Dumbing-down big-time opera

Anne Midgette, following on her review of the new Steve Jobs opera by Mason Bates, compares recent trends in new, big-budget operas to the era of “prestige television”.

… it led to the libretto of an opera called “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” which had its world premiere at the Santa Fe Opera on July 22, in which Jobs’s wife, Laurene, sings, “You were never easy./ But once you found your way,/Discovered you were ‘human,’/ We found a way/To connect.”

One of these things is not like the other. In a book or a movie, the lines Laurene sings would be scorned as Hallmark-worthy, romance-novel sentiment: A woman turns the bad boy good. In opera, it seems, we’re willing to tolerate it.

This strikes me as the direct result of opera companies’ focus on past repertoire. The saccharine plot turns in Mozart and the melodrama of Puccini just seem stupid when people are singing about iPhones.

… Opera — which is considered one of the highest forms of art — tends to uphold its formulas, sticking to tropes a century or two old. And opera audiences are willing to hold opera to a different standard — which effectively means that the bar is set a lot lower.

Sometimes, your opera is Two Broke Girls. Sometimes, it’s The Wire.

Anne Midgette: “New opera wants the same appeal as television. If only it could be as smart.”

Magnetic Glissandi in Sibelius 8.6

Philip Rothman at Scoring Notes:

Sibelius 8.6’s new engraving feature is magnetic glissandi lines — lines that snap to both their start and end note, updating their positions if the notes change.

Magnetic glissandi lines are quite intelligent, expanding and contracting to move out of the way of augmentation dots and accidentals. They will even slope in the correct direction between two pitches that share the same space or line.

You’ve got to check out the examples in this post. Two years after the disappointing launch of Sibelius 8, this is the first new feature that has me interested in upgrading from Sibelius 7.5.

Perhaps the most dangerous and sneaky legislative action of the year so far

I try not to cry wolf about technology things. We can only shut down the Internet so many times. Electronic Frontier Foundation today:

Should President Donald Trump sign S.J. Res. 34 into law, big Internet providers will be given new powers to harvest your personal information in extraordinarily creepy ways. They will watch your every action online and create highly personalized and sensitive profiles for the highest bidder. All without your consent. This breaks with the decades long legal tradition that your communications provider is never allowed to monetize your personal information without asking for your permission first. This will harm our cybersecurity as these companies become giant repositories of personal data.

This wouldn’t be such a big deal if you could switch your ISP to somebody else. However, according to the FCC just last year, the vast majority of US households have only one option for broadband service[1]. This is in addition to the roughly 10% of households with no broadband at all, which disporportionately affects rural areas and tribal lands.

As the EFF points out above, this is also a huge security problem. These companies have not always been great stewards of user data in the past, and they haven’t cared due to the lack of competition. You can’t switch easily like you can on mobile broadband, where competition has driven prices down dramatically just in the last six months. Other companies are using your data as well, like Google. But, you can pretty easily avoid using Gmail if you want to. You can’t choose a company other than your local ISP if you know they have a history of data breeches. Now, they’re going to suck up all that juicy user data and make themselves even bigger targets, with no benefit to consumers and no oversight.

This is bad. Support the EFF. Call your Congresscritter.


  1. The FCC defines “broadband” in this use as any wired provider offering a minimum of 25Mbps download speeds and 3Mbps upload speeds.  ↩

How to embed an interactive Keynote on the web

Update 30 March 2017: I made a neat (I think) little tool for generating these iframe embed codes automatically if you don’t want to keep digging around the iframe code.


With the update to Keynote 7.1 (27 March 2017), Apple added the ability "post interactive presentations on Medium, WordPress, and other websites". It’s a little bit tricky to find. Here’s how to do it.

Click "Collaborate"

If you don’t have the Collaborate button in your toolbar, you can also go to Share > Collaborate With Others. I know. It doesn’t make a ton of sense, but stick with me.

Set your sharing options.

Select "Copy Link", and under Share Options, set the access to "Anyone with the link". Set the Permission to "View only". Click Share and wait for Keynote to do a little iCloud dance in the background.

Wait.

Depending on how large and complex your presentation is, it may take a while. When this is done, you have a URL on your clipboard. Keynote doesn’t really tell you anything about that, but trust me. It’s there.

Post on Medium

In any part of a Medium post after the title, paste the URL and hit Enter.

After a few moments, the URL will be replaced by an embedded slideshow. Looking good!

Post on WordPress.com

Same as Medium. Just paste the URL into the Visual Editor and hit Enter. It will be replaced with a shiny new embedded slide show.

Post using an iframe elsewhere.

You can also post your Keynote slides as an iframe anywhere else, such as a self-hosted WordPress site like this fine establishment. It takes just a little looking around the code from the WordPress.com embed, and the formula is pretty clear. Start with the URL straight from Keynote’s share menu. Mine looks like this:

https://www.icloud.com/keynote/0BnBgSWdHQbQDKsC4gq1mUbZA#exquisite_corpse

Remove the # and everything after it from the URL.

Now, my example looks like this:

https://www.icloud.com/keynote/0BnBgSWdHQbQDKsC4gq1mUbZA

Place your new link as the source of an iframe.

Here’s the basic formula:

<iframe src="[[[ICLOUD URL GOES HERE]]]?embed=true" width="640" height="500" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen="1" referrer="no-referrer"></iframe>

So my example now looks like this:

<iframe src="https://www.icloud.com/keynote/0BnBgSWdHQbQDKsC4gq1mUbZA?embed=true" width="640" height="500" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen="1" referrer="no-referrer"></iframe>

You may want to tweak the width and height numbers to suit your needs. Apple made them 100% and 100%, but that isn’t going to work for this kind of context.

Example!

Note that this feature does not currently do much more than a straight-on shot of each slide. It doesn’t do transitions or even simple builds. So you may have to design slides expressly for this purpose. Also, if you’re using any fonts outside of the collection available on iCloud Keynote, they probably won’t render correctly. But even with all those caveats, this is still a dang cool feature that I’m hoping to use a lot.

Taping and Folding Parts Like a Professional

Usually, Sibelius Blog is where I go to learn about how to do something awesome in Sibelius with a new plugin, or what I’m missing in Finale, or what’s exciting and new in Dorico or StaffPad. But the one time I spoke with Sibelius Blog’s proprietor Philip Rothman, my compatriot Sam was completely taken by his paper folding machine. Sam and I have spent years learning how to make the software dance in all kinds of twisted ways, so it was the level of care in the final production we found most novel.

Today, Philip posted a fantastic tutorial on folding parts the right way, complete with video and his own fantastic dry humor.

So now if you were wondering how to show your affection this Valentine’s Day holiday, there’s something called a bone folder on my Amazon Wish List.

John Adams on Trump

Pulitzer-winner John Adams, no stranger to operas on controversial subjects in US history, responding to a hypothetical question about an a Donald Trump opera:

The idea of a Trump opera doesnt interest me in the least. First of all, because so much of what he does is theater to begin with. It’s a terrible form of exploitive theater, but there’s no point in trying to make theater about theater. Furthermore, you don’t want to spend time as an artist giving your very best to a person who is a sociopath. He’s not an interesting character, because he has no capacity for empathy. The only empathy that he can extend is to his family, who are just extensions of his own ego, and beyond that, he doesn’t care. Everyone else is someone to be manipulated and controlled.

Trump is so operatic that a man who has won awards for his operas and oratorios feels he cannot add any more opera. Sad.

Gabe Meline: Why John Adams Won’t Write an Opera About President Trump

New Year’s Goals and Strategies

Resolutions are dumb.

Resolutions tend to be arbitrary and unrealistic. The new year is also somewhat arbitrary. However, the holiday break does allow me a bit of time to reflect on where I am in my life and my career, and that’s worth doing.[1] Instead of resolutions, I’m going to focus on some goals and themes for the new year.

Goal: Say no more. I have too much stuff. I like doing nearly all of it, but doing this much of even the most exciting stuff can be stressful.

  • Strategy: Default to “no”. I’m an appeaser. I tend to always say yes because I was taught to be nice. The new strategy is any time I’m asked to do something, my default is no. Convince me.
  • Strategy: “Hell yes” or bust. I read this somewhere, so I’m not claiming it as my own. My new barrier for a “yes” is that if the answer isn’t “hell yes!”, then it must be “no”.

Goal: Be outside more. I’ve lived in Florida for four years, and I’ve probably spent less time outside than when I lived in Michigan for the six years prior. This is particularly weird, since the four years in Florida coincides with some healthy lifestyle changes.

  • Strategy: Run outside, dummy. Yes. I live in the Sunshine State and do cardio inside. My new default will be to run outside. Because Florida.
  • Strategy: Find good gear. Ok. This is actually cheating, as I’ve already done it. I got some sweet new running shoes in November.

Goal: Make more music. I really like making things for my various work responsibilities. I do honestly get some creative satisfaction from writing a really good assignment, slide presentation, or multiple choice question. But that’s not the same as having written a thing and hearing it performed. I think I’m actually procrastinating on my writing by working.

  • Strategy: Let work slide when it’s not on the schedule. This is going to be hard. I like being thought of as a dependable person. I’m going to start dividing my schedule into specific times for course prep, grading, etc. If it doesn’t get done in that window. I’ll pick it up during the next one.
  • Strategy: Schedule listening time and writing time. I’m particularly embarrassed that I’m writing this down, since it’s something I ask my students to do all the time. In fact, I have actually asked students to show me their Google/iCal/Outlook/paper calendars with these things blocked out. By following the previous strategy, I think (hope?) that this one will become more manageable.

  1. For those living on an academic or orchestra-style fall-winter-spring calendar, I also recommend an “annual review” of sorts in May(ish).  ↩

Public Domain Day 2017

Yesterday on January 1, lots of people around the world celebrated Public Domain Day along with the new calendar year. The Duke Law School’s Center for the Study of the Public Domain publishes an article on it each year. Each year since they’ve done so, it’s been less celebratory in the U.S. than in other parts of the world.

What is entering the public domain in the United States? Not a single published work. Once again, no published works are entering our public domain this year. Or next year.

When the first copyright law was written in the United States, copyright lasted 14 years, renewable for another 14 years if the author wished. Jefferson or Madison could look at the books written by their contemporaries and confidently expect them to be in the public domain within a decade or two. Now? In the United States, as in much of the world, copyright lasts for the author’s lifetime, plus another 70 years. You might think, therefore, that works whose authors died in 1946 would be freely available on January 1, 2017. Sadly, no. When Congress changed the law, it applied the term extension retrospectively to existing works, and gave all in-copyright works published between 1923 and 1977 a term of 95 years. The result? None of those works will enter the public domain until 2019, and works from 1960, whose arrival we might otherwise be expecting January 1, 2017, will not enter the public domain until 2056.

If you think this is silly and unimportant, allow the scholars at Duke to convince you.

As our way-too-nearly-president would say, sad.

Husa Rememberance

I’m not big on naming favorites of things. Having said that, Karel Husa—who died last week at age 95—is one of my favorite composers. His inventiveness in orchestration, rhythm, and texture combine with a keen sense of dramatic gesture in works that are as creative as they are approachable. I met him once at the University of Missouri as an undergraduate student and heard him speak about his music. He signed my copy of the third trumpet part I was playing on his monumental Music for Prague 1968. I recall that he seemed to think that while the Pulitzer committee actually awarded his String Quartet No. 3 in 1969, they really intended to honor Music for Prague, and weren’t quite sure about taking the wind band seriously as a medium for serious music. I won’t offer an obit here, as I’m sure your Googlemachine can connect you to some much better writing. I will simply conclude by sharing the opening of Karel Husa’s beautiful Les Couleurs Fauves from 1996. I often say half-jokingly that every time I write a piece of slow music, I’m trying to rewrite this.

My paperless composition lesson workflow

These four apps and services have allowed me to move almost completely away from paper printouts.
These four apps and services have allowed me to move almost completely away from paper printouts.

This fall, I wrote about how I had used my iPad Pro and Apple Pencil to replace the need for paper scores in my composition lessons. Since then, I've continued to revise and expand my technology use into a completely paperless workflow for working with composers.

I'm sure I'll continue to refine the system as long as I use it; but, I think in its current state, the basics are working quite well. I have a few key goals for both me and the composers I'm working with. First, it needs to be simple and automatic. If it's hard for my students to set up, they will forget something important; if I need to remember to do something, I'll forget that, too. Second, it needs to be as transparent and reliable. My students and I need to trust that when they submit something to me, I will receive it; I need to know that when I send feedback, it will be read and accounted for. I never want my students to be unsure of what I expect of them. Teaching open-ended creative work has plenty of hand-wavy ambiguity already. My computers shouldn't add any. If possible, they should eliminate some.

The beginning: GoodNotes

I keep a digital notebook for each composer in my studio. There, I record their compositional goals1, upcoming recital ideas, and notes on what we discuss in each lesson. I do this on my iPad Pro in GoodNotes, which has a number of excellent features for my purposes.

Here are two of my most-used default GoodNotes templates.
Here are two of my most-used default GoodNotes templates.

GoodNotes notebooks are open-ended sketchbooks. They can include writing, drawing, text, and photographs. So I'm not limited to words; I often draw music notation, music-like sketches, timelines, and stage diagrams. These notes are sync'd to other iOS devices and Macs over iCloud. This is handy if I ever need to make a quick reference from my phone, or if I want to type a long paragraph of text on my Mac. GoodNotes also allows notebooks to be backed up as PDFs to Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, or Box. I want my students to always know what I'm expecting of them, so I give each of them a link to their notebook PDF in my Dropbox. That way, they can refer back to previous lesson notes and remind themselves of what they're expected to be working on for next time.

I write notes during the lesson for both my and my student's future reference.
I write notes during the lesson for future reference by me and the composer. Often, it’s a simple list of concepts, composers, or techniques we discussed.
The open canvas in GoodNotes is particularly handy for things that would be hard to type.
The open canvas in GoodNotes is particularly handy for things that would be hard to type like this stage diagram.

I know that I described this workflow as paperless; but, I strongly encourage my students to start all of their projects on paper. I know that I'm far from unique among composition teachers in this regard. When they bring in handwritten work, typed outlines, sketched drawings or other diagrams, I use the very handy "Add Image" feature in GoodNotes to snap a quick photo with the iPad's camera that I can bring right into the lesson notebook and write all over—the full John Madden, if you will—without feeling too self-conscious about marring the student's handwritten work.

It's easy to bring paper and anything else I can photograph into a notebook.
It’s easy to bring paper and anything else I can photograph into a notebook.

So yeah, there's paper sometimes, but it's not my paper. And I'm pretty quickly ingesting the paper contents into my paperless workflow. As a side benefit, other kinds of things can go into the notebook using the same method. I've included photos of the inside of a piano and the settings on a mixer for later reference and markup.

GoodNotes makes it pretty simple to bring in new "papers" or templates to use in my notebooks. Here's the one I use for lessons.
GoodNotes makes it pretty simple to bring in new “papers” or templates to use in my notebooks. Here’s the one I use for lessons.

Another excellent feature of GoodNotes is the ability to create custom "papers". GoodNotes actually ships with an extensive and useful set of papers that I use regularly, especially the staff paper and grid paper (nice for diagrams and timelines). It's very easy to export a blank paper template from GoodNotes and create your own papers to suit specific needs. For my lessons, I tweaked the default staff paper to include a space for the date, the grade for the lesson2, and what I expect them to have listened to and worked on for the next time we meet. GoodNotes Lesson Notebook Template

Transferring ideas: Dropbox

I mentioned it briefly in my description of GoodNotes, but it's worth mentioning the way I'm using Dropbox here. Each student has a shared folder that they use to submit their scores (PDF) and audio (usually MP3) prior to our meetings. If I have an article I want them to read or a score I'd like them to see, I can place it in that Dropbox as well. I have a Dropbox Premium account, so storage is not an issue for me, and the file history is great for when files are accidentally deleted or overwritten. I have the Dropbox client running on my Mac, so even if a student uploads materials immediately before the lesson, the files are right there on my computer before we're done with smalltalk.3

The business end: PDF Expert

PDF Expert was the primary focus of my love and attention in my post from August. I won't repeat too much of that here as much of it hasn't changed. However, the thing that has evolved over the semester is my methods for getting files in and out of PDF Expert.

Student uploads to Dropbox are automatically downloaded to the sync'd folder in PDF Expert.
Student uploads to Dropbox are automatically downloaded to the sync’d folder in PDF Expert.

There is a lot to love about Dropbox, but its iOS client is not one of them. Thankfully, PDF Expert has pretty good hooks into the Dropbox API so I don't have to deal with the limitations of the Dropbox client too much. It allows me to select certain folders, such as the one I share with each composer, to keep sync'd to my device. Since we're mostly dealing with PDF files and small-ish MP3s, the sync is pretty quick and doesn't take up too much space on my iPad (which has 128GB storage, plenty for this use). The sync here isn't quite as quick as on my Mac, but a pull-to-refresh gesture will force PDF Expert to check for new changes and download them.

Ensemble score marked up in a lesson.
Marked up scores like this are sync’d back to the student’s shared Dropbox folder right alongside their lesson notebook.

Throughout the lesson, I write on the student's score in PDF Expert using colored pencils, highlighters, and typed text. Each changes if very quickly sync'd back to the Dropbox folder, and students will get to see these as they continue working. Because this is happening on a PDF copy of the file rather than the Sibelius or Finale files (I don't think any of my students has jumped into Dorico yet), they won't overwrite my comments until they upload a fresh score the following week, and if they really need them, they could always change the file name anyway.

Conclusions

Probably my favorite part of the workflow that I've outlined here is that functionally, it's nearly identical to my ideal paper workflow from a pedagogical standpoint. It focuses on eliminating the most cumbersome and mistake-prone elements of my paper workflows and adds a number key benefits for both me and the composers I'm working with each week. I think my students have written more and improved faster this semester thanks to the newly clarified expectations, and I'm spending less time and energy keeping track of stacks of paper and moving notebooks around.

GoodNotes is $7.99 in the App Store. PDF Expert is $9.99 in the App Store.

  1. Each term begins with composers setting goals for what they want to write in the near future. We discuss how these projects will contribute to a well-rounded portfolio and encourage them to stretch out and try new ideas and techniques.
  2. I give each student a grade from 1-5 based on their lesson preparation. They're evaluated based on what we had discussed the previous week, so this is another reason it's so handy to share the notebooks. It's also nice to show them right there in the lesson what grade they got to make sure they are aware of how they're doing and understand what the expectations are from week to week. Lastly, I don't always log in to the LMS right away to enter the grade, so this is a nice way for me to make a quick note for myself. I usually enter all the previous grades on Monday morning as I flip through notebooks to prepare for the week ahead.
  3. I mentioned earlier that I shared a Dropbox link to the lesson notebook PDFs. That was a slight over-simplification. I actually have a background service which copies a lesson notebook into each student's shared folder any time it is updated. That app is called Hazel, and it's wonderfully nerdy but a bit beyond the scope of this write-up.