The NetNarr Field Guide: A Journal Worth Exploring

Eatin memes and makin hay

Early on, I was pretty active in the Networked Narratives course as an open online participant, as a sort of satellite with a few others to the actual university course being taught by Alan Levine and Mia Zamora. My comic strip alter-egos — The Internet Kid and Horse with No Name — were also part of the Twitter conversations and activities.

At some point, I admittedly lost track in a peripheral way (this is the beauty of RSS feeds — I kept up with the basics of the course progress in my RSS reader from the NetNarr site).

So, I was pleasantly surprised by Mia’s sharing of the completed NetNarr Field Digital Alchemy Guide that all the classroom students contributed to as part of their research (I am not sure if any open folks added to the journal, too). The course itself began pretty dark — with all the ways technology is used against us, in terms of privacy and surveillance and more — and then moved into the light — how can we, as individuals, can make a difference and maybe help foster change for the better.

As noted at the NetNarr Journal site:

Each piece of writing is a review of one specific issue of concern about the internet of 2019, following ones we studied, e.g. the surveillance economy, digital identity theft, fake news, digital redlining, toxic data, self expression, bots. Writers were not asked to “fix” or “solve” these big problems, but offer suggestions for individuals how to better thrive in these environments, hence the idea of a “field guide”.

They are written as a dialogue between the students and their invented digital alchemist mentor and will include links to the “notes in the field” left as web annotations.

The work done in the Journal is really rich with topics and insights and resources, and I applaud my former classmates (sort of) for the depth of their sharing in this journal, which is a valuable resource for anyone struggling with finding balance between the potential and the pitfalls of this technologically connected world.

Consider their topics:

I, for one, only vaguely know what F-insta is, so that’s where I’m heading off to learn more from the NetNarr-ians. Which topic grabs your attention? Be a real reader, and leave some comments for the explorers. Pose a question. Offer insight. Engage.

Peace (inside the research),
Kevin

Do Algorithms Dream of Improvisation?

Here is a convergence of two texts in a feldgang — first, a shared reading of The Art of Is with other CLMOOC friends and then, an article in this week’s The New Yorker by Hua Hsu entitled “Machine Yearning.” In The Art of Is, I am in a place in the text where writer Stephen Nachmanovitch is exploring improvisation and mistakes, and how one (mistakes) often lead to the other (improvisation) to make art. In The New Yorker piece, Hsu focuses in on artist Holly Herndon’s work to create music through a computer-generated voice program she calls Spawn, training it to sing to Herndon’s music on her new album, PROTO.

Hsu then connects Herndon’s work with computers and algorithms to some other movements on the music landscape, including rapper Lil Nas X’s successful maneuver to manipulate the algorithms of pop music charts to create “Old Town Road” (an analysis of top charted songs led the making of this song) and it, of course, has reached the top of the charts.

Further, Hsu notes that a company called Endel is now developing music created only by algorithms to “personalize” a space or environment that, according to Hsu, take ” … into account everything from their (listener) heart rate to the weather and thje time of day.” Endel got signed to Warner.

And Hsu notes that jazz pianist Dan Tepfer is releasing a new album soon called “Natural Machines” in which he plays duets with computer algorithms, in which the algorithms, according to Hsu, are “… designed to respond to his improvisations, producing a more dynamic range of sound than his two hands could make on their own.”

Huh. So, now connecting what I have been reading in the magazine piece to what I have been reading in The Art of Is, a question that keeps popping up into my head is this:

Can algorithms improvise? Will they be able to improvise? What will that mean?

Or is this one of those fault lines between human and machine, where improvisation is an art form that is truly and only human — something that draws from the heart, soul and mind? Or is that statement my own naive thinking, and machines will, if not now then soon enough, come to to learn how to be improvisational machines, creating art in the moment with no pre-programmed instructions? And if so, will we be able to tell the difference?

I’d like to think the first is true — that improvisation is a skill only humans have — and that we will be able to hear and recognize an improvisational solo by machine (Computer vs Coltrane? Saxophonist wins every time … right?) but I am less and less confident on that declaration as the years progress and I see projects like these unfolding.

What do you think?

Peace (I wrote that myself),
Kevin

 

It’s There In the Mistakes Where the Real Art Might Happen

Book nibblers

I’ve been reading, with other CLMOOC friends, the book, The Art of Is by Stephen Nachmanovitch, in an annotation site called NowComment, which has allowed us to engage with the text and have conversations together in the margins.

I reached a section last night about mistakes and improvisation, and how mistakes fuel creativity, but also, how so many people are taught to fear mistakes, how they avoid mistakes at all costs, and how many experience shame when things go awry (partly due to our education systems that teach failure vs success as a zero sum game).

“Mistakes” in improvisation are hard to define, but people recognize when something works and when it doesn’t. — from The Art of Is by Stephen Nachmanovitch

Nachmanovitch suggests otherwise, arguing that the possibilities of art also emerge from places where things are imperfect or gone awry but that finding the art in the mistakes requires your ear to be attuned to the possibilities emerging from the unknown, from the mistakes. This is embedded into improvisation, he suggests, and I agree.

For this is how I write songs. I start at a place where I know I will begin (common chords and common patterns) and then listen for my fingers fumbling on the fretboard of the guitar, knowing that sometimes, something happens — and I need to expect the unexpected, and use the mistake for a new path forward. In those moments, I am often scribbling lyrics like a madman, to capture the idea before it gets away from me.

In my rock and roll band, on my saxophone, when I am soloing, as improv, this, too, is what happens — I often don’t know where I am going with my playing on solos, and sometimes, my fingers take me in a direction that is, well, news to me. This nearly always sparks some internal panic known only to me, Making a mistake in a gathering with other musicians, particularly with a live audience in front of you — that’s tricky business, and stressful, and exciting, too. I’ve learned to trust myself in this high wire act, though. I trust I will know where to go even if I am not aware of it as I’m thinking on it.

Thinking on this concept of mistakes, I wrote a poem for the margins of our shared reading experience …

On Making Mistakes

No one ever noticed,
for more than the second
it takes one to forget,
the perfect song:
the magic of listening
to remember resides
in the blemishes —
the transposed chords,
the slightly off-kilter
phrasing, the slip of the
voice, the chipped reed, the
spit-filled tube, the broken
drumstick, the snapped piano
string, the panic that produced
something to ponder
when the music’s echoes
have since long been over

Peace (where the path goes, follow),
Kevin

Photobooth: A Collaborative Song’s Construction

Photobooth Song Arc Collaboration

I am just wrapping up (but not rapping up) a fourth round of a inspiring collaborative song project called A Whale’s Lantern, which has roots in the Mastodon federated networking space. In each round, participants are randomly partnered with others, and all pairings are given an overall theme to work with as a connector thread, and then, the partners have extended periods of time (usually a few months) to get creating something.

I have been fortunate in each of my pairings to connect with collaborators who have been easy to work with (maybe this is an inherent quality of those who volunteer for the project and reach the ending point). Although each partnership has had a distinct and different feel to it, and my role has been different each time, each round has really pushed my abilities as a songwriter and musician. In the latest collaboration — the music tracks will be released in a few weeks after they get mastered and gathered and posted at Bandcamp — the overarching theme was “portraits.”

My partner, Bobbus, is someone who I had interacted sporadically with on Mastodon, and I know he is a talented and thoughtful musician. We hit it right off the bat in our emails, both of us expressing gratitude for the chance to try to make music in a different format than we are used to and both of us expressing an openness to try any idea the other pitched, and both of us open to a starting point.

With this mind, I sent forward a song to him that I had started on acoustic guitar after thinking a bit on the theme of “portraits.” The proposed song — Photobooth — captured a pining by the narrator of an old photo album of a relationship that is long since gone to dust. The “portrait” might be a picture taken in one of those box photo booths, where you put coins in and an image pops out.

Draft Lyrics Photobooth Song

Bobbus thought the song could work for us (although we were both open to starting over if it didn’t), and the chart/map/graphic at the top of the post here shows some of the ways the song was woven over a few months time, particularly as he used his skills as a sound engineer and solo guitarist to create the song’s sonic landscape, adding unexpected (to me) chord changes and suggesting other parts to break up what began as a pretty traditional pop song of verse/chorus.

On a technical note, we used PCloud storage as a way to share many audio files back forth. I would send him raw music that I was making and he would do rough mixing, and share it back, asking for comments and feedback, and so the revisions would flow. We also used a writing app called Turtl for sharing written notes, lyrics, chord changes and more. I was not familiar with either of those platforms, so it was interesting to try to collaborate with different technology tools. Both worked just fine for us.

My challenge with the recording process, as it is always, was with the vocals, and he did as much he could with effects to make my voice work for the song, although there are points where .. well… I’m not sure I hit the notes I wanted to hit. I did like the way he created the ending section, where I recorded three saxophone parts that he mixed under his guitar … there’s a sense of the world kind of coming apart that works well with the song’s theme itself.

I am grateful and appreciative of Bobbus as a musical partner and collaborator, and for the chance to make more interesting collaborative music and art with the Whale’s Lantern community.

Anytime anyone has the opportunity to make something out of nothing — to pluck melody and harmony and rhythm out of thin air and transform it into something that someone else might hear and maybe even appreciate — particularly when this magic is done with someone from somewhere else in the world connected only by a federated space, is a cause for celebration, and experiences like A Whale’s Lantern provide a powerful counterpoint to so much of the failure of other networking spaces to live up to the promise of a world made better by connections.

Peace (inside the booth),
Kevin

 

Book Review: A Velocity of Being (Letters to a Young Reader)

Some books, you just know you may never want to part with. Ever.

This is one of those books. A Velocity of Being (Letters to a Young Reader) featured dozens of letters written by adults of all walks of life — musicians, writers, poets, media makers, business people, etc. Edited by the wonderfully talented Maria Popova (of Brain Pickings) and Claudia Bedrick, this book is just one gem after another … turn the page and you can’t stop reading.

As Povova writes, the book is …

a collection of original letters to the children of today and tomorrow about why we read and what books do for the human spirit, composed by 121 of the most interesting and inspiring humans in our world: Jane Goodall, Yo-Yo Ma, Jacqueline Woodson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Mary Oliver, Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, Rebecca Solnit, Elizabeth Gilbert, Shonda Rhimes, Alain de Botton, James Gleick, Anne Lamott, Diane Ackerman, Judy Blume, Eve Ensler, David Byrne, Sylvia Earle, Richard Branson, Daniel Handler, Marina Abramović, Regina Spektor, Elizabeth Alexander, Adam Gopnik, Debbie Millman, Dani Shapiro, Tim Ferriss, Ann Patchett, a 98-year-old Holocaust survivor, Italy’s first woman in space, and many more immensely accomplished and largehearted artists, writers, scientists, philosophers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and adventurers whose character has been shaped by a life of reading. — via Brain Pickings

The format caught my eye early on, via Brain Pickings website (which I read regularly and periodically support), where Popova has written about the book’s progress over the last year or two (after working on it for eight years, I guess). To secure dozens of writers and then to secure dozens of illustrators (the art is as fabulous as the letters — see this post to see some of the illustrations), and then to gather them all up into a book that could only be described itself as a work of art … well, that has my attention in the days of digital books. This is one book you need to hold in your hands.

As someone who shares out “small quotes” each morning from books I am reading over at Mastodon, A Velocity of Being has fueled enough mornings for a month or two, and maybe more. Every page seems to have some sentence, some passage, some ideas that rings out for me.

The question is: will young readers read it?

That question has me thinking. I have about 75 sixth grade students. I can’t buy them each this book. (I’m a public school teacher). But what if I made a copy of a page for each student — thinking about what I know of them as readers and making as best a match as possible — before the end of the school year — a letter to a young reader that gets into the hands of a young reader? I like that possibility.

Hmmm …

Peace (read it over and over and over),
Kevin

 

Making is a Verb: Musicking with The Art of Is

Musicking with The Art of IsThere’s a whole section in the book some of us are reading together in NowComment, with annotation conversations unfolding, where writer Stephen Nachmanovitch (in The Art of Is) explores the division of the world into nouns and verbs, emphasizing the forward motion of doing things (verbs) as opposed to merely observing things by breaking them down into parts (nouns). He uses music as his example, noting that the word “musicking” would be a way to encompass the act of making music, often with others, and being creative.

I wondered how I could use the text itself for a way to inspire a new piece of music, to put Nachmanovitch’s idea into motion. I wanted to be musicking within the words of the text. After mulling it over, I decided to use the book title — The Art of Is — and the book subtitle — Improving as a Way of Life — and the author’s name — Stephen Nachmanovitch — as a means to gather chords.

The image above explains how I went about making my song — I only sought existing chords as I read (so, as Wendy asked elsewhere, I did not convert other letters without chords into something else … I just ignored them) and created three distinct sections: title, subtitle, name. I did keep the sequence of chords intact, however, so that in whatever order they were, that’s what I had to work with. I took the liberty of adding minor chords where it would make sense of the structure and sound.

I then went into the Garageband app on my iPad, and began to compose over the course of the afternoon, improvising and experimenting as I went about it.

First, I created drum tracks and worked with the bass, adding some guitar riffs, and then finally, layering in some of the world music instruments. I was slowly adding pieces, and then removing them at the end, to create a sound version of our annotation efforts (OK, this may be a leap, but not for me). For the most part, I think the song works, unfolding itself against the rhythm beat, and certainly, it is a piece of distinct music connected to and inspired by the book (if only in my mind).

You are welcome to remix or download or do whatever you want with the track from Soundcloud.

Peace (in the muse),
Kevin

 

Where Art, Writing and Inspiration Meet: Graphic Novelist Jarrett J. Krosoczka

A Visit by Jarrett J. Krosoczka

We had the pleasure of bringing graphic novelist Jarrett J. Krosoczka to our school yesterday. He gave presentations to four different grades about his work as a writer and artist, and shared his writing process and passions for making books. Krosoczka is the creator of the very popular Lunch Lady series, and his recent book is Hey, Kiddo.

His origin story of the Lunch Lady series was interesting. He told of going back to his old elementary school as an adult, and spending time with a lunch lady who used to serve him lunch, only to realize that she had a whole life outside of the school building (shocker). He wanted to write a picture book about the cafeteria staff, only to realize that one small strand of that book — a lunch lady as an undercover agent, whose mission is to protect the school and students — should be its own book, and that the comic format of a graphic novel was the way to tell that story. It took eight years from that spark of an idea to publication of the first book, he told the students.

Meanwhile, in preparation for his visit, students across our school have been working on projects, including graphic novel stories, in art class to recognize and celebrate our own lunch staff and other support staff workers in the building. During one of the sessions with Krosoczka, the staff from the cafeteria was brought in, and celebrated, with students performing a rap and short opera they wrote for them as appreciation.

My sixth grade students met him at the end of the day, after a long morning of state math testing, so it was a nice counterpoint to that to hear Krosoczka describe how he came to love reading, and then making, comics, and how it was his passion for art and writing — and lots of persistence in the face of rejection, particularly for his first picture book — that got him to where he is today, as the writer/illustrator on dozens of books.

It’s one thing to teach students the art of writing; It’s another to hear a writer tell of their experiences. Krosoczka wove the two strands together, and hopefully inspired young writers to write (and draw).

Peace (on the page),
Kevin

Buried in the Feldgang: A Poem from a Quote from a Book from an Idea

Quote: The Art of Is

I am forever overlapping
you; your notes cascading
upon me; where shadows
loom, you hold the light

We meet in the middle,
at the bridge – at the break –
at the moment of unexpected
surrender to the moment of
story and song

I am melody: nothing, but
for the harmony that spans
its wings beneath

Note: this is a #smallpoem, written in the margins of a community feldgang, with this line as anchor:

“Making art, whether you do it solo or in a group, derives its patterns from everything around us, in an interdependent network.” — Stephen Nachmanovitch, The Art of Is

Others have been leaving poems, too, in the book we are reading together in NowComment, and finding them in the margins of the text is a beautiful moment — a dance along the contours of Nachmanovitch’s ideas, made visible for shared experiences.

Peace (along the margins),
Kevin

Book Review: The Stars Beneath Our Feet

I had just finished The Stars Beneath Our Feet by David Barclay Moore and was perusing the comments at Goodreads (I try not to read comments until after I have read the book) and noticed that while many adults were praising the story (which I liked well enough), one young middle school reader wrote the opposite. And her response has me wondering if too many of the books coming out now with cultural diversity are becoming one-trick ponies.

This is some of what this young reader – her name is Lola — wrote:

I don’t see what everyone else sees in this book.

Perhaps that is because I have read so many, many, many books featuring characters dealing with the loss of a loved one? I want to say that is probably the case, but the truth is I constantly read these books and I tend to enjoy them as a general rule.

So what happened? The writing is lovely. It drew me in from the start. I was curious about the story and I certainly could not complain about the cool cover. But it took time for me to understand why there was tension between the characters,

Someone died. Who died? Oh, his brother. Really, how? Well, you’ll have to wait until I’m ready to share that part. Oh, come on, I’d like to understand now, not later. But I’m not ready to share that with you! And what’s up with his father, what’s going on? It’s complicated…

I felt confused a lot. And even when I wasn’t anymore, when the hero finally decided to shed some light on issues, I realized there is absolutely no plot and the little boy is just wandering around, making connections, pretending to be okay, trying to live on after the tragic death of his brother, doing mundane things like buying gifts, ….

Her comments had me thinking to many of the novels I have been reading in the past year or so, since a wave of frustration and lobbying for more diverse books finally began to take hold. There does seem to be a trend now of African American protagonists, from urban communities, dealing with the tragic loss of someone close, with the story of the loss only hinted at until something dramatic happens to bring a sense of understanding to the character.

That’s The Stars Beneath Our Feet. And I enjoyed reading this book, and I was rooting for Lolly (Wallace) as he struggled to deal with the loss of his older brother to gang violence, and resist efforts from his brother’s friends to recruit him into the gang life, and how the building of cities with Legos helped him to understand himself, and others around him.

If our stories are now becoming too predictable — I have also been reading On The Come Up by Angie Thomas, and the echoes of the same storyline are already ringing true, even as I am really enjoying the story and the main character — then we are doing a disservice to young readers, who deserve a variety of narratives — a variety of cultures and protagonists and events, told in a variety of forms — in their reading lives.

That’s something to think about, even as we can celebrate the diversity of books now on our shelves. Read The Stars Beneath our Feet, for sure, and put it on your classroom shelf, but also be attuned to other narratives. Be diverse in culture as well as in stories. We want as rich a tapestry as we can make, and read.

Peace (in the pages),
Kevin

Digging Ever Deeper Down into The Art of Is

Book nibblers

Terry has us tunneling into the book The Art of Is by Stephen Nachmanovitch, a book with the tantalizing subtitle of “Improvising As A Way of Life” that caught my attention. The introduction has my attention, for sure, as Nachmanovitch weaves in the concepts of improvisation to all sorts of ideas — music, art, text, collaborations, etc. I like the scope of it.

We’re inside NowComment as an annotation space (contact Terry if you want an invite), I am working to make art out of my reading experience. The comic above is a play on Terry’s invitation on Twitter and Mastodon, about “nibbling” at the edges of the work.

I then made this comic on my first reading start, trying to reframe the cover of the book as a piece of art and trying to explore the strange wording of the book’s title.

Comic reading

I’ve also been writing poetry — some of it found right inside the book —

found poem inside The Art of Is

Who knows where this improv will lead … following threads takes faith that the unraveling leads to understanding.

Peace (inside, outside, beyond),
Kevin