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A blog following my musical activities

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Reflections on our Lessons & Carols Service

December 18, 2012 2 Comments

Loyola High School Choir and Orchestra, Lessons & Carols 2012

Thursday, December 13th, I conducted our annual Lessons & Carols service at St. John’s Cathedral, Los Angeles. This year, I used my previous model from when the choir sang school liturgies. I taught my academic music students to sing and included them in the service.

It was very successful in so many ways. After the service, I invited the students to reflect on the experience. I am reprinting some of their quotes in this post. The overwhelmingly positive reaction really reminds me how powerful music can be when it is conscientiously taught and prepared. Sometimes, being in the trenches of music-making can obscure the original reasons for becoming a musician in the first place.

When I started singing I never thought it would be so fun but so serious at the same time. This experience has made me more interested in music and kind of makes me want to join the choir. Kenneth An

This was much more than I had ever expected it to be. It will be one of the most memorable parts of my high school career. Jack Dunn

The Loyola Choir

It took a lot of hard work but it payed off in the end. If I had this opportunity again, I would definitely do it! Kevin Fraher

It was really intense but super fun at the same time. I was happy that my parents were able to watch me be a part of something great. Raphael Mercurio

It was amazing singing with everyone. It gave me a sense of euphoria. Paul Ostrick

I did not expect it to be as powerful as it was. Sam Ostrin

I must say that this was one of the greatest experiences so far…of my life. My parents said that it looked like I was really enjoying myself- and I was! Matthew Gorski

Loyola music appreciation students

The actual performance was unbelievable and overwhelming. This was truly a once-in-a lifetime opportunity and I am so grateful. It was truly a memorable night. Chase Matherly

This concert was a big deal. Everyone should be able to participate and realize anyone can sing.
Before the performance I didn’t expect as much as what I received from this experience. Dominique Royall

This experience was actually really surprising for me. Coming into this concert, I was dreading it, but I actually had a ton of fun.
Lastly, this entire experience and class has made me appreciate music much more. Mostly because I i have realized how difficult it is to sing properly and to play music. I now look at singers and musicians as people who put a ton of work into their careers. Luke Nassif

This performance, at first, was something I was not looking forward to. At first, I thought it would not be fun and I would just go through the motions of practice.
Once I got to the cathedral, I realized this would actually be a really fun experience. Once the concert started, I was nervous, but I actually had a really good time.
Although at first I was not looking forward to the concert, I now know it was actually a really fun experience. Riley Renick

In this concert, I realized how good all the classes could be if we tried hard and set our minds to doing well. I also faced a fear of getting on stage and performing in front of a crowd.
The concert also created unity and a bond between me and the rest of the performers. It felt good to be a part of something big like the concert.
The concert also created a memory that will always last for me and my parents. Owen O’Brien

For the Lessons & Carols, I would honestly say it was an amazing experience. At first I was thinking: “Wow…singing?” But at Loyola, the singing skills I have obtained has probably taught me significantly more than the 8 years at my old school. Just the experience and singing with an orchestra had a life-changing effect on me. Matt Fang

Music space at St. John’s Cathedral

The overall concert was a whole new experience for me. I have never done something so incredibly awesome as that. The energy in there was simply amazing. I hope we do something similar to this second semester. My first time doing something like this was a little scary, but when you’re up there, you just get going and remember your technique and it is just natural.
It is very similar to playing basketball in front of a thousand people. You don’t wanna mess up, but the people around you are there with you ready to help. Spencer Bailey

I really didn’t expect so many people to go and see us perform. It was really awesome that so many people wanted to hear us sing.
Overall, it was a fun night. We played perfectly as planned and doing it with all my friends made it a memorable experience. Thomas Zetino

The whole experience was awesome. I expected it to be a little boring when I first heard about it. As it came closer to the event, I began to get excited for it.
The performance was really cool and a lot of fun. It was also nice to learn a new skill such as singing. I had a blast and will remember this experience the rest of my life. Josef Topete

The Graphic Score as Instrument

March 31, 2012

Sound Art project 2012, Loyola High School Music Appreciation

Because music is ephemeral, invisible, and abstract, it is peculiarly difficult to talk or write about it. These complexities are never more apparent than when trying to compose. Devising a way to efficiently and explicitly communicate sonic intention to another person borders on being a black art! In my music appreciation classes, we examined how scores convey the invisible abstractions of music. We also examined the limitations of traditional notation and studied other composer’s graphic solutions for unique compositional problems.

We spent a week doing some “Deep Listening” exercises as crafted by Pauline Oliveros, reading Michel Chion’s essay on the nature of sound, and examining the notion of soundscape as defined by R. Murray Schafer.

To synthesize these concepts, I had the students make graphic scores of one of their “Deep Listening” experiences. Creating these scores was an opportunity for them to consider compositional issues. They asked themselves questions like “What sounds are demanding my attention and what sounds are in the background?” “How do I notate the Doppler effect of a city bus driving by?” “What sounds are analogs to the musical notion of key?”

As we proceed, the kids blog about their experiences and expressive processes. The projects in this post’s embedded videos represent an important leap: the move from perception to intention. I asked them to score a piece for pencil theremin and electronics where the graphic score is also the instrument.

A small circuit board with a battery and speaker is attached to a regular wooden pencil. Copper tape is attached to one end of the pencil and wrapped around the pencil where it is grasped. More tape connects the tope end of the board to the top of the pencil. A metal pushpin is stuck through the tape and into the pencil lead itself. Therefore, when one draws with the pencil and touches the graphite on the paper, the circuit is completed and a sound is emitted from the speaker. The greater the distance between the contact points, the lower the pitch!

Using the Pure Data patch host provided by the folks at RJDJ, a reactive sound app company, the students composed reactive recorder/distorters to augment the variety of sounds as well as the reality of the live performance.

In spite of the limitations imposed by the pencil Theremin’s limited sonic palette, some students devised interesting modes of interaction with their scores and apps.

One of the interesting challenges this project presented was the video creation. The composers could choose whether they would play their own piece or be one of two cameramen filming the performance. If they played, the nature of the movie was left in someone else’s hands, and vice versa. They had to abandon complete control of their piece one way or another.

My First Android App in the Marketplace: Mostly Noise Blog

February 9, 2012

Click on image to go to Android Marketplace for download

I used the service Publish5.com to create an app for my blog and video portfolio on the Android marketplace.

Not being a programmer, I don’t know if there are better ways to do this, but for a simple content app, this was painless and cheap!

The website itself walked me through a series of templates where I could host blogs, twitter feeds, or YouTube in their mobile templates. For $19, the company will create an apk with two screenshots for you to upload to the Android Marketplace.

I paid the one time $25 to Google to become a developer, and within an hour, my app was in the marketplace!

A very simple experiment. It feels kind of cool, even though I didn’t do one bit of programming. However, I now have one more way to distribute my content.

A Chopin Nocturne and an Animated Walpurgisnacht by Ladislaw Starewicz

January 14, 2012

The footage is excerpted from one of my favorite animators, Vladislav Starevich (August 8, 1882 – February 26, 1965). Born Władysław Starewicz (Russian: Владисла́в Алекса́ндрович Старе́вич), was a Russian and Frenchstop-motion animator who used insects and other animals as his protagonists. (His name can also be spelled Starevitch, Starewich and Starewitch.)

This particular film is from “The Mascot”. Vladislav Starevich died on 26 February 1965, while working on Comme chien et chat (Like Dog and Cat). It was left unfinished out of respect. He was one of the few European animators to be known by name in America before the 1960s, largely on account of La Voix du rossignol and Fétiche Mascotte (The Tale of the Fox was not widely distributed in the US)

His Russian films were known for their dark humor, probably an inevitable consequence of the choice of dead beetles and grasshoppers as subjects. Once he switched to using more ordinary puppets for his French films, his work became more lyrical. However, the fact that he was working independently had the negative effect that the films are sometimes considered too long, too lyrical, and too uncommercial. The films are united, however, by their wild imagination.- from Wikipedia

Heyókȟa Te Deum: A collision of Native American and Catholic Spirituality by James MacMillan

January 13, 2012

By Sioux Chief Black Hawk (born 1832)


I recently found an old recording I made with my former high school choir of the Heyoka Te Deum by James MacMillan. I am not sure how this piece slipped my mind because it is unusual and terrific!

A Heyoka, or Heyókȟa, is a “sacred clown” of the Lakota.

Heyókȟa are thought of as being backwards-forwards, upside-down, or contrary in nature. This spirit is often manifest by doing things backwards or unconventionally—riding a horse backwards, wearing clothes inside-out, or speaking in a backwards language. For example, if food were scarce, a Heyókȟa would sit around and complain about how full he was; during a baking hot heat wave a Heyókȟa would shiver with cold and put on gloves and cover himself with a thick blanket. Similarly, when it is 40 degrees below freezing he will wander around naked for hours complaining that it is too hot.

– from Wikipedia

The Heyókȟa are chosen in dreams. Part clown, part shaman, they symbolize the sacred, the Wakȟáŋ, by satirizing society. They ask the difficult questions by saying things others might be afraid to say so that the community might consider topics not usually thought about, or look at things in a different way.

Heyókȟa are both mirrors and teachers. They provoke laughter in times of despair or stir up chaos when people are too comfortable to avoid the dangers of complacency.

MacMillan’s setting is clever and typical of his style. The Lakota text is set with complex rhythmic cells and coloratura connecting more stable homophonic sections in the trebles. The interval and cell patterns are consistent, despite key and texture changes. This way, MacMillan achieves expressive variety while remaining technically approachable for beginning choirs. The Te Deum is sung in unison to a Gregorian chant-like melody. The Te Deum sections link verses of the Lakota Chant, only intertwining with the Lakota in the coda. The overall effect alternates the florid, swirling visions of the Lakota with the equally visionary solemnity of the Te Deum.

Loyola High School Music Gathers STE(A)M

January 1, 2012

STEM, a govenment acronym for studies in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathmatics has gained another letter in education circles: A for Arts. I join John Maeda as a proponent of STEAM curriculum. Maeda, a former student and faculty member of MIT and current president of the Rhode Island School of Design, writes:

And so I’ve begun to wonder recently whether STEM needs something to give it some STE(A)M—an “A” for art between the engineering and the math to ground the bits and bytes in the physical world before us, to lift them up and make them human. What if America approached innovation with more than just technology? What if, just like STEM is made up of science, technology, engineering and math, we had IDEA, made of intuition, design, emotion, and art—all the things that make us humans feel, well, human? It seems to me that if we use this moment to reassess our values, putting just a bit of our humanity back into America’s innovation engines will lead to the most meaningful kind of progress. By doing so, we will find a way back to integrating thinking with making and being and feeling and living so that left- and right-brained creativity can lift our economy back into the sky.

– John Maeda in Seed Magazine

I recently discovered that my YouTube video of Steve Reich’s Pendulum music was embedded in a Scientific American blogpost about “cyborg yeast”. Reich’s Pendulum Music is a “process piece” which combines the acoustic phenomenon of a feedback loop in conjunction with the randomness of pendulum swings to create a landscape of slowly-shifting pitches and timbres.

Even though my video is only tangentially related to Christina Agapakis’ post-topic, I believe it serves as one model of how easily the arts may be integrated into STEM topics.

I am grateful that Ms. Agapakis used our music video to illustrate a scientific concept. I think she uses it effectively. Its inclusion introduces an artform and aesthetic to students and audiences that it might otherwise not meet.

Because art so easily illustrates science concepts, I fear that general artistic misunderstanding may make this particular example a STE(A)M curriculum model by being a path of least resistance. To be pithy, I imagine well-intentioned teachers assigning crafts and not arts. Art engages the heart and mind. Students deal with metaphor and expressing ideas. Artists grapple with technique and communicating the ephemeral minus the semantics of science while simultaneous applying scientific principles.

My colleagues at Loyola High School are very open to substantive STE(A)M work letting our students get their hands dirty in both the arts and sciences. My recent Fiskabur project and our joint Physics of Music lectures are great examples of STE(A)M work.

Media Files for Loyola Lessons & Carols 2011

December 23, 2011

The Playlist

When I conduct concerts or services, I make a special effort to record and publish the results. Technology has made these tools very accessible. This service was recorded with a Sony PCM-D50, a simple $500 handheld recorder. I edited it in Apple’s Soundtrack Pro, posted audio files to Soundcloud, and made videos in Final Cut Pro to post to YouTube, all within 2 days of the service itself.

A Bouquet of Lessons & Carols

December 19, 2011

Photo by Steven Speciale


Each year as Christmas nears, my high school choir offers a Lessons & Carols service to the community. Notice, I didn’t write “concert”. I do my best to provide the choir “performance” opportunities with a service context. It gives the work we do an extra layer of meaning and purpose that is harder to convey in a concert setting. I also think the cathedral context for this music, as well as the magnificent pipe organ, makes this an unparalleled experience for them.

I will post selections from the service in bite-sized bits over the next few days. Merry Christmas!

Before our final dress rehearsal, we always take an hour to have dinner at Papa Cristos, a local family-owned Greek restaurant that has been in the neighborhood for over fifty years!


Fiskabur 2011: A Milestone for Collaboration

December 7, 2011 2 Comments

Fiskabur 2011

With the export of Movement of Jellyfish by Loyola High School student Leopoldo Magana, Fiskabur 2011 has fulfilled my original intent: to create and execute a cross-curricular project where students across disciplines contribute to the final product, and the final product has “legs” as its existence furthers other educational objectives.

Fiskabur Ontogenesis

After a lecture to both the music classes and physics classes on the Physics of Music, the music students constructed piezoelectric microphones while some of the Physics students built musical instruments.

The music students borrowed the newly-made instruments, sampled them with their homebrewed-microphones, and composed loops. A small-group of the music students went to the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach and filmed many exhibits which I put on our YouTube channel.

Drawing inspiration from these videos, the music students composed soundscapes and music with their composed loops. These loops were loaded onto reactive apps of their design through the RJC-1000 software. Along with still pictures of the fish that inspired the compositions, the music was given a layer of sonic augmented reality.

The apps were loaded onto iPhones, iPads, and iPods, taken back to the Aquarium of the Pacific, and “performed” and recorded in front of the fish that inspired the music. A team of student filmmakers accompanied the composers to gather footage of the project and the creatures themselves.

All of the resulting loops, videos, samples, and RJDJ-pieces were posted on the internet with Creative Commons licenses so all of the musicians and filmakers could share resources.

The Movement of Jellyfish video embedded above is the first all-student product to emerge from Fiskabur. It will be hosted on our YouTube channel, a website dedicated to Fiskabur 2011, and offered to the AP Biology classes as a resource for animal locomotion, one of the curricular points for the course.

Special thanks to my Loyola colleagues: Lance Oschner, Fr. John Quinn, & Craig Bouma for their participation and support. Thanks to the Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific, and Marilyn Padilla, in particular, for their permission and support of our filming and recording on the premises.

Setting Up My Google Artist Page on Google’s Artist Hub

November 22, 2011

On November 16th, 2011 Google released Google Music from beta. One of the most intriguing functions of Google Music, and the prime differentiator between it and the many competitors, is the introduction of the Artist Hub. Turning an online music retailer into the musical analog to YouTube is a brilliant opportunity for the independent artist.

Google offers a 70/30 revenue sharing to the artist as well as social integration with Google+ and YouTube. In my experience, this is the best deal out there. While one might not have the marketing support of a label, a media-savvy musician has the opportunity to promote and sell music minus the middleman.

I set up an account to see how it all works.

Logging into the Hub with my Google credentials, I paid a one time $25 setup fee. Google led me to pages where I created my profile, uploaded a picture, filled out tax forms and connected my bank account, and uploaded material for sale.

The setup process was familiar, easy to understand, and quick. I am having an issue with my photo appearing upside-down, but this is a minor annoyance. My new hub was delayed for two days or so while Google verified me. After verification, my Artist Page appeared in the Android Marketplace. It was a thrill to see my page in the Android Market!

I uploaded a choral piece I arranged and conducted into a test album. It appears that I can have unlimited albums and tracks for sale. Via dropdown menus, I have control of sharing-previews: from 90-seconds long to tracks in their entirety, and control over how many shared plays someone might enjoy. I set my preferences to unlimited plays.

There are also menus to set prices for the tracks or albums. I selected free. I wish there was a “pay-what-you-want” choice a la Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” or Bandcamp’s model. Perhaps this will be a future feature? After a day delay, my album with one track appeared on my Artist Hub Page. I “bought” a copy. After downloading, I was offered the opportunity to share my purchase via Google+, Twitter, or +1ing it.

Sharing purchases on Google+

I shared my purchase on Google+. The album art and title appear in a neat package. I do wish it had the flash of Soundcloud with the embedded player and waveform. I also have not yet determined how I might share music as the creator without “buying” it first.

So far, I am impressed with the capabilities of the service. I wish the ability to upload and share were a little faster and more frictionless. When I post to Soundcloud, I can share within seconds. Nevertheless, I am hopeful that this platform will accelerate the ability for artists to become more self-sufficient thus promoting a more secure place for creators in our society.

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