Democratic composition

At the end of my Eastman course on the future of classical music — a shorter version of my Juilliard course on the same subject — I asked my students to imagine a concert that would attract people their own age. Leah Goldstein came up with a fabulous idea, which I’m quoting here, exactly as she wrote it, with her permission:


Hypothetical Concert for People My Own Age

It occurred to me that one of the ways musicians try to encourage audiences to find relevance in Classical music is by bringing the composers of that music to life.  Program notes, pre-concert talks, informal explanations during concerts – whatever the method – musicians often provide biographical information about the composers who wrote the pieces and the circumstances of these compositions.  Ours is a narrative society; we like to hear and tell stories.  Accordingly, both performers and audiences like to know the backstory of the music.  If the audience begins to care about the story behind a piece, the story of the person who wrote it, then they become even more interested in hearing the piece itself.  On this principle, what better way to get audiences to care about any composition than to let them write the music themselves?

Now this may sound like a crazy idea, and I certainly haven’t figured out all of the ins and outs of what this process may entail.  Or maybe someone somewhere has already done this; I don’t know.  Please forgive the mess of ideas, but this is a definitely a brainstorm-in-progress.  This is how I imagine a Democratic Composition Project:

The basic premise is that a system is set up in which potential audience members from the general public are encouraged to submit ideas which can be turned into music.  These musical ideas, in whatever form they are gathered, are then compiled and condensed by a musician (or composer) into some sort of coherent notation, whether a file on Sibelius or some sort of graphic notation by hand, in which case the musicians would improvise according to the images in their parts.  Preferably the final piece would be about fifteen minutes in length – something not so short as to seem insubstantial, but not too long either.  Within the shortest amount of time possible (the closer to the deadline of submissions the better, so people’s interest doesn’t wane), this piece would be performed at a concert.  The people who submitted ideas would naturally be curious to hear what their piece sounds like.  This performance would be their chance!

I imagine this project would work very well through the internet.  The organizers of this Democratic Composition Project would create a website where people can deposit their ideas.  The site can explain the concept of the project and the performing resources available (your ideas will be incorporated into a piece about yea minutes long and performed and recorded live. This is the available instrumentation….or whatever).  I imagine people could submit an idea in whatever form inspires them: perhaps a jpg image of something, or a fragment of text that could become a lyric, or maybe even a sound file of a groove they wrote on Garageband.  We could advertise on Facebook, or even send announcements of this project to other universities around the country.  On a local level (so we could fill the seats at the concert), the organizers of the project would make classroom visits to local schools or organizations (since we’re gearing towards people my age, I’d suggest we start with other university students in Rochester, at the UofR or RIT perhaps).  They could post flyers at popular university locations, within the music schools, or at Java’s or Boulder Coffee, all of which would direct people to the website.  Any online submission would also require the submission of a functional email address.  This way we could directly contact the people who submitted in order to announce the performance date, time, and place, and – especially for those who are not in the Rochester area – the release of a recording of this piece that would be available for purchase.  I like the idea of the “pay what you can policy” where people could download the recording for free, but have the option to pay if they so choose.

I feel that the DCP would be a great gateway piece to introduce audience members to other music on the concert program.  Maybe it will turn out as a fantastically interesting work, or maybe it will just sound awful.  But either way, the audience that comes to hear it will bring a curiosity and enthusiasm to the concert and would be especially receptive to hearing other compositions in a new light.  The audience would be encouraged to listen to the creative output of the other compositions on the program, to try to imagine what creative ideas sparked these works.

It seems to me that the DCP could be a concert program in itself – it really depends on the scale of the project, of how many submissions are received, and how easily they can be compiled into some coherent form. But I propose that the Democratic Composition Project be performed at the beginning of the program and be followed by other compositions with the same spirit of improvisation and creativity.  If, during the course of rehearsals, it becomes apparent that the DCP bears any strong resemblance to the works of any other specific composer (maybe it sounds aleatoric, for instance, or expressionistic) the concert can include a similar composition on the program. The rest of the program could be an homage to improvisatory creative work, and could include such pieces as Bill Dobbins’ Preludes and Predilections for piano, compositions based on Classical works such as a Chopin mazurka that include an open section in the middle for improvisation.  The program might also include a Mozart piano concerto with improvised cadenzas (or, if time is an issue, just one movement), a string quartet playing a theme and variations, a jazz combo improvising over a standard or pop tune, or…?  This is a tremendously flexible program, so long as the unifying theme of creative nexus of ideas is emphasized throughout.

Leah wondered if this idea might be too crazy to make sense, but she can trust her instincts. It’s workable. On a similar tip, Jon Deak, associate principal bass of the NY Philharmonic, has been doing workshops for years in which he teaches children and adults to compose, whether they’ve had musical training or not. I took part in one of those workshops once, and the results were astonishing. Anyone can compose, given the right encouragement (plus sympathetic musicians to play the compositions, which when people don’t know how to read and write music might use graphic notation).

I thought that people might also submit musical ideas with recordings, on which they’d sing or play what they had in mind. The project might go viral very quickly, especially in the community where the performance was about to happen. Though you never know — you might end up getting submissions from all over the world, not to mention coverage from whatever old media still exists. (OK — that’s a cheap shot, maybe. Old media is still with us, even if it’s shrinking.)

I don’t know if the audience will need to be encouraged to listen for the creativity in other compositions on the program. I have a feeling they’ll be primed to do that, after taking part in a composition of their own. It might be interesting to have several shorter audience-written compositions, in place of a longer one, or in addition to it, so the people who contribute can see more than one way in which their musical ideas take flight.

And, of course, using Jon Deak’s methods (or something else that produces the same result), Leah could have pieces on this concert that were completely written by members of the audience. The concert could be streamed all over the world, which would make it better known, and of course encourage participation from people everywhere. Finally, a concert like this shouldn’t be given just once! The more you did it, the more the idea would spread, and you’d get more and more people both taking part and listening.

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  1. Jo Johnson says

    Great idea! Sounds rather like what the lyricist/writer/TV presenter Richard Stilgoe used to do when he presented the Schools Prom concerts back here in the UK when I was growing up. At the beginning of the concert he’d get the audience to shout out random words, which he’d write down. Then during the first half and interval he’d go away and write a humorous poem using the words. Always amazed me how he did that, and so fabulous if your word was part of it!

    Not sure if it’s ever been done in a mainstream kind of way – it does sound quite like education projects which are composition based. I know of the City of Birmingham Symphony’s recent effort which involved several weeks of musician-led workshops in schools where the children ‘composed’ on a theme, which were then threaded together by a professional composer for performance to parents etc. Or this concert: which was all about chance in music, and included a piece made up of several segments of music, the order of which was decided by dice throw on the night. But music written by the mainstream audience submitted online – now that would be interesting! The next YouTube project perhaps, since the Orchestra concludes tomorrow?!

    I see plenty of Twittering going on, so maybe a performance isn’t too far off… do keep us informed!

  2. says

    Well if you want to really go off the deep end, perhaps tweets from the audience could be incorporated into a composition in real time. A composer could concievably write an algorithm for score generation based on keywords, ideas, images, etc and the program pumps out the parts to music stands with an embedded screen (these exist).

    Minimalism might work best – the cells would change in accordance with the audience input.

    The performance would be a function of the audience and ambience of that particular concert – something like the way jazz works.

    Is it time for “Star Trek” yet….

  3. Yvonne says

    Stepping out on a limb here and sharing my initial, gut reaction (not my final thoughts):

    This is the kind of thing that I don’t think I’d especially want to hear but I’d quite enjoy participating in. What does this say about such projects ultimately?

    Probably it says that we don’t know anything ultimate about projects like this. Though there would be many way to do projects like the one Leah suggested, and some might work out better than others. And then some audiences might be better at composing than others! So it might be hard to draw any hard and fast conclusions about what kind of music would result, if people tried this.

    For what it’s worth, I can report on the results of the workshop I was in with Jon Deak. This took place in Cleveland, at one of the meetings of the orchestras involved in the Mellon Foundation’s Orchestra Forum (a long-term funding program, now defunct, that involved around a dozen American orchestras, who were encouraged to do innovative things). There might have been 20 to 30 participants, musicians, staff members, and board members from the participating orchestras. Jon had recruited some Cleveland Orchestra musicians to join him in playing the compositions that got written.

    Jon’s method was, first, to have the musicians demonstrate what their instruments could do. Jon then showed some ways to do graphic notation, for those — the vast majority — who couldn’t read music. Somehow he did this (and this is his absolute genius in doing these things) in a way that got everyone inspired.

    So then came time for people to do their compositions. We were put in pairs, and each pair of people were supposed to compose something. I was teamed with the late Randy Adams, at that time the executive director of the St. Louis Symphony, a man with no background in music. He got very excited, and knew exactly what he wanted to compose. My job then became simple. I had to serve as his scribe, writing down in graphic form or with notes (when he’d sing a short theme to me) what he had in mind. I didn’t mind doing this at all. I have plenty of outlets for composing, and I was amazed and excited to see how specific and forceful Randy’s ideas were.

    Finally all the teams had their compositions done. Each was then played by Jon and the Cleveland musicians. All the teams could give verbal instructions, to supplement what the notation said. What was most compelling about the result was how different — and how individual — all the pieces were. There was no doubt that we were hearing real creations from real people, real music, in short, even if the actual notes might not have been planned. The flow of the pieces and the type of music involved — all those things were quite distinct from piece to piece.

    So one conclusion I’d draw is that the project is most interesting if you create more than one audience-composed piece. When you have only one, you can’t quite judge what you’re hearing. If you have three, you begin to see what the audience’s contribution might have amounted to.

    Leah, by the way, tells me that she loves reading the comments. Maybe she’ll comment here on her own.

  4. says

    I initiated this exact type of project with the a fairly visible chamber music presenter last year, even to the extent of including Jon Deak to be the composer to help bring it to life. Unfortunately, it got nixed once I left that job. It doesn’t surprise me that it got nixed, and it doesn’t surprise me that I don’t hear of any other classical music organizations making this happen, other than Greg’s Cleveland example.

    And the Cleveland workshop was private, a kind of creativity exercise for people at a conference.

    I remember your plan for this, Chris. You’re ahead of the curve, as usual. Can you do it, do you think, with the organization you’re with now?

  5. says

    Now that your comment filled in some details, this rings bells in terms of things I’ve done myself, and I don’t mean to imply anything exceptional about myself – it would only take a solid ear training and keyboard harmony skill set, and it’s just itinerant stuff I’ve stumbled into.

    I once composed a mini-musical for a comedy group, they had a vague idea of the “kind” of song they wanted and a couple of melody fragments that they could sing clearly, and of course the verses. I harmonized their melodic ideas and extended them, and added some fairly stock textures that reflected the atmosphere they wanted.

    In my young children’s classes I get the occasional student who has my most prized skill, she will just sing improvised melodies to herself. I play them back to her at the piano, harmonized – she and mom are amazed that it is real music she’s making.

    The point is, there are plenty of people with this same skill set and I could see projects like this taking off, in principle, all over the place. One can definitely lead “average” people or groups of them into composing a piece.