In November 2014, award-winning author Margaret Atwood visited Arizona State University as part of the Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative. In this interview, she discusses topics ranging from climate change and storytelling to the nature of hope and how she conducts scientific research for her books. To read an expanded version of the interview with Ed Finn of the Center for Science and the Imagination, visit Future Tense.
Margaret Atwood on Hope and the “Everything Change”March 30, 2015
In November 2014, award-winning author Margaret Atwood visited Arizona State University as part of the Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative. In this interview, she discusses topics ranging from climate change and storytelling to the nature of hope and how she conducts scientific research for her books.
Poetry for RobotsMarch 26, 2015
Our stuff is meaningful; it’s symbolically and semiotically imbued with signals of memory, utility, and identity. These meanings are the fabric of culture – shared ideas…March 26, 2015 Corey Pressman
Our stuff is meaningful; it’s symbolically and semiotically imbued with signals of memory, utility, and identity. These meanings are the fabric of culture – shared ideas and values that we acquire as members of society. They exist as thoughts we carry in our skulls, thoughts triggered when we consider or encounter our things. This symbolic capacity provides the mental metadata our neocortex is wired to bear and society is arrayed to share.
When we perch digital objects like our Instagram pics and YouTube videos, they accumulate a truly novel dimension. This is an accretion of comments, likes, search affinities, and what computer scientists call descriptive or guide metadata. Defined on Wikipedia as “usually expressed as a set of keywords in a natural language,” this metadata is a persistent halo of co-creation hugging our digital objects. And all this is fundamentally different from the cortical-cultural metadata associated with our regular stuff described above. Unlike mental metadata, digital tags and comments streams exist “out there” and are more readily bound to digital objects. It’s as if our myriad thoughts about our favorite chair were pinned to its cushions on little slips of paper.
The hashtags on my Instagram account are expressions in the same genre; they are whispered asides to the machine, complete with a silent “#” prefix of computer (vs. human) code. Hashtag machine slang has even migrated into our human-human communications; hashtagged metadata works as paralinguistic commentary in tweets or can even be found in speech. Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake’s commentary on this practice is #flawless.
Either way, hashtagging originated as a way for us to write to machines. This notion is not all that crazy. Consider the observations of Jaron Lanier at the outset of his book You Are Not a Gadget:
“…these words will mostly be read by nonpersons…[they] will be minced into atomized search-engine keywords within industrial cloud computing facilities located in remote, often secret locations around the world.”
The robots may in fact be our most avid readers!
Let’s take this a bit further. What if we combined Lanier’s observation with our intentionally robot-facing metadata authoring. What if a video or photo stock site were to partner with poets who composed poems inspired by and forever associated with each image asset? The primary audience for these works is the robot – the search algorithms are enhanced by the rich poetic content. Users could search using more expressive and less direct terms and achieve robust results better attuned to their longing. Of course, the poetry can be read in its own right. It may even accumulate its own metadata. But that is secondary. Primarily, this is poetry for robots.
In this instance, poetry is enriching the digital object’s online identity, findability, and utility. Users could browse the collection by broad and poetic search terms like “the inky night” and “hair like a small fog.” This elevates authored metadata and reveals its true form.
We are already composing metaphorical descriptions of our experiences and objects and people all day long. It’s called thought. “Metadata” is a computer science term for something that, when generated by people at least, is deeply human. It’s a form of persistent linguistic description, a tangible act of associative thinking, a bridge, a love note to the future. This, happily, is a fair definition of poetry as well.
Science Fiction Story: I Am MarsMarch 24, 2015
The wiry old man stood in the Martian cave, sipping his coffee. Yuri’s rock-embedded display stretched across the cavern. The print from his mug reflected off the panel’s glass, “NASA MVC: Class of 2049.” He moved closer to it and touched the incoming spaceship’s blinking icon.March 24, 2015 Kraig Farkash
Editor’s Note: We are proud to present this science fiction short story from Kraig Farkash, a Center for Science and the Imagination collaborator based in Arizona. Kraig’s haunting story carries echoes of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. It was inspired by a BEYOND Center lecture at Arizona State University, “Mars on a one-way ticket,” hosted by Paul Davies in November 2013.
So…won’t you join us on Mars?
The wiry old man stood in the Martian cave, sipping his coffee. Yuri’s rock-embedded display stretched across the cavern. The print from his mug reflected off the panel’s glass, “NASA MVC: Class of 2049.” He moved closer to it and touched the incoming spaceship’s blinking icon.
Yuri’s main screen displayed the orbiting ship’s details while two adjacent panels jumped to life. One monitored the pilot’s health and showed his bio-token, a shimmering green symbol shaped like a human body. The other was a live video feed. Yuri saw the elderly pilot’s face, which was alight with joy.
“Commander Murphy,” Yuri yelped, “welcome to Mars! Well, almost. You’re so close your bio-token’s read is seamless. I can almost smell you down here.”
Meanwhile, inside the spaceship, Alan Murphy reached for the expansive array that surrounded him. He swiped a gloved finger at the curved console. From it, a silver hue emerged, flooding the dim cockpit with light. Several data-stuffed rectangles crawled up from its depths. Alan found the one with Yuri’s face in it and touched it.
“Data Specialist Legume, permission to land?” Alan said through a toothy grin. “It’s at least an hour before descent.” He nodded at the camera. “I’ll be touching down right around dinnertime.”
“Dinner?” Yuri teased, smoothing back a dangling lock of grey hair. “They’re letting you have solids already?”
“Oh yeah,” said Alan, crossing his arms. “I had steak right after they printed and installed my new ticker. I was back in uniform in minutes, not hours.” He was still jealous that Yuri’s health had allowed him to land on Mars first. Months before, back on Earth, Alan mentioned this to Yuri while being prepped for his heart replacement. They both laughed. As Yuri left, they spoke of meeting again, but when they did, it would be on Mars.
“I’m sure you were. And I hope you enjoyed that meal…” Yuri peered into the screen and winked. “It’s the last beef you’ll ever eat.”
“I won’t miss it. Pass me a plate of those Martian veggies and keep ‘em comin’!” He frowned and tapped intently at the console, “Okay, Yuri. I’ll see you soon. I need to plot my descent and ready the landing gear.” He stopped to put on his helmet and looked into Yuri’s flickering face. “Buddy, I can’t tell you how excited I am.” He pumped a victory-fist into the air. “Finally! Mars!”
“I know, Alan. It’s everything you ever thought it would be, and more.” Awkwardly, Yuri’s smile contorted. He dropped his mug and gawked at his display in disbelief. “Wait. What? That…that can’t….” Alan’s bio-token had started to pulsate. A red hue abruptly burst from its chest and infected the whole. It faded to brown, then black. The bio-token disappeared.
Yuri stared ruefully at the dark panel. He was dumbstruck.
“You have five seconds to complete a sentence. I’m busy up here!” Alan was gleeful, but distracted. He suddenly felt warm. Sweat began to bead under his nose. He tugged at his spacesuit’s collar, a helmet attachment ring that haloed his neck. “Huh,” he thought aloud, “maybe the cabin pressure needs a tweak.”
“Commander Murphy! It’s your bio-token.” Yuri caught his breath. “Alan…your body’s failing.”
“I know that. All of ours are.” Alan was short of breath. He pulled at his neck ring again. “That’s what it means to be Martian.”
“No!” Yuri paused, a lump growing in his throat, his voice a melted sigh. “Alan. You’re dead.”
Yuri’s vivid model of the solar system brought him taunts from peers and adoration from mentors. Just after unveiling the starry behemoth, he had won the Science Fair. He had shaped each planetary sphere meticulously. The distance between them was to scale. It held accurate breakout depictions of their atmospheres. Earth birthed its clouds by way of millions of watery droplets. Saturn’s sixty moons made an appearance on the heads of sixty pins, which protruded from its ringed center. Mars was the proper shade of crimson, replete with all of its fifty-four mountains.
“Wait. Fifty-four mountains? Dang it!” Yuri mouthed silently. His instructor noticed.
The science teacher beamed with pride as he approached the young astronomer. Yuri’s hazel eyes moved to the floor. “I’m sorry, Mr. Nye.” His head slowly dropped. “I forgot a mountain. I think its Peraea Mons.”
Mr. Nye met Yuri’s gaze. “That’s what’s great about science. It demands precision.” His tone was encouraging. Leaning in, he smiled and gently nudged Yuri. “But, you know, sometimes scientists get in its way.”
Yuri returned the smile as Mr. Nye continued. “Oh, and your model is fantastic. This year the trophy case will hold the Science Fair’s winning piece. It’s quite an honor.” The cabinet was usually reserved for plaques and golden figurines celebrating athletic achievement. This year was different, thanks to tireless lobbying by Mr. Nye. He stood up, plucked the corners of his bow tie, and gave the First Prize ribbon to its new owner. “Congratulations, Yuri. You’ve earned it.”
Early the next morning, Yuri installed his diorama into the overcrowded case. Mr. Nye assisted. He started by carefully pushing aside its contents. The glass cabinet loomed over the school’s entrance, with its endless rows of lockers. It was impossible to miss when entering New Concord High School. It forced passersby to navigate around it like a boulder splitting a river into streams.
Immersed in joy, teacher and student relished their task. After thoughtfully rebuilding the solar system, they stood back and reveled in its splendor.
“That’s awesome,” Mr. Nye said plainly. He placed his arm around Yuri’s shoulders, “Every student and teacher will see this. You know, you’re going to make a fine scientist someday. In many ways, you already are one.” While Yuri basked in the praise of his mentor, he let himself dream. His eyes danced across the Styrofoam planets and he imagined trekking through the wilderness of space.
If only he had looked over the top of Olympus Mons, past the back of the glass case, he would have seen the scowl of a vengeful footballer.
After school, Yuri took his usual path home through the trashcan-lined alleyway. With a skip in his step, he tenderly held his First Place ribbon. He barely noticed the sound of footsteps approaching rapidly from behind. Before he could turn, a blow to his body had thrust him into the air. His crude landing gashed his forehead. Looking to his side, he saw a foot grinding his ribbon into the dirt.
“Your stupid planets suck. You do, too. Wow! You’re a freshman and a nerd? I’m gonna enjoy beating on you…a lot.” Kenny sneered. “Let’s do this every day.”
Yuri looked up at the scrawny but toned youth. Kenny was a sophomore, older than Yuri, and a kicker on their high school’s football team. He was lanky, short, and painfully stupid. Kenny had hated Yuri since the eighth grade. His teacher had asked Yuri to tutor him in math. It disgusted Kenny’s father to know that he needed help at all, much less from a seventh grader. Kenny would never forgive Yuri for accepting. Yuri had wounded him.
Today, Kenny’s hatred for Yuri was afire. That trophy case held the last bits of his father’s pride. It was Kenny’s domain. Yuri had just taken it from him.
“Get up, space boy!” Kenny growled, pulling Yuri up by the shirt. Its threads tore at the seams. The blood from his head wound dripped into his eyes, blurring his vision. He could barely see Kenny’s clenched fist rising in the air as it doubled back and hurtled toward his face.
Yuri slit open an eye and tried to gauge the menacing fist’s trajectory. He braced for an impact that did not come. To his amazement, towering behind Kenny was a creature of startling height and girth.
He must be an upperclassman.
“Let him go!” Alan issued his demand after capturing Kenny’s fist in mid-flight, crushing it. As he spoke his red hair shrouded grim blue eyes. “Don’t you ever touch him again,” Alan boomed, “or I’ll break your toes – one at a time.”
Kenny nodded sheepishly and dropped Yuri. Then, without a word, he ran away, leaving dust in his wake.
Alan picked up the remnants of the ribbon and brushed the dirt off. He spoke while handing the tattered remains to Yuri. “I saw your science project in the hallway. It’s cool, but I thought you should know, you forgot Peraea Mons. Next year maybe just do Mars? I can help if you want.” He extended an open palm.
They both grinned wide while Yuri shook Alan’s hand.
Alan gaped at the video feed in shock. “I’m dead?”
In that instant, his biofabricated heart betrayed him. Before he could respond to Yuri, the organ attacked him, stopped beating, and died. The physical agony was excruciating, but knowing he would never have Mars hurt him even more.
Alan thrust his trembling hands toward the window. With Mars only miles away, he lovingly cupped its silhouette between them. The contents of his gloves liquefied. His involuntary sigh was stillborn because his lungs were no longer capable of oxygen transport. They were no longer lungs. He choked on his last breath. “My Mars.”
Alan looked down and tasted blood. It poured into his mouth from the splitting fissures in his face. He saw the contours of his body dissolve. His orange spacesuit rippled and moved as if a hundred trapped mice moved inside of it, violently clamoring for escape.
“Alan,” Yuri said miserably, “there’s not much time left. Your consciousness is ending. It probably already has. Alan? Alan, if you’re there…engage the ship’s autopilot. Now!”
Yuri watched helplessly while his friend burst from the inside out. “I’ll find you, Alan!” He was openly bawling. “Wherever the ship lands, I will find you and bring you home.”
The embedded nanovalve clutched at Alan’s brain stem.
That action booted Alan’s skeletal robotic network. It hailed Alan’s ship and sent it a coded message. His ship automatically accepted the communications uplink and surrendered its flight controls. The ship proceeded to conspire with the thousands of tiny robots teeming within Alan’s body.
The ship’s orbit collapsed. A course correction was required and the nanobots responded immediately, animating Alan’s carcass like hidden puppeteers yanking at a meat marionette. The bloodied stubs of Alan’s arms abruptly jerked forward. They flopped onto the ship’s yoke and tried to steady its course. The nanobots’ intent was to save the ship and its cargo, but without a pilot or enabled autopilot, the vessel was doomed.
Alan was aware of it all, but that was impossible. The MVC psyche dies before its remains become fodder for the Martian harvests. It was protocol. Yet, inexplicably, he was conscious. Alan tried to move his lips, to let Yuri know his mind was intact, that something had gone wrong, but he could not – his lower jaw was missing.
Yuri trembled at the horrors. His visceral reaction was to flee madly into the caves, but he stayed. He had to be strong for Alan, and for Mars. Still, Yuri’s mental state was deteriorating.
To try to cope, Yuri recalled the MVCs’ core mission: to colonize Mars. The surgical installation of robotics and recombinant DNA occurred early in their careers. Cybernetics controlled their bodies after physical death – briefly. Since life on Mars was so treacherous, sudden death was likely. The cybernetics assisted by gifting these pioneers precious additional seconds. For example, the unexpectedly dead could park a surface rover that they happened to be driving, or untether themselves from living colleagues during an expedition.
Mars missions were one-way. Astronauts deliver supplies and skilled personnel. After landing, they cannibalize their ships – and in time each other. Due to infrequent supply drops, protocol directed these noble astronauts to reap their dead. Postmortem they became growing, bioengineered foodstuffs. Decades of training conditioned them for that contingency. In this way, there was no waste of material, no energy mislaid. This was how the initial settlers survived. If even one ship failed to land, it could jeopardize the lives of all the current inhabitants, and thus the human expansion of Mars for decades to come.
A chunk of Alan had hit the video camera with a splat. It slid downward and left streaks of gore on the lens. Yuri was startled, stumbled backward, but found his footing. His anguished mind defended itself with a fond memory: when he first met Alan’s father.
It was more than ten thousand days and millions of miles ago. Yuri and Alan were fresh from NASA’s Astronaut Corps. By then they were beyond friendship, closer than brothers. Yet, between them, there was one mystery. Out of all the planets, Yuri knew that Alan pined for Mars, but he didn’t know why.
“Mr. Murphy, I’ve asked him before, but he never tells me. With Alan, why is it always Mars?”
“Oh!” Mr. Murphy snapped his fingers. “That’s an easy one.” He reached across the table and grabbed a tattered blue box. Gold-flaked sigils adorned its lid. He flipped the latch and creaked it open. Reaching in, he produced a yellowed document and explained that he was an astrologer. “Look! See,” he said, pointing at the timeworn piece of paper, “Mars dreamt of Alan on the day that he was born, and here’s the proof. Right there. This is Alan’s birth chart, his horoscope. I designed it myself – right when Alan was crowning!”
“Come on, Dad.” Alan was embarrassed, but not because of the explicit detail. He was mortified that his father relied on the occult instead of science. Alan’s timbre proclaimed his shame. “You know how I feel about that stuff.”
“Well…” Alan’s father relented, gingerly folded the chart, and spoke softly, “even at an early age, Alan had an insatiable yearning for the red planet. Earth was just a place to begin, a rock to lose, and Mars was his home.” His smile faded as he turned to look at Alan. “At least my boy and I can agree on that!”
Alan held his father’s gaze and shrugged.
Unfazed, Mr. Murphy kept talking. “So, you’ve both joined NASA’s Martian Volunteer Core, the MVCs. Doesn’t that mean one of you will eventually eat the other?”
Alan lit up. “Only after our brains shut down and our bodies mutate.” He furrowed his brow. “How would you say it, Dad? Umm…the soul dies, but the body blossoms and lives on. Okay? Anyway, who cares? By then we’ll be on Mars.”
“But you’ll have to live in the caves. If you don’t, the solar flares will cook you crispy.” Mr. Murphy was pensive. He stroked his neck fur. “If that’s not bad enough, from what I’ve read, you’re not getting near Mars for another forty years. It takes NASA that long just to augment your body, much less train you. I guess that fits since they won’t bring you home. They want you to be old when you go.” His voice cracked with concern. “At most you’ll have two years on the surface before it kills you!” He looked down and slid a finger across the frame’s edge. It sat on the table and held a photo of Alan as a toddler. He focused on it reflectively. “You’ll die out there.”
“Dad. It’s worth it.”
Those were the thoughts that crossed Yuri’s mind as he saw his friend reach for, and miss, the autopilot icon. Alan chose to sever the communications uplink between his corpse and his ship.
At the back of Alan’s skull, the nested nanovalve let go.
Yuri suited up for salvage duty. Exiting the cave, he was awed by its nanocarbon-braced entryway. The smooth silver lip was thin, contrasting with the red soil of the mountain it held back from collapse. It always humbled him to be such a tiny figure passing through those colossal arches. This was just one of many gaping maws that exposed the planet’s cavities.
Searchingly, he turned his gaze toward the blue sunset of Mars juxtaposed against her scarlet horizon. Soon he found the crashing ship’s contrail. It was a swelling scar upon the planet’s beatific face.
I’m coming, my friend.
Yuri made his way to the parking lot that flanked the cave’s door. He entered one of the surface rovers. After its cabin pressurized, Yuri removed his helmet and dried his tears. He spoke to the rover, “Find locater beacon.” It swiftly found the downed ship’s distress signal, lurched forward, and rolled toward the shipwreck.
Yuri took in miles of lifeless crust, rock, and wind-borne sands along the way. When he arrived, he saw the crash site covered in rust-red dust. A trail of mangled metals led to the smoldering fuselage. The ship’s core rested beside its set of broken wings.
Another astronaut can strip it later.
Yuri guessed that the ship’s precious cargo was probably safe. Protocol demanded that he be sure. He had seen full-blown mutation before. Despite his MVC training, he knew he was unprepared for this. He took a deep breath and entered the hull, bravely. The sight that greeted him in the moist, smoke filled cockpit was hideous.
Ripped pieces of Alan’s spacesuit peppered the cockpit like confetti. His dented helmet rested nearby, barely recognizable. Nothing was left of his body, save a shucked ribcage. At its center sat his final form: a man-sized potato.
Membranous lenticels protruded from its trunk. They had ravaged Alan’s body and torn him apart. These long white growths were still squirming. They resembled jutting tentacles from a cramped pit of octopuses.
Yuri gathered the bloated, spudded remains of his lifelong friend. He gently laid them onto the rover’s perforated flatbed. Upon arrival at Arsia Mons, Yuri refused offers of assistance from the other astronauts. Alone, he somberly brought Alan to the hallowed Greenhouse 1 for planting. His fellow Martians followed him. They had come to honor the fallen. It was their custom and mandated policy. Yuri fought the desire to push them away.
After Alan’s funeral, Yuri did not sleep. It had been days since he was able to rest his fretful mind. Since Alan’s potting, nothing had felt right to him, except when he was at the crypt. Lately, he had spent a lot of time in Greenhouse 1. He liked to be there late in the solar day when the base was dark and quiet. Today was no different, but by chance, he had left his room at dusk. The base would be abuzz with activity. On his way, he passed some mining androids. Their electric smiles seemed menacing. So did the leering gazes of his colleagues. So did the lovely face of Mars.
When Yuri arrived at Alan’s plot, he saw a new growth. He tenderly pinched the lenticel’s leaf between gloved fingers. To his surprise, the lenticel reacted. At first, it recoiled and stood erect. Then it relaxed, snapped backward, and waved. He cautiously extended his hand. The stem glided toward him, slithered around his palm, contracted its grip, and shook his hand.
Yuri fearfully untethered himself from the root. Panic fogged the inside of his helmet. His distress was obvious. A nearby astronaut came to comfort him, but it was too late. Yuri finally knew what had been haunting him.
Alan wanted to crash.
Yuri grabbed the sides of the other’s helmet and leaned forward, headfirst. Their visor plates ground together. His voice was like tempered thunder. “Alan’s awake. They all are. Their brains are supposed to be dead!”
Yuri knew he was going to faint. He pushed against his helper and forced himself to peer into the cave’s shadowy recesses. He gazed in dread at the dozens of squared mounds, which dotted the tubular structure. Each had a gravestone inlaid at its center. Inscribed upon them was an astronaut’s name with their eventual vegetable form.
The creatures concealed beneath those makeshift gardens were sentient produce. From them, like organic statues, hundreds of elongated sprouts pierced the soil. They had grown tall over the years. To kindly astronauts, it seemed as if they reached upward toward the stars.
All of a sudden, and all at once, they bent down.
They reached for Yuri.
“We’ve buried them alive…and they know.”
Contact Kraig about this story and his other work at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
A Crazy Experiment Attempts to Document Change With a Photo Taken Over 1,000 YearsMarch 5, 2015
A new project by experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats at Arizona State University involves creating simple, incredibly durable pinhole cameras that will slowly create a single image over the course of a century or a millennium.March 5, 2015 Joey Eschrich
In his book Camera Lucida, the French philosopher Roland Barthes calls cameras “clocks for seeing,” marveling at their inspiring and troubling ability to capture and arrest time, pulling people and events out context. But what if we designed cameras to document the flow and inexorable passage of time, instead of trying to freeze it during moments we want to hang onto?
A new project by experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats involves creating simple, incredibly durable pinhole cameras that will slowly create a single image over the course of a century or a millennium. At the “Deep Time Photo Lab” at Arizona State University’s Emerge festival on Friday, March 6, Keats will help people create century cameras—palm-size, dead-simple devices constructed from metal tins that focus a tiny beam of light and bleach an image into a sheet of black paper inside the tin, at a glacial pace. People will then hide their cameras throughout the Phoenix, Arizona, metro area, where they will quietly monitor changes in the urban landscape and natural environment between 2015 and 2115.
On the same day, Keats will unveil a millennium camera at the ASU Art Museum. The museum has committed to displaying the millennium camera’s single photograph in a monthlong exhibition in 3015. (Keats does not plan to attend—“I’ll be dead,” he told me matter-of-factly.)
Documenting the next millennium of Tempe urbanization in history’s slowest photographFebruary 25, 2015
Boasting two interstate freeways and one of Arizona’s largest shopping malls, the city of Tempe has been selected to represent the evolution of world civilization over…February 25, 2015 Joey Eschrich
Boasting two interstate freeways and one of Arizona’s largest shopping malls, the city of Tempe has been selected to represent the evolution of world civilization over the next thousand years. On Friday, March 6, 2015, the ASU Art Museum will install a camera designed by experimental philosopher Jonathon Keats to take a millennium-long photograph of the evolving Tempe skyline. The museum will unveil the photograph in a month-long exhibition scheduled for Spring 3015.
“The first people to see this picture will be children who haven’t yet been conceived,” says Keats. “They’re impacted by every choice we make, but they’re powerless. If they can’t influence our decisions, at least they can bear witness.”
To document the next thousand years of Tempe civilization, Keats has conceived a new approach to photography based on the traditional pinhole camera. “My photographic time capsule is extremely simple, since anything complicated is liable to break,” says Keats. The solid metal camera uses oil paint in place of ordinary film. Pierced through a plate of 24-karat gold, a minuscule pinhole focuses light on the colored pigment, such that the color fades most where the light is brightest, very slowly creating a unique positive image of the scene in front of the camera.
“The photograph not only shows the skyline, but also records how it develops over time,” Keats explains. “For instance, old houses torn down after a couple centuries will show up only faintly, as if they were ghosts haunting the skyscrapers that replace them.”
According to ASU Art Museum Curator Garth Johnson, the millennium camera will be installed on the museum’s third-level terrace, where museum visitors will be able to see both the city view and the photographic apparatus. “The ASU Art Museum is well-positioned to bear witness to the Tempe skyline as it evolves and changes,” says Johnson. “The span involved in Keats’ vision is at once humbling and empowering for a forward-thinking institution like ours.”
On Friday, March 6, 2015, at noon, Johnson will discuss these themes in conversation with Keats at a public lecture to be held on the museum’s third-floor terrace. The camera unveiling is presented in conjunction with ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination and is free and open to the public.
Immediately following the museum event, Keats will lead a hands-on workshop on building deep time cameras as part of ASU’s annual Emerge festival, set to take place March 6, 2015, from 3 p.m. to midnight, at the university’s SkySong Innovation Center in Scottsdale. The event is free and open to the public, with registration requested through asuemerge2015.eventbrite.com.
As part of Keats’ workshop at Emerge, the public is invited to build a pinhole camera with a 100-year exposure time to hide somewhere in the Phoenix area, invisibly monitoring changes in the urban landscape between now and 2115. “I don’t want to be the only deep time photographer on the planet,” says Keats. “Millennial photography needs to be ubiquitous if it’s to have an all-encompassing impact on us,” he asserts, hinting that Tempe is just the first of many cities soon to have millennium cameras.
While the ASU Art Museum plans to host a second event in 3015, according to Johnson, Keats does not plan to attend. “I’ll be dead,” says Keats. “But I don’t regret it at all. For me, it’s much more interesting to be here today, seeing the behavior of people who know they’re being watched by the unborn, and also to be watched myself, living vicariously as a future memory of the next millennium.”
To learn more about Jonathon Keats’ “Deep Time Photo Lab,” which will be open at Emerge 2015 on Friday, March 6, 2015, visit emerge.asu.edu.
Media contact: Joey Eschrich, email@example.com
Photo credit: Jen Dessinger / Provided courtesy of the artist.
New ASU center mimics nature to create cutting-edge technologyFebruary 24, 2015
A new cooperative venture at Arizona State University aims to make the university a key academic hub for the emerging discipline of biomimicry. Since Janine Benyus first…February 24, 2015 Joey Eschrich
A new cooperative venture at Arizona State University aims to make the university a key academic hub for the emerging discipline of biomimicry.
Since Janine Benyus first observed and named the field in her 1997 book, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature, designers, engineers, businesses and other innovators have increasingly turned to nature in search of inspired ideas.
The Biomimicry Center at ASU, which officially launches with a symposium on March 3, is a co-branded collaboration between ASU and Biomimicry 3.8—the consulting and training firm co-founded by Benyus and Dr. Dayna Baumeister.
“The primary mission of the Biomimicry Center is to enhance academia’s ability to address a variety of sustainability challenges using strategies inspired by nature,” said Baumeister, who will serve as co-director of the new center along with Professor Prasad Boradkar of The Design School in ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.
The practice of biomimicry is transdisciplinary by nature, bringing biologists into collaboration with disciplines as diverse as architecture, management, engineering and even psychology. ASU has embraced biomimicry in recent years as part of the university’s commitment to innovation and sustainability. The Biomimicry Center will coordinate new and ongoing research and curriculum initiatives amongst campus institutions and the fast-growing global network of companies and consultants practicing biomimicry.
“Biomimicry has the unique ability to inspire and synchronize the work of diverse disciplines to mirror the unification of nature,” ASU President Michael Crow said. “The Biomimicry Center will serve a similar function within the ASU community while preparing students to apply their skills and interests to solving society’s most complex challenges.”
The Center is supported by the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, School of Sustainability, W. P. Carey School of Business, School of Life Sciences, and Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, as well as the Office of Knowledge and Enterprise Development and the Provost’s Office.
In addition to coordinating broad sustainability initiatives related to biomimicry, the Biomimicry Center also will offer the first-ever Master’s of Science in Biomimicry and the first-ever Graduate Certificate in Biomimicry. These online programs are accredited versions of professional training programs developed by Biomimicry 3.8 since 2008. Both the master’s and certificate programs have begun accepting applicants through ASU Online, and development of an on-campus master’s program is underway.
“Biomimicry thinking is a skill set for 21st century careers,” Boradkar said. “It allows professionals in any field to contribute to sustainable solutions through systems-thinking, creativity, and interdisciplinary collaboration.”
The Center officially launches on March 3 with an interactive symposium on ASU’s Tempe campus. The event will feature TED-style talks, hands-on activities, artistic performances, and a discussion between Janine Benyus and ASU President Michael Crow about the role biomimicry can play in generating innovative solutions to sustainability challenges.
Media contact: Bart King, firstname.lastname@example.org
ASU invites community to help redesign the future at Emerge 2015February 9, 2015
Radically new visions of the future will be showcased as part of Arizona State University’s Emerge 2015 – a one-day event featuring visionary Jad Abumrad, host of the award-winning show Radiolab, and 10 spellbinding “visitations from the future,” including theatrical performances, improvisation, games, dance and hands-on opportunities to design and build the future.February 9, 2015 Joey EschrichThis story was originally published at ASU News.
Friday, March 6, 3:00 pm – 12:00 amRadically new visions of the future will be showcased as part of Arizona State University’s Emerge 2015 – a one-day event featuring visionary Jad Abumrad, host of the award-winning show Radiolab, and 10 spellbinding “visitations from the future,” including theatrical performances, improvisation, games, dance and hands-on opportunities to design and build the future.
Part performance, part hands-on interactive experience, the annual Emerge event explores the ways we are already creating the future, and asks us to think about how we ensure it is the future we hope for – rather than one we dread.
The theme of Emerge 2015 is The Future of Choices and Values.
“Humans today have unprecedented power to harness and reshape matter, energy and even life itself. Emerge asks what kinds of futures we should build together, at a moment in history when what we can do is almost unlimited,” said Joel Garreau, founding co-director of Emerge and professor of law, culture and values at ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.
Exploring the unknown
Emerge dares brilliant creative and technical minds to bring questions about the future to life through performance, technology and storytelling. The event gathers artists, designers, scientists, engineers and audiences to imagine optimistic, thoughtful futures.
Each of the 10 “visitations from the future,” as well as the performance by Abumrad, are different ways of responding to the open question about what kind of futures we can envision, and what kind of futures we want. Because the teams behind each of the visitations are drawn from such diverse backgrounds, their answers could not be more different.
“There’s a really wide range of experiences at Emerge this year,” said Megan Halpern, director of collaboration and research for Emerge 2015. “I’m especially excited to see how seriously Emerge takes the idea of play, and how the teams are incorporating opportunities for the audience to express their ideas creatively.”
Abumrad, the headliner for this year’s event, is the creator and host of Radiolab, the popular public radio show about “curiosity,” broadcast on over 500 stations across the nation and downloaded more than 9 million times a month as a podcast. In his Peabody Award-winning program, Abumrad combines journalism, storytelling, dialogue and music to craft compositions of exploration and discovery.
At Emerge, his exciting performance, called “Gut Churn” – which includes video and live sound manipulation – begins with a simple question: What does it mean to “innovate?” How does it feel to make something new in the world?
On one level, this is a personal story of how Abumrad invented a new aesthetic. On another, it is a clinic in the art of storytelling. On a third and more profound level, the lecture is the result of a three-year investigation into the science, philosophy and art of uncertainty, which all began with the two words in his title – gut churn. What use do negative feelings have during the creative process? Do those feelings get in the way, or do they propel us forward?
The event is set to take place from 3 p.m. to midnight, March 6, at the university’s SkySong Innovation Center in Scottsdale, and is free and open to the public, with registration requested through asuemerge2015.eventbrite.com.
In addition to Abumrad, a host of talented artists, thinkers and creators, will be in attendance including Jonathon Keats, conceptual artist, Forbes art critic and novelist; Don Marinelli, co-founder of the world-renowned Carnegie Mellon Entertainment Technology Center (ETC); Rachel Bowditch, theater director and associate professor at ASU’s School of Film, Dance and Theatre; Toby Fraley, Pittsburgh-based artist and creator of the exhibition The Secret Life of Robots; Megan Halpern, co-founder of Redshift Productions, an arts-science performance and outreach company and postdoctoral researcher at ASU’s Center for Nanotechnology in Society; and many others.
Emerge 2015’s ASU sponsors and partners include the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts; the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability; the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes; the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering; the Center for Science and the Imagination; the SkySong Innovation Center; the Office of the President; the Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development; the School of Earth and Space Exploration; the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law; LightWorks; and the ASU Art Museum. Additional sponsors and partners include KJZZ 91.5, Scottsdale Public Art, Whole Foods Market and the Arizona SciTech Festival.
The 10 visitations from the future featured at Emerge 2015 are:
Bodies for a Global Brain, created by Eben Portnoy, Zoe Sandoval and Jeff Burke
A performative vision of a future in which humans connect their consciousness to global cloud computing networks, seeking connectedness and enlightenment. Originally funded by Google and presented by students from UCLA, the performance integrates Google Glass wearable devices with live theater.
Ars Robotica, created by Lance Gharavi, Sai Vemprala, Matt Ragan and Stephen Christensen
What if we could teach robots to dance? How would it change the relationship between humans and machines? ASU roboticists and performance artists are taking on that challenge using the Baxter industrial robot.
Johnny Appledrone vs. the FAA, created by Donald Marinelli
A one-man show about government surveillance, swarms of DIY drones and an alternative Internet, inspired by a story of the same name from ASU’s science fiction anthology “Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future” (HarperCollins, 2014), written by Lee Konstantinou.
The Happiness Project, created by Scott Cloutier
Sustainability researchers and community members explore how we can work together to build happier neighborhoods through sustainability interventions.
Future Design Studio, created by Megan Halpern
Create your own prototypes of artifacts from the future. From parking tickets to coffins, the Future Design Studio asks you to imagine what everyday objects will look like in the future, and then invites you to watch as improv performers from The Torch Theatre create the world in which your objects exist.
The Artwork Forge, created by Toby Fraley
A coin-operated robotic art-dispensing machine that scans the Internet for inspiration and creates customized paintings on 4 by 6 inch blocks of wood.
“The Artwork Forge” is co-commissioned by Emerge in collaboration with Scottsdale Public Art. Before Emerge on March 6, the project will debut at the Canal Convergence 2015 event on The Scottsdale Waterfront from Thursday, February 26 through Sunday, March 1.
Abraxa, created by Rachel Bowditch
A roaming atmospheric performance exploring utopian experiments, dreams and the concept of the ideal city, created by Rachel Bowditch of ASU’s School of Film, Dance and Theatre.
Lego Future Fairy Tales, created by Marcus Snell and Tamara Christiansen
Create your own fairy tale from the future in an epic Lego build led by experts in the art and science of Lego Serious Play.
You Have Been Inventoried, created by Eric Kingsbury
An interactive exploration of RFID and data visualization technology explores a future where the smallest elements of your behavior can be digitally tracked, stored and shared with people around you.
The Deep Time Photo Lab, created by Jonathon Keats
Build a pinhole camera with a 100-year exposure time to hide somewhere in the Phoenix area, invisibly monitoring changes in the urban landscape between now and 2115.
To learn more about Emerge 2015, visit emerge.asu.edu.
An Interview With Margaret AtwoodFebruary 6, 2015
Climate fiction, or “cli fi,” can be a dreary genre. Storytellers like to make a grim business of climate change, populating their narratives with a humorless onslaught of death, destruction, drowned monuments, and starving children. Margaret Atwood is the conspicuous exception, somehow managing to tackle the subject, including these familiar elements, with deadpan wit and an irreverent playfulness, making it both more interesting and believable. The flood is coming, her MaddAddam trilogy promises, but there is hope.February 6, 2015 Ed Finn
By Ed Finn
Climate fiction, or “cli fi,” can be a dreary genre. Storytellers like to make a grim business of climate change, populating their narratives with a humorless onslaught of death, destruction, drowned monuments, and starving children. Margaret Atwood is the conspicuous exception, somehow managing to tackle the subject, including these familiar elements, with deadpan wit and an irreverent playfulness, making it both more interesting and believable. The flood is coming, her MaddAddam trilogy promises, but there is hope.
Atwood’s intensely literary, human focus on environmental issues and the future of the planet is shaping a more optimistic vision of cli fi, one that sidesteps the blame games and the “will-they, won’t-they” battles over carbon emissions. Her response is clear and compelling: The planet is changing. We need creativity, ambition, and some powerful new stories to understand how we can change with it.
The Crab and the Butterfly: Semicolon Services in the 21st CenturyFebruary 1, 2015
We are sentimental creatures. And by this I mean to say that we have the capacity to balance our emotions with our mental facility. From Wiktionary, we learn this about the word sentimental and its origins: “A vogue word mid-18c. with wide application, commonly a thought colored by or proceeding from emotion” (1762). The word sentimental suggests a balance: the human balance.February 1, 2015 Corey Pressman
Home sapiens sensualis
We are sentimental creatures. And by this I mean to say that we have the capacity to balance our emotions with our mental facility. From Wiktionary, we learn this about the word sentimental and its origins: “A vogue word mid-18c. with wide application, commonly a thought colored by or proceeding from emotion” (1762). The word sentimental suggests a balance: the human balance.
At our worst, we are motivated by instant emotion and behave as instinctual lizardbots, reacting to life with mirror jihads and fast food. Or, equally bad, we can be Vulcanesque in avoiding emotion, numbed by too large a dose of cautious logic. At best, we temper our immediate emotions with experience, consideration, comprehension. When emotions rise from and result in intelligent, cognitive reaction we achieve worldview, thoughtful action, true choices. This requires a porous barrier between emotions and thought. Also, this fluidity requires one to stand back, take stock, and act in the world from an emotionally considered space. This is no easy task. It requires practice and exercise.
Art—whether theater, object, literature, or interactive media— kindles our humanity. Art is the perfect way to practice operating from emotion and intellect simultaneously. So often, art provokes an immediate emotional response that makes us think. Or it makes us think until we are suddenly laughing with joy. And by art, I am inclined to a broad definition: any artifactual catalyst for sentimental experience. It softens that barrier between emotion and thought, allows us to be truly sentimental. It allows us the proper amount of self-consciousness to be real people. I want to have at least one art experience a day.
In Madness, Rack, and Honey, Mary Reuffle tells us, “Theatre requires you draw a circle around the action and observe from outside the circle. In other words, self-consciousness is theatre.” I propose we replace theatre with art: “[art] requires you draw a circle around the action and observe from outside the circle. In other words, self-consciousness is [art].” That done, let’s play with the metaphor: extending the boundary makes art more available; it makes more of our experience part of the production and increases the surface area of art in our lives, thereby increasing the opportunity to encounter an art experience.
The UX and paratext of digital experiences (i.e. film, TV, story, gaming) draws that circle. In most instances, the boundary is akin to a hard stop, a period. The action is on the page or screen, on the other side of a physical divide. In punctuation terms, there is a hard stop, a period, between the media (paper, screen, console) and you. I propose we experiment with making this barrier a semicolon instead. Defined as “a mark that connects complete speech acts and ties them together,” the semicolon represents a more fluid experience. The semicolon allows flow without full stops. It shows relation between statements, not division. And this is the promise of digital technology: digitized delivery may soften the boundary between art and our lives.
The modern mark and usage of the semicolon was invented by Aldo Manuzio (also known as Aldus Manutius), the 16th-century printer responsible for other such durable innovations as italics, modern comma usage, and inexpensive pocket-size books. In contemporary terms, he was a senior User Experience entrepreneur working to improve the print platform. In fact, the first “word processing” program I ever purchased was PageMaker, by a Seattle company named for Aldus. Their logo has his image right there on the floppy disk, drawing a straight line from some dusty Italian atelier to my equally dusty but likely smokier dorm room.
Logos can be instructive this way. Aldus’ (the man) own logo was also significant. His work was adorned with a dolphin and anchor emblem borrowed from an ancient Roman coin. Here it is, beneath some of his revolutionary italic print. The dolphin and anchor symbol was associated with some folksy ancient Roman wisdom, at once a motto and a koan: “Festina lente” (literally “make haste slowly”). A lovely sentiment, this. It urges a balance of intent and care, emotion and consideration. This adage was commonly applied and portrayed in the Renaissance.
In addition to the anchor and dolphin, one finds “Festina lente” represented as a crab and butterfly or as a hare within a snail shell. And as the mighty semicolon! It says HARD STOP and MOVE ALONG at once. Festina lente: a true contradiction. Koan as punctuation! As such, it’s a spy amidst the other marks, a non-mark that only speaks to the essence of things. It’s about meaning, not mechanics; it’s a fluid boundary—a low fence at most, a sign at the border at least.
Semicolons can make some people uncomfortable, which is a good sign. Kurt Vonnegut warned, “Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.” Good! Good! That’s the spirit. This hints at the sort of shamanistic madness required to fuel real innovation.
Also, consider the portrayal of the semicolon in this poem by Elizabeth Austen:
not for me the dogma of the period
preaching order and a sure conclusion
and no not for me the prissy
formality or tight-lipped fence
of the colon and as for the semi-
colon call it what it is
a period slumming
with the commas
a poser at the bar
feigning liberation with one hand
tightening the leash with the other
oh give me the headlong run-on
fragment dangling its feet
over the edge give me the sly
comma with its come-hither
wave teasing all the characters
on either side give me ellipses
not just a gang of periods
a trail of possibilities
or give me the sweet interrupting dash
the running leaping joining dash all the voices
gleeing out over one another
oh if I must
give me the YIPPEE
of the exclamation point
give me give me the curling
cupping curve mounting the period
with voluptuous uncertainty
Austen, aside from eroticizing the question mark for me forever, summarizes evocatively what is so mysterious about the semicolon. It’s a drunken madman at the gate. A winking stranger that says “come here” and “run away” ;).
That’s the sort of border I want to construct between digitally mediated experiences (film, TV, game, story) and physical life experiences. The line around the theatre is porous. The semicolon allows art to leak out of its containment field. Let us all—artists, UX professionals, entrepreneurs—hasten slowly to innovate in this curious, relational, semicolon realm; we can improve our sentimental souls by so doing.
I hereby offer semicolon services to all comers—let’s work together to soften the boundary and integrate digital experiences into the wider world.Filed under: Ideas
Interview: Composer John MetzJanuary 26, 2015
An interview with John Metz, an expert on harpsichord, piano, and Early Music, and an emeritus professor of music at Arizona State University. John is the composer of Anthony’s Cosmic Adventures, a choral piece based on The Space Child’s Mother Goose, a collection of whimsical space poems written in the 1950s by Frederick Winsor.January 26, 2015 Joey Eschrich
Recently we sat down with John Metz, an expert on harpsichord, piano, and Early Music, and an emeritus professor of music at Arizona State University. John is the composer of Anthony’s Cosmic Adventures, a choral piece based on The Space Child’s Mother Goose, a collection of whimsical space poems written in the 1950s by Frederick Winsor, in reprint from Purple House Press.
Joey Eschrich, Center for Science and the Imagination: Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself?
John Metz: I am a composer, pianist, and harpsichordist. My master’s degree in piano is from Syracuse University, and I hold a doctorate in harpsichord from The Julliard School. I started at Arizona State University in 1980 with a split role of teaching piano and harpsichord. I ended up building a harpsichord studio and starting an Early Music program. And from 1999-2007, I also served as the artistic director for the Connecticut Early Music Festival.
JE: What is Early Music?
JM: In the Baroque Period in Europe, people used sort of the same instruments we use today. But the violin was very different than what we normally play. The flutes were one-keyed flutes. They had a much more mellow sound. And the concepts of how to use the instruments have changed so much over the centuries.
So I’m an expert on helping singers sing in these Baroque and pre-Baroque styles, and I instructed string players with my wife’s help, because she’s an Early Music string instrument specialist. So we would have ensembles of singers and harpsichordists and other instruments, and we even did a couple of operas.
Some of my harpsichord students went on to get doctorates and one of them has won a number of international competitions. It was just a great experience. Fantastic students. I know I made a big contribution throughout the department and I’m very proud of that.
JE: How did you get interested in science? Have you always been interested in it, or was your interest piqued when you discovered The Space Child’s Mother Goose?
JM: I’ve always been interested in science. I did very well in high school science, and in college I took a year of geology and really enjoyed that. My father was sort of an electrical engineer, although that wasn’t his official role, and we often discussed science around the dinner table. He was with IBM before it was IBM and so I knew about all the developments that were going on in computers.
JE: Does your father’s interest and background in science and engineering have anything to do with how you found The Space Child’s Mother Goose?
JM: There isn’t such a direct connection. But there is a parallel between my father and Frederick Winsor, in that Winsor’s buddies apparently were largely scientists. My parents would have cocktail parties and dinner parties when I was young, so I kind of knew the same sort of crowd. I got to know people like Alf Malmrose, who was one of the top scientists at IBM and ran a school for younger engineers in the company, and Jonas (“Joni”) Dayger, a renowned IBM inventor. Joni invented one of the first chain printers for IBM – the ones that printed on green-and-white striped paper with a removable tab down the side. This was one of the early, efficient ways for computers to be able to communicate with people and output what they knew.
When I was in high school I built a Heathkit stereo amp. This was a popular thing to do, especially amongst the geek crowd. After I assembled it, it had a terrible 60 cycle hum.
So I took it over to Joni Dayger’s house along with the schematic. Instead of looking at the schematic he said, in a sort of slow Southern drawl, “Well, I don’t know. I’m going to take this old capacitor here,” and he rummaged around some old parts, “And I’m just going to—well, let’s see, I think I’ll just solder it in over here and maybe the other end over there, and that ought to be okay.” And of course that fixed it. He didn’t even look at the schematic—he just knew instantly what it needed.
You see I had an advantage in that I was always exposed to science. My oldest brother studied electrical engineering at Cornell. My father would do science demonstrations. It was usually something simple like when the fire was going down in the fireplace he’d have an old kerosene can that had been emptied and cleaned out, then he would put hot water in it and screw the cap on. And as it cooled the can would just suck itself inwards – it would just crumple down. He was showing us the expansion and contraction of air. So there was always stuff like that going on. I grew up a little bit bilingual in terms of art and science.
My father was an avid poetry reader. And so this was stuck on the shelf somewhere and, of course, I started to look at The Space Child’s Mother Goose probably when I was a teenager and I just fell in love with the poems.
This past fall I visited the high school choir that since then has performed my piece, and they were totally jazzed about the book. They loved the text, they loved my adaptation, they loved how I’ve translated the poetry into music. And the school used the performance to bridge arts with math and science. I went to a rehearsal and the choir director had her own model Klein bottle, which makes an appearance in the piece, and she passed it around. Plus the math teachers were beginning to teach the students the mathematical implications of the Klein bottle. The science teachers are making sure the students understand things like concepts of parallel space and quantum mechanics.
JE: Do you think that how creating a musical piece or an artistic work can help people understand science better? Can art not only act as an evangelizing force for science, but actually help people engage more deeply with scientific concepts, or think about them in a different way?
JM: Yeah. Well, I certainly hope that some of the performers and audience members for Anthony’s Cosmic Adventures are going to go home and look up things like Klein bottle, Möbius strip, and parallel space, and maybe pursue studying those things further. The other thing that strikes me is how could Winsor, in the 1950s, imagine some elements of the future so clearly? Things like monitoring the baby by satellite or using digital networks to steal, which is clearly going on so frequently now. Something about the poetic imagination helps Winsor see things coming from afar.
JE: As an Early Music teacher and practitioner, thinking about the distant past of music, what do you think about the recent and ongoing integration of the computing industry with the music industry? How do you think that’s changed music?
JM: It has certainly changed my work a whole lot. If you look at the score for Anthony’s Cosmic Adventures, you’ll see I didn’t write that by hand. Shifting from hand-writing to digital formats for creating scores is an enormous change in the way composers work.
I created this score using Sibelius, a composition program. There was a learning curve that took me a while to climb, but I realized over time that there’s nothing that Sibelius won’t allow you to do.
Music notation is extraordinarily complicated. Let’s say you’ve already written a line of music, and that there are three different staffs, and in one of parts you’re going to turn the quarter note into four sixteenth notes. Now that takes up more space. Before the digital age the composer would have to rewrite the entire line, or perhaps an entire page. But Sibelius automatically and instantly adjusts all the spacing on that entire line, even bumping a measure down to the line below if necessary, and make it all come out with exactly the right spacing – which is critical because if the spacing is off the musician will really get tripped. So it understands what we need in terms of how the music calligraphy, so to speak, should look. That’s an enormous difference.
I can also ask the computer to play the piece back. It does a good job of the piano part, and some of the other parts. The voice sounds okay, but it doesn’t speak the words yet. It goes a-ha-ha-ha-ha, you know. I imagine someday it will sing the words, but that’s going to be complicated because singers don’t sing words the same way we speak them.
Now I see people using a computer display rather than sheet music in concerts. For the simpler version of this, you push a little pedal button and it flips the page. But in the more sophisticated systems, the computer is listening to you play, it notes where you are on the page, and you’ve told the computer, I like my pages turned early by measure, or don’t turn them early, and so on, and the computer will flip to the next page as it hears where you are. No sheet music, thanks very much – what a source of security not to have to rely on a page turner!
JE: For a composer, it seems like one of the simple but profound things that software like Sibelius changes is that it tightens the feedback loop editing and rewriting and being reflexive and engaging in self-criticism in the act of composition. Is that right?
JM: Right, that’s true, that’s true. There is one drawback, and I wouldn’t necessarily go there, but there’s a little tendency with Sibelius to think measure by measure, whereas the composers working with a large sheet of paper sometimes do a better job of planning: this is going to happen now and now down four or five lines probably this sort of thing is going to happen. On paper it can be a little easier to create a good solid large plan, whereas Sibelius kind of reduces you into writing measure by measure. So at least for me, I have to backpedal against that and be sure I have the larger plan in mind before I start putting notes down on paper, or onscreen as the case may be.
JE: Turning back to Anthony’s Cosmic Adventures, can you tell us a bit about the piece and how it unfolds as a narrative?
JM: One thing I’m really proud of is that, once I chose the poems that I wanted to set, and that I thought were right for music, I linked the poems together, so it wasn’t just a succession of discrete poems, one, two, three, four, five. I decided that the character, Anthony Rowley, who appears again and again in the book, would be the tour guide through the whole thing. So from the very start, I gave him an identifiable tune that acts as his theme, or motif. It’s a very youthful and energetic tune because it’s the little boy, Anthony Rowley, who’s going to go space exploring. If his mother will let him, of course.
As Anthony reappears in different guises that tune maybe shifts into a minor key or proceeds more slowly, but it’s still recognizable—either consciously or subconsciously, it doesn’t matter. So Anthony’s tune creates a link, and that’s something that music can do that written language doesn’t always succeed at, because it’s an extra layer that’s going on while the text and the narrative are developing.
For each of the seven movements in the piece, I worked to meet at least two criteria. First, you’ve got to write music that is entirely in sympathy with the natural rhythm of the words of the poems, and already I’ve gotten a lot of praise about that aspect. The rhythm of the notes fits the natural rhythm of the text, so it really makes it easy to sing, easy to communicate. Second, you’ve got to write music that illustrates the feeling, the meaning, the lesson, whatever you want to call it, that’s in the text. So if it’s enthusiastic, as in this case, you write very enthusiastic music.
For example, at the beginning of the piece I see Anthony as sort of having to screw up his courage to go space exploring. So at the beginning the music doesn’t just burst into enthusiasm, so there is some tentativeness built into the score, some pauses and repetition. And then Anthony bursts through his reticence and he’s having a great time, whether his mother would let him go or not!
JE: There is also a lot of theatricality in this piece.
JM: I absolutely love theatre. If I lived a whole bunch of lifetimes, I’d be a Broadway director or a tenor on Broadway shows or something. I love it. In this piece, I used movement and performance to underscore some of the key moments in the story and in the music.
For example, there is a moment when Anthony is falling asleep—to his own tune, of course. And so at a certain moment the choir yawns and stretches, and they put Anthony to bed.
Later on, Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep; the radar has failed to find them. They’ll meet face-to-face in parallel space preceding their leaders behind them. Way off to the left and right sides of the stage we place a single soprano, singing “peep-peep, peep-peep.” And it goes back and forth between one soprano and the other: it’s the radar scope. And the radar scope continues throughout that entire section, except at one point when it stops and there’s complete silence, accompanying the words “the radar has failed to find them.”
Then after that you have a moment where a baby is being monitored by satellite, and all the lights go out in the performance hall except for the singers portraying the mother and father, soprano and tenor, and the piano in quiet. The music is in a minimalistic mode: almost nothing happens, and it’s very, very repetitive. And it’s just the satellite spinning while the parents are in knowledge that their child is safe, being monitored by the satellite. So there the arrangement, and the performance, and the music are aligned to underscore a key theme, and the characters’ emotions.
There’s a lot of theatrical play in the piece. And already, the first choral director I’ve worked with was asking if she could do more—if she could add to the theatre element? Yes! There’s nothing out there these days that has the variety for choir that this piece has. The only work I know of that comes close is Carmina Burana, the very popular piece by Carl Orff.
JE: Finally, is there a story, whether it’s a film or piece of music or a book, that’s inspired your work, or the direction your career has taken?
JM: I would say the movie The Turning Point (1977) with Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft starring alongside Mikhail Baryshnikov. In the movie, a retired dancer’s daughter joins a top ballet company in New York, and the mother has to confront her decision to start a family instead of pursuing a career in the big city as a young woman. The film inspired me in terms of my determination to go back to school and learn more, to be brave enough to go to The Julliard. I didn’t think that would be in my storyline, and it was a really amazing experience to be there and engage with that world-class level of musicianship.