Tag: video

Live Streaming 103: DIY Live Stream Tech

During the month of June, I have been writing about live streaming your new music concerts. Live Streaming 101 dealt with the “why” of live streaming. Live Streaming 102 discussed where to host your stream. This week’s installment will discuss some technical requirements for live streaming, but without diving in so deep that you get lost in the ones and zeros of the codec. By the end of this post, however, you should be armed with the basic skills and knowledge required to get a live stream up and running.

Site Preparation

The first thing any stream needs is a reliable, speedy internet connection. To simplify things, here is an internet checklist for your live streaming venue:

1. Get the WiFi/internet login information
2. While you’re at it, if applicable, get the contact info for the IT person or team
3. Get online and do a speed test (google “speed test” in a browser and use the google version)
4. Do a stream test

What matters most when it comes to internet speed for this application is the upload speed. This article has a great, in-depth description about live streaming and internet speeds. The gist is that higher quality streams carry more information (video resolution, audio bit depth) and thus need higher upload speeds.

Internet speed test

If you decide not to use mobile devices or WiFi (which inherently run more risks than a hard-wired connection), you should find an ethernet port and work with IT to make sure you have access. Some schools, companies, or public school venues have firewalls built in to their internet connections, so it’s important to learn about your venue and to make sure you can get to your streaming destination as described in the previous article.

Apart from the internet, it’s also important to test the lighting, sound, and proposed camera locations for your live stream. If you are working primarily with mobile devices, finding camera points close to the stage—but not blocking audience view—will likely be ideal. If you are working with external cameras and a separate encoder, you’ll want a room outside of the hall to run cables to, where your video team can talk freely, and where any computer keys or cooling fan noises (yes, this happened to me during this stream) will not distract from the performance.

iOS and Mobile Tech Camera Set Ups

For the beginner, starting with mobile technologies is the easiest way to go live. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube all have this option in their mobile apps. The resolution and FPS of recent smartphone cameras is high enough to make a nice looking video. You don’t even need the latest iPhone to stream in HD!

But there are two downfalls to streaming with a single mobile device. 1.) the variety of shot is nil. So make sure when you set your shot, it is up close and tightly framed, so your subjects are in clear view. 2.) research and listening suggests smartphone microphones are optimized for the human voice, not your music. So I recommend the addition of a smartphone microphone or compatible audio interface to connect your mics to.

Next, I will take you through some specific tech I have either used or researched with the help of some tech experts from Sweetwater. I have also included Amazon affiliate links where applicable, which will support New Music USA. (If you are shopping on Amazon, you might also consider using Amazon Smile to support their work.)

Mobile Tech Highlights: smartphone audio

Disclaimer: I have received no compensation in exchange for recommending any of the following products. I simply either have used the product itself or it seems well suited to the DIY Live Streaming specs I researched while planning these articles.

For mobile phone audio, I always recommend a microphone or an interface that can handle a stereo signal. Nothing sounds more natural than a stereo signal on a good microphone, I mean, we have two ears, right? There are piles of mono options, but I wouldn’t recommend any of these for live performance streaming.

Shure MV88: stereo mic with multiple patterns, gain control, etc.

Shure MV88

In my own work, I have been using this microphone and, over all, I am pleased. It plugs right into the lightning port of an iPhone, and it has piles of control options via its free app, Motiv Audio.

For zero hassle, this is a great option. It does require the phone to be set to “do not disturb” and “airplane mode” so that cell signals don’t interfere with the electronics. This is not hypothetical. Texts and calls do weird things to the recordings. WiFi can still work in this scenario.

Tascam iXR

Tascam iXR

During my research, I was looking for a two-channel interface that could work with mobile technology. Thanks to my friend and sales rep Vern at Sweetwater, we came up with two solid options. The Tascam was first on the list. The interface boasts connectivity to your iPhone or iPad directly via USB and the lightning port on your iOS device. With this option, you can use your favorite stereo mic pair and send your mobile device an excellent audio signal.

With interfaces, it is important to remember that they cannot charge your mobile devices. Make sure your devices are fully charged for live streaming!

Presonus AudioBox iTwo

Presonus AudioBox

Presonus also makes an iOS-compatible, two-channel interface. I have yet to try out this unit, but I do know that Presonus is an excellent company with great, affordable products. I once used an interface of theirs for ten years before I finally upgraded, and I was still able to resell the device! The iTwo interface is also iOS compatible and has overall better reviews than the Tascam.

Whichever way you go, make sure you talk to a sales rep about compatibility with your video device.

Switcher Go

I came across this app and subscription service during my research, and it is extremely appealing. For a relatively affordable monthly cost, you can use multiple iOS devices to create a multi-camera shoot. This is a pretty attractive option when you’re ready to take the next step and make your live stream productions look more professional by using multiple camera angles, but are not yet ready to invest piles of money into dedicated cameras, switchers, and computers or encoders.

The blog about Switcher Go explains the basic functions of their product. For $29 a month (just do a month at a time if you are not streaming every month), you have access to their software which allows you to connect as many as nine iPhone or iPads as external cameras, wirelessly. With a few friends (who have iPhones or iPads) and some mic stands and mounts, you can create a really professional looking multicam production with an external audio source and other cool abilities.

Stands and Mounts for Mobile Devices

With all of these mobile-based solutions, there are two things you cannot forget: a stand and a mount for your device. I recommend using a good tripod microphone stand with a boom arm, and a phone mount of your liking. (There are so many to choose from.)

My favorite microphone stand is the K&M Tripod microphone stand. I have personally used these for all sorts of applications, and they have never let me down. One of them is almost 15-years old.

There are so many accessories for mobile devices it’s almost obscene. My personal favorite device mount is the Accessory Basics, but I’ll trust that you can do your own homework. When choosing, consider the compatibility with the device, and also make sure the rear camera and the lightning port are accessible while mounted so you can plug in your external mic and still get a good shot. If you are using an iPad, the same considerations apply.

External Camera and Encoder Set Ups

If you are not inclined to use mobile technology, there are other ways to connect external cameras to encoder hardware or software, and then send that signal to a streaming platform. For the beginner, I find this more problematic as it typically requires a computer, more computing power, and—if you want a multi-camera shoot—more hardware.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t do it! As you do your research, just be aware of the cost concerns to get a signal similar to what you could get with a mobile device. External cameras sending video to a computer will also typically need external audio.

External Cameras and Encoder Highlights

Zoom Q2n (audio & video solution)

Zoom has been a long-time player in the mobile A/V world. The Zoom Q2n is a microphone stand-mountable camera and X/Y stereo microphone all-in-one. For a relatively low cost, you can have video and audio going to a computer for streaming via the HDMI out. As always, be wary of adapters if your computer is not already designed to accept an HDMI connection (which carries both video and audio).

Open Broadcaster Software (encoding software)

Some external cameras are able to connect to Facebook Live via the “create” link (as discussed in Livestreaming 102), but if they can’t, there is a simple and free solution. Open Broadcaster Software (OBS) is a great program for Mac and PC that allows you to take incoming video signals and broadcast them to a streaming platform such as YouTube or Facebook. Although it has a simple interface, OBS has many options for intake and output that make it a versatile and useful program. With OBS you can have multiple video sources, separate audio sources (if needed), graphics, and other media inserted into your stream. Please note that the higher the quality video you are working with, the greater processing power you will need from your computer.

Side note: as mentioned above when discussing the Zoom Q2n, some cameras will not simply send an HDMI signal directly into your computer. I encountered this when trying to send a GoPro HDMI signal to my 2012 MacBook. Without something like a Game Capture HDMI to USB 3.0, there is no way my MacBook would accept an HDMI signal. Not all camera/computer setups are like this, so it’s important to do your research.

Look for Future Tech

Since preparing my presentation on live streaming for the New Music Gathering, my Facebook has been bombarded with ads from companies trying to sell me live streaming hardware and software. We are definitely in the middle of a boom of new live streaming technologies, which is exciting. So before you commit to a specific system, see what is out there that might best fit your needs, budget, and existing equipment.

Test Everything, Then Test Again

I cannot stress enough the need to test all components of your stream before the day of the event. Make sure audio, video, internet connection, and the output to your specified platforms all works, because usually something will go wrong and you will need the reassurance that you had it working before! Here’s a simple checklist:

1. Test your internet connection and speed
2. Test audio and video sync, shots, and levels
3. Test the connection to your streaming host/platform
4. Test with an actual stream; make sure your audio sounds like your audio before it hits the internet, and your video is clear and not choppy!
5. Check all connections and settings again before the event

In my final article next week, I will discuss live streaming with collaborators (and how to think about building those relationships), best practices for use of your video post-stream, easy ways to achieve graphic overlays and title slides, licensing and copyright issues, and ways to build your live streaming audience.

But What I Really Want To Do Is Direct!

Music videos are everywhere: pop artists create videos designed to go viral and to sell albums. Budding directors often cut their teeth making music videos and big names like M. Night Shyamalan, Gus Van Sant, Diane Keaton, and even Martin Scorsese have directed music videos, seemingly for fun. (It is way fun.) Formidable artistry sometimes emerges from the genre, like Beyoncé’s ingenious all-video “visual album” Lemonade, with seven directors working on the project, including herself.

Technology is no longer a barrier (even a mobile phone will do) and musicians with far smaller budgets than mega-stars are making music videos. New music folks have found their way to the medium—from cinematic works like The Lotus Eaters by Sarah Kirkland Snider featuring Shara Nova and directed by Murat Eyuboglu; to James Moore’s stunning virtuosity in his rendition of John Zorn’s The Book of Heads: Etude 33, intimately filmed by Stephen Taylor. I’d love to see even more “new music” music videos out there. Our media-saturated culture is a perfect landscape for indie musicians’ videos, and websites and social media outlets are great ways to share and promote music and artistry.

My own music video obsession began with making sure my performance work was documented, and then I moved into creating my own stand-alone music videos. (Actually, it began even before then with wanting to be a rock star and growing up with MTV, but that’s another story.) My neighbor and friend, Raul Casares, is a pro director of photography and I inadvertently apprenticed myself to him a number of years ago as we began to film my performances and music videos together. He patiently stood by as I drove the creative direction of the projects. I was hooked: the creative possibilities meshed with my aesthetic sensibilities and my lifelong adoration of film. I also love the creative control of the medium.

Misha Penton and cast inside the Silos at Sawyer Yards, Houston, Texas.

Misha Penton and cast inside the Silos at Sawyer Yards, Houston, Texas.
L-R: Misha Penton, soprano & director. Neil Ellis Orts, Michael Walsh, Sherry Cheng, voices.
Photo by D. Nickerson.

Since the release of my first music video in 2013, my work in this area has grown significantly. I’ve directed and produced four others, advanced to doing some shooting, and am now finally editing the work myself, with the last two videos being experimental new music pieces for which I also created the sound scores.

Threshold is my latest music video excursion—a work which began as a live, site-specific postopera (as musicologist Jelena Novak might say) created for The Silos at Sawyer Yards in Houston: an enormous mid-20th century rice factory, now a space offered for artistic use. It’s a labyrinthine complex of silos with a many-second sonic delay.

During the rehearsal period for the Threshold live performance, I filmed just about everything we did, either with my iPhone, my heftier Canon DSLR, or both. The process videos, dress rehearsal, and live performance documentation created an archive of material to support the work while also serving as material for stand-alone pieces. Part of what drives me to video is the unrealistic, resource-gobbling nature of contemporary music’s (too often) one-off live performance model. Creating multi-form, many-versioned projects gives the work a longer shelf life.

In the early stages of planning Threshold, I knew I wanted to create a music video as the final version of the project. I’d worked similarly on several other pieces, creating music video versions of live performance works, and I like the longevity and archival nature of media. During the rehearsal period for Threshold, when we were in the Silos space, the music video was filmed. After the live performance, the recording process began, and those audio files became the raw material for the edit and mix I created for the film’s sound score (polished and mastered by Todd Hulslander). I approached the video similarly: after filming with Raul (and Dave Nickerson), I chose all my favorite clips and created the video, adding the sound score last.

After about a year and a half of work—from conception to live performance, and finally the music video version—I now consider the Threshold project complete:

Tips & Toolkits

A music video is simultaneously an art form and a promotional tool.

I work very intuitively, and I like to think I’m pretty resourceful. I often ask myself, “What do I have at my disposal, right now?” rather than “I need seven countertenors and a goat, or I cannot realize my creative genius!” Budget is always a looming consideration, but doing a lot of the work oneself will cut that down quickly. To diminish the financial demands of making media projects, increase your technical independence overall (more on that later) and be as inventive as possible: take advantage of natural light, use interesting outdoor locations, incorporate abstract elements, and think outside the box when it comes to production.

And never underestimate the power of your mobile phone.

In addition to making creative media projects, it’s also possible to get good live performance documentation (in an intimate venue) with a smartphone mounted to a tripod—and although the resolution isn’t quite as high as still photos, video screen captures or exporting still images from the film is possible. A number of major releases have been shot mostly on mobile phones—like Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015) and Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane (2018)—and many film festivals have categories for mobile phone (and music video) submissions. Enchant(ed) was made on my iPhone and filmed impromptu (and handheld) on a crazy-beautiful winter day in Colorado. (The voice-scape was created later in Logic Pro X.)

Although the arts are highly collaborative by nature, you should consider seeking grants or using resources to buy gear and software to become more self-sufficient—at least some of the time or as a choice—instead of using resources to pay for technical support to document projects or to realize creative media ideas. To put it plainly, instead of paying someone else to do it for you, invest in equipment over time and learn to use it. I’m one of those hardheaded, odd creatures who likes the experience of learning things on my own, so my tech skill set is largely self-taught. However, there are many options for upping technical expertise: local filmmaking and photography organizations usually offer classes, as do community colleges and continuing education departments at universities. Perhaps you have a friend or colleague who is into cameras and making films—as rock guitar icon Robert Fripp aphorized, “If we wish to know, breathe the air around someone who knows.”

There are many options when it comes to gear and software, and these tools effectively document live performance as well as realize creative media works.

Newbie Kit:

A smartphone and a tripod with a phone mount, and maybe one of those cool new gimbals from EVO (hand-held camera stabilizers). Many companies make clip-on lenses for mobile phones, like olloclip and AMIR. For live sound, something like a Zoom H4n is excellent.

Entry-Level DSLR Kit:

Canon EOS Rebel series or Sony Alpha a68. Both can be purchased bundled with an 18-55mm lens, plus you’ll need a tripod. I still use a Zoom H4n for live sound, so keep on keepin’ on with that little device.

Although a dedicated digital camera will increase quality and offer more creative flexibility, push your smartphone to its limit. I love my Canon dearly, but I recently upgraded to the iPhone X and it shoots gorgeous video with enhanced image stabilization.

Oh!—and for the love of all things sacred, always shoot in landscape and not portrait orientation: meaning, hold your phone horizontally so the image is wider than it is tall (like the wide rectangle of a computer, TV, movie screen, or proscenium stage). Also, keep your music videos under five minutes (don’t worry, I’ve broken that rule)—pop songs are usually around four minutes, so I say stick with broad audience appeal, and with the idea that a music video is simultaneously an art form and a promotional tool.

Video and Audio Editing Software:

Entry-level apps like iMovie (Mac) or Story Remix (PC) are pretty powerful. I’m Mac-based, but here’s one scoop on free PC video editing software. More powerful editing suites include Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere, and for audio editing I like Logic X, but there are many PC kin, some free. Home studio and pro audio recording options are beyond the scope of this article, but research recording resources in your area, like university studios or your local PBS affiliate.

External hard drives are essential because you will never have enough room for media on a laptop or on a standard computer set-up. I edited Threshold entirely on my late-2015 Macbook Air with an external hard drive (not ideal, but bless that little machine). Be forewarned: computer and external hard drives will fail at some point. Always back up full versions of your projects on two separate external drives.

I prefer Vimeo over YouTube as a distribution platform for my work because it’s ad-free, beautiful, and customizable. However, YouTube is free to use, while Vimeo charges a monthly fee for most of its plans (it does offer a free ‘Basic’ plan). Vimeo also has a number of technical advantages over YouTube, but if you’re just starting out, you may want to go with YouTube. Once your work develops in such a way that it benefits from a slick showcase, move to Vimeo.

And always credit collaborators. It’s surprising how many directors, filmmakers, and videographers are uncredited. Put all the credits and video info in the text below the video and not just at the beginning or end of the film itself. This text is search engine friendly.

My video work started when I got my first iPhone many years ago and my gear acquisition and skills built up over time. I am, by no means, a tech expert, but if you have a terrible aversion to gadgets and software, proceed with self-compassion and patience! Be resourceful, take baby steps, and make do: creativity best emerges within constraints.


The number of artists working in media is staggering, and the technical options range from guerilla filmmaking to extremely high-tech operations. Here are a few very cool artists whose work I find compelling that demonstrate this wide array of possibilities.

Jil Guyon is a performer and filmmaker whose surreal work, Widow_remix (trailer), is a collaborative project with composer Chris Becker and the voice of Helga Davis. Jil conceptualizes, directs, and edits, and Valerie Barnes is the cinematographer:

Zena Carlota’s ensemble piece, Lolow Kacha, features the kora, a traditional 21-string harp from West Africa, and was filmed in an intimate documentary-style by JJ Harris:

Nterini is a big budget music video by one of my favorite artists, Fatoumata Diawara, directed by Aida Muluneh with director of photography Daniel Girma:

And finally, animator, director, designer, and performer Miwa Matreyek composes music and collaborates with a number of musicians for her stunning multimedia live performances. Her website is a deep dive, so get comfy. Here’s a clip of her work, This World Made Itself:

Getting the Word Out

Beyond standard PR practices like social media posts, newsletters, press releases, and developing good relationships with arts writers in your community and beyond, submit your music videos to film festivals and find outlets to showcase and write about your work yourself. No one knows your work better than you. Blog about your video creation projects, trade guest posts with other writers in your area of interest, and always embed your video projects in posts.

Your website is another great way to showcase and organize work: performance history, videos, audio, and creative process writings. I love composer Caitlin Rowley’s vlogs. She is deeply honest and comprehensive about her approach. Her work with sound and performance, and her experiments with palimpsest-like hybrid journal / visual art is meticulous and fascinating. Soprano and artist-scholar Elisabeth Belgrano creates hypnotic and maze-like pages, and her iPhone and iPad voice recordings in Swedish churches and cathedrals are quite stunning. Interdisciplinary sound and performing artist Leona Jones, whose work centers “around a celebration of the hidden,” has organized her site beautifully with lots of headphone-friendly audio. My own work is organized in the Project section and Production Archives of my site.

Lastly, share the work with daring confidence: as the inimitable Dolly Parton is credited with saying, “Sometimes you just have to toot your own horn. Otherwise, nobody’ll know you’re a-comin’!”

Vireo, My Tenacious Muse

Having grown up in a house full of composers, I hit my college years with a heavy dose of curiosity about what else lay out there besides new music. At Yale, I was not required to declare a major right away, and I took many courses in music while also falling slowly and deeply in love with the literature major. It was 1986, the heyday of American poststructuralism, and – unlike the composition faculty – the department’s pantheon of literary theory superstars was strikingly diverse: Harold Bloom (father of the Theory of Originality), Shoshana Felman (French-Israeli feminist deconstructionist), bell hooks a.k.a. Gloria Watkins (proto-postcolonial poet and theorist), and pioneer queer theorist (and nascent opera librettist) Wayne Koestenbaum. It was rigorous and nerdy and glamorous all at once. I was hooked.

Eventually, much to the chagrin of my music professors and some of my family members, I left the music major behind, thinking perhaps that I was turning my back on the “family business.” I embarked on a massive senior thesis in the literature major, with Wayne Koestenbaum as my advisor, entitled “Signed, Sealed and Delivered: Originality, closure and reproduction in the collaborative discourses of psychoanalytic hysteria and Surrealism.” Here is a bit of nostalgia: a paragraph from my dot-matrix prospectus in 1990 that articulates, for the first time, a phenomenon in Western cultural history that ended up haunting me for the next 27 years:


Here are some images used in my essay and in the research for Vireo:


Painting: Une leçon clinique à la Salpêtrière. Pierre Aristide André Brouillet, 1887
Dr. Jean Martin Charcot, Parisian neurologist, demonstrates the symptoms of hysteria for a roomful of male students. Charcot was Freud’s teacher.


Le Cinquantenaire de l’hysterie
Louis Aragon, André Bréton
1928: The Surrealists celebrated “The 50th Birthday of Hysteria” as “the most important poetic discovery of the 19th century,” with images of Dr. Charcot’s patients

Little did I know that this discovery was the seed of what would later become my most ambitious compositional endeavor: Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser.

Stream Vireo: The Spiritual Biography of a Witch’s Accuser on-demand at KCET.org.

I got an A on the essay, I graduated, and I disappointed my literature professors (there is a pattern here perhaps) by not going on to graduate work in comp lit but moving to New York City to couch surf, audition for singing work, and write music. I became the vocalist in the Philip Glass Ensemble and went on the 1992 world tour of Einstein on the Beach. But all the while I also kept reading and reading, about these girls whose fits and starts were the subject of assiduous study by groups of ministers and magistrates in Colonial America, priests in 15th-century Italy, neurologists during the Great War. My essay had focused primarily on psychoanalysis and surrealism, but my fascination with these visionary women continued and the scope of my research expanded. My library grew. Today my bookcase dedicated to this area of inquiry is bursting with wide-ranging works from multiple disciplines and centuries:


In 1993 I was accepted into a two-week program at New Dramatists in NYC called the Composer-Librettist Studio. Four composers and four playwrights created new opera/music theater scenes in a compressed round-robin workshop environment, and brave singers sight-read these scene-lets into being. One of the playwrights was Erik Ehn, whose writing seemed to trigger something in me that made the music write itself. I was in love with his writing, and so I approached him at the end of the session and asked him, with sweaty cold palms, if he would consider working with me on something bigger. I felt like I was asking him to the prom.

We began corresponding, mostly by fax, and I started to send him hefty packages of source materials from my research into young visionary women and the male authority figures who used these girls’ visions and behaviors as proof of their own various theories.


In a rush of dot-matrix pages came the first draft of a libretto for a traditional opera about a young girl named Vireo: “A fourteen year old girl genius. Lives in the 16th century, born in the 19th, does forward roll into the 20th.”


Erik had integrated and assimilated this vastness of source material and created one girl. And on page 29 of this libretto draft, she sang an aria called “The Bat” that seized me immediately:

The Bat.

(Vireo alone in a dark cell, walking circuits. At first she bumps into chair, bed, bucket… but gradually grows accustomed.)


In the morning in my house
Before it’s light
I can walk as if the light
Were shining through our
High windows

If in the dark a chair has moved
I can move around it
I know the room so well
There is no out of place

I am not out of place in a jail cell
I close my eyes and cross to make
A breakfast fire
I remember very well and
Solitary suits me
Decorative as a memory

(To the dark, speaking.)
How well do you remember? Are you going to stop?

Here is the very first sketch of music for Vireo from 1993. This eventually became the aria that opens Episode 9 – Alcatraz:


My own singing voice was still very young then, and when we went into the studio to record the few songs and arias that I created in that first year, I sang the title role myself, with a variety of archaic sampled instruments accompanying me. This was a cutting-edge MIDI demo in 1994!

The Bat 1994 Demo Recording

Erik and I revised. I kept composing. We went into the studio again. We created packets with synopsis, budgets, and cassette tape work samples (with baritone Gregory Purnhagen as The Doctor, a role he would develop further with terrifying precision 20 years later). I applied for every grant I could find. I sent packages to every opera company in the country, with a letter of support from the then-president of the board of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, of which I was an alumna. The SFGC had given me my first performances and my first two commissions, and they took special interest as I began work on this ambitious undertaking.


I followed up my mass-mailings with phone calls, leaving message after message. But I was just 25 years old and had almost no track record of professional performances of my music. A few kind souls offered bland encouragement; most simply ignored us. After a year and a half of dedicated partnership-seeking, it was clear that Vireo was not finding a home. It wasn’t her time.

I told Erik that I couldn’t foresee any project of this size happening before I built a professional life from the ground up. I felt we needed to shelve Vireo for the time being. He and I both undertook other creative endeavors, sometimes in collaboration on smaller-scale projects. Many years passed, during which time I wrote many, many hours of music – solo, chamber, orchestral, chamber opera, and music theater. Commissions and opportunities grew, and slowly the scale of my projects ramped up. I created massive public-space works for up to 800 professional, amateur, and student musicians. My community of collaborator colleagues grew and deepened: Kronos Quartet, American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), Alarm Will Sound, cellist Joshua Roman, violinist Jennifer Koh – these musical friendships sparked with possibility.

In all this time, the two years of sketches I made for Vireo lay largely untouched. Correspondence, research, grant applications, and drafts were boxed up. Life took its twists and turns; the box and I moved from the Bronx to Queens, then from Queens to Manhattan. I never “mined” these musical materials for other works, but I always felt their presence at the back of my mind.

The internet came to be. Collaborations unfolded over email instead of fax. Research exploded online, rendering my weeks buried in the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale a kind of nostalgic curiosity. In 2009 I made a simple setting of “The Bat” aria for solo English horn, for a series of 15 short works I wrote, each bearing a six-word title. I titled it “I Know This Room So Well.” Vireo was coming back into my consciousness. The remounting of Einstein on the Beach found director Charles Otte, who had been Robert Wilson’s assistant director in 1992, and me back on the road together again, talking about new opera, film, and new media on the bus. In 2013 I became the artistic director of the San Francisco Girls Chorus, bringing my artistic focus back to the voices of exceptional young women.

Meanwhile, I had started exploring new project ideas as artist-in-residence with the Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana. GCAC’s Chief Curator and ED John Spiak introduced me to a wide range of potential partners to help generate ideas for how I might make work that could catalyze new relationships in Southern California. He introduced me to Juan Devis, chief creative officer of KCET in LA, and Maria Lazarova, then director of the Classical Voice Conservatory of the Orange County School of the Arts, one of the premier public charter arts schools in the nation. A coin dropped in my mind – here was a school full of young women with superb classical voice training. Maybe Vireo was here! And KCET was at the forefront of arts streaming programming. What if we made a TV/internet series that was an opera? What if that opera was Vireo?!

Things moved forward very fast then. Kronos wanted the pilot. KCET signed on as a partner. Charlie Otte brought a visionary concept and design. The box came down from off of my top shelf, and I excavated.


A page from “The Box”: from Draft 1 of the libretto, with notes scribbled during a collaborative meeting between Erik & me in 1994.

It was like seeing the work of a student – a student full of promise but also in way over her head – and yet this student was a younger me. All of the musical ideas felt familiar yet strangely distant. Major structural reworking of the libretto ensued, to embrace the new episodic format. I sifted through the original musical sketches and discovered that I had taken at least a cursory stab at melodic or harmonic material for slightly less than half of the opera. Sometimes I just kept the essence – a harmonic color, a certain phrase, a rhythmic figuration – and other times I started over.


I lifted this one phrase out of early sketches. From it grew the whole “Birth of Caroline” scene in Episode 6, in which you can hear this exact phrase in a whole different setting.

In a few cases, like “The Bat,” I revised only lightly and honored the original. I let the obsessive energy of my earlier self inhabit me, and I felt the power of 20+ years of experience serving to bring the piece to its deserved epic scale. And I let the prodigious gifts of young Rowen Sabala, just 16 years old and a junior at OCSA, breathe new life and inspiration into the role of Vireo.

I would never have dreamed, back in 1990 as a literature major at Yale, or in 1993 when I spent so many months back and forth between the fax machine and the piano, that Vireo would eventually find such complete fulfillment. Now, 350 cast members and musicians, 400+ participants including designers and crew, 12 episodes and over 250,000 viewers later, I feel a certain wonder at the delicate thread that kept the project alive in the back of my mind, in a box at the back of my closet, for so many years. Its protracted latency period gave Vireo the opportunity to feed off of many life lessons, relationships and maturations. Her metamorphosis is complete.

Kronos Quartet with composer Lisa Bielawa

Kronos Quartet with composer Lisa Bielawa
Photo by Remsen Allard

We Need More (On-Demand) Films of New Operas

met catalog

Screen shot of Met Opera on Demand subscription offerings.

Every now and then, I like to daydream about a question that’s essentially a variation on the more universal “What if I won the lottery?”: What if I had a foundation? Where might I direct the plentiful resources of my hypothetical endowment? Near the top of my fantastical list of grant programs is this wish: to support the creation and distribution of high-quality films of contemporary operas.

Making more live films of new and recent operas, and making those films readily available to the public, might be much more important to the future of opera than is currently appreciated. It could create new audiences for live opera, give long-term life to contemporary works, and enable young and emerging composers, librettists, and performers to become more aware of the state of the art. Leveraging streaming video on demand, whether through subscription, pay-per-rent, or ad-based platforms (or some combination thereof), is one strategy that could be particularly effective at removing some major barriers to experiencing new operas, both for new audiences and opera devotees who lack access to live performances.

Sadly, I do not have my very own foundation for the arts. Furthermore, I don’t claim to have any special solutions to the logistical, financial, and legal complexities of producing, licensing, and distributing films of operas. Even so, I believe such hurdles will need to be tackled and overcome—for the love of opera.

Barriers to Access

As a young composer starting out in opera—I’m currently in America Opera Projects’ wonderful Composers & the Voice fellowship program—attempting to become reasonably knowledgeable about prominent work being done in the field has led me to many impasses. Surely I’m not unusual in lacking the resources to travel around the country (or the world) to see notable productions, or even to buy tickets to more than a handful of the productions occurring in New York City, where I’m fortunate to live. As such, I’m frequently frustrated by the lack of films available of stage productions of new and recent works.

I cite my personal circumstances only to illustrate a universal problem. For anyone out there who does not happen to live near an opera company that frequently stages quality productions of new operas, or does not have the resources to attend more than a couple performances each season and/or take the risk of attending a performance they don’t already know much about (e.g. seeing a favorite performer or favorite work), the barriers to experiencing the best of contemporary opera are, at present, much too high for too many people—be they opera novices or opera nerds.

The Value of Video on Demand

The problem I’m contemplating is not solely a matter of documenting the work on video (important in its own right) and making it commercially available in some form (such as on DVD or via movie theater broadcasts), but also making video highly accessible. This is true for operas in general, but especially true for contemporary operas: First, because the future development of opera depends on the circulation of new work. Second, because any new opera lacks the widespread reputation of canonical repertoire and its future may be dependent on the impression made with its first production(s). A well-produced, well-distributed film of a new opera could make a big difference to the life of that work.

According to Nielsen’s most recent Total Audience Report, 45% of U.S. households subscribe to streaming video on-demand services. Consumption of video on PC, smartphone, and tablet is increasing steadily: 2015 showed a 19% growth over 2014. Teens and younger adults appear to be the biggest consumers of digital video: to cite just one statistic, 18- to 24-year olds spent 72% more time per month watching video on a PC than 50- to 64-year olds. Trends in sales also indicate the overall shift in the home entertainment landscape towards digital and streaming: The Digital Entertainment Group’s report for 2014 stated that, while DVD and Blu-ray Disc sales continued to be the primary revenue stream, income from discs (both sales and rentals) has gone down markedly as digital movie sales and subscription streaming are continuing to experience huge growth (showing an increase of 30% and 25.8%, respectively, between 2013 and 2014).

Recordings cannot and should not replace live performances, but that’s true no matter what medium of video is being discussed (online streaming, DVD, live simulcast, etc.). Given the on-demand convenience and wide availability of mass quantities of streaming video of all kinds via subscription and ad-based services, opera—like many other performing arts—is at a major disadvantage in vying for the attention of even very enlightened media consumers if it does not begin to leverage current and expanding forms of distribution more extensively.

Jake Heggie’s <em>Moby-Dick</em>

Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick at the San Francisco Opera (Great Performances, PBS) is one of a handful of films of contemporary operas currently available via streaming video on demand. (Source)

Current Availability

In 2012, the Metropolitan Opera launched Met Opera on Demand, a subscription streaming service for PC and mobile, with a subsequent release supporting streaming on home TV via Samsung Smart TV or Roku (the most compelling platform for this service, in my opinion, assuming your TV has a bigger screen and better speakers than your PC or mobile device). High-quality films of live operas, including and predating live simulcasts from the Met, have never been more widely accessible. Note that $14.99/month for unlimited access is an exceptionally high price tag compared to other streaming video services (especially considering that the Met also offers a comparatively small video library: while boasting 550 full-length performances, at last count that list encompassed videos of 108 unique operas or opera-related programs, not including multiple productions of the same opera or audio-only recordings). However, this is very affordable when compared to the cost of opera tickets or purchasing DVDs.

Met Opera on Demand is an exciting model, prime for future development. Unfortunately, the last time I checked the selection of operas by living composers available through the Met Opera’s library, they were disappointingly few: The First Emperor by Tan Dun, Doctor Atomic and Nixon in China by John Adams, The Tempest by Thomas Adès, and The Ghosts of Versailles by John Corigliano. (Of course, there are only so many contemporary operas being produced or filmed at the Met that would be possible to include. But that’s a subject for an entirely different column!) Notably, Nico Muhly’s recent Two Boys is absent from this list.

Aside from Met Opera on Demand and the occasional full-length video on YouTube (usually of dubious legitimacy), there are several sources for streaming opera videos on demand. However, they feature smaller libraries—typically a rotating selection, in coordination with the current or recent season—and one or two contemporary works at most. Such libraries include Teatro Real, Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall (mostly un-staged, concert performances), Stream Opera, Viener Staatsoper, The Opera Platform, and PBS’s Great Performances.

Imagine the possible impact of a subscription streaming service that included a substantial library of contemporary operas—ideally, aggregated across multiple opera companies to offer quantity and variety. How might such a service expand audiences for new opera? Generate interest in staging new productions of existing works? Further the artistic development of this field, in which even composers and librettists only rarely have opportunities to see the master works of our age?

Certainly, there are some more fundamental, underlying problems with the current situation—it’s challenging even to find a prominent place for new works on our opera stages and in our culture, never mind our streaming video websites—and yet, films are not being made (or being publicly distributed) of even the full range of new operas that are actively being commissioned, developed, and produced by professional opera companies across the country. As I learn more about current operas, I find it increasingly disappointing to have no opportunities to see films of many operas written by prominent American composers. Where are the DVDs or streaming videos of Missy Mazzoli’s Song from the Uproar? Christopher Theofanidis’s Heart of a Soldier or The Refuge? Ricky Ian Gordon’s many operas?

By contrast, Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick was filmed for PBS’s Great Performances and is currently available via streaming video on the web and connected TVs. From the consumer’s perspective, this is a dream come true: it’s available on demand, in your home, for free. Assuming you have an internet-connected device, the barrier to entry is no greater than the amount of time it takes to actually watch the opera. Kevin Puts’s Silent Night was also broadcast on Great Performances and was previously available on demand for a temporary period. This film appears to no longer be available from any source, free or paid.

How is it that an opera can win the Pulitzer Prize, receive a production by one of the country’s largest opera companies (Minnesota Opera), and be filmed and broadcast on public media—a triumph by any measure—and yet the public cannot presently access this film through any medium? There are likely complex legal or economic reasons behind this, but the outcome is a missed opportunity for audiences and opera-makers alike.

RighteousGIRLS Release gathering blue

RighteousGIRLS is the New York-based duo of flutist Gina Izzo and pianist Erika Dohi. Their debut album, gathering blue (New Focus Recordings), was released today and features compositions by various contemporary/classical and jazz artists including Andy Akiho, Ambrose Akinmusire, Pascal Le Boeuf, Christian Carey, Vijay Iyer, Dave Molk, Mike Perdue, Jonathan Ragonese, and Randy Woolf. The project was funded in part by New Music USA.

Emily Bookwalter: This album seems like a huge undertaking; there is such a wide variety of artists represented, each with their own unique aesthetic and musicality that you’ve managed to capture so convincingly. To what extent did these artistic differences affect your creative process in putting this all together? For example: Was there a lot of improvisation in some of the works that required working more directly with those composers over extensive periods of time? Or with the walls between genres disappearing more and more, did you find that all the works, for example, had elements of improvisation?

Gina Izzo: When Erika Dohi and I first talked about recording an album together back in 2013, we had already been performing as a duo for about three years and wanted to document that—but were in a sort of musical transition. At the time, we had been thinking a lot about the downtown music community in New York City and were actively going to concerts and listening to a lot of different styles. Through this experience, we have developed a unified language as a duo—one that emerged from our curiosity with sound, improvisation, and live/recorded music. The artists we discovered during this time are those we approached for gathering blue.

Although the artists featured on this project come from different backgrounds, we chose to collaborate because we share similar musical values. It was a privilege to work closely with these composers/peformers, and it allowed us to shape each work and to better understand each piece. There is a common thread, a feeling, that links the music allowing a piece like Ambrose Akinmusire’s Anzu, Christian Carey’s For Milton, and Vijay Iyer’s Accumulated Gestures to work in context with each other.

gathering blue has thirteen tracks (a mix of notated and improvised music) and three guest artists—Andy Akiho, Ambrose Akinmusire, and Justin Brown—who play with us in improvised trio settings. Through a series of postproduction interludes linking disparate pieces, the complete album has a continuous flow. Each interlude developed by composer/producer Pascal Le Boeuf, is derived from material pulled from throughout the album (compositions, improvisation, outtakes). You’ll hear parts of Justin Brown’s improv from Iyer’s Accumulated Gestures in the intro to our opening track GIRLS, and parts of the improvised steel-pan on Akiho’s KARakurENAI used in the interlude Robe Threader, while …Out of the Blue, which closes the album, is actually Robe Threader with the audio reversed. These interludes allowed us to reconstruct, improvise, and pull from our experience on each piece, threading together the individual voices.

Emily Bookwalter: gathering blue is your debut album and includes nine (!) commissioned works. Did you feel that this was a huge risk—to not only commission but then to permanently document an entire album of unknown music? Or did this bold first statement seem like a natural course for RighteousGIRLS?

Gina Izzo: For me, the album was more a sweep of personal discovery than a risk—a metaphor about our gathering of colors and weaving them together to represent a collage of our musical values.

The album is titled after the Lois Lowry novel, gathering blue. I read this novel at a young age and came back to it later in life with a different perspective of what it might mean to “gather blue.” I don’t feel that either of us set out to do anything “bold” on this album—we don’t really approach music in that way—but rather, to reflect our development and identity as an ensemble. Over the five years Erika and I have been performing together, this seemed to be a rather natural course for our first album—and although the nature of the project is risky, the quality of the artists and their contributions was always a solid conviction.

Emily Bookwalter: RighteousGIRLS is a fantastic example of the genrelessness we’re beginning to experience within new music. You’re hardcore improvisers with classical training, and you regularly call on the traditions of jazz, classical, world music, and beyond. But how do you define yourselves as musicians? How did you choose this path?

Erika Dohi: Living in New York City for the last ten years has exposed us to various genres of music. We both go to tons of shows, some featuring new musicians we’ve heard about, and others where our friends are involved.

Music scenes can change quickly, and we like to be there to notice what’s changing, how, and why. That can affect our own musical direction. We feel extremely lucky to be in the middle of a rapidly transforming artistic environment where audiences are constantly being challenged.

Speaking of my own experience, I found a kind of genrelessness at The Stone, one of my favorite venues. A personal change for me was hearing [Vijay Iyer’s] Fieldwork for the first time there. I had never heard anything like it. Something about the unusual texture, rhythmic complexity, and incredible subtlety of their collaboration inspired me greatly. It didn’t seem to fall into any particular category of music that I had heard before. Hearing Jason Moran and Tyshawn Sorey play free improv at The Stone was also a turning point for me. I think that was the first time I experienced “free improv.” I heard these shows when I was just a freshman at the Manhattan School of Music. They changed my life. It was fascinating for me to discover a sound that could not be labeled.

It’s also important for us to know what’s “hot.” Even if our music doesn’t follow what’s trending, we like to be aware.

Our music has changed a lot since we formed the duo back in 2010. It continues to evolve, and we’re evolving in our own ways as individual musicians, too. I can’t think of a way to label our music, although of course there are elements of jazz, classical, more free improvisation, etc. We try to never limit ourselves. We want to keep growing.

Emily Bookwalter: You’ve performed and will no doubt continue to perform in a variety of styles and venues around the country. What have some of the biggest rewards and challenges been thus far in your music-making? How do you feel your unique voice has been received?

Erika Dohi: We’re challenged constantly. I’ve had some opportunities to play in more specifically “jazz” settings through saxophonist Brad Linde and the Bohemian Caverns Jazz Orchestra in Washington D.C. At these gigs I would read off chord charts, which I wasn’t really comfortable doing. I just hadn’t had that training. Count Basie and Duke Ellington tunes actually scared me. There’s a style and feel, and it takes time to own that. They’d call out rhythm changes on every gig and I’d improvise over them, too.

It really is the scariest thing, when you’re put on the spot, on stage, to play in a way you’re not used to, or play in a style you’ve never tried. But it pushes me to confront and get rid of that discomfort, and to see through a different musical lens. That kind of experience is so important for growth.

We ask a similar kind of bravery from our audiences, who can face the discomfort of hearing sounds they might not be accustomed to. For Gina and I, programming is extremely important. Our shows tend to have a variety of types of music. We like to program more tonal, accessible music that can be more easily understood, alongside more complex, dissonant works that might disturb or challenge the listener. We’ve gotten very positive results. I love when we get to introduce new music to completely unfamiliar audiences who end up really enjoying the more challenging stuff. We hope to always play for open-minded audiences who are ready for anything. gathering blue is a good example of how we program.

In the Darkness: The Glowing Sound of a Wild Rumpus

VIDEO PREMIERE! The night before its first public performance, Wild Rumpus gathered in a California church and made a video for Nick Vasallo’s The Moment Before Death Stretches on Forever, Like an Ocean of Time…. Vasallo had this to say about the making-of:

Composing for a new music group is a challenging endeavor. One strives to write something musically inventive, or technically challenging, perhaps contextually relevant, or socially aware, and maybe esoteric…sometimes all the above! Lately I have been really trying to separate any expectations or presumptions and just write in the most direct manner I possibly can to get the aural result that I want. I think the first step to this is trust. Wild Rumpus is a wonderful collection of talented Bay Area new music performers. I knew I could (and needed to) trust them to interpret my music and make it their own.

Another approach I have been using lately is finding the title of a work before deciding what the music will be. The title for this piece, The Moment Before Death Stretches on Forever, Like an Ocean of Time…, is loosely adapted from one of the last lines of the movie American Beauty. I began thinking: what if I took a moment, an energy, and let it grow as organically as I could into a huge moment, and then stretched that moment out? To do this I needed to change time perception continuously, from one range to another, from a rhythm into a pitch, or a tone or a noise into a formal structure. I also decided early on to compose the music entirely using duration, so the performers would use a timer to follow the music. This approach probes into the nature of duration itself, particularly as it relates to human experience. I needed to convey that the dynamic of duration is not only change but growth through change. When the brain receives a lot of new information, it takes a while to process it all. The longer this takes, the longer that period of time feels. Reciprocally, time seems to move faster if there is less to process even if the same amount of time has transpired. With this piece I didn’t want to merely stretch out sound to make it seem like a long time, but I wanted to play with the cognitive process. Most of this was empirical and intuitive, myself being the guinea pig. It is fascinating hearing how others perceive time in this piece. People I’ve spoken to tell me the first five minutes feels like only a few, perhaps due to the complex sonorities occurring. And I build up to these moments with extreme simplicity so there is a continuous change in time perception.

After composing the full score using an Excel spreadsheet and a stopwatch, I began writing out each part. It was like writing a story from the perspective of each individual character (musician) using the global narration (score) as a guide. Each performer’s part had a timeline on the left side of the page and musical indications on the right. For the first reading all the musicians took out their smart phones and pressed a timer at the same time. Nathaniel Berman, Wild Rumpus’s conductor, merely counted off the moment for the performers to press start on their phones. Thankfully, Sean Dougall (the talented husband of Wild Rumpus’ Co-Director Jen Wang) coded a clever full screen timer that the entire group could follow on a laptop. So, now the laptop is the conductor.

The night before the world premiere at Composers, Inc.’s annual !BAMM! 2015 concert, all the members of Wild Rumpus, audio engineer Zach Miley, videographer Taylor Joshua Rankin, and I went into a dark, cold church in Oakland, California, and recorded The Moment Before Death Stretches on Forever, Like an Ocean of Time… into the wee hours of the night. This video is the result of the entire process. So, go into a quiet and dark place, turn the volume up, and enjoy!

Viewing Party: An Artist Profile Highlight Reel

With all the serious reflection that’s been going on around here of late, it seemed like it was time to pop some popcorn and re-watch a few of the mini artist documentaries NewMusicBox has produced. Since we started uploading to Vimeo in 2011, these have been some of your favorites.

Want to keep watching? Browse the full collection here.

Behind these videos are hours and hours of interview footage which was transcribed and published on the pages of NewMusicBox. Nowhere else on the internet will you find this level of in-depth journalism covering the field of new American music. Help us continue this work by making a gift to celebrate 15 years of NewMusicBox today!

Visual Enhancements

Over the past week, I’ve been acclimating myself to the great green north again as I begin my third summer teaching composition at the Interlochen Summer Arts Camp in Interlochen, Michigan. Not only does this adventure give me the opportunity to advise some very talented students and collaborate with many top-notch performers from around the country, but I get to work with several composer colleagues who never fail to inspire. Whether it’s a discussion over plastic trays laden with that day’s lunch, a presentation to the studio in our Composition Techniques class, or late-night musings over IPAs and bourbon, these interactions are a never-ending source of provoked thought, re-evaluation, and outright discovery.

One perfect example of this occurred earlier this week when the four composition faculty—returning veteran Robert Brownlow, first-year faculty N. Lincoln Hanks and Jonathan Newman, and myself—presented examples of our own work to our studio of 18 student composers. Newman, with a bit o’ flair for the dramatic, concluded our presentation with a brief but very effective demonstration of how the combination of a quality recording and basic video technology (i.e. iMovie) can be used to introduce a new work to conductors, performers, and gobsmacked campers.

Score video of Blow It Up, Start Again by Jonathan Newman, performed by the Florida State University Wind Orchestra under the direction of Richard Clary

Newman explained later that he had been inspired by the jazz composer Tim Davies, who had created several score videos for his big band works (see below), and decided that it could be a useful and eye-catching tool to generate interest in his newly transcribed piece. (Blow It Up, Start Again was originally written for the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra in 2011 and transcribed for wind ensemble the following year.) Davies’s Quicktime videos are more simplistic, displaying the full pages as the recording plays along, but they are also still very effective.

Score video of Counting to Infinity by Tim Davies, performed by the Tim Davies Big Band

Each of these videos allow the viewer to digest the music they’re hearing in different ways. Davies’s videos let the eye meander over the entire score page with little attention to detail, since the image is relatively small. Newman, on the other hand, only shows you what he wants to show you but in much greater detail. In both instances, however, it’s difficult to not be affected by the video as you listen to the music. The visual stimulation is strong for those who can read the scores, and aspects of the pieces that may have been glossed over in a purely aural setting are sharply enhanced.

Neither of the videos mentioned above are intended to be part of the artistic presentation; they were made primarily with the hope that conductors and performers would enjoy the work enough to purchase and perform it. Of course, these aren’t the only examples of composers using video to enhance their music. The incorporation of video as part of the creative process is slowly becoming a new and important aspect of new music in general. From Michel Van der Aa’s groundbreaking work, including his Grawemeyer Prize-winning cello concerto Up-Close and his new 3D film-opera Sunken Garden, to Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir projects which incorporate social media and crowdsourcing concepts to an extent that could not have been imagined only ten years ago, composers are exploring how video can be used in the creation, performance, and dissemination of their music. As technology becomes even more pliant and simple to use, we’re only going to see more innovations in this area in the years ahead.

Sounds Heard: Common Eider, King Eider—Sense of Place

It was hard not to reflect on Andy Doe’s record industry analysis while sorting through CDs this week, particularly the suggestion that “if a record isn’t unique, it shouldn’t have been made.”

There are plenty of unique albums out there, of course, but San Francisco-based Common Eider, King Eider’s Sense of Place is a particular standout in this regard. The physical product is actually a paired DVD and CD, the audio tracks included on each designed to be played simultaneously while footage documenting the building of a small cabin in Alaska fills the screen. The set also includes a 56-page softcover book almost exclusively devoted to images from that same Alaskan construction project, but also including a poem by Ben Chasny that might be a meditation on the merits of building a hut of one’s own, an outline of the genesis of the album (it almost reads like a score for the piece), or perhaps an even broader reflection on place and dreaming. Regardless, its admonishment that “one should always have a well built hut to keep an eye on the horizon” neatly compliments the piece contained on the discs in the separate folded paper packet.

It’s also where the words end, though in a sense the entire bundle taken together could be taken as more of a short story spare on words than a straight-up album. The unusual packaging of the project lends an air of mystery to the proceedings, like receiving keys and a map to an adventure of unknown parameters ahead.

While this is the first piece by Common Eider, King Eider that I’ve experienced, a perusal of their back catalog on their new website shows a deep affection for spare orchestration, slow evolution, amplified quiet. In Sense of Place, the ensemble (Rob Fisk, Blaine Todd, and Vicky Fong) keeps to that aesthetic, mixing an ambient score of male and female wordless vocal tones and whispers over a bed of distant organ drone, the character more ancient and haunted than necessarily delicate. The voices echo, sometimes muffled—frozen spirits calling across the snow-covered landscape as the images capture three people erecting a shelter among the trees.

The dual tracks (each emphasizes and/or compliments different parts of the mix as the work ebbs and flows) must each be started by the listener, make the recording alive in some sense, the slight variation possible lending an impermanent quality to each performance.

I will concede that visually, I wasn’t much of a fan of the work at first. The shaky, home-movie character disappointed me initially. It wasn’t beautiful in the way I was expecting it to be beautiful. On subsequent viewings however, my opinion did a 180, the style adding a kind of visual timbre to the piece and carving an additional interesting facet into this unusual travelogue. While the music moans closely to the ear, visually the audience is kept at arm’s length, observing either the very practical and rough ordinariness of building or catching glimpses of the landscape, the sun reflecting across vast expanses of crisp snow bed, mountains visible in the distance. As the piece moves towards its conclusion, I experienced a nervous tension in the isolated landscape. It was a relief whenever a person would appear in the frame.

Yet in the end, there is a fire going, a finished cabin, a shelter made—and, ultimately, an album constructed that’s part postcard and part poetry.

Test of Time

Paradoxically, the less free time I’ve had in recent years, the more fascinated I have become with works of art that require an extraordinary time commitment in order to be appreciated. I’m hopelessly attracted to musical compositions involving durational extremities (like La Monte Young’s The Well-Tuned Piano), time-based art installations (like the work of Marina Abramović), and extremely long novels (like David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest or Mathias Énard’s Zone, even though I still need to figure out a way to actually finish reading the latter). Even further afield from temporal practicality, I’m completely enamored with the idea of works that last 24 hours, because the concept of filling an entire day with a work of art seems like a magical and extremely beautiful proposition. Eventually I would love to create something this long myself, something that would be constructed to parallel the details of a specific day—sunrise, sunset, rush hour, sleep, etc. That said, I have yet to experience any 24-hour piece and I am not completely sure how I would do so. Time constraints aside, there are some other basic issues that would require planning and navigating around, not the least of which are such mundane matters as physical stamina, dealing with hunger, and other bodily functions.


Anticipating noon was one of the highlights of my own experience of The Clock. Christian Marclay, Installation view of The Clock, 2010; Single-channel video with sound; 24 hours; White Cube Mason’s Yard, London, October 15-November 13, 2010. Photo Todd-White Photography © Christian Marclay. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York and White Cube, London.

Therefore I was extremely excited by the prospect of finally experiencing Christian Marclay’s The Clock last week, although to describe it as a 24-hour work of art—as publications including The New York Times and The Guardian have done—is a bit of a misnomer. Although the work consists of a total of exactly 24 hours of unique content, a mash-up plundered from literally thousands of film and television segments in which the exact time of the day is depicted (either visually—e.g. an image of an actual clock—or in spoken dialog), it is a seamless loop that hypothetically could repeat in perpetuity. (A crew is required to ensure that the video is always completely in sync with the exact time in whatever location The Clock is presented in.) “There is no beginning and no end,” according to Marclay, who addressed a press conference in New York City on July 12 prior to the private press viewing of The Clock at NYC’s David Rubinstein Atrium. As part of the 2012 Lincoln Center Festival, The Clock opened to the general public on Friday, July 13 and it will remain open and free through August 1. Although closed on Mondays and only open from 8:00am to 10:00pm from Tuesdays through Thursdays, it will run continuously from 8:00am on Friday morning to 10:00pm Sunday night which offers folks the possibility of experiencing at least two complete cycles of it uninterrupted.

However, Marclay does not expect anyone to sit through The Clock for a full 24 hours; he admitted that he himself has never done so when I asked him if he had. (I had to ask.) “It is not an endurance test,” he explained. Rather, unlike cinema, which he adamantly proclaimed The Clock is not, it is designed for people to come and go as they desire. The audience members themselves determine how much of it they want to experience, and any chosen time frame is theoretically an equally valid experience of the piece. But as an audience member, I find being given that much liberty somewhat unsettling. If somebody has created something and I decide to experience it, I feel I have an obligation to endure all of it; to me it is part of the social contract of being an audience member. I never walk out during a concert, I always try to see every work that is part of an exhibition, and I invariably finish books once I start reading them, even books which are ultimately not fulfilling—often I will appreciate a book only once I’ve completed reading it. Admittedly, sometimes experiencing an entire work is not feasible or even possible. I was a bystander to Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present (a performance art installation in which individual audience members sit across a table from a silent Abramović for an indeterminate amount of time). I was afraid to actually sit across from her, worried that I might never be able to stand up again. Similarly I have yet to travel to Alaska to experience John Luther Adams’s The Place Where You Go To Listen. This is another work with no beginning and no end, its electronically generated sonic content—determined by weather patterns—set up to last ad infinitum. There are very few things that I’m more interested in hearing, but how would I ever be able to tear myself away once I got there?

Thankfully if one were to attempt to experience all of The Clock, it would offer less of a challenge. After 24 hours, it becomes less like The Place Where You Go To Listen and more like Groundhog Day. And even if, like Phil Connors (the character played by Bill Murray in the film), your experience of going through the cycle over and over again eventually leads to a major mental breakthrough, the guards will kick you out after a maximum stay of 62 hours (the weekend hours at the David Rubinstein Atrium).


Between noon and 12:30pm, this particular clock made several appearances in The Clock. Christian Marclay. Detail of The Clock, 2010. Single-channel video with sound; 24 hours. Photo: Todd-White Photography © Christian Marclay. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York and White Cube, London.

Last Thursday, I stayed for only approximately three hours (from roughly 10:45am to 1:45pm, which is a mere 1/8th of the work). I wanted to stay longer, but I knew that I’d only be allowed to remain for only about an additional hour before the screening room needed to be cleaned in preparation for the next set of advance opening guests. As the time wore on, I decided I didn’t want the jolt of being told to leave, especially after hearing Marclay’s remarks about wanting the audience to decide when to come and go, meaning that the only way to be true to his intentions is to leave on your own accord. But it was really difficult to do so.

Yet on another level it was extremely easy to leave since there were no cliffhangers whose resolution I knew I would be missing when I did. I knew exactly what would happen next: time would continue its unstoppable progression. While thousands upon thousands of narratives are woven through The Clock, contained within its constituent snippets from pre-existing films which are just long enough to actually get you interested in the characters, the individual story lines never resolve; rather they get lost and replaced with others as time marches forward. And in the three-hours of the work I sat through, interspersed between classic and more recent Hollywood fare, there were excerpts from French, German, Chinese, and Japanese films as well. None of the segments in foreign languages included subtitles, since what the people were saying didn’t matter. Yet that is not to say that The Clock has no plot. I witnessed the birth of a bunch of babies as well as a few murders, a suicide, and a couple of executions, but the details of every one of these were never revealed; their sole purpose was merely to show the passing of time, which is the ultimate plot line. When I left at 1:45, my biggest disappointment was not finding out what was going to happen to anyone I had been watching for the last three hours, but rather in missing his portrayal of 2:00pm—this was something I did not need to stay there to know he would do.

Of course, I experienced 2:00pm on Thursday after noon even though by that point I was no longer inside Marclay’s construct, or was I? After walking out of the space, I found myself walking south on Broadway to get to a subway train to return to my office—actually I needed to take two trains to get where I needed to be. Bizarrely, it felt as if I had never left. At the 59th street station, a digital display announced that the local train would be arriving in 0 minutes and, suddenly, there it was. Changing for the express at Times Square was as effortless: a similar sign displayed 0 as the train I needed to get on pulled into the station. I got off at Fulton Street and walked up onto the sidewalk. I decided to take some food back to my desk since it was already later than when I usually have lunch, and yet again, no wait. No one was in line ahead of me. It was jump cut after jump cut, just like The Clock, until I got to my desk, ate my lunch, turned on my computer, and attempted to begin to write down my thoughts about what I had just experienced which finally eroded my constant awareness of time over days and has morphed into what you are now reading.


2:00pm according to The Clock; something I didn’t stay to see. Christian Marclay. Detail of The Clock, 2010. Single-channel video with sound; 24 hours. © Christian Marclay. Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery.

If art is a mirror of life, and the most effective works of art change your experience of life, then The Clock totally worked for me. Back in February, when The Clock was being presented at the Paula Cooper Gallery, Will Brand expressed disappointment that Marclay broke his own rules and included many clips which did not seem to directly reference a specific time of day. But that didn’t bother me at all. We don’t always look at clocks in our day-to-day existence. So a relentless barrage of clock images and verbal time references without anything else would actually be less sincere. And in order for The Clock to be believable, the editing together of all of these audio and video fragments had to appear seamless and I thought that it did. If in order for his stitches to be perfect, he required footage to cut away to from time to time, as far as I’m concerned it’s as valid an artistic license as slightly flattening pure perfect fifths in order to work within a completely circular modulation chain. But I nevertheless had my own pet peeves. While it was nice to see noon on clocks all over the world, it is temporally impossible. When Big Ben chimes noon in London it’s already eight hours later in Tokyo and only 7:00am in New York City. But I travel too much, I suppose. Ultimately art is not life, art is art.

Part of why The Clock is so effective is it creates its own paradigms. That it does so by exclusively mining pre-existing work adds to its allure because it takes things that are familiar and makes them completely unfamiliar. And the fact that it eschews narrative plot lines through the use of content that constantly reinforces a collection of tried-and-true same story formulas, commercial motion pictures, makes it completely subversive. What is perhaps its most revolutionary aspect, however, is how it deals with time, which after all is the only thing it is about. Daniel Zalewski, in an extensive exegesis about The Clock’s genesis which appeared in The New Yorker, describes the essential challenge that The Clock poses to audiences of the cinema and/or television:

“People went to the movies to lose track of time; this video would pound viewers with an awareness of how long they’d been languishing in the dark. It would evoke the laziest of modern pleasures—channel surfing—except that the time wasted would be painfully underlined.”

But Zalewski’s assessment of Marclay’s challenge for film and TV audiences holds equally true for audiences for any kind of artistic product, especially music. Although music exists in time, it is most effective when you lose your sense of time within it somehow. Isn’t it only the 10 minute pieces you don’t like that feel like they’ve gone on for half an hour, while a 25-minute piece that you’re in love with seems to race by? The Clock, on the other hand, doesn’t ever move too fast or too slow. Yet, according to Marclay, who in addition to his recent forays in video art remains active as a composer and a DJ, even though “you’re constantly being told the time, you still can get lost in it.” I know that I did and still am.

In that sense, The Clock, shares a kinship with the “The Entertainment,” the mysterious final creation of avant-garde filmmaker James Orin Incandenza in David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest. “The Entertainment” was purported to have been so dangerous that anyone exposed to it would become incapable of doing anything other than viewing it. (Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but during the portion of The Clock I saw, one of the only clips that did not reference a specific time was the famous “Alas Poor Yorick” scene from the Laurence Olivier film of Shakespeare’s Hamlet which includes the words “infinite jest”.) Marclay might be concerned about our sanity when he suggests that we should not feel compelled to sit through all of The Clock. But even when we are not viewing it, we are, since its plotline, the passage of time, is something from which we can never escape.