Living 4’33”

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.

This is also not the first time 4’33” has been “recorded” for the purpose of a record release and not as part of a live performance. Frank Zappa has done it, Pauline Oliveros and the Deep Listening Band plus others, and some even got sued for it. However, this tweet from the John Cage Trust, of all places, put me on guard:

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 performing Theater 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.

So You Want 10 Albums?

Ok Bob. You asked for it. With one caveat.

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. 🙂

Pink Floyd ::: The Dark Side of the Moon
Jethro Tull ::: Stand Up
Sound Track ::: The Cooler
Miles Davis ::: Kind of Blue
Naked City ::: Grand Guignol
Autechre ::: LP5
Shpongle ::: Are You Shpongled?
Peter Gabriel ::: Us
Squarepusher ::: Selection Sixteen
Lusine ::: Serial Hodgepodge
John Cage ::: Sonatas & Interludes for Prepared Piano (Joshua Pierce, piano)

Musical Intuition meet Technology and Chaos

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.

Successful Tech Teams and the Superb DJ Set

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:

  1. The homework of selection. What do I like or want/need to include? (materials)
  2. The spectrum of choice. What tracks make sense with what other tracks? (methods)
  3. The environment of creation. What is the setting and acoustics? (form)
  4. 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:

  1. Homework. Who do I want or need to include on this team?
  2. Spectrum. Who has the right balance of talent that makes sense on this team?
  3. Environment. What are the requirements of the business?
  4. 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.

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.