LA Phil graces Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2

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.

The Shocking Before and After of Remoteness

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,
finely carved

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.

(August, San Francisco, 2018)

WUMC 1998: Mother of Invention

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 —

  1. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Overture
  2. Heikki Nikula (Jarmo Sermilä) : Danza 4B
  3. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Tomkins Square (3 parts)
  4. Jarmo Sermilä (Miklos Maros) : Manipulation Vbis
  5. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Booty Dance
  6. Jerry Hunt : Transform (stream): monopole
  7. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : I Love You So Much
  8. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : As Momentums Go By
  9. Eve Beglarian : Disappearance Act
  10. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Recitative: Trombone, Guitar, Harp & Drums
  11. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : So Noble and Kind He Seemed
  12. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Clockworks
  13. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Now and From Finale Part One
  14. Arvo Pärt : Berliner Messes Kyrie
  15. Arvo Pärt : Berliner Messes Gloria
  16. Arvo Pärt : Erster Alleluiavers
  17. Arvo Pärt : Zweiter Alleluiavers
  18. Arvo Pärt : Veni Sancte Spiritus
  19. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Introduction Giovanni’s Dream
  20. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Immitations
  21. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Upshifting on an Upgrade
  22. Heikki Nikula (Markus Fagerudd) : Ingrepp I
  23. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Spontaneous Navigation
  24. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : ‘Til the Cows Come Home
  25. Ellsworth Milburn : Menil Antiphons
  26. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : T. Sq. Reaggitated
  27. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Desolution
  28. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Z Gate To A Void
  29. Frederic Rzewski : Jefferson
  30. Morgan Powell : Alone
  31. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Carnival
  32. Jim Staley’s Don Giovanni : Epilogue
  33. Jarmo Sermilä : Pois
  34. Jarmo Sermilä : Tango macabre
  35. Jarmo Sermilä : Urbanology 7

— August 3, 1998 —

  1. John Cage : Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra, 3rd part
  2. Morton Feldman : Piano Piece (for Philip Guston)
  3. Allen Anderson : Klava in Strada
  4. Heikki Nikula (Timo Hietula) : Strutsi Ostrich
  5. Zeena Parkins : Scruples
  6. if, bwana : 3 out of 4 (Ain’t Bad)
  7. Jarmo Sermilä : Contemplation I
  8. Chris Brown : Wheelies
  9. John Cage : Fourth Interlude / Sonata XIII
  10. Michael Kowalski : Vapor Trails
  11. Jim Staley : Roast the Bird
  12. Jim Staley : Sunny’s Halo
  13. John Cage : Song Books (performed by Comma)
  14. Edward T. Cone : New Weather
  15. Stewart Saunders Smith : Wind in the Channel
  16. David Mahler : Rising Ground
  17. T.A.S. Mani : Konnakkol

— August 10, 1998 —

  1. John Cage : Sonata V
  2. William Thomas McKinley : Curtain Up
  3. Charles Ives : March: “Here’s to Good Old Yale”
  4. Arnold Schoenberg : Serenade, Op. 24 – Marsch, Menuett
  5. Bela Bartok : String Quartet No. 5 – Schertzo: Alla bulgarese
  6. Philip Glass : Rubric
  7. Lukas Foss : Baroque Variations: On a Bach Prelude “Phorion”
  8. Iannis Xenakis : Echange
  9. Mestres-Quadreny : Música Per A Anna
  10. Larry Polansky : Movement for Andréa Smith
  11. Morton Feldman : Piano Piece 1955
  12. David Mahler : Cup of Coffee
  13. Kenneth Gaburo : Antiphony III
  14. Ton Bruynel : Serene
  15. if, bwana : Flute Thang
  16. Stuart Saunders Smith : Family Portraits: Brenda
  17. John Cage : Etudes Australes: Book 1, #5
  18. William C. Banfield : Wagussyduke
  19. Tom Trenka : Watch… Wait
  20. Mike Vargas : Stripe: 2

— August 17, 1998 —

An all John Cage show:

  1. Five Songs for Contralto
  2. First Construction (In Metal)
  3. Forever & Sunsmell
  4. Tossed as it is Untroubled
  5. Root of an Unfocus
  6. Sonatas & Interludes for Prepared Piano: Sonata XVI
  7. Sixteen Dances: No. 15 (The Erotic)
  8. String Quartet in Four Parts: slowly rocking
  9. Music of Changes: Book I & II
  10. Concert for Piano & Orchestra
  11. Aria
  12. Cartridge Music
  13. Cheap Imitation (I)
  14. Song Books: Solo for Voice 49 & 67
  15. Sonnekus2
  16. Four6
  17. Fourteen

— August 24, 1998 —

  1. Elliot Miles McKinley : Summer Portraits
  2. Eve Beglarian : Disappearance Act
  3. Philip Glass : Freezing
  4. Alexis Alrich : Night Air
  5. John Bischoff : The Glass Hand
  6. David Tudor : Rainforest (Version I)
  7. Gavin Bryars : The Sinking of the Titanic
  8. Joseph Celli : 36 Strings
  9. Lisa Gerrard : Celon
  10. Richard Einhorn : Voices of Light
  11. Richard Einhorn : Victory at Orleans (Letter from Joan of Arc)
  12. Italian Instabile Orchestra : Satie Satin
  13. Italian Instabile Orchestra : Fellini Song
  14. That Nothing Is Known (John Berndt) : Improvisation 6
  15. Spin 17 (Ed Chang) : Mirror mirror on the wall…
  16. if, bwana : Ellensbirds
  17. Shelley Hirsch / Ikue Mori / David Shea / Jim Staley : Ulula Zone
  18. Christian Marclay : Neutral

— September 1, 1998 —

  1. David Weinstein : Poland
  2. J. A. Deane & Martin Schütz : Sounds from the Third Stone
  3. Kenneth Gaburo : The Wasting of Lucrecetzia
  4. Roger Reynolds : Blind Men
  5. Richard Einhorn : Voices of Light: V. Pater Noster
  6. Krzysztof Penderecki : Utrenja: The Entombment of Christ
  7. Philip Glass : Dance #3
  8. John Cage : Sonatas & Interludes for Prepared Piano: XIV & XV
  9. Morton Feldman : Extensions 3
  10. Mike Vargas : Diads (Part 1)
  11. Iréne Schweitzer : Unexpected Demand
  12. Nick Didkovsky : The Twittering Machine: Little Jester in a Trance
  13. Leo Kupper : Guitarra Cubana
  14. Miklós Maros : Manipulation Vbis
  15. Eve Beglarian : The Garden of Cyrus: Sections IV & V
  16. Circular Firing Squad : Inertialess Drive
  17. Lowell Cross : Three Etudes for Magnetic Tape
  18. Pauline Oliveros : Beautiful Soap

— September 8, 1998 —

  1. Doug Cohen : On a fait partout crier
  2. Matt R Davis : Satchel Spilleth Peas
  3. John Cage : Etudes Australes #9
  4. John Zorn : Carny
  5. William Thomas McKinley : Curtain Up
  6. Sofia Gubaidulina : Chaconne
  7. Olivier Messiaen : Quartet for the End of Time: Liturgie de Cristal
  8. Sofia Gubaidulina : String Quartet No. 4
  9. Philip Glass : Einstein on the Beach: Act III/i (Trial/Prison)
  10. John Cage : Europera 5
  11. Luciano Berio : Sequenza III
  12. György Ligeti : Nouvelles Aventures
  13. Eve Beglarian : Disappearance Act
  14. Norman Lowrey : Dreaming/Weaving (river/stars)
  15. Eirik Lie : 112 Par Sko
  16. Colby Leider : Veni Creator Spiritus
  17. Guy Klucevsek : Sylvan Steps
  18. Bill Frisell : April 16, 1988

— September 15, 1998 —

  1. Laurie Anderson : Maria Teresa Teresa Maria
  2. John Adams : Bump
  3. Robert Gibson : Ex Machina
  4. Larry Moss : Timepiece
  5. Stuart Saunders Smith : Notebook
  6. Toru Takemitsu : All In Twilight
  7. Karlheinz Stockhausen : Set Sail for the Sun
  8. Malcolm Goldstein : A Summoning of Focus
  9. Morton Feldman : Voices & Cello
  10. Robert Ashley : Improvement (Scene 18)
  11. Henryk Górecki : Miserere
  12. Igor Stravinsky : Abraham and Issac
  13. John Adams : Tourist Song

— September 22, 1998 —

  1. John Berndt : Improvisation #5
  2. David Behrman : A Traveller’s Dream Journal
  3. György Ligeti : Glissandi
  4. The Hub : Waxlips
  5. John Cage : She is Asleep
  6. John Cage : The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs
  7. Henry Cowell : The Banshee
  8. Henry Cowell : Aeolean Harp
  9. Iréne Schweitzer : Unexpected Demand
  10. John Cage : Sonatas & Interludes for Prepared Piano: Sonata I
  11. Steve Reich : Tehillim: Part III
  12. Meredith Monk : Volcano Songs: Duets
  13. David Hykes : Hallelujah
  14. Comma : Corduroy Piano Dream
  15. Luciano Berio : Circles: n(o)w
  16. Brian Smith : The Panther
  17. Howard Rovics : Tangere
  18. Pauline Oliveros : A Woman Sees…
  19. Mike Vargas : Zone: High
  20. Trigger : Windows
  21. Herbert Henck : Hymmstrom the Great Temple: Hymn 1
  22. Arnold Schoenberg : Five Pieces for Orchestra
  23. Stewart S. Smith : Hawk
  24. William Schuman : Orpheus with his Lute

— September 29, 1998 —

  1. Ellsworth Milburn : String Quartet No. 2
  2. Igor Stravinsky : Concertino for String Quartet
  3. Larry Polansky : Movement for Andréa Smith
  4. Béla Bartók : String Quartet No. 4 (IV-V)
  5. John Fonville : Many Songs
  6. Howard Rovics : Cybernetic Study
  7. Stuart S. Smith : Gifts
  8. Iannis Xenakis : Kraanerg
  9. John Cage : Concert for Piano and Orchestra
  10. Philip Glass : Prophecies & Rubric
  11. John Cage : Sonatas & Interludes for Prepared Piano: Sonata I
  12. Morgan Powell : FFFF
  13. John Cage : Sonatas & Interludes for Prepared Piano: Etude V
  14. Morton Feldman : Extensions 3
  15. if, bwana : Mal Air


Remote Worker: A Primer

I am the nerd who annoyed you as a roommate because I always had the phone line busy dialing into BBSes when you were pounding cheap beer to “jump up jump up and get down” in the living room, while I searched Usenet for pirated software and other nefarious files, loving the thrill of connecting to a different reality.

I am the music major geek at a largely engineering-focussed university that sat for hours at the library VAX/VMS amber-toned terminal using raw telnet to log into MUDs and MOOs, attempting RPG challenges, having “virtual sex” and all other kinds of things, collaborating on tracks, partying together as a community IRL, and creating some of the strongest friendships I have today.

I am the underground file sharing maven, exploring an entire world of both listening to and creating music that I only know through meeting people on Hotline and IRC. It’s also very likely I would have never experienced fly fishing without them.

One day while working on the music department gopher server on an Apple LC running MacBSD, I learned about the “talk” command, and was amazed that such an operating system could connect me directly to someone on a computer in the UK. Even though I had been on MUD/MOO and BBS for years, I remember it making a big impression on me. It gave me a sense of independent worldliness, where I did not need any one of these tools to communicate immediately with people across the globe. I glimpsed a world of opportunity unfolding before me.

Getting into BSD got me into ACM, among even more people who spent the majority of their social life as avatars that comprised a “cyber self”. There was no Facebook, no graphical social media at all. Even so, throughout all these online platforms, I began to think of myself also inhabiting a “cyber world” in addition to the analog world. Not only that, as I spent more and more time online, my typing got better and better! I absolutely account my strong typing skills to being so involved in text-based social networks. There is an inherent creativity in needing to use only words to communicate, Twitter’s character limitation always reminds me of an early high school English assignment to “write an entire story in one sentence”.

Indeed, I got my real start in my current career by being heavily involved in these tools. From the very beginning, the idea of being remote and collaborating with people in different locations and time zones has been ingrained in my work approach. This style of communication became a distinct part of me. Not only were programming languages important, but so was an attention to human language itself. I already wrote a lot of poetry, so the transition to interactive wordsmithing was not too far a jump. At AOL, where I worked in a real office but remote to HQ (then in Virginia), you were considered “in the office” by being present on AIM.

This isn’t to say there aren’t face-to-face interactions. This is a crucial part of making remote employees work, there has to be some intersection of in-person human contact. This could be weekly or monthly or more, but in my experience even a one-time visit with a remote collaborator/employee/colleague/friend can make a universe of difference in understanding how to work with them. You’ll notice in my lineage as a “cyber personality” I often mention in-person interactions, it is always an important part of it, even though it may not happen very often (that said, I have known people who were married online without ever having met in-person).

Companies where I’ve been employed have always had a mixture of in-office and remote, and while some do it naturally and consider it a core value, others cannot seem to gain any consistency. Regardless of whether it’s a nearly 100% remote situation, multiple offices separated by both distance and time zone, or a small population of great employees external to headquarters, the company culture must embrace it.

One enemy of this approach is the “open floor plan”, which is closely related to the other enemy: unintentional locality. When a team is distributed, the entire team needs to be a part of what the team discusses and decides. When there are concentrations of that team in any one place, there is a tendency to make decisions and communicate planning to only those who are local. In database operations, we call this “split brain”, and it can have catastrophic results; one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing, even if it’s the same thing.

Anything at all that feels like a team-wide thing should be taken to your distributed team tool set. I’ve found that it feels much more natural to default to this behavior if you also socialize on the same tools. Just like you’d joke around or share some knowledge in person, do it in chat. Make it a habit that it’s the first place you turn. In fact, I have even found that text-based chat tools surmount language barriers. There are former colleagues of mine who spoke terrible English, but had a much better command of it when typing, so I would much prefer having a conversation in chat than otherwise.

I might be a special case because I have been insufflated with the concept of working with people remotely since before the “web” even existed. Nevertheless, I believe it can be a learned skill, and it doesn’t have to be entirely chat-based either. Collaborative video and whiteboard solutions exist nowadays as well. Regardless of the tool, what it does take is commitment to making it work, threading it into your company culture and not treat remote employees as exceptions that become a second thought. The first thought should be: how are we making sure we’re inclusive and communicating well?

What will happen if you don’t do this? Remote workers will feel unloved, uninformed, and cut off. You will lose good people and not be able to hire more. The perceived trouble with communicating with them actually extends from not planning on supporting that style of communication from the beginning. I would go as far as making this part of the interview process, even on the job description. Underline that collaboration with remote workers is necessary and required, and the company supports this paradigm as part of its culture.

In at least one case I have witnessed a company go the opposite direction. Praise was handed down multiple times that the advantage they had was that everyone was under one roof, and agile teams can work more closely together. This attitude went un-checked and un-corrected, which gives remote workers – even in large remote offices – the feeling of exclusion. There must have been some sense that a successful distributed company will “just work” by nature of it already containing remote workers, but that’s not enough. You have to go the extra mile to make it happen, you must foster a culture of inclusion and respect for remote employees. This is one thing you cannot half-ass and “just see if it works out”; commit to it working, and it will.


Probably around five years ago now, while much further in the depths of a thrice-laid-off financial hole the technology industry bestowed upon me, I became fixated with actually building my own electronic instruments. Ensuing the expertise to make music that way, I departed into the wide unknown universe of DIY audio.

The first time I encountered a small, personal modular synthesizer was during a long gallery installation and collaborative work by Achim Wollscheid in Chicago (I also happened to have given him a ride to where he was going his first night there, and had rich conversations for the short time we were all together). I had my motley collection of contact-mics and sampling objects and looping pedals and probably what could be called a portable John Cage concert, which I used to improvise alongside Achim as he did the same over enormous loudspeakers placed in the ceiling of the large public space in this gallery (yes, I recorded). Anyway, someone else coming in to collaborate set up next to me on the balcony overlooking the space, revealing a portable Doepfer A-100 suitcase model.

That’s when it was over. That’s the exact moment when a lot of things clicked, but apropos to our topic it was definitely the first time I felt the urging pang of modular desire, and barely realized it.

Fast forward ten years; as of 2012 I am the proud owner of a new disease known casually as idiomatic modularsynthacropy, or the addiction to building complex systems realized by modular synths. I think it’s genetic, because this is an occupation my wife lovingly calls “The Rocket” due to my studio resembling a half-built starship cockpit (or at least the bar in one), and my brother being an actual rocket scientist.

It first manifested itself after Chicago “event” in the form of electronic tinkering and eventually the building of my own simple devices, made specifically to be used alongside other analog/acoustic instruments of improvisation. As it happened certain events also related to my unlucky job streak in the Internet business ended up affording me a barebones entry-level one 3U rack half-full beginner outfit: 8 ‘eurorack’ style modules, the format Doepfer popularized, and in fact some are the very same kind I had first seen in that suitcase ten years ago.

Muffwigglers is the forum for this disease, and there’s even a forthcoming documentary. A lot of the musicians I admire the most are modular users, and I’m happy and fortunate to join their ranks along with a pretty decent wealth of electronic building knowledge under my belt in addition to the musicality. So I shared some of my accumulated knowledge recently on that forum, and wanted to post it here and add a bit of history.


Everything listed here except for the first book were published after I started into the DIY world of audio, and after spending literally DAYS of searching and reading electronics tutorials and articles online, they have become my ‘go-to’ stack for reference and inspiration.

1. If you aren’t familiar with Forrest Mims, get familiar with him. I just picked up Vol I. of his “Engineer’s Mini Notebook” series, which is titled: Timer, Op Amp & Optoelectronic Circuits & Projects. It should have been titled: The Building Blocks of Analog Modular Synthesis, and I wish I had discovered it five years ago when I first started into building this stuff, cause it is indispensable. All the “how do i build a 555 timer?” and “how do i correctly power an opamp?” or “what frequencies do i get if i change these resistors?” questions that you search for hours on the Internet? It’s all in here – there’s even a chapter on photocouplers – aka ‘varactors’ – which are used a lot for CV audio systems.

2. Another specific project-oriented book but much more glossy and full of awesome examples and a DVD (which I haven’t gotten around to watching yet, shame on me) is Handmade Electronic Music by Nicolas Collins. This one is specific to DIY audio hacking and electronic building, covering everything from building oscillators (different chips than the Mims books!) to circuit bending and experimental electronics.

3. Make has started releasing awesome print publications (I have two of the Maker’s Notebooks and love them). The one I’ve found the most applicable and helpful to audio DIY is by Charles Platt and is one of the first: Make: Electronics. Simple, easy to understand tutorials on the foundations of… well, making stuff. With Electronics.

4. Finally the most general of all of them but something that is a great learning resource for a wide range of electronic applications, by Michael Jay Geier, How to Diagnose and Fix Everything Electronic. The title doesn’t lie. Every chapter is basically a Cliff’s Notes on that particular subject or piece of equipment, summarizing how it works, what might go wrong with it or often does, and how to troubleshoot and fix it. It also includes quick introductions to fundamentals of physics and other things related to electronic parts and machines… and most importantly to us, a wonderful introduction to oscilloscopes and how to both choose and use them.

All these books together will probably cost you as much as a good VCO module! lol But they are worth it, I highly recommend any of these to the DIY audio muffer.

Fullerton Art Walk Menagerie

Here’s my own collection of aural glass animals for you to enjoy… a mix of groovy and beaty dreamscapes (3:38 @ 256K cbr mp3), recorded live for the Fullerton Art Walk on Friday (April 6), accompanying tattoo artist Jon Kelly (known for Olde Tyme Tattoo) as he applies his latest in biomechanical fashion.

=== e d  i   t ===

…by the way a vinyl mix…