Terrific idea

Janis, who comments often on my posts (and who wants to be known here just by her first name), e-mailed me with a fabulous idea. In a moment, I’m going to turn this post over to her, and simply show you what she e-mailed. (Abridged a little, but I didn’t leave out anything crucial. And of course i’m doing this with her permission.)

But before I give her center stage, I want to say that I went to the Star Wars Uncut website she mentions, and believe me — it’s everything she says it is, and more. Such an outpouring of fun and creativity, from so many people, something which we haven’t yet learned how to bring into classical music. But we could!

Here’s Janis:

Take a well-known shortish piece of music (not an obscure one, one that a lot of people know, like a nice standalone piece of Beethoven’s 9th or the end of the William Tell overture), and break it up into bits, perhaps twelve measures apiece.

Open them up to being “claimed” by people online, probably students. Each student claims a chunk of the music … and interprets it however they want.  Some will play it straight on an oboe or violin.  Others may whistle it.  Others will use synths, others can hum it, still others can bang on kitchen pots.  They upload their “chunks.”

Then … stitch the pieces together and play it.

My roommate, bless her, proceeded to inform me that this was exactly what’s happening at the moment with that old war-horse “Star Wars.”  There is a project called “Star Wars Uncut” that illustrates this PERFECTLY, as an example of how a culture composed of people who have never met and have only a love of shared source material in common can come together and collaborate in an artistic creation via fannish riffing.

The URL is http://www.starwarsuncut.com/ — it’s amazing.  It’s entirely fan-driven, completely outside the realm of “legitimate” work, and created on the fly by people who don’t know one another, and who have totally different ideas of how to interpret the source material.

They have some scenes uploaded already — click on “Watch a Finished Scene.”  However, I must advise you to watch at least five of them.  This will give you a massive shock in terms of the abysses between how each person or group of people chose to interpret their “chunk.”  There are some conventional interps where people and their friends wore homemade costumes, but there are others that took the opportunity to take it to incredible places.  Scene 23 alone will blow your mind.  Scene 407 uses lego figures!  Scene 221 will have you bellylaughing or gaping in bemusement, hard to tell.

Imagine doing this with a piece of music!  Then stitching it together!  Do it with the sponsorship of a major orchestra, which provides the servers or the money, or better yet the marketing.  The orchestra can inaugurate the project at the start of its season by playing the chosen piece (or the start of the school year for a conservatory), and leave it up for the entire season or semester.

Then, at the end of the semester … the orchestra plays the chosen piece again.  Then it plays the resulting MP3.  And puts it up for download on its website.  FOR FREE.  (All participants are made to understand that their work will be made available under a creative commons license.)

If you really want to be daring, allow digital artists or cinema students/animators to add video to their chosen twelve-bar bit of Beethoven’s 9th or the WT overture.  Show the video when you play the assembled music.

And the “SW Uncut” project demonstrates that you need no control over who does this.  The scenes that are being uploaded to that site are being freely chosen by people ALL OVER THE WORLD, and no one blessed off on it.  Globally distributed, and uploaded freely.  Without any controls at all.  The whole thing was spread quite literally by word of mouth.

Now, getting the word out for something like this in the classical music world would be a challenge; SW already comes with a massive, world-wide fan base of people who are quite used to grabbing their beloved source material and messing with it with absolute entitlement.  Beethoven and Rossini don’t come with that (yet).  That’s why doing it with a group of students in a collaboration with other professors might be the way to go for a proof of concept; you can make people participate by assigning twelve-measure chunks to them. 

And again, the idea is NOT to have one person play their tiny bit perfectly on their perfectly tuned violin followed by someone else playing the next bit perfectly on their perfectly tuned violin.  The idea is to have people go hog-wild.  Twelve measures hummed, then twelve measures played conventionally, then twelve measures played on a synth, then twelve measures on a kazoo, then twelve measures on a uke, then twelve measures on … Literally however people want to play it.  You probably don’t want to use a huge chunk of the music or else it might get tedious.

“Beethoven Uncut.”  “William Tell Uncut.”  Claim your chunk, and upload your mp3! 

I think we might not need to start with students, to create a proof of concept, and that in fact we’d get the most varied results by bringing in the world at large. Which, I think, would be ready to jump in the moment they heard of it.

Forget that, though. What a wonderful idea. Thanks, Janis!

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  1. John P. says

    Is it just me, or does this somewhat reminds me of the YouTube Symphony…

    Maybe more like the MJ’s Eternal Moonwalk…

    I suppose all a little different…

  2. Tristan Parker says

    Someone, it may even have been you, I don’t remember, pointed me to something a little bit like this called “In B Flat”, and Janis’ idea reminded me of it. It’s of course inspired by Terry Riley’s “In C”, but each part was written and performed by a different person, and the whole piece is “performed” by starting and stopping the different performances. Description doesn’t do it justice: http://www.inbflat.net/

    In a different direction, this also reminds me of the flurry of posts of different people playing Pachelbel’s Canon a while back.

    Hadn’t heard of In B flat! Thanks for telling all of us about it.

    There must be many, many ideas like this around. The world is moving in this direction — participation, rather than receiving art from on high, like little birds with open beaks, waiting to be fed. The little birds now want to help make the food themselves.

  3. says

    Intriguing idea, but as Janis points out:

    SW already comes with a massive, world-wide fan base of people who are quite used to grabbing their beloved source material and messing with it with absolute entitlement. Beethoven and Rossini don’t come with that (yet).

    SW is quite iconic, even the causal moviegoer or non-sci-fi fan, knows SW. While the Beethoven and Rossini examples are quite known, I don’t think they rise to the same level of coverage in the general public’s consciousness as SW. And sure the people who are doing the SW send-ups are probably SW fanatics, but the people who view it are, my guess, more broad than that since the movie goes beyond sci-fi fans. I don’t think you’d ever get the same broad cross-section of listeners with a classical music version.

    As a niche project for classical music lovers, I think it could work well and I would welcome someone to try it. It would be fun to see and listen to (and certainly could catch a few casual fans). And if some of the institutions got involved, it would at least show that classical music can think differently about its canon and could be fun. But to advance and broaden classical music’s reach to the non-lover, I guess would be a non-issue with this project: if they already don’t have any emotional connection with the music in the first place, why would they have any interest in listening to a “Beethoven Uncut”?

    On another note, I’ve checked out the Star Wars Uncut site a little (thanks Janis for bringing it to our attention!) and it IS fun to see what people have come up with. I look forward to exploring it more…

    I wouldn’t minimize the number of people who already know something about classical music, and would want to jump in and play with this idea. Or who could learn 15 seconds of a classical piece by memory, and recreate it. Or the number of people with a pop orientation — including pop musicians — who’ve studied classical music, and are well equipped to join a party like this. Or the number of young classical musicians who also do other kinds of music.

    Of course this won’t get the worldwide traction of Star Wars Uncut. But I think it might do better than we think. Maybe some of us should start a project like this right here! Anyone want to take the lead?

  4. says

    I absolutely love this idea! There are so many opportunities here for people to really have some fun with classical music.

    What immediately popped into my head are all the simplified versions of classical music that games like Tetris use as theme songs. I know there is a niche audience interested in taking old theme songs from early Gameboy/Nintendo games and turning them into remixes.

    Why not try this idea with a classical piece from one of those games? I’m in. Who’s counting off?

    There’s so much interest in videogame music right now. At the University of Maryland, there’s even a student-created, student-run orchestra that plays it, apparently (or so I’ve been told) to very large audiences.

    I love how Janis’s idea is spinning out in so many directions.

  5. says

    Tafelmusik is having a video contest for our Sing-Along Messiah which would be a perfect outlet for this type of ‘re-working’. Messiah is extremely well known, and we’re encouraging people to be creative in 90 seconds or less.


    Yes! And as I’ve been saying on Twitter — after you all told me there about your Messiah contest — you’ve gotten off to a wonderful start. Everyone reading this, please go to the Tafelmusik site, and watch the video someone uploaded, featuring teddy bears and a wonderfully spontaneous vocal performance of “All We Like Sheep” (with the singers getting a little lost in the melismas, exactly as I might do if I tried to sing the music from memory).

  6. Janis says

    Idea: the LA Chamber Orchestra has (just had, as a matter of fact) a “Meet the Music” program where schoolkids from the LAUSD come to hear them and ask questions. Perfect opportunity for ANY orchestra that does this sort of thing to inaugurate a project like this. (It could be doable especially in California since all the public K-20 schools there from kindergartens to the UCs have a big private, edu-only broadband fiber-optic network that they’re all hooked up to so participation can be across all educational segments. At the very least, the elementary and high schools would have the bandwidth to do this remotely.)

    One more thing, though: I think it’d be important, especially if video segments are stitched together, for the orchestra not to see it ahead of time, either. Maybe the conductor could, but if the orchestra is seeing and hearing it for the first time along with the audience, that would go a long way to breaking the boundary between audience and musicians. The orchestra would be one with the audience, and the audience would get to see them reacting the same way as any other audience member (laughing, applauding, etc.).

    It could be a nice way for an orchestra to start and end their season. They start with a day visit to their concert hall from various schools, like the “Meet the Music” sort of thing, announce the project and give all the kids the URL to participate (they can do so from home or through their school, and their teachers DO NOT GET TO BLESS OFF ON THEIR UPLOADS, it’s straight to the kids) during the day’s events.

    The kids of all ages upload their bits throughout the year, and at the end of the season, the kids who have participated are brought to a nice, spiffy evening performance (they get a cache of good seats for free!) and they see and hear the finished bit for the first time.

    You’ll never pry the clarinets and violas away from them at that point. :-)

    Janis, not only has your idea provoked many other ideas, but it’s provoked you and others to tell us about things that have actually be done. Someone e-mailed me yesterday with news about an Arkansas orchestra that had a composer write the skeleton of a piece, and then invited hordes of schoolkids with simple instruments to play along with the piece at a performance, adding anything they wanted. I hope I’ll be able to post the full description here. It sounded like a lot of fun.

  7. says

    Something like this is happening with new music at ImprovFriday. Every friday about 15 musicians get together, post original pieces and some of these are cut and mixed together to form new music the same day.

    It can be hit or miss, but it’s always interesting.


    Something else I encourage everyone to check out! I’d never heard of it, but I got hooked the moment I went to the site. Paul, thanks so much for sharing this!

    Janis’s idea obviously tapped into — and is part of — a movement that’s taking many forms, and springing up in many places.

    And I have to say that I feel this about all the classical music changes we talk about on this blog, and that I’m writing about in my book. It’s all gone way past the stage of mere ideas, mere advocacy. We’re part of the flow of history. (If that doesn’t sound too pompous.)

  8. says

    This is a really cool idea. I could see it working well, with maybe one caveat: Assign a tempo (or a tempo range) – that way if someone wants to play the piece through, it can flow fairly well. I’d probably also break up the selected piece at more “natural” points than, say, the way the SWU scenes are – where splits occur mid-sentence (and even mid-word) at times.

    Beethoven’s 9th and WTO are good calls. Other thoughts: Bach’s Mass in B Minor (or maybe just start with the Kyrie/Christie/Kyrie) – or maybe something more modern? Anything published prior to 1923 is game – that allows for some works of Prokofiev, Holst, even Schoenberg & Ives.

    Hi, Seth. If people started trying Janis’s idea, I think we’d get some wonderful surprises about which pieces would work. And maybe, just maybe, some copyright holders might give permission to use pieces that aren’t in the public domain yet. Maybe composers might write some pieces specifically meant to be used in this way — or even to have uploaded sections interspersed with what the composer wrote.

    I see the point about the constant tempo. Though who knows? Maybe a mashup with changing tempi would work, maybe better than we’d guess. In any case, it’s not all that hard (using digital audio) to adjust the tempo of a recorded segment without changing the pitch. Or to adjust the pitch without changing the tempo.

  9. Janis says

    Yep — you’d need to use a 440 A, but in software, that and tempo can be corrected independently of one another, so it’s not a showstopper …

  10. Janis says

    BTW, you may not need to have ONLY students … but just get the word out VIA students. I do agree, ideally, this would just hop off on its own. But a large orchestra could provide marketing to an interested target audience that wold work in place of the worldwide brand recognition that SW has.

    What needs to be done is that the students need to be told that they need no one’s permission, that they can spread the word among their friends, that it’s open to LITERALLY anyone, and that they are invited to do the same thing. A few iterations (possibly NO iterations needed), and it’s viral.

    And if the responses above are any indication, it’s already happening. This would just be a way for the existing classical world to leverage it and help shove it into the limelight a bit more.