Shirin Neshat-2 channel video works at the Hirshhorn Museum

What a thrill to finally see a collection of Shirin Neshat’s videos at the Hirshhorn Museum in the exhibit, “Facing History”.  I have been drawn to Neshat’s imagery since seeing her work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  As an Iranian born woman living in the United States, she is able to communicate the many conflicts of a life lived in two cultures.   See this NPR write up for more on the show.

This was a powerful exhibit, and I was especially interested in Neshat’s choices in her 2 channel video works because of the possibilities she sets up with screen locations.

The Guild Art Gallery-Gallery View

The Guild Art Gallery-Gallery View

For example, in “Turbulent“, she frames Shoja Azari singing a traditional Iranian song in front of an audience of men.  On the screen directly across from this screen is the back of Sussan Deyhim who stands in the same, but empty performance space.  The gallery audience sits along the walls in the middle which means that one must turn from left to right to view each screen.  Neshat directs one’s attention by aural cues and actor activity.  As the piece progresses, we watch Azari first while also checking to see if there is any change on the second screen.  Then Deyhim begins her performance and Azari and his audience looks on.  Again, I found myself looking back and forth waiting for more interaction between the two actors or more obvious reaction from one to the other.  By the end of the piece, I realized that this was a commentary on gender and cultural issues.  However, I felt some dissonance from feeling that I would miss out on an important part of the story by turning my head to view either screen.

The two channel set up became more involved as I progressed through the chronological show and then I understood how powerful it could be when viewing the last video in the exhibit.  In “Soliloquy“, Neshat walks in two worlds, a modern Western city and an ancient Middle Eastern city.  The soundtrack is subtle with looping sounds from each location and bits of traditional song.  Toward the end, the action and sounds collide as Neshat walks into a modern cathedral with robed congregants singing in a circle.  This was an amazing moment in the piece as she is excluded from the circle and the other screen showed her above a mosque performing a ritualized act of cleansing.  I was transformed by this setting because both the visual and aural spoke clearly about the conflicts of being at home in one’s culture and an outsider in another.  This piece also was incredibly intimate and Neshat’s presence was captivating.  The show closes on September 20,2015.

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STEAM takes shape at Drexel ExCITe Center

Dr. Gaël McGill, Keynote Speaker at #STEAMedu

Dr. Gaël McGill, Keynote Speaker at #STEAMedu

After an exhilarating day of presentations and discussions on STEAM, I felt I had to share my notes.  Dr. Youngmoo Kim, the Director of the ExCITe Center at Drexel University, has long been a proponent of the addition of the A (Arts) in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math).  He and his program manager, Kara Lindstrom assembled a group of compelling speakers for this STEAM Education Workshop.  Here are some notes:

Dr. Nancy Songer, Dean of the School of Education at Drexel University.
Steve Jobs is often seen as a visionary at the intersection of technology and design.  The first nod to Mr. Jobs came by way of the first speaker as she described three projects she completed with Middle School aged children in which she applied her idea of “Strategic Simplification.”  By designing visually compelling materials, younger students are presented with complex ideas in a curriculum that is paced so students can work with the data.  This idea would become a theme for the workshop as presenters gave ways to present real data to students so they have a chance to wrestle with the complexity.

Professor Genevieve Dion, the Director of the Shima Seiki Haute Technology Lab
Ms. Dion is an expert on wearable technologies and she spoke of her experience in the fashion world and her groundbreaking work at the ExCITe Center.  She emphasized the importance of weaving a wearable device rather than attaching sensors and other devices to clothing.  Her advice to students who come from the Arts into technology was to “learn to speak the language of the engineer” in order to enable collaboration.

Dr. Brian Smith, Professor of Learning Technologies
Dr. Smith identified the fearlessness and risk taking that artists bring to their work as a important component of STEAM studies.  He also outlined how the teaching method that art educators employ in their studios could be used as a model for other disciplines.  He quoted Dr. Margaret Honey (New York Hall of Science) that STEAM is “not about slapping arts into STEM but about shifting how we think about learning.”  He mentioned the book, “Studio Thinking” as a reference to how to incorporate the studio approach to non-Arts classes (

Dr. Youngmoo Kim, Director, ExCITe Center at Drexel University
Dr. Kim began with an overview of the work of the ExCITe Center and it is formidable-robots making music, music apps, interactive performances and new or enhanced instruments.  His work with teenagers in a summer music technology class could also be a primer for any music educator who is interested in STEAM (how about a STEAM workshop for music educators?).  In this class, students design, code, assemble and perform and many are encouraged to continue studying music and other STEAM subjects.

Dr. Gaël McGill, Founder & CEO, Digizyme Inc. and Director of Molecular Visualization, Harvard Medical School
Wow!  After hearing E.O. Wilson speak this summer about his iBook “Life on Earth,” I wondered who created the great visualizations in the ibook since they seemed to fulfill the potential of using multimedia as a rich learning tool (the future of the book!).  It was a real treat hearing about the concepts behind the work of Dr Gael McGill and his company Digizyme, the creators of these interactives.  At first Dr. McGill spoke about the 500 widgets they created for the book, but more importantly for this workshop, he outlined how visualization can be used “as a powerful strategy to meet instructional and assessment challenges in STEM education.”   Visualizations can take many different forms from animation to drawing but one thing is clear, when used in a the classroom, this method can pinpoint gaps in student learning.  Dr. McGill also went over how critiquing a visualization can promote the critical thinking questions that lead to learning.  For example, by having students become “Viz critics” they can look at a visualization and question the use of color and design and how to make a visualization communicate the concept.  He talked about mental models that students create about key concepts and about using visualization to test these models.

Dr. McGill then spoke about visual literacy and training students to tell a story visually through storyboarding.  He cited the work of Felice Frankel and the use of metaphors in “Picturing to Learn.” (video-  This is rich territory for those (like me) wrestling with how to connect the visual literacy skills students learn in Art classes to their non-Arts classes.

One last resource given was the plug in for Maya created by Digizyme called Molecular Maya  ( which allows students to animate molecular structures in Maya.

In recap the “process of visualization is process of knowledge integration” and a “way to make missing data more obvious” which “puts students in touch with data.”


(My apologies to two other speakers,  Dr. Katherine Kuchenbecker, Undergraduate Curriculum Chair, Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, at University of Pennsylvania and Dr. Frank Lee, Director, Entrepreneurial Game Studio.  Technical issues prevented my note taking at this point.)

After the discussions that followed these speakers, my head was spinning with all of the possibilities.  When thinking about the integration of STEAM subjects, I was reminded how students often do this on their own.  For example, a student who studies guitar rarely has an opportunity to combine his/her musical knowledge with his/her other subjects, but will build a guitar in the Engineering Lab when given the opportunity.   Dr. McGill asked “what are the obstacles?” and I would answer that we (teachers) don’t allow students to be expansive.  These sort of workshops certainly help lower the divisions between departmental silos but teachers and administrators still need to find new methods to facilitate learning across multiple disciplines.  Dr. McGill emphasized the importance of the content expert and I feel that teachers often feel that collaboration lessens the importance of content knowledge.  However,this workshop provided many examples of professionals that are innovating at the edges of their disciplines like Dr. McGill who is equally gifted in molecular biology and visual art.  Because of his abilities, he is able to communicate his knowledge in transformative ways.  I suspect our students have multiple abilities that we do not come close to encouraging.

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Remix Interactive 2 – An Immersive Audience Experience

tumblr_static_screen_shot_2014-03-18_at_10.27.45_amWord came through this week that our proposal for a second Remix Interactive piece was approved for performance at the International Society of Technology in Education (ISTE) conference in Philadelphia this June. I am excited to work with fellow Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE) and master of interactive technologies, Dr. Youngmoo Kim from the Drexel ExCITE Center a second time.  After the last performance, we discussed ways to create a multimedia event that is not tethered to music and video playback files.  If you look back a few posts, this is a problem I have been wrestling with for some time.

This past summer, Dr. Kim devised a way to give cues to audience members in real time in a performance at our ADE Institute in San Diego.  In addition, we discussed expanding the audience use of an app for an interactive light show to include ways to contribute to the musical performance.  When we were discussing the possibilities for this, a student who overheard our conversation went into brainstorm mode.  She was so excited about the possibilities!

We are also adding the use of Abelton Live to the mix of real time performance tools so students can Remix their work and then perform it live with the singers and musicians.  I will need to teach the composition of this work differently with this tool and I am looking forward to hearing the difference in the student work.  We will assemble a large choir through partnerships with many local schools to present a united Philadelphia to a possible audience of 1000!

Keep an eye on our Tumblr site for updates!

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Remix Interactive-Learning through large scale projects

There is always a moment when doing a large, multimedia performance when I think, “what was I thinking?” Remix Interactive had many components to complete the performance and, as a result, an extraordinary amount of moments of concern. It probably would have been enough to have students remix a piece selected by a well known composer, create the soundtrack and new score, and rehearse the orchestra, but we also decided to add an interactive light show to the mix. This project could only be completed with the patience and trust of great partners at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy, Drexel University ExCITe Center, Play on, Philly!, Boys’ Latin of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Science Festival.

This project was important because I believe that large scale collaboration is an effective way to gain understanding amongst students from different backgrounds by providing a purpose for students to collectively create something meaningful. It is important for students to think big and be carried away with the details because they learn to be discerning and have to project their ideas into the realm of the unknown. They asked profound questions when creating the music like, “does this (their arrangement) work?”, “will the audience get bored of this?”, “how will the audience hear this part?”, “are there too many layers?”  Having a purpose is the best way to motivate students and not only do they lose track of time, they also find common ground and build relationships in this mode of learning.

This project was also important because I believe that students want to be original. The creation of a light show app provided a reason for a number of SCH Academy students to venture into uncharted territory under the direction of Dr. Youngmoo Kim at the ExCITe Center. There is nothing like hearing students say, “Oh, cool!” when they see the technology work. When another student worked to create the sequence of colors and patterns for the light show and provide the graphics for the app in one short afternoon, I realized that each student contributed based on their passion for the different media necessary to make Remix work. The need for diversity of talent was important for students to recognize as a component of multimedia work.

Every student learned new skills. The students of the orchestra learned how to play along with a pre-composed track and balance their sound with an electronic sound. They also learned how to play while there was visual content playing above them on a screen. More importantly, they were exposed to a way of rethinking the musical traditions of the orchestra. It is my hope that this experience will help expand their ideas about what is possible as a musician. One the flip side of this, the students who remixed the music discovered the craft of classical music. They learned how Leonard Bernstein created “Mambo” by manipulating the parts, analyzing the melodic and harmonic content and finding sequences that spoke to them.

I am extremely proud of the work of the students and the magic that was created in performance was more than enough to remind me to ignore my own moments of concern…next time.

For more information on Remix Interactive see:

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The Arts in STEAM-Thoughts after EduCamp STEAM


I attended my first EdCamp ( this week in New Brunswick, NJ and was excited to participate in a conference devoted to STEAM topics.  For my work at SCH Academy and as a musician, I am trying to define the elements that make a successful STEAM collaboration for Arts educators.  Also, I often need to justify why the effort is important for Arts faculty and what is gained by adding the Arts to STEM for students.

In my first session, “Discussing the A in STEAM” we shared our experiences and practical information about scheduling and the difficulties of collaborating across disciplines.  However, what struck me most was the range of involvement non-Arts teachers had with Arts teachers.  There are some districts that have one Art teacher for hundreds of students.  This makes collaboration almost impossible but more importantly, the A in STEAM gets interpreted without the input of an Arts educator.  Another educator explained that the Art teacher is often “low on the totem pole-like PE” (ouch!) and because of this, Art teachers may really enjoy being part of the conversation.  This explains why one teacher listed coloring a periodic table as an example of STEAM in a later session.  This is not to say that there weren’t great lessons discussed and demonstrated, like the DIYability ( workshop rewiring old electronic toys, the music technology projects from Drexel’s Excite Center and using MINECRAFT in education (and many more I didn’t have a chance to experience), BUT when is the Arts a real part of STEAM?

Recently, my colleague Karen Kolkka brought a project prepared by Bare Conductive ( to my summer camp because she was excited about the use of electronically conductive paint to create circuits.  My campers (ages 10-12) complained a little about the small circuits but they were happy with the results and their parents were thrilled with their light houses (  When Karen and I had a chance to discuss this later, we both agreed that this was the beginning of a STEAM project since some basic skills were learned but that in order to become a true Arts project, students would need to use these skills to design and build an original structure.  

I think the value of adding the Arts to STEM subjects is the addition of disciplines (both music and art) that have a tradition of using materials to create something original that considers aesthetics and design.  This takes time.  Time to learn the materials, time to learn design principles, time to understand how to choose from the infinity of ideas, and time to study the tradition of original artistic thinkers.  For Arts educators, collaborating with STEM disciplines will mean learning new materials and understanding the learning objectives of other disciplines.  For non-Arts educators it will mean understanding how the Arts are taught and assessed (using art supplies does not equal STEAM).

I believe that we are at the beginning of a great collaboration that will combine subjects in powerful ways for students.  The Arts have a vital role to play in STEAM, and in many cases, the collaboration is a means to become relevant in those schools that have cut Arts to the bare minimum.  More importantly, our students need the agility of original thought that the Arts teach which is incredibly important with the national shift toward the importance of STEM subjects.  A lot of listening and sharing of ideas needs to happen and this Edcamp was a great start.

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InterActivity1-Toward a new concert experience

In 2002, I watched The Map by Tan Dun in awe. The video playback of Chinese folk
music interwoven with live performance was sublime and opened up so many possibilities for a new mode of performance. I decided to devote my creative energies to both music and video so I could write similar compositions. Since that time, I have gathered considerable new media skills and experiences and have worked toward a marriage between my music and video.

Last year, I wrote a movement for my percussion piece, In Memoriam: Gérard Grisey, which called for audience participation coordinated through video instruction. While audiences experience a concert together, this last movement deconstructed the audience/performer expectations and the audience shared the act of performance. I feel that audiences want to understand complex music through more involvement and the reaction to this movement was tremendous. The participation elevated the concert experience and audience members enthusiastically kept up with the asymmetrical rhythms as instructed on the screen. I was encouraged to continue these efforts.

In preparation for a new interactive piece/game that features a quartet of live musicians  and video called InterActivity1, I did research to define successful interactive pieces.  I started with watching bouncing ball sing alongs like In My Merry Oldsmobile (oh my) from 1932 and then studied user interface designs of  popular interactive games like Guitar Hero and Dance Dance Revolution.  I also studied great performers like the completely analog (!) Bobby McFerrin who is a master at call and response interactions.  He levels up audience expectations by manipulating speed and complexity(youtube=

I also discovered a very exciting group of interactive artists who connect with viewers in news ways using the lastest in multimedia technology.  While not all use sound in their pieces, I am really excited about the work of the following artists.  More soon!

Brian Knep – Deep Wounds

This video gives a great overview of this project created for Memorial Hall at Harvard University.   Participants walk across a floor to reveal names of Harvard graduates who are not listed in the hall since they died fighting for the South in the Civil War.  Not only do I love the organic way the visuals interact with participants, but the piece conveys a message which creates a memorable experience.
See Brian Knep’s website at for more information.

Scott Sona Snibbe

The interactive apps created by Snibbe Studios for Björk and Phillip Glass are groundbreaking since the interactions directly relate to the music.  In addition, I really like the visual interactives he has created using silhouettes.

Rafael Lozano-Hemmer

I was introduced to the work of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer through the Open Air project in Philadelphia ( last year.  Upon further investigation, I found that he used participants heart beats, finger prints and live images of participants in other pieces and used surveillance cameras extensively.  I especially like Sandbox which was created for a beach in Santa Monica in 2010.

Maya Lin – Interactive Website

Marshmallow Laser Feast

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Owning your creative work

I MediaStormEmmysEdid a workshop with Brian Storm yesterday at MediaStorm ( in Brooklyn and I walked away re-energized and knowing what I needed to do to improve my approach to visual storytelling.  This 8 hour session was intense and covered how Brian branded his company based on his very polished approach to storytelling and his highly communicative visual technique.  His videos are gorgeous and the Emmys in the window are a testament to his success.  But in addition to this helpful instruction about storytelling, I had a glimpse into the world of someone who is savvy in business on the Internet.

Because MediaStorm created their own delivery system for their videos, they retain a direct relationship with their viewers and they offer the viewer ways to get involved in social change and ways to connect to other products that are related to the video.  I am reminded of  Jennifer Higdon a widely successful composer who owns her own publishing company that she runs off her website (  She told me of other composers like Phillip Glass ( and also Eric Whitacre ( who have their own production teams who also license their own music.    I am always struck by how much music is given and taken away in the new world and MediaStorm provides a solid business model for monetizing quality work that creative types strive for.  If you have a chance, I highly recommend this workshop (

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