My job in ops has always been to keep things running. I never considered myself “working in software”, but have recently begun embracing the fact that I do. What I accomplish as an operations and infrastructure engineer is part of the system, it isn’t dislocated from its composition.
Relatedly, I have been considering the nature of the experiment in Chaos Engineering. How continuous verification is becoming a crucial part of the complex systems we build because there really is no end. Developing a software system isn’t just about writing it, it’s also every bit as much about running it. Unless there is some kind of evil catastrophic end-game planned from a volcano island hideout, most of us want to keep them running.
I’m big on experimental music. You probably know what I mean when I say that, but you might not because genres, in general, are horrible overgeneralizations. Similarly, after the composer John Cage had written his “silent piece” in 1952 (see also Living 4’33”), he seemed to have a struggle with the concept of calling the music composed by him and others he admired experimental.
In science, we often think of an experiment as a method to (dis)prove a hypothesis. We perform experiments to answer a question or assertion, often during the process of reaching an end goal. To Cage, this implied that calling something an “experiment” meant it was not complete, not finished. That there is a final state determined by products of the experimentation, and he thought that his (and others’) music was complete when performed. There was no “final state” that was decided as a result of an experiment either succeeding or failing, if it was itself called experimental.
Cage revised this view, however. He began embracing the term and actually ended up preferring it. The reason for this is the way he evolved to think about the context of sound. At the beginning of the decade, he experienced an anechoic chamber (an “echoless” room) and the non-presence of total silence, because he could hear both high and low sounds — explained to him by the engineer as his nervous system in operation and blood circulating, respectively. Whether or not that is physiologically probable, he had the now famous revelation that it is impossible to remove sound completely. 4’33” and an entire philosophy about the nature of sound and silence in music was not far behind.
To him then, the moniker experimental came to mean that which is undiscovered, because even if a piece of music requires certain sounds, environmental sounds are impossible to predict. This experimental music isn’t about the search for failure or success, but an experience of discovery, where questions become more interesting than answers. When applied to composition, each performance of a musical work is always new and different due to its context and sonic environment. Indeed, it is impossible to know ahead of time any structure of the interpenetrating sounds both intentional and not, themselves independent and unique (whether or not they are consonant). It is in fact in a total state of chaos, each and every time.
When complex systems run, they do so at the hand of indeterminacy and randomness. There certainly is a “steady state”, but it is continuously in need of verification. Just like Cage observing that no performance of a musical work is a repeat, the nature (structure and form) of distributed systems we operate cannot in truth be predicted with any kind of regularity.
So while it is useful to be very specific in defining and running our Chaos experiments, the nature of what we’re doing is more about asking questions and making discoveries, not testing for answers we already think we know or think we can guess. The “breaking things in production” mantra implies we are interested in failure when what we’re really interested in is what was determined and what questions arose, good or bad.
Here are a couple of PDFs taken from Cage’s writing that highlight his viewpoint on the subject of “experimental music” as a title of what he did.
Experimental Music: Doctrine (1955) ::: This article, there titled Experimental Music, first appeared in The Score and I. M. A. Magazine, London, issue of June 1955. The inclusion of a dialogue between an uncompromising teacher and an unenlightened student, and the addition of the word ”doctrine” to the original title, are references to the Huang-Po Doctrine of Universal Mind.
Experimental Music (1957) ::: The following statement was given as an address to the convention of the Music Teachers National Association in Chicago in the winter of 1957. It was printed in the brochure accompanying George Avakian’s recording of my twenty-five-year retrospective concert at Town Hall, New York, in 1958.
The photo above is the album cover from a release by Craque called Meat Hacker.
Yes! An easy tweetable answer! Except that it’s loaded with questions and assumptions. Instead, what I will talk about here are technology decisions. Those that really matter are about things that elevate your ability to build what you are building at the velocity you need.
In Operations and SRE, we are not only tasked with evaluating and testing technologies, we are often requested (or sometimes instructed) to support the decisions others make. This isn’t an ideal situation, and in some cases, impractical because it feels like a policing. In fact, it might sound a little selfish to think that SRE needs the ability to say “yay” or “nay” to a decision. If you think that feels slightly siloed, you’d be right. I prefer working with all vested parties to come up with a solution that fits the problem, not just make blind leaps of faith on a particular platform. Flexibility and cooperative evaluation work really really well, believe it or not.
In my experience, it takes a minimum of six months for a team to work up a brand new (to them) technology or platform and have it be supportable in production. Even then, if the software team building it won’t be permanently oncall for it (which is something else I believe), they should at least be on the hook for a minimum of six months further as the kinks are worked out. This seems fairly straightforward for something like a development framework or a particular platform specific to operating the software system in question. For example, adopting Redis as a DBRE-supported platform in production. There are clear reasons why the software needs this kind of ultraspeedy k/v store, and building up widespread support in SRE for it means other software teams benefit. That is a highly opinionated decision and one that’s fairly easy to make especially because it’s free!
But is it? In contrast, what happens when you need to fulfill the needs of infrastructure? This is where Operations tires really hit the road. This doesn’t mean it’s a siloed decision, for example introspecting the system is as important to reliability engineering as it is to the folks developing the software. The Redis example above shows how technology decisions become a crucial part of the collaboration among everyone involved building your product, whether it be dev or sec or ops or everything in-between. However, it doesn’t quite reflect the reality of infrastructure requirements, particularly tooling that supports the needs of reliability. “We need monitoring and we need it yesterday!”
So, I posit: There is no “Build or Buy”. There is only Buy.
I build electronic instruments. My product is the music I make, and one the central philosophies in my approach to improvisation and performance is the concept of “original sound”. What music does a plucked cactus make when amplified, or how can a mercury tilt-switch and photoresistor create sound from electrons? The top picture here is of a breadboard, a prototype of a device that will eventually drive something called a “Voltage Controlled Oscillator”, or VCO. To the left is a photo of a professionally designed, tested, and built VCO. I have no need to design and build a VCO, even though fun, it is a distraction – both in time and money – from my main purpose: the creation of a new kind of analog synthesizer controller. I’d rather buy the VCO and the accompanying support of the experts who not only built it but are passionate about its success. Then I can focus resources on my creativity.
The technology decision to be made is heavily informed by what kinds of resources you want to spend on it. Building a platform in-house, using your own people, is sometimes only feasible with very large companies that have the ability to staff for this, and often have custom circumstances. It’s not hard to notice that a few very successful software platforms come out of organizations in this position. These teams also must deal with all the infrastructure costs, maintenance, reliability, and complex aggregations of data and transports. These problems have indeed been solved many times over by third party SaaS/PaaS/IaaS solutions, but sometimes the amount of customization required demands it. Or the development of these systems may be so clearly aligned with the company objectives that it is a non-question (e.g. Netflix pioneering Chaos Engineering or Google producing Borg/Kubernetes).
These days, such cases are the exceptions. Most of us are with companies where this luxury and concentration of engineering ability aren’t present. It may make a ton more sense to choose an expert in the field, whose company mission is specifically to provide this need. The argument that Ops Is A Cost Center is underlined, because the focus should really be on the product. “We’re good enough we can run a custom log aggregation stack at the same time we’re developing this completely dependent but orthogonally related product” is probably an approach that should be questioned, unless of course you are prepared to buy those resources through hiring and operational expenses.
Either way, you’re building something. Recall the decision to choose Redis, and how long it took to enable that system in production. The same will apply to any in-house platform or tooling. Nevertheless, it’s a tradeoff. To buy resources for building in-house or buy a third party SaaS, each have their own layers of complexity, complication, and frustration. Yep, it might be fun to build, but is embarking on such a project really the right choice for the team and the product?
Like many in Ops, I once considered the “Elastic Search / Logstash / Kabana” (aka ELK) stack for datacenter log aggregation. All its various pieces are a fun complex thing to put together, and it’s an extremely useful resource for gathering and displaying events. All these pieces are freely available things, but our SRE teams were already pretty busy with the task of running our own product and other custom bits of infrastructure. It would take at least a single SRE’s full time and attention to keep the stack running across multiple server farms of 10,000+ nodes. Not to mention training and documentation for others. Maintained, tested, resilience-hardened, budgeted, the list goes on. I’m definitely going to be “buying” a lot here, and it’s a messy looking BOM. ELK’s competitors at the time ranged from fairly entry-level cloud-based SaaS to “Enterprise” packages, but one vendor, in particular, would be a great solution. Was there a cost and the administrative toil of negotiating a contract and keeping a vendor relationship going? Yep. It’s also a single invoice, takes much less time from the SRE team to manage, and is much simpler to integrate with the farm.
Would you rather focus on building the instrumentation into your software and have a team of external experts guide, consult, and ultimately provide the intelligence platform to which they have dedicated their careers? Or would you rather split focus and build your own customizations into the infrastructure? It’s not black and white, either. One method may outweigh the other depending on whether you’re bare-metal or in the cloud. There may be security reasons to do one over the other. As the software product matures, these needs may blur. What needs to be bought may be simple and small or complex and large, and grow in either direction.
So let’s be clear: a third party platform isn’t automatically “more expensive” than creating an equally performant service or fulfill a particular infrastructure reliability need in-house. Do the research and compare, make the investment that makes the most sense for your team.
Don’t be fooled, though. Either way, you’re buying it.
I haven’t experienced Mute’s STUMM433 release yet, it’s not due out until May. The proceeds from its sale go to charities, so that’s a big huge plus for it already. Pulling big names like Depeche Mode and Moby will hopefully make for good sales.
Immediately, I think… “cover”? How? What is this photo?
So once I start looking into this, I learn about the accompanying videos. The Laibach one featured on the Mute website (which cleverly includes a shot of the Cramps Caged/Uncaged homage from 2000) is a kind of short silent film. I imagine many (if not all) of the other videos will be similar. So it’s telling that they refer to it as a “cover” and use words like “interpolation” to describe this collection.
The terminology now makes sense to me. These are not performances of the original score, but takes on Cage’s own expansion of the idea that it could be performed as anything, at any time, for any duration (like the versions of 0’00” from Song Books). Presenting an alternative action during the “silence” of a representative version of 4’33” is not so much a reading of the score as it is an interpenetration of events. Which is fine, even enjoyable. Nevertheless, the very idea of 4’33” in the popular eye is surrounded in jokes and doubt, so it is ironically funny to think that a recording imparts the same sort of wonder that a live experience of it does.
Spoiler: it doesn’t.
In addition to witnessing it several times, I performed 4’33” at my undergraduate recital (on classical guitar!). Let me tell you… it is much more than just the sounds around you and what leaks in. It is a visceral experience that isn’t captured in a recording, where the very best of intentions can only pay tribute to the surreal actuality of sitting there, enduring the seconds as nothing happens. The tension in the audience is very VERY real. Sometimes funny, sometimes raucous, but regardless the performer must stay focussed. There is simply nothing that gives the work the heft that Mute describes without experiencing it firsthand.
As a kind of funny postscript… when I was near the end of my time in grad school, where I rigorously studied voice and Cage’s music, I was asked to participate in a production of Theater Piece, a work of simultaneous but unrelated events. Somehow, CF Peters (the sole publishers of Cage’s scores) heard of this production, that I was involved, and assuming me responsible tracked me down to demand royalties be paid for staging the piece. Except – for once – I wasn’t staging it, I was merely performing, and explained as much. I wonder… had I said we weren’t performingTheater Piece, only doing a cover of it, if they would have left us alone. 😉
Finally, I recommend No Such Thing As Silence: John Cage’s 4’33” by Kyle Gann if you’re curious about the mythology around this composition. It is far from my “favorite” piece of Cage’s but is assuredly the most important in American musical culture.
In no particular order, post 10 of your favorite albums, one per day, which made an impact on you. Post cover, no explanation, nominate someone each day to do the challenge.
I think these games are fascinating windows into peoples’ aesthetic, but because of FB’s sorting and selection criteria, I see maybe TWO of a particular friend’s ten-albums-once-per-day series. So, if I am taking the time to compile, I want to make sure you see them all. Plus I’m all into the cross-platform sharing thing and doing this on my blog helps me spread the word of good music (and keeps me writing). And being a DJ there are plenty of previously posted lists, check out previous blogs for more of my listening habits and recommendations.
One final note: this was fucking hard, and I had to mostly stick with certain genres (I can’t even begin to describe the numbers of vocal music recordings that have influenced me, for example). To cull influential albums down to 10 is worth the challenge alone… indeed, mine goes to 11. It could be an entirely different list tomorrow. Nevertheless, every one of these has a story (and not necessarily musical ones), but in keeping with the guidelines of the challenge, they will remain untold… for now. 🙂
Today I read through the InfoQ eMag on Chaos Engineering, and was struck by John Allspaw’s (@allspaw) contribution because it reminded me of something I jotted down on a sticky at my desk a few days ago:
Intuition is valid because it is learned like jazz changes.
I’m pretty stubborn and refuse to accept that music is merely a hobby of mine. When people ask me if electronic music or singing is my “hobby”, I am wincing inside. So a question often on my mind is: how does the intuition I have when performing and composing music connect with the work I do as a technologist?
Some musicological background might help. One concept in learning how to improvise (jazz or otherwise) is that you have developed an intuition built around internalizing the materials and form of the piece (or genre) – like scales, chord changes, or rhythm structures. This is different from the more lizard-brainy concept of instinct. Think about a blues progression, the foundation of music you hear every day, everywhere. You know intuitively the chord progression and timing is “right”, even so much that anomalies and departures come across as emotionally significant. The rest is pop history.
But you, homo sapiens, do not have this chord sequence pre-programed in your DNA, it isn’t something that is instinctual. By the same token, great technology leaders develop good intuition (expertise over hundreds of interviews) when hiring engineers but never rely on instinct (oh I just have a good “gut feeling”). The best DBAs have an intuitive understanding of their platform (you want to do X, but did you think of Y+Z?), but there’s nothing instinctual about it.
It is not a stretch, then, to recognize that intuition in improvised music can be directly compared to how Allspaw writes about the “mental map” that engineers develop. They each have their own subjective view on relevant (but overlapping) parts of the system and are challenged when relating each substrate to theirs. For instance, a phenomenon known as “fundamental common-ground breakdown” (Woods & Klein: Common Ground and Coordination in Joint Activity) happens when what I describe as intuitions (accumulated individual learnings about the system) are assumed knowledge among participants, good or bad. Part of the game is learning how to harmonize these separate threads of experience, avoiding costly coordination surprise and re-synchronization… and trust me, I have been in plenty of rehearsals and narrowly saved performances that fit this description!
The important point here is that a system becomes more complex as it grows dimensions, shrinking the capacity of any one person to comprehend the whole thing. Therefore we rely on shared and discovered knowledge to fully grok these fascinating systems. Take any ensemble of musicians: as it grows in membership, individuals gradually lose the ability to contain its myriad relationships in their mental map, so coordination and integration become a matter of listening and rehearsal experience (both modes of communication). Oh and it characterizes the music, too. Building intuition about how to play a part in an opera is much different than in a free improv vocal trio. Orchestrating ten thousand linux containers in a cloud provider doesn’t compare to managing two rows of server racks at the datacenter downtown.
Technologists grapple with the task of building and sharing intuitions about a system because understanding an entire system contributes to what we know about making it more resilient. Communication is key in either musical or engineering teams, collaboration on understanding the whole is no exception. Our mental maps should be adaptable to constant updates, and practices like Chaos Engineering that make discoveries in complex system behavior are supported by this kind of cross-pollination and proliferation of our combined understanding.
A quote from Allspaw’s article highlights it well:
Maybe the process of designing a chaos experiment is just as valuable as the actual performance of the experiment.
– John Allspaw, Recalibrating Mental Models through Design of Chaos Experiments
The use of the term “performance” is apt. We’re familiar with this concept: practice makes perfect. Taken further, the experience of practice is necessary such that the result is merely an extension of practice. It takes meticulous work to understand a piece of music to the level of having an intuition about how it operates, and the same goes for building experimentation that challenges what you think you know about complex software. The results of the “performance” can be enhanced by a focus on understanding the system’s design and steady state (i.e. nominal condition), what we would call the language of the musical work. It is as if the performance of the event naturally evolves from learnings gained preparing for it.
Imagine you are a jazz musician, you have gone through years of studying scales and changes and charts and recordings of a particular artist, and have built a capability for understanding how the language of their music works. One evening at a local club, your dreams are fulfilled, you’re in the audience and invited up for a set with them. You intuitively know how this person plays their music, as it has been a guide for your own. But when you’re jamming together, they do something indeterminately that informs your intuition in a way you would have never discovered yourself. Not only has the process of designing your inevitable collaboration been valuable to understand what you thought you needed to know to play like your biggest influence, but it also served as the basis for learning something new and unexpected.
Whether it is free improvisation or interpreting a through-composed piece of music (and everything in between), there is a certain amount of experience and training informing the performance. Eventually, when we’ve practiced enough, the music itself steps out of the way and intuition takes over. I think this is where my musical performance connection with technology starts: once you understand the fundamentals of the system, let the presentation of the system get out of the way, and you’re in a better place to evolve your mental map and gain further intuition through disciplines like Chaos Engineering.
The term disc jockey was first coined in 1935, referring of course to the phonograph discs that had become popular for recorded music. Forty years and dozens of musical genre shifts later, the Technics SL-1200 direct drive paved the way for turntablists, still concerned with round artifacts of engraved sound, but doing more live manipulation than just selecting and playing tunes.
Since then, it has come to signify any presentation of recorded music mixed for a listening audience. Drum machines and synthesizers snuck their way into the mix as hip-hop and house music were invented. The use of vinyl record “discs” morphed into Compact Discs and even cassette tapes and reel-to-reel mixing. Eventually, this led the activity of “DJing” into the most widespread application today: digital files played by any variety of control surfaces, from none at all to touch surfaces to spinning metal platters to full vinyl replicants that signaled transport controls to the playback system storing the file.
Building a set is another responsibility of DJing that is done in all kinds of different ways, with all kinds of different music, in all kinds of environments and settings. Whether you’re a radio DJ performing to an unknown audience or at a club holding up the dancefloor, there is an elegant methodology of diversity involved. Even when it’s a prescribed style, a lot of preparation goes into the Superb DJ Set.
What makes the Superb Set? I divide “the work of a DJ” into four basic categories:
The homework of selection. What do I like or want/need to include? (materials)
The spectrum of choice. What tracks make sense with what other tracks? (methods)
The environment of creation. What is the setting and acoustics? (form)
The flow of performance. What happens controlled in real time? (structure)
Regardless of medium (disc or no disc), DJs accomplish each step in different ways depending on who they are. It always involves the collection strategies, stylistic tastes, requirements of the event, attention to form and/or/not structure, personal goals (musical or professional), and the audience itself. The DJ may be a completely free improviser, an experimental sound artist, a wedding MC, a techno junkie, an EDM opportunist, a desert party space explorer, a masterful breakbeat juggler, or an underground house magician. I believe they all include some version of each of these categories.
Ready for this? The same tenets apply to building a Successful Technology Team. Compare:
Homework. Who do I want or need to include on this team?
Spectrum. Who has the right balance of talent that makes sense on this team?
Environment. What are the requirements of the business?
Flow. How does the team interact, collaborate, and ultimately deliver?
Just like the diverse history of DJs and music, tech teams span a vast range of expertise and function, not to mention approaches to organization. I’m talking about everything from day-to-day (or should I say, sprint-to-sprint) Agile teams and purpose-built developer tiger teams to “T-shaped engineers” on multi-functional operations teams and necessarily heterogeneous IT departments. Each of these individuals are like specific tracks on a record, the pieces of music themselves, expertly selected and set into sympathetic vibration and choreographing their own results. The audience is not only the customer but also product managers and project coordinators (not unlike event producers and organizers), and many other parts of the technology business.
In fact, where the DJ and the Technology Leader (let’s call them a ‘TL’) really intersect is diversity in construction and release of control. For example, the homework of the DJ might be crate digging or further exploration of known things online. The TL has the homework of digging into the talent pool and recognizing what they want or need on the team. Both are fraught with mistakes and hidden gems. The DJ selects a diverse spectrum of tracks to mix, while the TL should espouse diversity among teammates mixed together. The DJ’s venue is analogous to the TL’s workplace, what is needed not by the music/team but what shapes the work they do. Flow from track to track and section to section is no different from the team’s ongoing efforts to work together, match each others’ strengths, and support each others’ weaknesses.
The resultant similarity between a Superb Set and a Successful Tech Team is not really a tenet as much as it is the desired effect: the DJ/TL steps back and lets the music/team combine and take control. Once the DJ has prepared their set, when it is in full swing and engaging whatever audience, specific control is lost. External forces – like the energy of the dance floor, requests made by listeners, anomalies and failures in the sound system itself, or even just a scratch in the record – indeterminately affect the materials, structure, and flow. The Superb DJ is ready for these challenges, to help guide both the rules under which they operate and the engagement of participants involved to a harmonious and fulfilling goal.
If that’s not like building and running a great team, I don’t know what is. We deal daily with interruptions and unknowns in running software on distributed networks. Humans are humans, and like scratches in records, they can cause mild-to-severe issues within the team. Requests made by product (or other) managers can interrupt, company events will necessarily intertwine, and unforeseen losses of momentum and energy can mean nobody is dancing anymore.
Sometimes as a DJ I will buy a record because I like the sound or the album art or even just the composer’s name, only to find that its BPM doesn’t match anything I own, or its sound is too harsh to really use in a public setting. It is why it is crucial not to only consider one of the four tenets, but to carry the desire for something great as a thread through each phase of the approach. Intuition is good, but also including close evaluation and clear decision making is better. In that sense, careful listening and observation is as important in musical interpretation as it is managing diverse human personalities and lifting them be successful technology leaders themselves. It might be true that everyone is a DJ because they can just “press play”, but the Superb Set – and the Successful Tech Team – is the reachable dream.
John Cage liked to borrow. Whether in musical style or approach to theatre, the materials themselves are often not his. Musical scores evolved into graphic iconography or instruction governed by brackets of time and/or duration. Written pieces were amalgamations, mesostics “written through” other authors’ work, or more “cut-up” style constructions of various texts.
It applied to his philosophies, too. He is known to take bits and pieces of Eastern practice and weave their concepts into his worldview and compositional process. Concepts like the Huayan Buddhist “interpenetration” of all things were slightly bent by Cage, who found them useful for composing, but maybe slightly ignoring (or denying) any inherent interconnectedness.
Such synergy is often attributed to improvisation, like a jazz combo. On the contrary, Cage was very much about the accidental interpenetration of elements by downplaying any relationship importance between them at all. The idea of “playing off each other” as if playing jazz was not allowed, simply because it wasn’t scored that way.
These were simply concurrent events that coincided in layers against each other, necessarily connected by nothing but the experience, indeterminate and interpenetrating. It seems to imply chaos, and that is precisely how my wife described the LA Phil west coast premiere of Europeras 1 & 2 to me afterward: “too much going on for your brain to comprehend” and “the weirdest thing you’ve taken me to yet.”
Now that’s saying something! We’ve participated in Long Beach SoundWalk multiple years, we’ve seen some outrageous installations and concerts. Even my music is pretty damn strange. Whether or not this actually hit the tip of the Weirdometer, there was one thing we agreed upon: nothing was happening, and everything was happening.
My wife and I have never been to a movie studio lot, so it was a new experience just arriving and finding our way back through the closely stacked identical warehouses to Studio 23. The Sunday matinee crowd fascinated us. We guessed the throng held Cage fans, opera fans, music students, season ticket pass holders and supporters of LA Phil, friends of the cast and orchestra, and even scattered fashionistas.
Inside was a simple proscenium stage configuration, the audience rising up and back, fly loft and everything built into this huge soundstage. On each side of the main stage were three columns of orchestra, with most major instruments represented at least once. The stage itself was an 8×8 grid, marked with numbers 1-64 to represent hexagrams of the I Ching, which itself is used to drive the chance operations required for creating the performance based on Cage’s score.
The distinction of 1 & 2 is a programmatic one, they have always been performed together as a 90 + 45 minute show. So we settled in for a good bit of nothing we ever expected. Although I have never seen the Europera scores first hand, I have performed many other Cage pieces that revolve around the same concept: time brackets of performed material according to decisions arrived through chance operations. Many of his scores like this were performed simultaneously, so that not only did each individual composition interpenetrate with itself, it also did with the other piece.
The Europeras are a culmination of this approach by Cage, and not only because they are among the last works he composed before his death in 1992. Chance procedures determine every aspect of the production, from costuming and scenery to blocking and the placement of arias selected from the standard repertoire. In the midst, selections from Truckera (a tape of 101 layered European opera fragments) were broadcast stereoscopically across loudspeakers above the audience, giving the sonic illusion a “truck of opera” was rattling by the performance and drowning everything out.
The entire work becomes a brilliant collage of sight, sound, dimension, and movement. There are entirely mind-bending Fluxus moments of absurdity, subtle sequences of sublime beauty, and a good amount of unintended comedy.
The LA Phil performance mostly held true to Cage’s intent. There were dancers moving independently of both scrim- and prop-based scenery (also sequenced with chance operations), but also acting as stagehands and crew to move things around. Very seldom it starts to drift, as when these same dancers become engaged with the opera singers in their individual scenes.
I have to hand it to the singers in this production. It is not hyperbole to state that seeing this performed is at the top of my bucket list. These folks were charged with non-traditional blocking, ignoring every other musical cue they hear around them while staying in-tune as possible, having to watch the large count-up clocks posted on each precipice of the stage, navigate indeterminately moving scenery and other actors, all while performing a fully committed aria wearing costuming and performing blocking both separately derived by chance operations and completely unrelated to the entire way they were taught to interpret an aria.
Some did this better than others. One of the more successful sang “Oh du, mein holder Abendstern” from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, outfitted in full astronaut garb (minus helmet), the entire time both lying and moving around a hospital bed, while any number of other arias, scene changes, and lighting queues happened around him. I found it masterfully performed against a magnificent bed of chaos.
Many of the singers’ performances were like this. As was the orchestra. There was an incredible amount of commitment in this show that is absolutely vital to Cage’s music. The entire ensemble – from stage crew and props to performers and designers – dialed in on this aspect of performing Cage and it comes through.
Lighting queues and design were scored completely separately as well, often focussing on the audience, into the ceiling of the warehouse, across the back of the building behind the open stage area. Scrim backgrounds, some looking quite ancient, dropped at various elevations, frequently covering an entire “scene” behind it due to the chance operations involved. Sometimes individually numbered squares onstage were illuminated, amorphous areas of color appeared, and more than once a strange ladder descended made entirely of what appeared to be fluorescent rods.
Sopranos galloping on life-size fake horses carried by dancers, a baritone singing (Mozart?) while preparing a steak on a hot plate with chopped vegetables, a tenor in drag performing what I think was from Rake’s Progress (Stravinsky), the Toreador Song (from Carmen) staged to a commercial being filmed for hair products. Some scenes had no singing at all, like the baritone who sunbathed in 70s garb for what seemed like an eternity before he finally got up and sang a short aria. Or the girl backward in a running belt vibration machine drinking a coke with a straw in a full Wizard-of-Oz Dorothy outfit (complete with ruby slippers) and maybe sang, but maybe didn’t. Or the soprano auctioning off small statues to members of the orchestra, complete with gavel banging. Yoga and Queen of the Night, I think it was?
Except in one rare case where a tuba belted out Flight of the Valkyries, the orchestral parts were not as immediately recognizable as the arias, but equally enjoyable in the mix of it all. I especially loved interjections from percussion, like sudden cybals and tympani. The effect of this differentiated musical tissue was like an extended meditation on simultaneous sound against a landscape that was constantly in motion.
Overall, Europera 1 was more recognizable for me and felt like it breathed with long sequences, wonderful moments of silence where the HVAC in the huge studio warehouse took its solos, combinations of the orchestra that did not feel at all chance-derived, and I felt drawn in the entire time. Europera 2 felt more compressed, more frenetic, maybe more immediately interesting but definitely more chaotic. Nevertheless, it ultimately wasn’t as memorable as the first, and yet felt more voluminous and energetic. Even the chance-derived synopses (related to nothing) reflect this telescopic pattern:
He falls deeply in love with a beautiful streetsinger who staggers into the hut. He buys a love potion. Her candle goes out and impressed by his wealth she decides to marry him on the spot. The would reveals that after three years he will have himself crowned Emperor with the evil one’s help in exchange for his love. At first she flees; whereupon he gathers all his strength, she becomes passionately attached and begs a hermit’s refuge.
She sells his soul to her father with the aim of improving his impaired finances. Even her loving relatives are shocked. They rescue him. He retires. She agrees. Torn, they, in shame, pardon all conspirators. He agrees to marry her. She kills herself. He is chosen the victor.
After the final curtain dropped at precisely the correct time, we left the soundstage, the sun barely setting as we found our way out of Culver City. I reflected on how difficult it is to convey the real power in this category of Cage’s compositions without experiencing them firsthand, live and in person. In addition to the power of simply listening and seeing, his works of this kind express a sort of pandemonium that is at the same time masterfully controlled and undoubtedly a “work by Cage”: meticulously crafted experiences in anarchy.
I was once employed at a startup whose attitude about remote workers had begun to retrograde to the point where even simple tolerance of the practice became a hot point. Leadership was known to stroll through offices and make comments about how they didn’t see butts in seats, even frequenting some facilities on early morning Fridays just to scoff at the emptiness of the expansive “open floor plans” where interruptions and distractions were kept at a maximum. Human Resources went as far as to craft a strict remote worker policy, and included a very unpopular (and I think ultimately struck down) requirement of being in the office during “banking hours”. Multiple times, as both a senior engineer and hiring manager, I hit roadblocks with remote employee hires – really good ones. In fact, working from home became a privilege that had to be approved at the executive level.
Hard to believe I’m talking about a startup in the 21st century, isn’t it?
In Remote Worker: A Primer I gave an introduction to my rich history as a remote employee and included some tips on how teams can make it successful. So as egregious as this all sounds, I would rather move beyond the ranting and finger-pointing. I want to talk about health.
Soon after leaving said company, I happened to mention to a close friend on IRC about how my gastro-intestinal problems seemed to have subsided since I left. To my surprise, he mentioned exactly the same thing happening after a similar experience and then said a friend of his also made the same comment after leaving a stressful company situation. We were all victims of being in distress and not understanding why. Frankly, I thought it was tomato sauce.
So yeah, stress is weird. You cannot always identify it, sometimes until it’s too late, or when its sources have disappeared. It physically manifests in the weirdest places, so that you feel like you must be wrong in some other way… how could what seems like only an extreme mental condition cause such extreme physical distress?
I first recognized this effect when a manager (not my supervisor) at different startup came up to me to rail about some random technology decision, I can’t even remember what it was. The change was Hulk-like. I immediately flushed, I could feel the heat rising to my head, my ears start itching, eyes water. This person leaves after 5 minutes of ranting at me and I look down and I’m literally covered in hives.
I also used to have long, work-related nightmares featuring whatever employee or edict was brightest in my cranial heat-map at the time, and my feet would start intensely itching while I slept. The next morning I awoke covered in hives. This constant nagging of the itching would put me into weird fugue states where my mind was making strange abstract logic connections to my physical state, holding me in this kind of cognitive limbo where I wasn’t deeply sleeping but nowhere near awake, and not dreaming.
So I finally jumped.
I decided to take control of my career. For too many years after the first “DotCom Bubble Burst”, I felt like I was faking it. Good at what I set myself out to accomplish, but ultimately held back by one ceiling or another. Not always, but often enough, times felt rough and constantly churning under the whim of forces I could not control. I wanted to be an influencer and craft things, expand my learning, and contribute to the Earth.
Innovating technology work on a small, highly senior, and highly intelligent remote engineering team was exactly what my body needed. For the first time in years, I am regularly getting a good night’s sleep. Surprising considering the intensity of work and entire estates of new knowledge that I am now experiencing.
It may not seem obvious, but I discovered part of my stress was actually anticipating the alarm going off in the morning. I don’t need to make a train departure time for a 90-minute commute, the morning ritual is not rushed and haphazard, but I maintain it. I feel human waking up in the morning, and ready to conquer (no small amount of thanks to my spouse and partner in life, because our tiny house has now become my tiny office, too).
Look, I barely have room in my psyche to handle the anxiety of my personal world, much less my professional one. When there is stress on both sides, they feed off each other, self-amplifying in a torrential loop, difficult to break. Getting to a place where I can be myself and completely kick ass at what I do gives me the strength to handle stressful situations and not be stressed about them.
The chronic GI problems I used to have are no longer. I’ve lost weight. I get hives only from real allergies, physical things I can avoid (although you can argue I now eschew the mental ones as well). My relationships are closer, and it is invigorating to feel more connected to my local community. I’ve been energized to finish DIY builds and even record new things. Plus, I finally feel like I can make room – in time and thought – to write.
The flowers sort of peeked out of the tops of glasses.
They appeared to be in water, surviving only because the tender kept them wet.
Their smell wafted across the corner of the bar, hint of basil, tarragon, a combo that seemed like the mix of bergamot and chocolate.
The color of the green leaves almost sparkled in the setting sun, as beads of new water drifted across the cool curve of the tiny hurricane glasses, spilling moisture onto the slick marbletop, infusing the counter with diamonds as the air lifted scent across and over a weathered, oak-lined, finely carved bartop.
Her bolo tie hits the edge of the next drink poured as surely the color of rye emblazoned the clean stretch of night.
Inside, a bebop band sounded simply mingled into the cacophony, blurring the distraction between noise and structure, its improvisation almost composed as if the score called for a freely improvised crowd. Those sound their tones, the keys and metal with a sincerity of wanting this crowd to join them inside the music. Sleeping for nothing.
It was beside the books at the window where the plants were held in suspended existence, the last bartender told him: “I got a whole bunch of these, as much as you can fit in a bag for a dollar, right over at the farmers market.”
They looked rejuvinated, as if they had just been pulled from the ground, still tendrils of rooty structures veering into the water, searching for soil.
Infusing them relives into a redic sward be by thanks, lovers, cheaters, brothers, sisters, and murderers. So close to death, but so much hanging onto life due to one guy who, before leaving his shift, carefully filled each glass to sustain the illusion of longevity, only to be consumed.
Eventually the smells of the city drifted in through the glass-paned doors, mingling with dozens of body scents, various plumes of sharp liquor, emulsifying cloud of perfume and stinging cologne.
Still he sat, looking over the tops of books, instructions for a living wage, maps and legends to guide the patrons (or even the hosts) through the evening.
Across the way, a fire twinkling, gaslamps glowing, trailing lights and sexy street waving, somewhat of a corner, and then wind.
I’ve been clearing out shelves and digging through old notebooks, and came across this steno pad from the summer of 1998, exactly 20 years ago. I lived in the northern suburbs of DC, worked as a graveyard shift unix system administrator at a datacenter company called Digex, and hosted a radio show for two years while I studied in graduate school as a vocal student and specialist in experimental vocal music and opera performance. These were also the years I was heavily entrenched in the mid-Atlantic free improvisation and experimental avant-garde music and noise scene.
As an undergrad I hosted an early morning (6-9am) show on WUVT that was all about experimental music and jazz, something the station didn’t have, and wanted to carry that tradition on in grad school. Naturally, it was at the U of Maryland that I hosted an experimental music radio show on WMUC, called “Mother of Invention”.
The notebook flips between esoteric sysadmin notes, network architecture doodles, scribbled passwords and my radio playlists from the show. I will spare you the chicken scratch of Sun hardware, kerberos, RAID, nfs, mysql (yep, it existed back then) and T1 interface notes… let’s focus on the playlists!
Below you’ll find my complete playlists from this summer, from around July 2018 sometime into the fall, because like an idiot I was horrible at notating dates back then but some pages do have them. Originally I thought, hey! I should do each as a single blog post… but then I figured it’s much better as a single reference, because social media is great at hiding sequentially updating things.
I hope you enjoy this blast from the past, and learn to enjoy some incredible music that is just as interesting and groundbreaking today as it was 20 years ago.
— July 27, 1998 —
Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Overture
Heikki Nikula (Jarmo Sermilä) : Danza 4B
Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Tomkins Square (3 parts)
Jarmo Sermilä (Miklos Maros) : Manipulation Vbis
Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Booty Dance
Jerry Hunt : Transform (stream): monopole
Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : I Love You So Much
Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : As Momentums Go By
Eve Beglarian : Disappearance Act
Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Recitative: Trombone, Guitar, Harp & Drums
Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : So Noble and Kind He Seemed
Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Clockworks
Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Now and From Finale Part One
Arvo Pärt : Berliner Messes Kyrie
Arvo Pärt : Berliner Messes Gloria
Arvo Pärt : Erster Alleluiavers
Arvo Pärt : Zweiter Alleluiavers
Arvo Pärt : Veni Sancte Spiritus
Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Introduction Giovanni’s Dream
Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Immitations
Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Upshifting on an Upgrade
Heikki Nikula (Markus Fagerudd) : Ingrepp I
Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Spontaneous Navigation
Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : ‘Til the Cows Come Home
Ellsworth Milburn : Menil Antiphons
Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : T. Sq. Reaggitated
Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Desolution
Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Z Gate To A Void
Frederic Rzewski : Jefferson
Morgan Powell : Alone
Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Carnival
Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Epilogue
Jarmo Sermilä : Pois
Jarmo Sermilä : Tango macabre
Jarmo Sermilä : Urbanology 7
— August 3, 1998 —
John Cage : Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra, 3rd part
Morton Feldman : Piano Piece (for Philip Guston)
Allen Anderson : Klava in Strada
Heikki Nikula (Timo Hietula) : Strutsi Ostrich
Zeena Parkins : Scruples
if, bwana : 3 out of 4 (Ain’t Bad)
Jarmo Sermilä : Contemplation I
Chris Brown : Wheelies
John Cage : Fourth Interlude / Sonata XIII
Michael Kowalski : Vapor Trails
Jim Staley : Roast the Bird
Jim Staley : Sunny’s Halo
John Cage : Song Books (performed by Comma)
Edward T. Cone : New Weather
Stewart Saunders Smith : Wind in the Channel
David Mahler : Rising Ground
T.A.S. Mani : Konnakkol
— August 10, 1998 —
John Cage : Sonata V
William Thomas McKinley : Curtain Up
Charles Ives : March: “Here’s to Good Old Yale”
Arnold Schoenberg : Serenade, Op. 24 – Marsch, Menuett
Bela Bartok : String Quartet No. 5 – Schertzo: Alla bulgarese
Philip Glass : Rubric
Lukas Foss : Baroque Variations: On a Bach Prelude “Phorion”
Iannis Xenakis : Echange
Mestres-Quadreny : Música Per A Anna
Larry Polansky : Movement for Andréa Smith
Morton Feldman : Piano Piece 1955
David Mahler : Cup of Coffee
Kenneth Gaburo : Antiphony III
Ton Bruynel : Serene
if, bwana : Flute Thang
Stuart Saunders Smith : Family Portraits: Brenda
John Cage : Etudes Australes: Book 1, #5
William C. Banfield : Wagussyduke
Tom Trenka : Watch… Wait
Mike Vargas : Stripe: 2
— August 17, 1998 —
An all John Cage show:
Five Songs for Contralto
First Construction (In Metal)
Forever & Sunsmell
Tossed as it is Untroubled
Root of an Unfocus
Sonatas & Interludes for Prepared Piano: Sonata XVI
Sixteen Dances: No. 15 (The Erotic)
String Quartet in Four Parts: slowly rocking
Music of Changes: Book I & II
Concert for Piano & Orchestra
Cheap Imitation (I)
Song Books: Solo for Voice 49 & 67
— August 24, 1998 —
Elliot Miles McKinley : Summer Portraits
Eve Beglarian : Disappearance Act
Philip Glass : Freezing
Alexis Alrich : Night Air
John Bischoff : The Glass Hand
David Tudor : Rainforest (Version I)
Gavin Bryars : The Sinking of the Titanic
Joseph Celli : 36 Strings
Lisa Gerrard : Celon
Richard Einhorn : Voices of Light
Richard Einhorn : Victory at Orleans (Letter from Joan of Arc)
Italian Instabile Orchestra : Satie Satin
Italian Instabile Orchestra : Fellini Song
That Nothing Is Known (John Berndt) : Improvisation 6
Spin 17 (Ed Chang) : Mirror mirror on the wall…
if, bwana : Ellensbirds
Shelley Hirsch / Ikue Mori / David Shea / Jim Staley : Ulula Zone
Christian Marclay : Neutral
— September 1, 1998 —
David Weinstein : Poland
J. A. Deane & Martin Schütz : Sounds from the Third Stone
Kenneth Gaburo : The Wasting of Lucrecetzia
Roger Reynolds : Blind Men
Richard Einhorn : Voices of Light: V. Pater Noster
Krzysztof Penderecki : Utrenja: The Entombment of Christ
Philip Glass : Dance #3
John Cage : Sonatas & Interludes for Prepared Piano: XIV & XV
Morton Feldman : Extensions 3
Mike Vargas : Diads (Part 1)
Iréne Schweitzer : Unexpected Demand
Nick Didkovsky : The Twittering Machine: Little Jester in a Trance
Leo Kupper : Guitarra Cubana
Miklós Maros : Manipulation Vbis
Eve Beglarian : The Garden of Cyrus: Sections IV & V
Circular Firing Squad : Inertialess Drive
Lowell Cross : Three Etudes for Magnetic Tape
Pauline Oliveros : Beautiful Soap
— September 8, 1998 —
Doug Cohen : On a fait partout crier
Matt R Davis : Satchel Spilleth Peas
John Cage : Etudes Australes #9
John Zorn : Carny
William Thomas McKinley : Curtain Up
Sofia Gubaidulina : Chaconne
Olivier Messiaen : Quartet for the End of Time: Liturgie de Cristal
Sofia Gubaidulina : String Quartet No. 4
Philip Glass : Einstein on the Beach: Act III/i (Trial/Prison)
John Cage : Europera 5
Luciano Berio : Sequenza III
György Ligeti : Nouvelles Aventures
Eve Beglarian : Disappearance Act
Norman Lowrey : Dreaming/Weaving (river/stars)
Eirik Lie : 112 Par Sko
Colby Leider : Veni Creator Spiritus
Guy Klucevsek : Sylvan Steps
Bill Frisell : April 16, 1988
— September 15, 1998 —
Laurie Anderson : Maria Teresa Teresa Maria
John Adams : Bump
Robert Gibson : Ex Machina
Larry Moss : Timepiece
Stuart Saunders Smith : Notebook
Toru Takemitsu : All In Twilight
Karlheinz Stockhausen : Set Sail for the Sun
Malcolm Goldstein : A Summoning of Focus
Morton Feldman : Voices & Cello
Robert Ashley : Improvement (Scene 18)
Henryk Górecki : Miserere
Igor Stravinsky : Abraham and Issac
John Adams : Tourist Song
— September 22, 1998 —
John Berndt : Improvisation #5
David Behrman : A Traveller’s Dream Journal
György Ligeti : Glissandi
The Hub : Waxlips
John Cage : She is Asleep
John Cage : The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs
Henry Cowell : The Banshee
Henry Cowell : Aeolean Harp
Iréne Schweitzer : Unexpected Demand
John Cage : Sonatas & Interludes for Prepared Piano: Sonata I
Steve Reich : Tehillim: Part III
Meredith Monk : Volcano Songs: Duets
David Hykes : Hallelujah
Comma : Corduroy Piano Dream
Luciano Berio : Circles: n(o)w
Brian Smith : The Panther
Howard Rovics : Tangere
Pauline Oliveros : A Woman Sees…
Mike Vargas : Zone: High
Trigger : Windows
Herbert Henck : Hymmstrom the Great Temple: Hymn 1
Arnold Schoenberg : Five Pieces for Orchestra
Stewart S. Smith : Hawk
William Schuman : Orpheus with his Lute
— September 29, 1998 —
Ellsworth Milburn : String Quartet No. 2
Igor Stravinsky : Concertino for String Quartet
Larry Polansky : Movement for Andréa Smith
Béla Bartók : String Quartet No. 4 (IV-V)
John Fonville : Many Songs
Howard Rovics : Cybernetic Study
Stuart S. Smith : Gifts
Iannis Xenakis : Kraanerg
John Cage : Concert for Piano and Orchestra
Philip Glass : Prophecies & Rubric
John Cage : Sonatas & Interludes for Prepared Piano: Sonata I
Morgan Powell : FFFF
John Cage : Sonatas & Interludes for Prepared Piano: Etude V