Monday, November 5, 2012

Weaving mathematics into cosmic delight

Bachtoberfest was a month-long classical music festival dedicated to Awesome Music (music that actually inspires awe).

Bachtoberfest 2012 brought together awesome-music otaku from around the internet to celebrate Bach together. We gathered in bars, hung out in basements, filmed in our living rooms and walked the streets of pre-super-storm New York. We recorded from hotel rooms in Helsinki and on alternative instruments. We played with family, friends and strangers. Together we created

#Bachtoberfest 2012 Awards:
Community Award: @salon97 
Audience Award: @NickWritesMusic
Best Duet: @The_David_Wong and @eliza_wong
Best Vibe: @thisisbenphelps
Best From the Archives @gitarra
Best Multi-track Cello: @petergregson
Festival Grand Prize goes to "Mr. Bachtober" @evanshinners

J.S. Bach didn’t just write tunes, he wove mathematics into cosmic delight. Click on the playlist to listen to over two hours of Bach submitted by #teamclassical on Twitter.


#Bachtoberfest is believed to be the world's first Twitter-only classical music festival.
#Bachtoberfest remains free and open to all.
#Bachtoberfest's mission is to celebrate both the music and the community.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

#Bachtoberfest update

A month-long festival that unites the classical ("awesome music") community.

Let's play as many of the 1128 Bach BWVs we can!
Can we get 12, 50, 100?

The plan:

  1. Sign-up to play a BWV. Mention me @teamclassical with your choice. First come, first served. I'll keep a running list on
  2. Record your BMV. Alternative locations, arrangements, instruments are encouraged. Dress-up, dress down, wear a swimsuit, wear a bear costume, wear clothes from your designer friends, play on the beach, I don't care, (but if do you want costuming advice, I am a professional...). Then upload your video to YouTube. 
  3. Share the results on Twitter with #bachtoberfest
  4. The best will be cut together and featured on 
  5. Delightful venues (swimming pool? night club? barn? park? winery? brewery? bowling alley) are encouraged!
  6. Team up with friends—if you don't have any classical music friends then go to and find a few hundred of us waiting for you. 
  7. Does your neighbor work at a hipster bike shop or indie clothing line? Consider getting them to offering their space to #bachtoberfest peeps for an afternoon session. 
  8. Participants who upload a video will get a limited edition "Bachotberfest" poster created by yours truly. Sell it on Ebay, or use to line your birdcage, or frame for prosperity. All uses OK. 
 Who's in? Send me a Tweet to claim your BWV. Here's an example:

Personal call to action

I know there's a little Bach in your rep, but don't worry about giving us perfection: this is a celebration! Video yourself having a little fun while living the Awesome Music lifestyle of unmatched intellectual rigor (all day every day) and ecstatic passion for experiencing life both inside and outside of the rehearsal room. Do it!

Let's bring the chamber back to chamber music. Set-dress your living room. Invite your talented-art-friends over to light and film you. Wear something that looks like you want to be seen and heard. Borrow a mic from your friend's sister's indie-band or from the AV closet at the conservatory. Post it and celebrate.

One last thing: improvise the cadenza.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Mischievous Genius

Timothy Andres remixed Mozart's Coronation Concerto the way R.Kelly remixed Ignition—better than the original, and so much dirtier.

I could describe the notes for you: A little bit of Mozart, a little bit of Andres, sometime a little bit of both at the same time, but better analysis could be done by someone other than me. 

Instead I want to share how I felt hearing and watching this for the first time. Why? My feelings aren't particularly important, but I want composers, musicians and music students everywhere to know that there are people like me watching online and in the concert hall, and that we are moved by your work. We love it.

And if you are reading this and never thought you'd ever like a piece of classical music, go with me here: for all the weight of the centuries, there is still the youthful breath of mischievous genius hanging out between the notes, in the elbows and thumbs of the musicians, and the late-night inspiration of the composer.

So here we go. A slightly embarrassing essay on how much I enjoyed hearing this piece: 

Letter A: The fingers do a dance

Music is physical—air is pushed between reeds or down tubes. Hammers strike cables and planks and skins to make even more sound; even a speaker's cone pushes the air like a baby nursing a bottle of early morning milk—there is no escaping the physical dance required to make sound. 

When you go to a concert or see a video of performed music, the physical dance is a non-trivial element of the pleasure of experiencing the piece. Part of the delight in Andres's video is watching him: his posture is taut, his arms are knowing, his fingers oddly long when he lifts them high during the non-performing moments—the way a prima ballerina's feet are extended en pointe during a lift or a writer lifts her pen after crafting a well-said love note. 

Letter B: What about Mozart? 

Mozart's music is a child running coatless in the season’s first snow; it is a bicycle race down a steep hill pitting you against your first yellow "sports" walkman and long-lost best friend; it is a jazz club, where all the patrons know the standards and no one needs a fake book. Playing Mozart is to restate the pleasure of becoming a vehicle for creation or inspiration. Poet Jack Spicer more or less called this experience the counterpunching radio of God. William Blake agreed that, as artists, we are nothing more than the vehicle of some other cosmic truth. Many contemporary creators hope for a different cause—that humans are able to chart their own course or at least learn the rules of chance. What I love about this video by Andres is that he lets us have it both ways. We are intellectual craftsmen in the process of the sublime. We are the music of the spheres, Jazz and Chance and Language all in one. 

Letter C: The clothes extend the dance

Tuxedo? of course, but there's nothing wrong with variations on a theme: Andres works a light suit better than David Byrne, and at around 6:36 in to the video he sticks a landing better than a gymnast and brings one arm up and another down (like the linking arms of a barrel of monkeys) with a twist so electric that the first time I saw it I gave a howl. I was riding to work and the Twitter shuttle bus carrying 38 near-silent programmers, accountants and product managers gave a start: they looked up and must have assumed I was watching the Olympics or playing a video game. But I was doing something better. I was re-invigorating my mind with the delight of the familiar rendered strange (but not uncanny). It was the glimpse of a man seeing the love of his life, waiting to take his arm, dressed for a party in a way that would stop traffic. It was the moment a proud father saw his children run farther, faster and stronger than he himself ever could. It was the hope for the new idea behind old ideas, not just the reverence of history. 

Letter D: Music is a living art. 

Even tunes from centuries ago must be rendered in the moment to be heard. Today's jams are necessarily reflective of our times, just as a 70s film about the 20s still looks like both, so do our sounds today reflect our current urgent ideas.

Andres's video made me happy, optimistic, inspired and ready to create. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012


Human needs

Human needs drive actions, however buried, delayed, distant or immediate. When I work with the team at Twitter on a product or launch, I try to identify the actual human need first, and then work to find the narrative to support it.

When I create animated sets for the ballet, I strive to understand the needs of the story, and the role of the set at that particular moment in time to augment, support or elucidate the human concern at play.

When I paint or write, human needs guide my decisions as much as my own desire to articulate a vocabulary or demonstrate a punctum hidden in plain sight.


Recently, I launched the community site I did it to try to address the human need to connect with people around a shared interest. It features publicly available information from social media sites like Twitter, YouTube and blogs.

The classical community thrives on social media, but needed a place to congregate, debate, discover each other, consume the art and conspire to create more.

The automated site includes everyone who wants to join the breadth and depth of the #teamclassical community. I pull from public signals to find the best blogs, pictures, playlists, videos and events from the community's Tweets.

If you have something you want to feature on the site, just tweet it with the hashtag #teamclassical and the system will eventually pick it up and filter it in a smart way (equal parts human touch and hard science). Right now, I sort most of these by hand, but the community is so vast that I'll need to bring science to the scene shortly to help it along.

I work at Twitter, but this isn't a Twitter project, I built the site during my off-hours as a gift for the community. I really appreciate the bold courage that it takes for performers, composers, conductors and everyone else on #teamclassical to dedicate their lives to art; I wish I could do more for the community than just build a site.

Classical music is simply awesome music. In the future, I'd like to find a way to help elucidate the value to everyone. Let's fix the User Experience of classical music! 

Let's return chamber opera to its rowdy, visceral, intellectual roots. Let's make the premiere of a new symphony, song cycle, concerto or opera as big of a deal as the opening of a summer blockbuster. Let's have the courage to face up to our short-comings to iterate and move on to create a sustainable system to create tremendous art (and more of it!) . Let's fix the business model (a hard, but very silicon valley type of project). Let's build a recurring revenue pathway to create reasonable wages for more than just a few. Let's consider the entire experience (from parking to tickets to drinks to seats to digital programs to streaming media to instant downloads to augmented scores to the good old-fashioned roof-raising roar of 1000 people in the same room experiencing art together).

So far it's been a huge success, so let's celebrate!


I've registered and will announce details soon. The idea is to have a month-long festival online that unites the classical community.

Let's play all 1128 Bach BWVs together! (Or at least as many as we can!)

The plan:

1) Sign-up to play a BWV.
2) Upload your video to YouTube
3) Share the results on Twitter and all social channels.
4) The best will be cut together on the site.
5) Delightful venues (swimming pool? night club? barn? park? winery? brewery? bowling alley) are encouraged!

Together we can have an impact, have some fun, and grow our community.

I've had a weird career of teaching, fine art, cinema, writing, ballet, design, social media and more. #TeamClassical is one way for me to experiment with a big idea—a digital community for classical music—that brings it all together.

It will start small, and stay small for a while, but I live in the realm of the possible, and  will do my best to create something for the community over time that helps everyone achieve their best.

If you have ideas, I'd love to hear them. Find me on Twitter.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Point to line to plane

Recently, I mapped the 12 tones against traditional harmonic intervals to create a circle map. Chords can be created by drawing polygons between the points. Then I changed the circle to a spiral to create octaves.

What can we learn from this representation? The chords create planes with a certain area. What can we abstract from the overlapping planes?

Can we learn something of the essential nature of harmonic construction from this type of visual representation?
Imagine scores animated through this type of spiral. The planes would dance and stretch and disappear and re-emerge in patterns of delight.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Netflix for Opera

The Met released an iPad app for their popular on-demand streaming service. Read the review from NPR.

Caltrain classical

Every time I ride the train, I think about how music is living code. My daily commute from Palo Alto to SF contains a special talent pool: front-end engineers who roll .js, back-end engineers who push the stack, graphic designers who tweak CSS, app devs who crunch iPhone vs. Android and every other type of web, eng, dev and designer in the valley. Side-by-side we sit together and work for the morning's first hour.

Today I did something different; I plugged my headphones into my iPad and plunged into the river Rhine, climbed up the magic rainbow, and got my perspective reset by James Morris as Wotan and Christa Ludwig as Fricka.

104 videos and 262 audio-only performances
Dates range from 1936 to today
Limited social engagement: send a Tweet from the app
English subtitles on most operas

Requires a subscription to Met Opera on Demand.
Get a free 7-day trial on the Met's site.

The social integration reduces to simple Tweets sent from the app. Can we imagine a social consumption experience for Opera that transcends one-way tweeting or comments? How could we all watch and tweet together?

Other apps that do classical music well: NPR