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Photo: New Music Box
The First Congregational Church of Los Angeles virtual choir.

Online group singing has become a fixture of the coronavirus era, and many of the choruses have given great pleasure to listeners. But how do the singers fare emotionally, considering that part of what they love has always been the proximity of other participants?

Fahad Siadat has a few answers at New Music Box.”While the entire music sector has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, the choral community has been hit especially hard.

“Singers have been deemed ‘super spreaders’ of the virus, by a study commissioned by a coalition of performing arts organizations. The study has let the national community know they don’t believe there will be a safe way for choirs to safely rehearse until there is widespread testing and/or a vaccine, potentially an entire year or more in the future. Like other musicians, this bleak forecast has prompted panic for professional choristers who rely on group singing for their income, but it has also affected some 40 million people in the United States who rely on choirs for the social community, mental health, and emotional well-being.

“My spouse Cynthia Siadat, a licensed psycho-therapist, recently wrote an article about how choir helps alleviate mental health distress. She writes, ‘73% of singers report that choral singing helps them to feel less lonely. … A 2015 study, found that loneliness has been proven to be just as detrimental to one’s longevity as obesity and smoking 15 cigarettes a day’. …

“The question becomes not only, ‘how do we make a quality musical product?’ But, ‘how can we continue to have meaningful musical and social experiences?’  …

“I have the good fortune of making my living as a chorister in a particular subset of the community deeply interested and invested in innovating and experimenting with choral music, and because of this involvement have had the opportunity to participate first hand in how different groups are handling the crisis and trying to move forward.

“No one group has ‘solved’ the issue of not being able to sing and rehearse together, but all of them have found unique ways forward and are experimenting wildly. …

“Building a virtual choir, once considered a technological marvel, has become astonishingly commonplace in the last few months. The professional choir at the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles (led by my long time colleague David Harris), for instance, has recorded 3-4 virtual choir pieces every week since March.

There are many resources for those interested in getting involved with virtual choirs. I’ve even put my own document of step by step instructions for composers, conductors, and singers.

“(Virtual Choir ProTip: Recording the audio and video separately allows a great deal of editing and ‘punching’ in while recording. It goes much faster than trying to get a single perfect take.)

“(Additional ProTip: Conductor tracks aren’t all that helpful for the singers, use a click instead. Also consider using a ‘section leader’ to create a guide track for each part so the rest of the choir has a voice to follow along with for style and phrasing.) …

“There are some unexpected perks to virtual choirs, namely in terms of how it makes certain kinds of repertoire more accessible than ever before. … The ability to learn and record a piece phrase by phrase allows for the ‘performance’ of music that might have otherwise been out of reach of an ensemble.

“In May, for instance, the FCCLA professional ensemble performed Stravinsky’s 12-tone anthem The Dove Descending, an emotional and mystical work rarely performed by choirs today, especially church choirs, perhaps in-part due to the amount of rehearsal time required. In the virtual choir setting, however, we were able to effectively record the piece in a matter of a few hours. …

“While the end product of virtual choirs can be satisfying, the means by which that product is made can be sorely lacking. The great communal spirit of singing together is completely lost. …

“Luckily, there are some low-latency audio options specifically designed for musicians to re-create some semblance of in-person music making. (Soundjack and Jamulus are two that my community uses, but there are others.)

“It didn’t take long working with this medium to realize that remote choirs are entirely new kinds of ensembles. … Typical choral values like blend, balance, and uniformity are made that much trickier by every singer’s individual mic set up. Rehearsals started with about an hour of tech adjustments, setting levels, and troubleshooting. …

“And yet, once we finally waded through the tech set up and arrived at our first moment of singing together, just a simple C Major chord, I felt a flood of emotion. After long weeks of isolation, I was finally singing with my friends. It wasn’t the choral experience I was used to, but it was unmistakably live music making, and that taste was enough to keep me coming back every week.”

The author provides a lot of technical detail showing how to approximate the group-singing experience, here, at the New Music Box.

I wonder if the rest of us can find ways to feel more present with friends and family via new internet applications. FaceTime and What’s App and Zoom are way better than a mere phone call, but nothing beats meeting someone in a yard for a chat that feels normal. And how will we manage that in winter?

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04garden1-jumbo

Photo: Mark Baldwin
A dense carpet of woodland perennials. Thomas Rainer, a landscape architect, calls plants “social creatures” that thrive in particular networks.

Today we understand that trees and other plants are the lungs of the planet and that we are losing too many every year, so it behooves us to understand them better and do what we can to help the remainder thrive. Even in our yards.

At the New York Times, Margaret Roach offers some tips from a landscape architect.

“Thomas Rainer and I have both been doing the botanical thing for decades,” she writes. “We know, and use, many of the same plants — and even much of the same horticultural vocabulary. But what he and I see when we look at a butterfly weed or a coneflower, or what we mean when we say familiar words like ‘layering’ or ‘ground cover,’ is surprisingly not synonymous.

“It turns out I’ve been missing what the plants were trying to tell me, failing to read botanical body language and behavior that could help me put plants together in combinations that would solve challenges that many of us have: beds that aren’t quite working visually, and garden areas that don’t function without lots of maintenance. … I asked Mr. Rainer, a landscape architect based in Washington, D.C., to lend us his 3-D vision.

“Roach: You visit a lot of gardens, and probably hear from gardeners like me with beds that just aren’t working. What’s the most common cause?

“Rainier: First, we have to understand that plants are social creatures. Our garden plants evolved as members of diverse social networks. Take a butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa, named this year’s Perennial Plant of the Year by the industry group the Perennial Plant Association), for example. The height of its flower is exactly the height of the grasses it grows among. Its narrow leaves hug its stems to efficiently emerge through a crowded mix. It has a taproot that drills through the fibrous roots of grasses. Everything about that plant is a reaction to its social network. And it is these social networks that make plantings so resilient.

“So if we think about the way plants grow in the wild, it helps us understand how different our gardens are. In the wild, every square inch of soil is covered with a mosaic of interlocking plants, but in our gardens, we arrange plants as individual objects in a sea of mulch. We place them in solitary confinement.

“So if you want to add butterfly weed to your garden, you might drift it in beds several feet apart and tuck some low grasses in as companions, like prairie dropseed, blue grama grass or buffalo grass.

“Start by looking for bare soil. It is everywhere in our gardens and landscapes. Even in beds with shrubs in them, there are often large expanses of bare soil underneath. It’s incredibly high-maintenance. It requires multiple applications of bark mulch a year, pre-emergent herbicides and lots and lots of weeding.

“The alternative to mulch is green mulch — that is, plants. This includes a wide range of herbaceous plants that cover soil, like clump-forming sedges, rhizomatous strawberries or golden groundsel, and self-seeding columbine or woodland poppies.

“Roach: If I want to try to do it more as nature does, what am I aiming for? Where do I take my cues?

“Rainier: The big shift in horticulture in the next decade will be a shift from thinking about plants as individual objects to communities of interrelated species. We think it’s possible to create designed plant communities: stylized versions of naturally occurring ones, adapted to work in our gardens and landscapes. This is not ecological restoration, it’s a hybrid of ecology and horticulture. We take inspiration from the layered structure in the wild, but combine it with the legibility and design of horticulture. It is the best of both worlds: the functionality and biodiversity of an ecological approach, but also the focus on beauty, order and color that horticulture has given us. It’s possible to balance diversity with legibility, ecology with aesthetics.

“And it is a shift in how we take care of our gardens: a focus on management, not maintenance. When you plant in communities, you manage the entire plantings, not each individual plant. This is a pretty radical shift. It’s O.K. if a plant self-seeds around a bit, or if one plant becomes more dominant. As long as it fits the aesthetic and functional goals. We can do much less and get more.” More here.

What do you think? I’m not a gardener, but I have a little yard, and I take Rainier’s point about how every patch of bare soil creates problems. I wonder what the Meadowscaping folks might have to say about combining horticulture and ecology in this way.

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Photo: Matthias Le Dall
Thanks in part to his original songwriting, singing, and guitar-playing, physics doctoral student Pramodh Senarath Yapa won this year’s “Dance Your PhD” contest.

This is such a creative idea: a “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest!

Just as almost any information can be compressed into a haiku, almost any abstract concept can be danced. That’s what my high school dance teacher said when she made us partner with classmates to choreograph scientific principles.  And when Page and I started to choreograph Lavoisier’s discovery of oxygen to the Firebird Suite, Miss Hinney reminded us that we had to give life to the concept, not do a historical reenactment. Hard but memorable.

That’s why I loved this story about dancing your PhD. Emma Bowman writes at National Public Radio (NPR), “Pramodh Senarath Yapa, a physicist currently pursuing his doctorate at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, has been named the 2018 winner of the ‘Dance Your PhD’ contest.

“The competition, sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Science magazine, invites doctoral students and Ph.D. recipients to translate their research into an interpretive dance. The winner takes home $1,000.

“It took Senarath Yapa six weeks to choreograph and write the songs for ‘Superconductivity: The Musical!’ — a three-act swing dance depicting the social lives of electrons. The video is based on his master’s thesis, which he completed while pursuing his degree at the University of Victoria in Canada.

“The 11-minute sing-songy rendition is far less paralyzing than the jargony title of Senarath Yapa’s thesis alone: ‘Non-Local Electrodynamics of Superconducting Wires: Implications for Flux Noise and Inductance.’

” ‘Superconductivity relies on lone electrons pairing up when cooled below a certain temperature,’ Senarath Yapa told Science. ‘Once I began to think of electrons as unsociable people who suddenly become joyful once paired up, imagining them as dancers was a no-brainer!’ …

“John Bohannon, a former contributing correspondent for Science, founded the contest, now in its 11th year. It all started at a party one New Year’s Eve that was heavy on scientist attendees and light on the dancing. ‘I tapped into their competitive spirit,’ Bohannon tells NPR’s Scott Simon. …

” ‘I think in general, they’re exhibitionists. If you’re willing to stand up and defend some crazy obscure research topic that you’ve devoted your life to then there’s probably something in you that wants to dance.’ ”

More at NPR, here.

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