Castbot and access

A few years ago I was in a conversation about audience access to classical music. We weren’t talking about accessibility in the stylistic way, but in a more literal way. Who can afford to be in the room when a performance is given, thereby experiencing a work as intended? In popular music the “primary document” is usually a recording, which is pretty widely accessible, especially today, as it can likely be streamed for free or purchased as a download. In comparison, my music is among the least accessible music to most people around the world. Even though a recording of a performance might be widely distributed, that’s far from the same thing as being in a room for its performance.

On a continuum of audience access to audio media, my acoustic compositions are near one extreme. Another audio genre that I care deeply about is podcasts. I’ve been listening to podcasts since I got my first iPod1 around 2004, and I started making and publishing podcasts in 2011. Castbot is the first in what may become a series of electroacoustic works that are created expressly for the podcast format.

I first created Castbot in 2016, and it has been running on-and-off since then. It has gone through a number of iterations, and I’m pretty happy with its simple yet compelling output in the current version. Each night2, my little bot generates a new episode of the piece based on a narrowly defined set of conditions in the software, uploads it to a sever, and updates the corresponding podcast feed.

In each episode of Castbot, a small ecosystem of virtual “audio creatures” is created and runs its course. For some reason, I think of them as birds. They fly back and forth in the stereo field, playing a stuttering rhythm on a repeating pitch. Each time they cross the center, they change pitch within the defined scale. Eventually, the birds fly off the edge of the environment and do not return. The episode ends when all the birds have flown off. To set up each episode, Castbot picks the number of creatures, the scale, and the tempo. I think of this as the weather of the environment. And the piece plays out according to the whims of the drifting birds.

I mentioned that this little bot has been running since 2016, but I’ve recently submitted it to the iTunes and Google podcast directories, which means it is now much easier to find and subscribe to. If you’re podcast-inclined, give it a listen and let me know what you think.

Links: Castbot in my portfolio, in iTunes, in Google Play, it’s own feed page.

  1. It’s been so many years since I’ve looked at the word “iPod” in print that this looks wrong to me. My brain-autocorrect wants to make it into “iPad”. 
  2. Ok, “each night” is a bit of a stretch. The whole shebang runs on a Raspberry Pi 3 in my home studio, and sometimes I accidentally let it overheat. When that happens, it will stop running until I notice and reboot the little guy. Also, if you catch any episodes that aren’t posted a few seconds after midnight, that’s me running Castbot manually to test something, or just for fun. 

Score preparation and production notes

About a week ago, I put together a short but dense presentation for my composition students at UCF on score preparation. With rare exceptions, composers today are expected to not only write the music, but also prepare and produce professional-quality parts. This is something we are often not explicitly trained to do. Instead, we’re expected to pick things up as we go1.

For my presentation I made a big outline of all the things I go over when I’m preparing scores and parts, which turned out to be a bigger checklist than I’d expected. So like any child of the Internet, when I make a thing, I post it online. Philip Rothman over at Scoring Notes generously took time to add links to stories on his blog and elsewhere to go into greater detail, which turns my skeletal outline into a genuinely useful reference.

If you do any score preparation or production, I would encourage you to bookmark this post. Thanks to Philip for all the work he does to support composers.

  1. This is part of a larger untenable norm in music higher education: we often train every single student as though they will be a superstar that doesn’t need to worry about these minutiae. Sure, there are copyists, and they’re great. For most of us in concert music, we’ll rarely be in a circumstance to hire one. 

ArtsHacker: Breaking Up With Adobe

It’s not you, Adobe. It’s me.

My day-to-day responsibilities have shifted over the last couple of years, and I’m not getting the value out of the Adobe applications that I used to. It’s not that the Creative Cloud apps have gotten worse. To the contrary, they’re better than they’ve ever been: more powerful and easier to use for beginners and design dilettantes like me. And recently, I’ve started a journey to find alternatives to each of the Adobe applications I use on a regular basis. If, like me, you feel you might not be getting the full value out of your Adobe subscriptions, you might be pleasantly surprised to discover some of the tools that may serve your needs just as well, for a fee that is a little easier to justify.

Continue reading at ArtsHacker

A Midterms Exam

A study guide:

  1. What would you most want me to know about your experience?

You will never understand another person’s experience because you lack the capacity for empathy. Your lack of shameless lack of self-awareness is problematic enough. Let’s not stress your intellect by attempting to make yourself aware of another human’s experience.

  1. What can we do to help you feel safe?

Stop making and selling guns, especially military-style guns, but honestly all of them.

  1. Do you think see something say something is effective?

Not the way it’s been discussed by (mostly) you over the last few days. It stigmatizes mental illness and developmental disabilities. Ostracizing people makes problems worse, not better.

  1. resources? ideas?

Resource: my great brain. Idea: no more guns.

  1. I hear you.


We have a lot to learn

 If virtuosic perfection at least were achieved, one could—in a forgetful moment—be satisfied with that. But one cannot even claim this, since the leisurely attitude of the majority of classical players toward rhythmic accuracy is simply appalling, and would seem so to more people were it not so widespread as to be generally accepted. There is no question in my mind that the classical world can learn much about timing, rhythmic accuracy, and subtlety from jazz musicians, as jazz musicians can in dynamics, structure, and contrast from the classical musicians.

Gunther Schuller, “The Third Stream”, 13 May 1961 in The Saturday Review of Literature, as collected in Musings: The Musical Worlds of Gunther Schuller

Just the blues

What kind of music were you playing on the jobs?

Blues. I’d play the blues all night long, just playing the blues.

You were playing for adults, then?

Yes. These were blues clubs, little holes in the wall-

Is that what they wanted?

Oh, yes. That’s all they would listen to.

The reason I’m questioning you so closely is I think that in many places during the fifties popular songs were more common than the blues.

Well, all these places wanted was the blues. A lot of the popular songs were blues, however.

Do you think that perhaps a different kind of music was more common in St. Louis among blacks than in other places? I mean, would this demand for the blues have come about because St. Louis was southern and somewhat “country” and, therefore, closer to genuine folk music?

I don’t know. But I do know that all you would hear in those clubs was the blues.

Eileen Southern interviewing composer Olly Wilson in 1977.

I don’t remember exactly how, but I recently discovered Wilson’s music and have been trying to learn more about him. The more of his music I hear, the more I wish it had been covered in my education. Oh well, no time like the present.

Southern, Eileen, and Olly Wilson. “Olly Wilson: The Education of a Composer.” The Black Perspective in Music 5, no. 1 (1977): 90-103. doi:10.2307/1214361. JSTOR permalink

Spring 2018 Listening List

Each semester, I assign a series of weekly listening assignments to my composition students. The last few semesters, I’ve had a goal of making at least half of the list women and composers of color. One of the challenges of this is that I only get 14 weeks in the semester, and that means if I’m going to address this concern, I have to remove some of the composers and works that I found important and that I was taught when I was a student. We talk a lot about curriculum reform, not just in representation in the repertoire, but also things like technological and entrepreneurial skills. Often, we don’t address the fact that we can’t just keep adding things without taking other stuff away.

I have to trade a William Walton for an Olly Wilson. Good trade, IMO; but you’re free to disagree. Here’s my semester list if you’re curious. Hat-tip to the Women Composers Database and the Composers of Color Database, both projects organized by composer and inveterate list-maker Rob Deemer.

(Where possible, recordings are available in the Spotify playlist. Otherwise, there are links to listen elsewhere.)

  • Week 1
  • Week 2
    • Pauline Oliveros: No Mo (2001)
  • Week 3
    • John Adams: Chamber Symphony (1992)
    • optional, Son of Chamber Symphony (2007)
  • Week 4
    • George Walker: Lilacs (1995)
  • Week 5
    • Pierre Boulez: Le marteau sans maître (The hammer without a master, 1955)
  • Week 6
    • Christopher Cerrone: Memory Palace (2012)
  • Week 7
    • Dorothy Hindman: The Road to Damascus (2010)
  • Week 8
    • Nico Muhly: Mothertongue (2008)
  • Week 9
    • Anna Thorvaldsdóttir: In the Light of Air (2015)
  • Week 10
    • Olly Wilson: A City Called Heaven (1988)
  • Week 11
    • Mary Ellen Childs: Ephemeral Geometry (2012)
  • Week 12
    • Raven Chacon: The Journey of the Horizontal People (2016)
    • score
    • recording
  • Week 13
    • Aaron Copland: Piano Variations (1930)
  • Week 14
    • Sofia Gubaidulina: String Trio (1988)

I Shaved You a Yak: Dorico Edition

“Yak shaving” is not only fun to say, but it’s a very useful concept. It refers to a series of tiny, seemingly pointless, often mindless tasks that stand between you and accomplishing a larger, more fulfilling project. Sometimes they’re necessary—putting gas in your car before a road trip. Other times they’re procrastinatory1—drawing beautiful album art for the playlist you have lovingly crafted for said road trip. As I try to move much of my work from Sibelius to Dorico, there are many yaks to shave. My practical yak is learning keyboard shortcuts associated with Dorico tools. My silly yak is turning the quick reference for Dorico’s popover system into a wallpaper for my 5K iMac so I can easily see all of them. I shaved that yak so you don’t have to. Feel free to download and use.

Dorico Popover Reference 5K wallpaper

Just a quick warning, the text is already pretty small on my giant screen. It will probably be completely useless on a laptop. Sorry about that.

  1. Shockingly, there is no red underline for the word “procrastinatory” as I type this. 

Audience Building From First Principles

One of the things I love doing over school breaks is catching up on my well-intentioned Instapaper queue. I really like some of Aaron Gervais’s thoughts on audience building in this article I just caught up on from last year. In it, he addresses some of the failed attempts at audience building, and how we can and should be doing it better.

He describes some of the trendy classical-music-as-night-club events, and why they might appear to succeed, but fail in the goal of audience development because they are showcasing a type of experience that is in many ways fundamentally different than the thing we’re trying to build the audience for.

On a mashup of DJ sets and classical music:

Once the bouncer explained to [a group of nightclub attendees] what was happening, they left abruptly. People come to nightclubs to dance, so when these clubbers saw that the context of the nightclub was going to be taken over by some kind of classical music thing, their reaction was, “Let’s go somewhere else.” … There were obviously attendees who were there because they were regulars, but more than half the room of what looked like 200-300 people were clearly there either for Mason or one of the ensembles who were playing. … The end result didn’t feel like audiences coming together, it felt more like classical music colonizing another genre’s space.

Gervais makes some really interesting points about what communities are, and how we can use our understanding of communities to build one (or several) of our own. Crucially, communities are fundamentally exclusive. That isn’t to say that they’re snobby, just that they don’t include everyone, and that’s ok.

 Often in new music we are afraid to ask our audiences to push themselves. That’s a mistake. People like meaningful experiences that they have to work for. The trick is convincing them to expend the effort in the first place. To get there, we start with the advice above: build communities, then guide people into greater depth using MAYA [most advanced yet acceptable] techniques.

We have to assume that our audience is there to focus on what we’re presenting with an open and curious mind.

If you have any interest in presenting concerts and building an audience for what you do, this is a great read.

Aaron Gervais: This Is Why Your Audience Building Fails

Revisiting Amahl, Opera Orlando builds on a new holiday tradition

It’s not a tradition until you do it twice.

Opera Orlando’s season continued this weekend with their second annual production of Amahl and the Night Visitors, a Christmas-themed opera by Italian-American composer Gian Carlo Menotti. The performance at Dr. Phillips Center’s intimate Pugh Theater establishes what the company hopes will become a new holiday tradition in central Florida.

The 1951 opera tells the story of the young boy Amahl, who is disabled and lives in a rich world of his own imagination, fueled by bible stories. Amahl and his mother, herself weary of her son’s exaggerations, are surprised to find that he seems to have imagined into existence the Three Kings of the biblical Christmas story.

Opera Orlando's new 2017 production of Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors
Opera Orlando’s new 2017 production of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors. Photo by Brion Price.

Though originally set in an earlier time, directors Cara Pfost and Grant Preisser chose to reimagine Amahl and his mother as a small, modern family. The choice to modernize the setting is notable for a production hoping to become a tradition of its own, and I found that it served the performance by making the magi and their coterie seem even more otherworldly by comparison. This impression was even further enhanced by a costume design (by Kim Welborn) that separated Amahl’s black-and-white world from the vivid colors of the Kings stepping out of his imagination. My only concern about the setting is that the family is harder to “read” as poor, a fact which is central to the narrative.

Another staged change to the story was the addition of a small dance ensemble. Three figures seem to surround and support Amahl’s spirit and imagination. The tasteful choreography emphasized the centrality of Amahl as the entry point into the narrative, and had the added benefit of foreshadowing the shepherds dance in the middle of the opera.

Rodrigues, Colsant, and Lovett as the anachronistic magi
Rodrigues, Colsant, and Lovett as the anachronistic magi. Photo by Brion Price.

Perhaps one of the most impressive things about Amahl is its local cast. While many productions might fly in flashy out-of-towners, Opera Orlando shows the talented artists here in central Florida. I was particularly impressed by Morgan Davis Peckels as Amahl’s mother. Her voice was full without being aggressive, a delicate balance which was also reflected in her performance of charming warmth and parental authority with Amahl. Another highlight among a stellar cast was eponymous night visitors: the three kings, sung by Peter Rodrigues, Joseph Colsant, and Chevalier Lovett. In some of the more exposed scoring—this performance is accompanied by a small chamber ensemble led by music director Robin Jensen—the three kings’ voices blended beautifully. The ensemble virtuosity of the trio was matched by the three as soloists, as each brought his own amusing levity in solo passages, which highlighted the fantastical absurdity of the narrative.

While Menotti’s Amahl may not achieve the Christmas ubiquity of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, it is exactly the same sort of sweet, welcoming repertoire that is perfect for the holiday. And working with less familiar material, creative productions, and world-class artists, Opera Orlando can find a middle ground between nostalgia and novelty that creates a holiday tradition worth returning to each year.