Two fascinating articles point to fascinating and imaginative applications of technologies from opposite ends of the spectrum - low and high. Wired magazine online profiles Volker Bertelman and his Hauschka project, a young pianist who performs on prepared pianos with both an eclectic mix of old and new technologies (that Ebow has me really, really fascinated!!) John Cage, naturally, would've been...well, referenced, at the very least, as he already is in the article. Kinda funny to see how digital programmers (like Pianoteq) on the one hand are trying to sound more like acoustic pianos, while pianists like Mr. Bertelman are trying to make their pianos sound more synthesized!
The New York Times writes about the YouTube Symphony project, where folks will be able to contribute their video renditions of orchestral parts from a commissioned work by Tan Dun leading to a final video mashup performance of jury-selected entries. The second part of the project involves an interesting twist on the traditional orchestra audition process, where video submissions will be judged by members of various major orchestras leading to an all-expense paid trip by Google for a Carnegie Hall performance under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas.
Bold, imaginative, exciting - it's heartening to hear that classical music can find such a powerful venue to encourage fresh discoveries and new collaborations, and that "traditional" instruments can continue to re-invent themselves in cool ways!
i can't think of many teachers better than good ol' experience, and certainly this past week's Visual Recital workshop at the Hamilton School proved to be a gold mine of learning on all fronts!
The session began with an initial visit with a group of the school's 4th - 6th graders. Cellist Susan Babini and pianist Michael Mizrahi had been introducing the group to the first movement of the Sonata in F major, Op. 99 by Johannes Brahms. Realizing that we were going to have limited class time with the kids, i chose to "pre-empt" the design of the visualizations by selecting a general theme and creating the visual backgrounds ahead of time. I wanted to present ideas that would be as contextually familiar to the West Philadelphia students as possible, so Bonnie Slobodien and i brainstormed the idea of "Two Views of the Schuylkill River" (wow, you know you're from Philadelphia if you can not only pronounce that word correctly - "Skoo-Kill" - but also spell it from memory!!) The basic idea was to show contrasting elements in the music, such as:
The Schuylkill River is the main body of water that runs through Philadelphia, featuring a major highway on one end and a lovely park on the other. Initially i was going to stick with just a riverside highway scene and a blank riverside park trail background, with the idea that the students would be encouraged to draw things that move fast on the highway (cars, trucks, motorcycles and whatnot), and contrasting things that you would find in a peaceful riverside park (trees, flowers, clouds, ducks, boats, etc.) Analyzing the Brahms made me realize that almost 8 minutes of music comprised the first movement, and that there was plenty of opportunity to feature other contrasting sections. I eventually came up with the following added backgrounds:
the Fast scene, featuring the Schuylkill Expressway
the Slow scene, featuring Kelly Drive (the scenic route next to the river)
a busy street scene, representing a part of town that lies next to the river and under some big highway overpasses - this was going to be the "busy" theme
Boathouse row, a picturesque series of crew houses used by local universities and crew clubs right along the river - this would be the "peaceful" theme
The Art Museum - this would represent the "majestic: grand" theme
The Ben Franklin Bridge at night - this would represent the "majestic: exciting" theme, with the students primarily drawing fireworks for this scene
We had two back to back classes to work with, for a total of about 60 students. Given the time restraints, we kept the art medium simple: crayon pencils on white paper, to be cut out and pasted with glue sticks onto black construction paper backgrounds.
What an amazing output of creativity! Giving the students empty scenes to work with, they all vied to produce several items for EVERY one of them!
Note to self: i thought that pasting the cut out pictures on black paper would make it easier to isolate the images for transparent backgrounds, but it turns out to be actually more tedious. Time can be saved by eliminating the cutout/gluestick actions, and the scanned images can be "lassoed" manually, copied and pasted onto transparent backgrounds, and saved as PNG image file formats.
Unlike the Mad Cow visual recital workshop in Colorado, i at least had about a week to scan in the images and place them into the scenery. Well, a jam-packed week so it turned out, what with the Greenfield Competition finals, all the rehearsals in preparation for that, and Karate graduations for the kids and me...it was a challenge to find the time to get this all done (which led to late, late night programming sessions...which then led to - kaff kaff - this yucky cold i came down with...)
Primary programs used for creating the visual backgrounds:
ArtRage 2, a fantastic program that can realistically simulate paint, markers, crayons, pencil, and a host of other physical media - works exceptionally well with Tablet PC's
Inkscape, the open source vector drawing program. I really fell in love with the simplicity of use with this one - i had been a longtime CorelDraw user back in the old days, so this was like working in old familiar territory. The "technical drawings", such as the Ben Franklin bridge, the highway and the yellow dividers, and anything else that required symmetry or precision was best crafted with Inkscape.
Primary programs used for cropping, cleaning, and in some cases making animations with the students' pictures:
Macromedia Fireworks - i'm sure i could use GIMP to extract the scanned images and paste them onto transparent backgrounds, but i just work faster in Fireworks...
Macromedia Flash - several kids came up with pictures that were almost identical (sunshine, flags, etc.), so i took advantage of some simple Flash layering and alpha fades to make animated blends between the pictures and exporting them as animated GIF's
Initially, i was only going to have static backgrounds with all of the image "actors" moving in automated loops within each scene. The only trigger points would be to advance to the next scene. Fortunately, i was able to get some great help from the developer of Liquid Media to create an "unlimited ammo" trigger system. Using the X-Keys USB 12-port switch interface, i was able to incorporate 3 pedals - one to advance the scene, and two others to be used by the musicians to trigger events within specific scenes. For example, in the Fast highway scene, there was an active background of the highway zipping along and cars traveling over it. If the cellist stepped on her pedal, a series of special cars would drive by at a faster speed. If the pianist stepped on his pedal, helicopters would fly by the sky overhead.
Here are some pictures from Monday's VR workshop:
Mr. Guy Cannon's music classroom setup at the Hamilton School:
Susie giving a cello lesson to a curious student:
Michael surrounded by eager pianists:
Our indefatigable director of Education and Outreach from Astral, Bonnie Slobodien, encouraging the students to "respect our friends by listening quietly" - well, that lasted for a few seconds at least...
The main man himself, Mr. Guy Cannon - a cooler music teacher i have yet to meet!
Michael and Susie prep the students for the world premiere of "Brahms on the Schuylkill River":
Michael demonstrates how the cars can be triggered to zip by on the highway scene:
Student balloons float over the Art museum and Susie's head:
Susie and Michael performing during the Boathouse Row scene:
One concern that Bonnie and the musicians had was having the visuals overwhelm the students' reception of the music. I think we came up with some great activities to balance the excitement of having one's own artwork animated to live music and the need to encourage stronger listening skills:
I came up with the "Ta-DA" game on the spot, where the students were challenged to recognize and count the number of times the "Ta-DA" theme was played - ie, the 16th note to tied quarter notes motif that runs throughout the theme (highlighted in yellow):
When the theme fragment returns at the beginning of the development section, the "Ta-DA's" turn into "Oh-NO's!", highlighting the change to minor and its resulting shift in mood:
The Ta-DA's come back at the end as "Hoo-Ray" (or something to that effect), reflecting the heroic final statement of the motif in the last few measures - we thought of the association with something proud, noble, and majestic - like fireworks!
Interesting to point out how a rhythmic fragment can change somewhat, turning from 16ths -> half notes into 8ths and quarters.
Another listening game involved everyone closing their eyes and the musicians playing a random section of the movement. The students would have to guess which scene the music was associated with, then open their eyes to see if their guesses matched what was on the screen. It was quite remarkable to see how quickly they matched the musical associations we established with their artwork!
The most fun was having two students at a time come up and press the pedals to trigger the action themselves in synchronization with the musical motifs. This worked so well that i'm going to try to design future Visual Workshops with more pedals so that larger groups of students can get involved in activating the visual triggers in conjunction with the elements they hear in the music.
(Another note to self: kids remember everything they draw. I mean, EVERYTHING - i fit in almost all the pictures, but had to contend with a handful of disappointed faces when i didn't have time to scan in this turtle or that car or that balloon...next time, put EVERYTHING into the Visual Recital!!)
I had several video cameras running, but no hands to actually push the "record" button - what with all the activity and excitement, i just didn't get a chance to lay down a lot of video or audio. What i need in the future is a team of interns to help me set up the documentary equipment...well, i'll go through the few minutes that i did manage to record and see if i can pull together a short clip. If not, i'll make sure that i plan the videotaping at the next Visual Recital workshop in Greenport, NY more carefully.
whew...quite a long-winded blog post today! Lots of exciting ideas, lots of stuff learned - i'm already excited about the next project!
I've poo-pooed New Year's resolutions for most of my adult life, noting that the gyms tend to be full in January and sparse in February - ie, i never had faith that i'd ever have the willpower to actually commit to superficial statements of intended change. But after seeing the powerful effects of slaying a $55,000 debt ogre in only 9 months thanks to a written budget and goals glaring at me from a (digital) page, i'm beginning to realize the true benefits of word-smith'd dreams. What seems so mundane on the surface belies the underlying secret of such exercises, mainly: organization and focus.
30 minute workouts in the morning
3. PERSONAL DEVELOPMENT
Improve Korean, especially reading
Learn about mutual funds and stock market investing
Find wholesome books for inspiration and motivation
Read at least 2 new books per month
Memorize Japanese characters
Learn Blender 3D modeling
Learn 2 new Korean words per day
Maintain list of books read on website
4. FAMILY Relationships(incomplete...still working on this one)
Get closer to family members - be praying for them regularly
Closer relationship with Mom and Dad
video interview parents for their history and personal backgrounds
Teach piano lessons to Eric and Timmy more regularly
Read to boys every day
spend more time talking with Kyungmi
Pray more actively and specifically for church members and missionaries
Begin memorizing select psalms
6. SOCIAL Increased number of friends, Community involvement, etc.
Connect personally with network contacts at least once this year
Reconnect with old school alumni
Prepare Christmas cards and messages ahead of time
Keep in touch with family on a regular basis
Improve responses to emails and phone calls
7. CAREER Ambitions, Dreams, Hopes - REALLY INCOMPLETE
I'll try to update this as soon as i'm able, particularly on the Career section. On the book side, here's a list of what's been read this month:
Several more are on the burner as we speak - the list immediately above has been loaded from my Audible library onto my new 8 gig iPod Nano (Kyungmi's Christmas gift to me - thanks, Honey!)
Quite a long list...certainly more than daunting at first glance, but hey - if i can chunk away almost $55K in 9 months, i think i can start attacking this list of resolutions, in much the same way: a little bite at a time. I'll keep y'all updated, and hope you'll keep me accountable in return!
Best wishes for your own New Year's resolutions for 2008!
What i want for Christmas...a Wii-mote VR Head Tracking System
This had me bouncing up and down in my chair like a giddy schoolboy, even dragging my poor wife out of bed to behold this amazing spectacle of video game possibilities:
Johnny Chung Lee is my new idol, what with his amazing output of creative immediate-impact geekiness like the $14 steadycam...i want to be just like him when i grow up! I have to reiterate his plea to Nintendo Wii programmers to MAKE SOME GAMES WITH HIS VR HEAD-TRACKING SYSTEM!!! (even though i don't personally own a Wii...yet...)
Kyungmi picked up an amazing bonus from work today. Six months ago, i would've bolted for the nearest music store or eBay listing for Tablet PC's and snagged a few expensive toys - but now, after five months of working our Debt Snowball patiently, diligently, and intensely, my first thought was actually to use the windfall to knock out the second-to-last debt and take a huge bite out of the last remaining one, the home equity loan that threatened to become a new member of the family with its own bedroom! Now how's that for a change of heart?
i'm re-reading the first article i wrote at the start of this financial fight for freedom, and i'm almost chuckling at the memory of the fear that swept over me when i realized just how big the financial hole was at the time:
I just finished the very first step of Dave's plan: writing out my first monthly budget. Even though all my finances are recorded in Quicken, this was still a very painful, brain-numbing exercise. Bad news is that the debt i tried so hard to ignore actually is turning out to be a much bigger troll under the bridge than i had realized...
...and now, fast forward to today, when i called the loan officer to pay off the balance early on our back windows' installation (real physical windows, not the blue-screen-of-death kind - last time we will EVER finance home improvements, btw!!) - what a pleasant surprise to learn that instead of the stated remaining balance of $5,805.85, the early payoff amount was actually only $3,274.27! i guess the larger amount was the balance if i kept paying minimum amounts for the remainder of the loan's life for the next 5 years or so, with the smaller amount reflecting the immediate savings sans accrued interest. Once i heard that, i fired up my Nuvi GPS and drove straight to their office to hand them a check and be done with this once and for all. The lady at the desk smiled as she printed out the payoff receipt and said, "If there's anything that we can do to help you finance something in the future - "
"NO, NO, NO, NO, NO!!!" i laughed, shaking my head and throwing up my hands in defense. "We're just about to start attacking our last big debt and plan to be completely debt free!! NO MORE DEBTS FOR US!!"
The lady did a double-take. i must've sounded like a cult zealot!
"Gee...that sounds like a good idea...", she said wistfully.
By the time this month is up, i hope to have put a mighty blow to the troll under our fiscal bridge - close to half of that monster will be hacked away right off the bat! With no other little debts diluting our financial muscle, we'll be able to throw everything we have to whittle that beast down fairly quickly. Incidentally, one of the most amazing things about this debt snowball has been seeing how money that once was so scarce is now virtually pouring in from all directions! Learning to set up a monthly budget has helped us put a tight reign on every single dollar that comes in, instead of having money flow through our fingers like loose sand. i might be overly optimistic, but perhaps in another 5 or 6 months (?) we might actually be done with ALL of our debts (except the house)...wow, i can almost smell that day coming!
i first encountered Amie Street through composer Charles B. Griffin's website a while back. At first i thought it was just another basic MP3 upload site for artists to promote their own tracks, with a curious pricing scheme that allowed newer tracks to be free and popular ones to range in price, up to 99 cents. To be honest, i didn't spend much time exploring around and soon forgot about the Amie Street concept.
Fast forward to this past Saturday. My oldest son now owns my beloved video iPod, so i'm stuck with either listening to MP3's through my (bulky) Samsung i730 PDA phone or with my dinky little Lexar MP3 player that came as a 'bonus' with my Bose Q3 headphone purchase. Well, i've been finally getting back into running and needed to quickly find some music for "exerci-nsperation" for Saturday's run. Being bereft of my iPod has made me a virtual iTunes orphan since i can't easily port over DRM-trapped tracks to any of my other devices, so i tried to think of some other options. i started revisiting AmieStreet.com and had my "aha!" moment when i finally understood how really, really cool this site is!
AmieStreet.com works as a virtual "stock market" for music. As i stated above, new tracks get introduced for free. The more popular a track becomes by the number of downloads, the higher it starts to rise in price. The cool part here is that if you download a track - either when it's brand new and available as a free download, or at any price point as it climbs in popularity - and then write up a recommendation for the track, you will have the opportunity to accumulate purchasing "credits" as the track (hopefully) rises in value. Say for example, you download a classical music track - oh, perhaps like the Chopin "Raindrop" Prelude in D-flat major (hint hint) while it's available as a free download. If you really love it and feel inspired to write up a recommendation for it, you'll "lock in" your "purchase price" - in this case, $0. If the track climbs in value, say to 55 cents, then you will be rewarded that amount to apply to any purchase within your Amie Street account. If the track is only available for a price, then you will need to purchase it first before writing a recommendation. Your received credit will become the difference between your purchase price and the final price (up to 99 cents, i believe) whenever you decide to "cash in" your credit for the track.
i don't know about you, but i find this utterly ingenious! By this system, listeners are rewarded for exploring and sharing their discoveries, and artists are given a viable tool to promote their work while still retaining full rights to their material. From what i can tell from my initial foray, AmieStreet has a $5.00 "storage fee" for each track. i'm assuming that once enough sales come in to cover that fee, then the artist will start receiving 70% of the proceeds above that amount.
i'm just dabbling with this for now, but i'll keep everyone posted as i upload more tracks for sale. You can visit my Amie Street "store" at http://amiestreet.com/hughsungpianist (banners soon to follow here on the site). Oh, and if you're curious as to what i ended up running to on Saturday:
As the final hours of Labor Day draw to a close, i'm borrowing a title from an old Ray Bradbury book celebrating the memories of childhood summers to reflect on all the various ways we tried to mitigate that perennial summertime lamentation, "I'm boooored...what can we do today?"
Here is our top ten list in hindsight of great activities to placate summertime doldrums:
10. Save Money
Well, that was the intent - to be honest, our summertime budget was blown way out of the water due to having lots of cousins visiting for extended periods of time, but we came up with some pretty creative ways to pare down our monthly expenses, such as:
learning to cut hair - i invested a month's worth of haircuts in a nice clipper and scissors set. Good thing my boys are so good-natured to put up with some of my frankenstein cuts (bald spots, anyone?) Ah well, there isn't a bad enough haircut that 2 weeks of growth can't cover up...
changing life insurance policies - this is a tip from Dave Ramsey: opting out of our whole life plan and moving to 20 year term insurance is setting us up to save about $100 per month, in addition to getting a $7,000 kickback from our accrued life insurance "savings" to help pay down our debt snowball. The folks at Zander insurance have been very helpful so far, so you might want to check them out .
changing car insurance - at the risk of sounding like a TV commercial, we saved hundreds by switching to GEICO...and personally, i think a poor starving pianist would make for a much funnier commercial than a silly caveman in therapy...
trimming digital fat - this one is really painful: i just canceled the unlimited data plan from Verizon for my Samsung i730 Pocket PC phone. That means no more web browsing at the supermarket checkout line, but i am saving $40 per month...
turning off stuff - our electric bill last month was terrifying, thanks in part to having an extra family's kids holed up in the basement playing DVD's and video games constantly. Having all my computers and amplifiers left on 24/7 certainly doesn't help with containing power costs, so the new rule for me is turning off all computers, electronics, and lights that are not in use. Besides, having the hassle of waiting for bootups keeps me from wasting too much time in Facebook...
The white wines are really outstanding, particularly the Rieslings, but we managed to find some terrific reds as well. Hands down the best reds we found were at Damiani Wine Cellars - their various Cabs and Meritage were some of the finest we've ever tasted!
Who would've guessed that standing in line for 3 hours in the middle of the night for a book would be so much fun? Yes, i was part of the Harry Potter mayhem (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7)), dragging along Paul and his cousin Ho-Won:
A wonderful lady at Borders bookstore has been incredibly helpful at pointing Paul and me to some other great young adult reads, such as:
The Maximum Ride trilogy by James Patterson, starting with The Angel Experiment (Maximum Ride the Angel Experiment). Think teenage X-men with super short attention spans (each chapter is no more than 3 or 4 pages long - makes for quick reading and fast-paced action)
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle, that fantasy/sci-fi classic from my own middle school years:
The above books had my teenage son falling back in love with reading and both of us scouring the Borders racks for more.
On my own end, i was completely swept away with that international best-seller, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini -
i was actually in tears as i listened to the audiobook ending driving through the Finger Lakes region.
The Golden Compass (His Dark Materials, Book 1) by Philip Pullman gets high marks for exquisite craftsmanship, but failing ones for abysmal theology. I started reading this to see if my kids would enjoy this, but found that i have to steer them away for the time being. Even though the protagonists are children, the themes are quite dark and graphic - better suited for mature audiences in my opinion. First in a trilogy.
7. Make Yummy Stuff
I used to bake bread from scratch by hand every week. Unfortunately, my current schedule has pretty much ruled that out, given that the whole process requires at least 3-4 hours to accommodate all the yeast risings and final baking time. i suppose it was a very good summer indeed given the fact that i was able to get back to making a loaf of sandwich white after so many years' hiatus!
Getting the kids involved with cooking projects is always lots of fun. Paul had a hand in cooking steaks for dinner one evening, using my oyster sauce marinade:
Score both sides of steak with sharp knife
Combine enough oyster sauce and minced/crushed garlic with a bit of water to make a marinade that can be brushed onto both sides of steaks
Pan sear in hot oil to desired doneness
Eric and Timmy loved making lemon/lime-ades with my old glass hand juicer:
Squeeze juice from 4 lemons and 2 limes (or just 6 lemons for plain lemonade)
Fill remainder of pitcher with cold water
Add sugar to taste (we use about 1.5 cups of sugar)
Other cool summertime treats included making homemade orange ice cream and replacing store-bought popsicles with Snowcones made with my old Rival ice shaver and a variety of flavored syrups (another money saving idea, by the way)
6. Play Games
Believe it or not, kids can actually get sick and tired of video games. Yes, really! A few remedies were found in some old-fashioned board games - i never really played many of them as a kid, so the novelty was just as new for me as it was for my boys. What a great way to spend time bonding together! We particularly enjoyed Risk and have just started getting into Clue. We plan to get started with Pictionary - 20th Anniversary Edition soon as part of our "new" family activities night.
One day, Paul discovered my old role playing books and was reading through the rules for Tunnels and Trolls. My personal game of choice as a teenager was The Fantasy Trip by Steve Jackson Games (TFT has been out of print for years and years, 'replaced' by the GURPS game system). I tried running through the basic rules for TFT with Paul, but he never really warmed to the system. Instead, he caught on with a fascinating fantasy card battle game called Magic: The Gathering.
i never realized how complex, rich, and incredibly strategic these card games could be! Relatively easy to learn with a few basic rules, yet amazingly varied in action - lots and lots of fun getting into this granddaddy of collectible card combat systems!
He's been poring incessantly over the rules and descriptions of modular weapons systems, bombarding me with questions about Shearing Planes, Overload Dampeners, Multiplex Missile systems and the like...i was afraid the actual gameplay would be over his head, but once we got started it was actually a breeze and a lot more fun than any of us anticipated! Ahhh, the good old days of pre-silicon gaming when the powers of a pencil and a pair of 6-sided dice ruled the universe!
5. Ride Bikes
Here's a great site for biking trails in New Jersey:
You can either have trail maps sent to you by snailmail or downloaded as PDF's. We visited the trail in the Pine Barrens around the Batsto Historical Village. Nice smooth roads that stretch on for miles, and some great woodland hiking for those who aren't so cycle-inclined.
For some reason i couldn't find my old rear-window hanging bike rack, so i had to get a hitch installed to my minivan for a new carrier:
Pricey, yes - i can feel Dave Ramsey wagging his finger at me - but well worth the investment in family fun!
4. Get Pets
Paul initially wanted a snake - Kyungmi adamantly put her foot down in opposition. We settled for a Great Horned Mountain Lizard instead, but the poor thing died after only about 3 weeks or so, due to ingesting a piece of bark bedding ("impaction" i believe was the term). The second Horned Mountain Lizard didn't fare much better and had a nasty attitude to boot - we returned that in time for a store credit and replaced it with a much more docile Chinese Water Lizard. Looks just like the gecko in the Geico commercials. I'll try to post some pictures of "Liz" as soon as i can. We replaced the bedding with moss to prevent any more impaction possibilities. i never realized watching lizards gulp down crickets in the morning could be so entertaining!
In familial fairness, i let Eric and Timmy pick up a pair of dwarf hamsters. Cute little buggers!
One of the hamsters is quite the speed monkey, running around at full tilt and climbing the walls and ceilings like a primate. A few days after buying them, she somehow squeezed through the wire walls and escaped in the basement. She kept darting out from under the piles of junk in my office, only to scurry away each time we tried to catch her. The solution was to get one of those mouse traps from Home Depot, the kind that features a one-way door into an empty plastic box. Sure enough, within 10 minutes of setting that trap, i heard her munching away happily on the apple and peanut butter bait within. She hasn't tried to escape since.
3. Learn to Program
The folks at MIT have put together an amazing open source program for kids called Scratch that teaches the basics of programming within a graphic environment akin to playing with Legos:
The interface is well designed for kids - Paul and Eric were programming their first games within minutes. Even Timmy joined in the action and designed a "Spider-man" game with the built-in drawing tools. In addition to the excellent program, there is a seamless interface with the Scratch community, where participants are encouraged to both share and download projects from other users, making for one of the best interactive learning environments i've ever come across.
Here's an image link to Paul's "Bleach Battle" game - the speed of this thing is quite impressive!
Eric's and Timmy's games to be posted up as soon as they finish refining them!
What a difference a year makes! It's almost painful to read my old blogs about the reasons i hate digital pianos - handwritten in digital ink to emphasize my points! For a good laugh, read part one here and part two here. I'm a little surprised that i forgot to mention an interesting episode that took place a short time after i wrote those articles - composer David Toub sent me a couple scores of his piano music, along with some MP3 audio samples. The first recording sounded like all the reasons i hate digital pianos rolled into one ear-splitting track - thin, tinny. mechanical, electronic simulations of a so-called piano sound emitting every sense of cold and soulless automation into the music (don't get me wrong - the music was terrific!! It was the MIDI sampling that got under my skin...) The second recording, on the other hand, was clearly the work of a live pianist on a great piano. Listening to that track was a little like comparing a great wine to badly mixed Kool-Aid. All the amazing subtleties of great piano playing gave me further evidence of the inherent advantages acoustic instruments still have over their electronic counterparts - hearing the way the damper pedal could blend and scoop the sound, listening to the wonderful interaction of complex overtones in larger chords, even the subtleties of the quirks of an acoustic piano, like the sound of the keys thudding on their wooden beds, gave a warmth and a living dimension to the recording.
David must've been laughing so hard when he dropped the bomb on me, as i gushed poetic about why i loved that live acoustic recording so much over the MIDI one - he explained with a twinkle in his voice that the second track wasn't the work of a live pianist, that was actually another MIDI recording, put together with high resolution computer piano samples.
My jaw has been dragging the proverbial ground ever since.
Skip back to today, as i'm in the process of assembling what i hope will be as good a digital piano as i can afford, given today's incredible technologies. I'm still falling short of the ultimate digital piano action on a portable instrument with my Roland RD-700SX (the high end Yamaha Clavinova CVP-309GP really has me thinking though...), but i'm hoping the sound end will make a big difference. Rather than relying on the piano samples embedded in the Roland, i'm opting to go with the highest quality piano sample libraries that i can find and patching them through a dedicated machine called the Receptor by Muse Research, self-billed as "the ultimate synth/sampler".
Since Zoe, my high speed Gateway M-285E Tablet PC needs to be dedicated to the graphics component of my Visual Recital, i need a second computer to run the high resolution piano samples. The Receptor basically functions as a dedicated computer whose sole purpose is to store massive sample sizes (i'm not sure how large the hard drive is on my Receptor, but they can run from 40 GB to 750 GB) and churn them out when connected to either a computer or a keyboard controller like my Roland via a MIDI cable.
The back of the Receptor provides ports for its own monitor, keyboard and mouse hookups, as well as an Ethernet port, several USB ports, an adat optical port, the standard MIDI port compliments, and what i assume are balanced 1/4 inch connections.
This baby is fresh out of the box, so i haven't had that much time to play around with it yet. It should be noted that the front panel offers easy, direct access to the loaded patches, much like a synthesizer box.
The next step will be to receive my copy of Synthogy's Ivory, the highly acclaimed piano sample library, that offers ridiculously detailed samples of pianos like the Steinway D, the Boesendorfer concert grands, and several other jewels of the acoustic piano world. It should be in my mailbox by this afternoon, so hopefully i'll be able to load it up into the Receptor tonight and give it a whirl...
My latest excursion to Home Depot had me wandering up and down the plumbing aisle trying to make heads and tails of the world of PVC pipes. I managed to get help from a tired-looking salesperson who looked at me with a mixture of mild annoyance and total confusion when i tried to describe to him what i had in mind, gesticulating with my hands and drawing crude diagrams on my Samsung i730 Pocket PC phone (Pocket Word has a simple drawing feature built in). At first, he shook his head and dismissed it as being well nigh impossible...but then rethinking my design, he actually came around and thought it could work...maybe...
Thanks to him, we were able to hunt down all the various PVC pipe fittings and connectors, as well as cutting a galvanized steel pipe to size. That turned out to be the most difficult part to work out...well, without a guarantee that it will work in the end...
Quick stops to other departments assisted with some google searches on my Opera PDA browser helped me to confirm that another component i came across could actually be feasible...
Three guesses as to what craziness i'm dreaming up in my head now? Well, we'll see if it actually comes together tomorrow morning...
Henry Fogel, president of the American Symphony Orchestra League, recently spoke with students at Curtis about the future of orchestras. You can read his thoughts on the subject at his blog on Arts Journal. The three areas he discusses seem to apply to classical music in general, not just orchestras: the need for artistic flexibility to rethink the concert experience, more emphasis on outreach activities to enlighten the audiences, and a need to examine how technology can serve artistic and administrative ends more effectively.
To springboard on that a bit, i thought i'd spend a little time in today's blog daydreaming about the music school of the future. Many might argue that tradition-based arts such as Classical Music have no need for new technologies, that time-tested pedagogic techniques of the past have proven themselves to be more than adequate. It may be difficult for musicians to imagine what more is needed beyond hours of dedicated practice and a devoted teacher working one-on-one to hone their musical craft to the highest levels of artistry.
Perhaps a few make-believe scenarios might help to paint some possibilities for the future of music pedagogy:
The Musician's Holodeck
In Star Trek, The Next Generation (the second iteration of that 40-yo sci-fi tv series), there was a wonderful device envisioned called the Holodeck. The Holodeck was basically a virtual room, where one could enter and have the computer simulate lifelike environments and even interactions with computer-generated personalities. I remember one scene where physicist Stephen Hawking appeared, playing poker with Einstein and some other scientific luminaries - great fun!
I grew up at Curtis hearing legendary stories about Madame Vengerova, wishing i could've taken lessons from Rudolph Serkin, wondering what it would've been like to have interacted with Josef Hoffman or David Saperton in person...wouldn't it be wonderful to capture living records of our legendary faculty in as close a fashion as possible to a 'holodeck lesson'? Imagine a student working on the Brahms Violin Concerto, wondering what Joseph Silverstein or Aaron Rosand would've said - then being able to access a screen, instantly calling up video records of actual lessons on that piece, recorded from a variety of simultaneous angles and audio sources, so that she could watch the lesson in its entirety, or just jump to bookmarked portions if she only had questions over a specific passage, viewing a corresponding digital score with the teacher's own markings displaying fingerings and bowing. If she wanted to see just how far the elbow needed to be placed under the violin, switch to digital camera angle 3. If she wanted to hear the balance from the right portion of the room when the f-holes were facing away as in comparison to the left side, she could switch between microphones 1 and 2. If she wanted to see why the pianist was having a hard time catching her on such and such a passage, she could switch to the rear camera 4 and listen to the audio from the pianist's perspective through microphone 5...in other words, an interactive, virtual lesson that could be analyzed from multiple perspectives.
Imagine every lesson, every master class, every performance virtually recorded in such a fashion, with simultaneous multi-camera and multi-microphone views, and those recordings digitally archived, cataloged, bookmarked, score synchronized, and instantly accessible via intra-web or ultra-high broadband web connections, with a simple virtual interface and database access system so that you could find any historical activity on any piece you'd be interested in - lesson, masterclass, performance, or recording.
Imagine teachers being able to instantly assign historical audio or video recordings to their students for review, downloaded wirelessly to the students' iPods (or Zunes), or even the day's lesson downloaded instantly with corresponding digital ink annotations in digital scores, tagged with references to spots found in the assigned listening list. The lesson would be preserved and accessible to other students wanting the insights of any particular teacher on that piece.
Bending the Time/Space Continuum - Dr. Who's Transporter
Dr. Who was one of my favorite BBC sci-fi tv characters, a Time Lord who used his TARDIS to traverse time and space, leaping all over the universe at different points from the distant past to the far-out future.
Ahem - no TARDIS yet for music schools, but certainly one of the ways technology helps is in how it can minimize physical and time-based boundaries, particularly when implemented in asynchronous teaching models. Using Internet 2 technologies to have virtual master classes with teachers in different locations is one example. Giving students tools to digitally record their rehearsals, then upload the session files to a teacher to comment on asynchronously might be another example, especially when physical space is limited and schedules don't line up for teachers and ensembles to be in the same place at the same time.
Another example might be theory lessons recorded on digital smartboards, then uploaded for review for the students traveling on concert tour to maintain his studies - a combination of written illustrations, textbook readings, and audio/video clip files that could be accessed either by hyperlink or RSS downloads into an iPod or Zune.
The Federation of Planets - Networking
Another Star Trek concept was the peaceful federation of planets, a network of thousands of worlds spanning the known galaxy. A convenient device was written into the script, allowing for instantaneous communication throughout all these worlds ("Ender's Game", by Orson Scott Card, describes a similar instant-communication device - the "Ansible" - while grounding interplanetary travel to more 'realistic' norms of Relativity). Sorry for the geek-speak, but these concepts have a way of helping us to imagine wonderful possibilities. Networked conferences with composers to regularly introduce new music to students would be one way to take advantage of the power of our current communication technologies. Virtual interschool exchanges, where entire student bodies could be plugged into streamed master classes or performances or lectures for discussion and participation. Networked digital pianos that can either stream in realtime or reproduce prerecorded rehearsal sessions between distant musicians (Yamaha has an amazing eCompetition that highlights this technology very effectively).
On a more 'mundane' note, imagine networked practice rooms where a student could see an instant, updated readout of available spaces and estimated schedules of openings from their tablet pc's. Libraries that use digitally scanned music instantly available for streamed or downloaded viewing (eliminating the age old problem of 'not having enough copies' for everyone - or the perennial 'dog ate my music score' loss at the end of each year...)
By Your Command - Technology for feedback
"How's the balance?" This question gets asked a lot from the stage when preparing for ensemble/collaborative performances. Imagine multi-microphone systems and instant playback capabilities available wirelessly for the performer to hear what they sound like from the audience's perspective, instead of having to rely on a kind friend's ear. Likewise, instant multi-camera video playbacks for the performers to see how effective their physical presence is on the stage from various angles.
Imagine a 'living database', where a daily journal of repertoire studied, practiced and performed is maintained via a central server. Different levels of access would allow for public and private views, allowing a collective insight into various aspects of repertoire. It would be fascinating to see how 10 different pianists came up with fingerings for that Liszt Transcendental Etude passage, or to explore the various bowings that 4 other violinists came up with for that Bach sonata. Imagine the time saved in learning a new piece if the 6 or 7 most difficult passages could be identified ahead of time, or if the commentary of various teachers, composers, and performers could be added to the collective wiki on that particular concerto. Private access would give an instant recall on all the repertoire learned and performed, instantly uploaded to the student's promotional website if they choose, and sample multimedia clips automatically collected for promoters to hear.
More stuff to dream up later - perhaps this week's blog will be focused on future possibilities in music education, performance, and creation...i'd love to get your feedback!
Rumors have been floating gently around for quite some time on the possibility of an Apple version of the Tablet PC. Patents by Apple for some intriguing touchscreen interfaces have been tracked down by tech watchers, so it seems to be just a matter of time before something finally comes out of development. While readers of this blog know how passionate i am about Microsoft's ground-breaking Tablet PC OS and resulting hardware devices, it's hard to ignore the fact that Tablet PC's in general haven't made the earth-shattering impact in the computer world that their avid proponents had been hoping for.
A few days ago I received this email from composer David Toub, a die-hard Mac user:
Hugh, sounds like one really is on the way. I'm still skeptical, since there have been rumors of one for ages, and as you know better than me, the PC tablet market has never taken off except in select vertical markets (like health care and among visionary musicians like yourself!)
It will be interesting to see how this progresses.
If Apple can do for the Tablet PC what it did for the MP3 music player with its iPod line, we could finally start to see more wholesale acceptance of digital music reader/annotator technologies for classical musicians at large!
Getting Back to School Part 3: GTD meets Amy Tan's Fingers
The start of a new school year is much more conducive to new year resolutions than January 1st, at least to me. Despite the fact that i've been working at Curtis now for about 14 years, i'm always looking for new ways to make my job (and life) more effective and efficient. Some years have been better than others - last year was pretty bad, despite my adoption of David Allen's "Getting Things Done" time and stress management methodology.
Hmmm...perhaps i should rephrase that...
Thanks to GTD, i was able to more or less survive what surely would've been one of the most punishing work schedules i think i've experienced to date. i think i had a good handle on mastering some of the 'short term' aspects of the GTD productivity mantra, enabling me to get as close to an empty inbox as possible on a day-to-day basis, but i really dropped the ball when it came to overarching long-term goals and projects in a lot of areas...
And now, with the advent of yet another school year, my mind is wandering to a strange fusion of GTD and...Amy Tan - huh?
I've just started Amy Tan's novel, "The Bonesetter's Daughter", as an audiobook on my iPod (i LOVE audiobooks - getting through "Master and Commander" at the same time on my Garmin Nuvo GPS computer!). The protagonist - Chinese-American Ruth Young - struggles with her mother slipping into dementia and a deteriorating relationship with her Caucasian lover. Near the beginning of the book, Ruth uses an interesting finger-counting system to mark off her daily "to-do" list...and that got me thinking...
i had been starting a Mind Map of my daily life - tasks that needed regular daily attention, juxtaposed with some longer term goals that i wanted to set my sights on. As you can imagine, the map is already pretty packed with an insane amount of stuff - no amount of graphic juggling seems to help me put my head around a routine that will circulate through all these things. Then i started thinking about Amy Tan's character, the way she counted off her fingers and toes, giving her a 20-point daily memorization system...could i employ something like that in tangent with David Allen's excellent GTD task filing/productivity system?
Here's my attempt to map a 10-finger daily to-do list to cover the most important short-term and long-term aspects of my life:
Left Hand - Morning activities
Finger 1: Quiet Time - spending time in prayer and reading God's Word, and helping my kids do the same - Paul and Eric already have this excellent habit ingrained, now i need to help Timmy do likewise
Finger 2: Practice Time - this is a new priority, i must confess with great shame. In recent years, i've been literally flying by the seat of my pants, learning repertoire with breakneck speed. That simply cannot continue, especially with the enormous amount of repertoire i see looming this year, already packed with more recitals and concerts this early in the season than i've ever had before...finger 2 is my new priority to get an hour's worth of good practicing every morning before i do anything else following
Finger 3: Kid's piano - this finger has yet to get up and running, but i really need to get back to giving the kids their micro lessons...hopefully by the end of this week...
Finger 4: Exercise - sigh...another finger that has to awaken from the grave...this week, i promise...
Finger 5: Agenda review - too often i've started the day without a clue what was coming up. This will hopefully be my opportunity to prepare for the day, week, and month, especially to take advantage of down-time in the train or car
Right Hand - Daytime/Work activities
Finger 1: Initial Emails - i'm slowly learning to keep the internet valve shut off until my left hand's activities are done. My regular practice (or addiction) has been to check emails first thing in the morning...then before you know it, i'm swamped with messages, surfing the web for news, trotting from blog to blog...and my whole day is gone! Finger 1 will hopefully keep the initial daytime emails to immediate and emergency responses
Finger 2: Recital Review - my job at Curtis is multi-faceted. A large portion is the scheduling of the 100+ student recitals we have each season. It would be good to have a finger to dedicate to reviewing the recital requests and overall schedule integrity on a daily basis, instead of ad hoc whenever i can squeeze it in between my rehearsals and lessons...
Finger 3: Gig Review - yet another portion of my job involves the hiring of students for outside gigs and recitals. This always eats up an enormous portion of my day, but it would be helpful to keep this in proper perspective so that it doesn't consume everything else in my schedule
Finger 4: Accompaniment Review - just a general-purpose finger here, to make sure i've kept perspective on my own accompaniment duties, as well as the proper assignment of work to my staff pianists and the handling of their various timesheets
Finger 5: Closing emails and task review - um, this is to keep that email flow mitigated somewhat. There really is no end to correspondence, just my attempt to make sure that i'm giving the flow 2 points of attention during any given workday - these might be more of my 'proactive' emails, as opposed to the morning 'responses' and 'reactions'...make sense?
Left Foot - Late Afternoon/Home time (if i can manage to be home at a reasonable hour...)
Toe 1: Kids' homework review - might have to relegate this to phonecalls or a webcam setup if i can't make it home in time (which will be often, once the recitals begin again...), but this toe is critical to keep in touch with my kids' progress...
Toe 2: Kids' extra studies - these would be extra-study activities to help keep my kids productive, things like yesterday's typing tutor game, or online math/reading activities, book reading, etc.
Toe 3: boy, so many digits! I really have to think of things to fill them with - um, ok - how about, Kids' Exercise? I really should be spending time with the kids, riding bikes with them, taking them to the park, outdoor time, etc.
Toe 4: Mom-in-law time - My mother-in-law and i are very close, but i know i take too much advantage of her. I really should use this toe to focus attention on her needs, even if it's just extra grocery shopping or chore management...
Toe 5: Wife time - no, not the littlest toe, or the last toe because of priority - mostly because of the order of day, she's usually home late. Wife time wouldn't happen until all the other late afternoon toes were used up anyway, given her schedule...
Right Foot - Night Time (boy, i'm really stretching this system...losing track of digits already...)
Toe 1: Practice - if time permits, and before the boys go to bed, need to try to squeeze in another hour or so of personal practice time
Toe 2: Family Worship - i must confess, this summer made it almost impossible to keep up with this practice. Need to get back on track with our family time of worship, prayer, Bible-reading and study
Toe 3: Personal emails - this can cover both traditional emails, as well as responses to messages via social network sites like MySpace and my own blog comments
Toe 4: Work follow ups - to keep my inbox at a sane level, i still need an evening follow-up to work-related emails and reports that need to be uploaded to the Curtis website. Sometimes, the quiet evening at home is a better place to concentrate than the disturbance-prone office...
Toe 5: Internet work - stuff like articles for this blog, marketing work that i'm doing via MySpace, video podcast/audio podcast production, research - in short, anything related to my personal web-based promotion activities
Well now, what an interesting exercise! To be honest, i didn't really know what this finger/toe-based productivity map would look like, but already i'm seeing the rough outlines of a system that - while not comprehensive and certainly not always do-able, given my wildly fluctuating schedule at times - might still give me a good overview of the activities that i want to give priority to in my daily life, and hopefully in better proportion than the haphazard scattering and stuffing into tiny free-pockets-of-time nooks that i tend to do...
Talking to one of my wife's colleagues the other night, he showed me pictures of a beautiful pedestal desk he was building. This was a project that was already several years in the making - close to completion, but it was his patience and perseverance that really impressed me. The discipline to be able to chip away at something a little at a time each day, or whenever time permitted, instead of cramming it with spasms of unreasonable time blocks really pays off in the long run...a good lesson i hope to learn this year, particularly as it pertains to my own playing and personal life.
This little piggy went to market...this little piggy stayed home...
Provocateurs: Up Close with Arts in Motion at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
Last night i was at the latest show by Arts in Motion, a cutting-edge art fusion group blending classical music with techno, dynamically-created computer graphics with real-time video-art mixes, live musicians with electronic tracks and sonic enhancements - in short, an ensemble that gives me the excuse to mash together as many descriptive-hyphenated words that would normally be separated as far apart as possible!
The show took place in the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Great Stair hallway, complete with booming marble resonance and stadium-style seating to ensure a clear line of view from nearly any vantage point. Several gorgeous video-art projections graced the walls of the stairway, depicting one artist's perspectives on "romance", and hovering eerily like gently moving holograms.
The main action took place at the base of the stairs, beneath a large stretch-fabric projection screen hung from an enormous columned archway. Here you can see the final stages of roping up the screen...
...and here, you can see the initial test pattern for focusing the main projector.
The tech setup for the show was clearly very, very complex. So much so, that the show actually started about 40 minutes late. From what i could make out, it looked like some of the visual effects comprised of video mixing hardware (notice the little box with the three miniature monitor screens) connected to three DVD-video sources (two of them being MacBooks, i think a standard DVD player being used for the third). At least one of the MacBooks was also dedicated to generating both pre-rendered computer graphics, as well as an innovative MIDI-controlled visual generator that had the effect of displaying individual notes "flying" over a virtual landscape. There was at least one mini-keyboard synth controller set up on the table, but i didn't see any direct activity on it (perhaps it was serving as a data conduit?)
There was a string quartet set up in the middle with microphone pickups for amplification (a 2 speaker setup, from what i could see). Each of the players had stereo earbud monitors for feedback. In addition, a Kurzweil keyboard complimented the acoustic players, along with a vocal mike and another computer rigged with a P5 virtual-reality glove for added sonic effects to the underlying techno tracks
The P5 glove apparently operates as a virtual mouse, but it certainly looked uber-cool watching the operator manipulate track settings and adjustments like a scene straight out of "Minority Report"!
A large and appreciative audience was in attendance. It was neat to see how varied it was, a great mix of young and old, speaking to the broad appeal this type of presentation seems to be able to draw on. That having been said, there was a constant murmur and rumble from the audience throughout the show. I'm not sure that could've been helped, given the 'techno-club' atmosphere the music and the visuals lent. Don't get me wrong, i actually enjoy techno and electronica music (Chemical Brothers, Crystal Method, Paul Oakenfold, etc. etc.), but it has a way of blending into the background of your attention with its endless rhythmic repetitions. The pulse has a way of constricting live musical flow and personal expression, as the musicians are forced to fit themselves into the unforgiving pre-recorded electronic rhythmic track. The visuals for the most part seemed to be along the same lines of creating vistas of relatively static atmosphere - i'm sure the artists drew their inspiration from the music, with their abstract computer-generated fractals, visual algorithms, and video clip mashups from old movies, original clips and documentaries, but that relationship never seemed to be more than a tangent point for atmosphere as opposed to being a direct corollary to enhance or highlight the music's structure, drive, climax and release points. The music seemed to be secondary to the visuals: the enormous size of the projector over the musicians' heads, the musicians themselves dressed all in black and virtually tucked away with the absence of any spotlights, the driving pulse that forced them to be mere musical passengers rather than leaders, all this contributed to the aforementioned 'club' atmosphere, where you're really there for the ambiance and company of your friends and pretty lights (and a few nice drinks), more so than to have your attention fully captured by the energy of the live performance and the spontaneity of the artistic creation unfolding before you.
The technology is really quite amazing. The fusion concept is intriguing, and the musicians (half of them from Curtis) did an outstanding job given the technical difficulties and the unorthodox setup, both physically and musically. The artwork in all its permutations was really quite stunning - it just felt like there wasn't enough of a connection between the music and the visuals, a missing synergy between a medium based in narrative time and a medium displaying such a wide palette of possibilities but seemingly held in stasis like a painting in a frame. There seemed to be a disconnect between the performers and the audience as well, with a few awkward moments of tech transitions, limited dialogue with the audience, and lack of personal introductions to all of the performers, artists and technicians who put the show together. The potential is exciting, but the execution perhaps needs more polishing. I'm eager to see this concept develop and improve, and would heartily recommend everyone to visit their website to learn more about their cutting edge work, and to lend them the artistic support they need to continue to break new ground.
[UPDATE: Arts in Motion has been added to my 'Favorite Musicians' list along the left column. Be sure to check out the picture gallery from the show!]
This gadget alert is thanks to one of my readers - source article comes from that uber-tech site Engadget.com:
This is so fascinating I couldn't help calling your attention to this item (just in case you missed it) from www.engadet.com - play a virtual piano without the piano:
Virtual Piano for Chopin on the go
Posted Aug 4th 2006 9:25AM by Paul Miller
Filed under: Misc. Gadgets
It was bound to happen sooner or later. Ever since those keyboards of the typing variety got all virtual on us, we knew the instrument version would go infrared and turn our rhythmic table tapping into beautiful music. The new device, from Digital Information Development, operates -- and looks -- quite like that Bluetooth version from iTech, 'cept there's a speaker in this unit to pump the tunes you're generating. Though there's just a 25-key keyboard in this version, DID is promising an 88-key "grand piano" unit, and even some sort of weighted notes (we'll believe it when we see it). This first iteration includes piano, organ, pipe organ and harpsichord sounds, and should cost around 15,000 yen ($130 USD) when it hits stores in Japan this November.
Thank you for visiting this site! I hope you'll find this to be a friendly place to learn about and discuss the fascinating technologies available for the Classical Musician. A great place to get started is with the ongoing "Getting Started" series. Remember, the worst questions are the ones you never ask, so feel free to email me!