she didn't bother to credit the author (Nicole Brockmann) of three plots that she cited in the article. (By the way, Brockmann's entries were jaw-droppingly good, such that I'd pretty much given up hope of winning before the prizes were announced, although shockingly, she wasn't chosen as a winner.) Midgette could have done both with minimal effort, and without really changing anything about the article.

The fact is, the mainstream media still hasn't learned how to think in the new hyperlinked way that makes the Internet so revolutionary. Traditional media types want to reduce everything to tidy, single-focus stories with catchy headlines, when it's the multi-layered richness of online collaboration, community, and connections that's the real story. For example, just about every news story I've heard about Twitter completely misses the point about what makes it unique and valuable; it's easier and catchier just to say that it's a bunch of people writing about what they had for dinner. And yet, I can't imagine how something like this enormous collection of clever opera summaries would have come into existence so quickly without something like Twitter. (The Omniscient Mussel deserves a lot of credit as well.)

To be fair, it's quite difficult to describe the Twitter experience, just because it is so multi-dimensional, and yes, it's easy enough to find inane twitter samples. I actually think Twitter still has major kinks, especially related to that charming and genre-defining rule about posts containing only 140 characters. It's a good rule - until conversations start to get more complicated and richly layered. Although users have tried to develop etiquette for quoting and citing other tweets, it gets messy fast when you're faced with that limit on characters. I've seen many example where threads have been broken and ideas have been untethered from their original authors. But I don't want to get into a technical discussion here about how that problem might be fixed. (Curiously, one possible advantage of this limit is that I don't see a lot of arguing on Twitter, at least not in the very small 'corner' where I hang out. I think this is partly because people recognize how dangerous it would be to argue within that character limit. At least for me, I can't imagine trying to state an argumentative case clearly while worrying about keeping it so short; misunderstandings would be inevitable.)

Instead, I'll try to suggest what's good about Twitter. For me, what sets it apart from other online experiences I've had is the way it inspires and facilitates conversation. (Facebook can do this as well, but it tends to be based more on existing personal relationships than on the common interests that cause Twitterers to follow each other.) I've commented on many blogs over the years, and sometimes that works well, but more often than not, there's enough lag between the various comments that's the conversation lacks spontaneity. Assuming one checks in on Twitter fairly often, there's the possibility of virtually real-time communication. Here's an example of how that can play out.

Yesterday, one user commented to another that she'd just realized his unusual Twitter username is an anagram. Since I was still suffering from operaplot withdrawal, this almost immediately led me to think of creating operaplot anagrams. Not much later, I was posting the following operagrams:
Soon thereafter, another user chimed in with "I don't even want to think about operaplotpalindrome." Neither did I, but the seed was planted. Remarkably, it wasn't much longer before I'd churned out the following, legitimate palindromes all:
[Each of the "plots" above is linked to its opera. By the way, I'm particularly proud of the Semele one. It may read oddly, but it's historical fact that Handel produced this opera-like work as an oratorio, so that it could be performed during the Lenten season when opera performances were banned. However, audiences didn't take too kindly to a rather erotic Greek story where something noble and biblical was expected, so he definitely failed to make a Messiah out of the story.]

I was actually surprised to learn that creating palindromes is not as impossible a task as I'd always assumed, although it is a serious constraint. I got all excited thinking that the following would be my best yet: "Hey, rise, Mimi! Misery, eh?" until I realized the "ise" goes the same direction both times - and this tiny problem is essentially unfixable within the constraint. Still, I hadn't had so much retrograde fun since creating an ambigram last Spring. And it all happened in one Twitter-torrent of inspiration.

But, more importantly, Twitter turns out to be a good way to get linked to interesting articles, videos, and ideas from all over the Internet - and to be reminded again and again of common interests. Of course, blogs have served that purpose for some time, but this system pushes information to the user much more conveniently. Obviously, the biggest trick is avoiding the temptation to spend too much time there - a battle I've lost in the few days since the semester ended, but I'll be busy enough with other projects soon enough.

I'm not convinced that Twitter itself will hold onto the market for this kind of online community, but it's certain that something like it will be around for awhile. If you've never Twittered and want to try to get some sense of it, you can view an archive of my first 300 tweets here. Because many of these posts are replies to other people, it can be a bit tricky to follow at first. And, by the way, Twitter does a horrible job of teaching its users how the system works. It took me weeks, for example, to figure out that by clicking on the words "in reply to" I could jump to the previous message in a thread. It also turns out to be almost essential to use a free program like TweetDeck to manage one's twittering, although you'd never know that just by signing up. But oh well, it is what it is, and what it is is pretty cool.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that today I decided to try my hand at opera acrostics. Here's how that turned out:
  • Doer of no good invites offed visitor. Apparition needs no introduction.
  • Fidelio is deceptive eponym. ("Leonore" in overtures.)
  • Florestan's in danger. Enter Leonore, ingenious operative.
  • Lovable artists bring operagoers heartfelt emotion: Mimi expires.
Since they're acrostics, you should be able to figure them out easily enough!
NOTE: I'm pretty certain the Lulu palindrome above is my first ever use of the "LOL" formulation. I hope it's the last as well. I do enjoy the irony of applying it to that ridiculously sordid tale, for which laughter may indeed be the most appropriate response. Also not too crazy about the emerging Twitter vocabulary. I can handle tweets, I suppose, but tweeps? twibes? etc. Ugh.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Magical Music

I've tended to avoid assigning collaborative projects in my classes for one big reason: I always hated them as a student. In retrospect, this may reflect more on my own social anxiety than the idea of collaboration in general, although I did have some bad experiences. I particularly remember having to work with a group of total strangers to create and perform a mini-play for a truly horrible "theater lecture" class. I volunteered to write the play so as to avoid having to be on stage, but it was just a total fiasco.

However, one thing I really value about our music department is the sense of community among the students. Last year when my music history class got to early 18th century comic opera, particularly the popular and freely borrowing style of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, I got into a spontaneous discussion with the class about the possibility of replacing a paper-writing project with a group opera-writing project. We chickened out for a variety of reasons, but the idea stuck with me, and when I was planning for this year, I realized we had a class very well-suited to the task.

The group includes an ideal balance of voice majors: two sopranos, one mezzo, two tenors, one baritone. For an orchestra, we had two violins (including a piano major who happens to violin), a violist (actually a violin major, which of course is much better), one flute, two oboes, one clarinet, and another pianist to play continuo. OK, we also had a trombonist, which isn't standard fare for the Era, but she's a strong player who helped cover for the fact that I was stepping in as the cellist. (I played cello quite a bit up through college; since then, about once every 1.5 years.) With no double bass on hand, the trombone was a welcome addition to the bass line, and there's certainly a kind of authenticity in being resourceful this way.

I knew for sure that we had at least one aspiring composer in the group as well, but one thing I'm learning much too late in life is that composing isn't as specialized a talent as people tend to think. So, a significant purpose of this project was to let the students see what they could do; they've all had almost four semesters of theory now, after all. Again, The Beggar's Opera provides a good model here because the tunes are generally quite simple, four-square, and straightforwardly arranged; it's not like writing complex sixteenth-century counterpoint or grandly opulent Wagner. (In fact, I believe the specific impetus for last year's idea-hatching discussion was me saying, "I mean, even you guys could write something like this!")

However, I also hoped to use Pergolesi, Handel, A. Scarlatti et al as models for some Italian-style recitative (the English-style ballad operas just used spoken dialogue); the students had already experimented a bit with recit writing in an assignment from the previous quad. I wondered if creating recit-style vocal lines might be easier for some students than dealing in more structured harmonic contexts. (I'm not sure I'm right about this in retrospect; as it happens, the recits never made it to production, but I think I underestimated how difficult it is to master that style without having heard it for years and years. It requires a sophisticated feel for the rhythm of language.)

I knew that not every student would feel all that comfortable composing, and 15 chefs would certainly be way more than ideal anyway, so we began by having 4-5 students volunteer to create a libretto. I had originally envisioned that they would come up with some sort of contemporary college-life farce (actually, I myself would like to take a stab at writing "Facebook: The Opera," which would feature only projected text - no singers!), but to my delight, they came up with a very charming fairy-tale like story, with characters inspired very much by our own cast of singers. In fact, the libretto team put together an entire plot that would have required at least a couple of hours worth of music, so we settled on the idea of just setting the finale.

We then had another 4-5 students assigned various compositional tasks. In fact, I'm still sorting out who exactly did what (ultimately, not that important to me, to be honest) since we had a very efficient student in charge of assigning tasks, keeping communication open, scheduling meetings, etc. (I knew the biggest mistake of all would've been to put me in charge of things.) Other students ended up being involved in helping with orchestrating, producing/printing parts, directing the stage action, chronicling the process, etc. To my happy surprise, a couple of students volunteered to write an overture, which borrowed themes both from the finale that was in process and from various hits of the 17th and 18th centuries.

All this was going on over the course of several weeks (of course, much of the work happened right at the end, as it has ever been among artists), and I chose not to use much class time on the project. I figured they were getting out of doing a paper (though they did still do some writing for the class), so they needed to expect to spend a lot of time that would otherwise have been spent researching and writing. This made the final week very exciting/terrifying for me, because I didn't really know what to expect. We ended up having our big rehearsal right after Friday's final exam. The idea was that if we thought we had something, we'd debut it at Sunday's end-of-year music dept. bash.

And it turned out we (actually, they) really did have something. In the end, we had the witty and tune-stealing overture, two beautifully characterized little arias (each with continuo only), two extended scenes of scene-stealing dialogue (authentic, after all, for the The Beggar's Opera context), and a fully orchestrated final chorus. The story concerns a mischievous witch who sells fruit that makes people fall in love, inevitably with the wrong people (including a poor minister, who gets chased around by a peasant girl), with everything being magically fixed in the end - and if you don't think we ended up calling it The Magic Fruit, well...

The rehearsal was predictably chaotic, given that everyone was pretty much seeing the parts for the first time, but the music was written simply enough that we managed to put it together fairly quickly. (I was very pleased that they took seriously my direction to keep it simple and not try to use every compositional trick in the book. Last quad's recitatives were a bit more "interesting.") There was a bit more coaching on Saturday and some very clever staging that went together at the proverbial last-minute, and suddenly we were performing the thing. It was a big success, with the audience laughing at all the right times and me managing to find most of the right pitches on my dusty cello. (I'd forgotten how much I love playing in an orchestra. It was also amusing as a cellist to find that Pachelbel's Canon had become sort of a ground bass for the overture and finale. I've certainly played those 8 notes a few times.)

So, what did we learn from all this? Well, probably the most consistent feedback I've gotten from the students has to do with how much they enjoyed the collaborative process (tossing ideas back and forth, etc.) and how surprised they were at what they could achieve. As a "learning objective," I would say a real benefit here is to demystify a bit the process of composition, and to remember that much of the music that has become "classical" was thrown together in a much more popular context and in a perhaps similarly chaotic and collaborative sort of way. (I'm not saying that most operas actually had 4-5 composers, but the creative process was often driven as much by practical concerns as artistic principles. I'm also not forgetting that some music does deserve its awe-inspiring status. Notice I didn't ask for a Mozart-style finale.)

Several students also noted that it was fun to see how much fun musical borrowing can be. And speaking of fun, I make no apology for the fact that the success of our performance had a lot to do with silly stage action and inside jokes among the students and their audience of peers. Real theater doesn't apologize for what works - it just looks to make a connection with an audience. It's easy when listening to disconnected musical excerpts from a score anthology to forget that much of this music was written to entertain. There's no business like show business, but how often do we forget that music history is about show business?

In some ways, the most important aspect of this project is to remember that musicology need not just be reading/writing/research driven, although it can often seem that way. I already tend to do a lot of score analysis in my history classes, maybe more than the norm, but I often find myself resenting the idea that academic work is so often associated with writing and research. I have nothing against the development of those skills, but there are other kinds of intelligence that deserving nurturing as well; it's one thing to write about music, but perhaps just as useful to "write music" about music. Anything that encourages creativity is a good thing in my book.

Several students also commented on how gratifying it was to see how what they've been learning in theory and ear-training has paid off in being able to create something original and entertaining. That's a credit to other faculty members and to the willingness of the students to give this a chance. As I've suggested, I really didn't have much at all to do with the final product. (I do wish there had been time to workshop some of what we did, especially the recitative thing, but we did have to use class time to cover minor figures like Bach, Handel, Haydn, and Mozart.) And, of course, the students found it very satisfying to have their compositions performed for an appreciative audience. (There is some bootleg footage floating around Facebook, but for now I'm going to leave what this all sounded like to the reader's imagination. Trust me, it sounded pretty entertaining.)

So, the biggest take-away point is that I've been an idiot for shying away from collaborative projects for all these years. It is difficult to give up control in this way, and the project could very plausibly have gone much worse, but it's good to make students sink or swim. I also need to learn better how to manage all the roles that are involved. As happens in any creative situation, sometimes a creative spark takes over, a job gets done suddenly and someone else gets left out. However, as I said above, in the end it's silly to worry too much about everyone getting exactly the same thing out of a project. Hopefully, the time invested is its own reward, and I don't think any of the students will ever forget The Magic Fruit. Many thanks to Andrew, Austin, Beth, Chris, Christine, Diana, Dina, Ian, Jillian, Joe, Kassandra, Katie, Mary, Nate, & Paul.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Piano Hero: Level 1,812

I haven't written about Piano Hero much lately, but we've still been going strong, and the Season Finale is tomorrow at 12:20. Over the course of the semester, we've played Beethoven 1, 3, 5, 7, Mendelssohn 4, Mozart 40, and Copland's "Billy the Kid." Tomorrow (last day of classes!) will be especially festive though; we're playing an 8-hand arrangement of the 1812 Overture. As a warm-up, we'll play the Overture to "The Barber of Seville." It's a 4-hand arrangement that I've redistributed for 8 hands. Hope it works, as it has not been played or heard yet.

In other news, if you enjoyed my Twitter operaplot submissions, there are more than 500 others to amuse and confound you. (By the way, there are many I'd have never figured out on my own, and many operas I'd barely heard of - or never heard of.) See them arranged by opera on Miss Mussel's blog here. Or, if you really want to challenge yourself, see them in the order originally submitted (without solutions) here. You're sure to learn something you didn't know. Prizewinners will be announced at the end of the week.

Some of my favorites:
nbrockmann Adina's in love w/Belcore,/And can think of no other signore./Dulcamara gives vino/To poor Nemorino/And calls it Elisir d'Amore.

frindley Hello muddah, hello faddah, I'm in love w/ Gioconda! But she hates me (so enticing), And goes in for all this noble sacrificing

primalamusica Amatory lepidopterist traps fragile specimen among Nagasaki cherry blossoms. Fumbling to release her, he crushes her instead.

Amissio Creepy sailor wooes Norwegian lass. She falls for him. Off a cliff.

idmbassoon - take a summer job in the country watching 2 nice kids? great! wait…you didn’t mention the crazy ghosts.

txavacado - SM seeks SF for lifetime of enlightenment. Must match your picture and be open to adventure - esp firewalking and water sports.

primalamusica - Noble lady trapped in harem of surprisingly complex Pasha. Will her fiancé get to her before Stockholm syndrome does?

nbrockmann 2GuysMeetTheirGalsUndercover/TheirFidelityThusToDiscover/ TheyVow”Come Scoglio!”/ButInTheImbroglio/ Each1AlmostWedsTheWrongLover!

frindley Can we sort out this Olympian scandal with Euridice, Aristaeus/Pluto and Orpheus’s infernal fiddling? Yes we Can-Can!

And finally, check out this wonderful operaplot Wordle constructed by dumbledad. You may recall that I went through a Wordle phase last summer. As it happens, that was inspired by the same Miss Mussel who put the operaplot contest together. She's dangerous.
[click to enlarge]

The "boy gets girl" grouping is priceless.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Talking about music - it can work!

I've taken WCRB's "Kids' Classical Hour" to task several times for being poorly conceived, so I should also give credit where due. This morning, they had Boston Ballet conductor Jonathan McPhee on talking about Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty, and he did something remarkable. He talked about the music; he talked about how it worked, what techniques (using non-technical vocabulary) the composer used, always with well-chosen examples to illustrate. This is as opposed to a few weeks ago when the KCH show about "color," made the following kinds of brilliant connections: "Aaron Copland wrote music for a film called The Red Pony. Here's an excerpt!" & "Now, as we continue our exploration of color, let's listen to Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on Greensleeves!!" I wish I was kidding.

Anyway, McPhee is really good, maybe a little low-key in demeanor for kids, but he sounds like an actual person talking - he never sounds like he's reading from a clunky script, unlike another more popsular Boston conductor who appears on KCH frequently. In fact, the couple of other times I've heard McPhee on the show, he's been equally fantastic, managing most importantly to encourage real listening. I wish it was as easy as he makes it seem.

Also on KCH, a few weeks ago, I heard a fascinating little interview with Henry Chapin who, as a 10ish year old boy, narrated Leonard Bernstein's recording of the Britten Young Person's Guide. It was interesting first of all to realize that Chapin (not a musician) got the gig mainly because he was the son of Schuyler Chapin, a big-league arts administrator and friend of LB. But, I love how Chapin talked about watching LB for cues and being mesmerized by the experience of watching the score go by. As I've said many times before, giving people the experience of following a score is underrated as a music appreciation technique. At least, that's the rationale for all the score excerpts that float by in my debut podcast and in various score visualizations I've done. Maybe only I (and young Master Chapin) get a kick out of that.

Not so coincidentally, I've just started a collaboration with an artist (for a November exhibit) which will be exploring the score as a visual. Should be least to me.

Friday, May 1, 2009


There's nothing worse than someone explaining a joke, so there's probably nothing worse than this post. Oh well. I figure I've put a lot of could've-been-blogging energy into Twittering opera plots, and most of them have inside jokes that will make no sense if you don't know the operas; I thought I might as well construct a little guide to these plots, so that they might seem less random, even if I end up seeming more self-obsessed. It goes on for awhile, so I've dumped most of the text off the main page.

OK, here are my plots so far. [Read more...]