Creating Musical Experiments Together
I was talking to someone the other night about an old band I was in, it was the first band I created that actually played real concerts. The group didn’t really have a name though it was billed under several different random names we made up on the spot anytime we booked a show. It never had a real name or title.
It was both a cohesive project in that it was a continuous effort that could be plotted on a timeline of activity, but the content of the artistic output was mostly gibberish.
Most of the songs weren’t really songs and the members of the band weren’t really members. The only continuous members were me and one other person who probably doesn’t want to be named in this article.
The concept was that we didn’t want to have a band at all, we wanted to create situations in which people could have an interesting experience with one another as individuals. This entire story is going to come off as pretentious regardless of how I write it, so I’m going to say at the outset here that we had no grandiose thoughts about what we were doing at the time.
The mentality we had at the time toward the actions we were taking and the unskilled improvisation recording sessions we engaged in was humble to a fault. If anything, what I am doing here is rewriting history to make everything sound much more extravagant because that is how it all feels in retrospect.
Most of the people involved didn’t know how to play and we explicitly chose to play music with people who didn’t know how to use instruments. I didn’t know how to play any of the instruments myself, it was just chaotic attempts at making interesting sounds.
The problem I felt with actual musical kill at that time was that the more you know the more the element of exploration is removed and stifled. We thought that through the exploration of inventing new ways to play the instruments and make sounds we were inventing new ways to coordinate and engage with each other.
The inventiveness that people bring to their instrument is only heightened by a lack of skill in playing that instrument.
When a group of untrained individuals is in a room tries to create a coherent sound together it often just sounds like gibberish. The instruments and tones often sound like they are fighting each other in some sort of discordant sonic duel.
Through the noise over time, there are sudden moments of improvisational clarity where everything in the room for sometimes only a minute or so would come into perfect sync. In these moments there was a creation of something beautiful and complex that the players probably would not have stumbled onto otherwise.
In a normal setting where everyone is doing a normal mode of musical action, people walk into a room with some common knowledge that they use to make sound tonal. People hear the key of a melody and start playing chords in that key or utilize scales.
When you set people into a room who don’t know chords or scales or how to play with one another they have no common musical language with which to use to communicate. Instead, they have to actually take what they hear and what they have in common to figure out how to play harmoniously within the space.
The less skill that the players have the harder this is and the more intriguing it becomes when they actually accomplish the synchronicity.
Composing music together could be compared to arguments or actual conversations. Much like a random conversation people have to listen to each other and note what they have in common to build upon.
Compromise is made and some attempt is made to bridge the gaps to relate to the other people you are interacting with. Eventually, connections between people can evolve out of this.
When you are in a large conversation and everyone is just saying whatever they want, arguing back and forth, talking over each other, etc, everything becomes noisy and jumbled up. Music is the same way, the sound of these people attempting to play their instruments together is noisy until people learn how to get along in the space in front of them.
The experiments we were doing go essentially into the same kind of territory as free jazz, harsh noise, and related disorderly genres of music. When I used to set up for these kinds of sonic experiments I would act kind of like a curator of people and instruments in a space.
I would try to bring together a bunch of people of diverse skills and backgrounds and put them in a space with access to a wide range of instruments and the atmosphere to play them freely.
My main goal or thought process was generally not as thought out as I’m making it sound here. I would just attempt to create interesting situations and let it unwind completely from there into tumultuous nonsense.
Most of the experiments were total failures, in reality most of the sound we created was objectively discordant noise. The process was what made it beautiful and stimulating, for onlookers I’m sure it was a nightmare to listen to.
Listening to old recordings and watching old concert tapes I recorded are endlessly fascinating to me and the other people who participated from what I can tell. It was just a matter of people finding each other and attempting to build something together that made it feel like an accomplishment.
Why did we want to do any of this? Just for fun? For me, it was about discovering a new way to see and view each other. We were all forcing each other to find new ways to interact on an abstract problem (crafting some tonality/harmony) that was outside of our control as individuals.
Listening to the inventive ways people came up with collectively to interact with each other is what makes the noise so absorbing to listen to.
After saying all this I guess the question is how often does it actually work out or how often is it actually listenable? For overall entertainment value, I’m not sure that these recordings provide much to people but as an artistic expression, they are golden.