-The Mosaic Project-
30 Composers, 1 Track, and what I learned.
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From March 6-8, hundreds of musicians and gamers gathered together in the Twin Cities area for an annual Video Games and Music Convention, or VGM Con. Attendees could enjoy a multitude of panels from experts, listen to live performances of their favorite songs from bands across the country, enjoy demos of local indie games, and even jam together. It seemed the perfect opportunity for an idea: what would a song composed by as many people as possible sound like?
It seemed perfect -- a unique form of “gameplay” in which users directly contributed to the final product. Their ideas fully heard and melded with one another. A collective experience that explored a space between composer and listener. Needless to say, I was tremendously excited about the potential of this thought.
So I gathered some of my portable recording equipment, opened a display table, and asked for any and all to contribute to a single production I opened on Logic Pro. I wrote one small idea on the piano to kick things off, then sat back and watched the organized chaos unfold.
The “Core” Essence:
It was my first and foremost goal that the nature of this project was to allow anyone to have their voice heard and connected to others in ways they may not have before. No idea was off limits, no experience necessary, and no judgement was cast on anything put into the project.
Almost immediately, this came to fruition in many interesting ways. The ideas of children who contributed became the focal point for a professional composer to orchestrate. A teenager’s desire for a guitar in the project created a sonic space for synth composers to flesh out their ideas.
When it came to assembling this together afterwards, it was important to me that my only goal in orchestrating and arranging the material was to elevate and maximize each person’s contribution to the best of my ability. I did not add new parts, and I did not edit any underlying harmonic structures.. Instead, I supported what was already there in ways that kept the original ideas intact.
Among many great musicians, It just so happened 8-Bit Music Theory was hosting a few panels, and was happy to contribute some ideas
Context, Scope, and Limitations:
Over the course of 10 hours of display over 2 days, 30 people of all ages were kind enough to contribute to the project. Some stayed for a minute, while others stayed much longer. Many seemed to have a certain nervousness about contributing an idea, but that was overcome by everyone as they sat down and thought of ways to contribute.
The project was set up in Logic Pro. For experienced musicians who sat down, I acted as an engineer and managed the workstation, leaving them to a keyboard and whatever instrument sample they wanted to experiment and think. For those with no musical experience, they acted more like a producer: they would tell me what they wanted in, I would record it, and if they liked it, it became their contribution. This was the case for a few, and was for me the most rewarding part of this project. Those with no musical background were able to be exposed and engaged in the music making process, and there was a definite sense of satisfaction and fulfilment when they heard their thoughts translated into the song.
Some natural limitations did exist though: the display area tended to be very crowded, and to allow more people to contribute, each person had a relatively short amount of time to add an idea. While 30 composers is also not a small amount, it is also not enough ideas where the music created was fully realized. This led me to “fill in the holes” as needed. For example, if a written section had violins, cello, and bass, I would add a corresponding viola part to get the full sonority of a string section. The parts would be as minimally intricate as possible, typically only providing support on harmonized textures through universally accepted voice-leading practices.
An early contributor was a young girl with no musical background, who was quick to add piano sounds she enjoyed
Another limitation was the processing power of my Macbook. To alleviate this, composers played their ideas in stock instrument libraries that would later be replaced with higher-fidelity, professional samples that require a lot more RAM and processing.
Some composers also chose to contribute many ideas over various sections. While I allowed an unlimited amount of ideas as I gathered everyone’s parts, I ultimately chose to edit and reduce as needed to allow other people’s ideas to speak. I was very deliberate, however, in making sure that no composer was fully “cut” from the project. In some cases, rather than reducing parts, I repeated sections to allow each texture to be layered in a more palatable fashion so the listener does not get overwhelmed.
The short amount of time also led to some mechanical issues as well - some parts were off key, some melodies clashed together, and some chose to record audio directly which unfortunately didn’t work out. Again, adjustments and compromises were made as necessary to allow space for each idea to remain. It seemed that was a recurring theme as I worked on this for the week following the event: The thoughts and integrity of the individual versus the needs of the collective group. In the end, I decided the collective effort would take priority.
Charles McGregor, creator and composer for HyperDot, adds some much needed bass lines.
It can be a little unnerving staring at an empty project on Logic and be told to just “write anything.” To counter this, I wrote the first 4 measures of the project on the piano just so people can latch onto something.
What I didn’t realize was I ultimately dictated many parameters by doing so: the starting key, the tempo, the instrumentation, and general mood. Most everyone who contributed didn’t write “out”, that is, they made a deliberate effort to bring a cohesive idea to the table. I didn’t want to influence people’s thoughts, but perhaps it stopped people from thinking about changing the tempo or melodic content, or bringing something abrupt that changes the tone of everything. It speaks volumes to the power of a single idea in shaping things, and also to the nature of everyone wishing to work together in the experience, rather than stand out alone.
In terms of time spent, I noticed no distinctive correlation between musical experience and time spent on the project. Some with no musical background contributed in 1 minute, others in 15. Some professional composers dropped an idea in one take, others stuck around for 45 to try things (though some of that may be due to unfamiliarity with Logic’s workflow). It seemed like it was more of a personality test, and watching everyone’s creative process as they shared their thoughts was very fun to witness.
My panel cohorts Eric Buchholz and Alexander Brandon joined in on the fun. Alex was a last-minute guest addition to our panel, and I couldn't have been happier he joined us.
When glueing everything together on my own, it became a unique test in managing everyone’s ideas. There definitely many times I simply wanted to delete parts to make things work, but luckily I never succumbed to that temptation. I made sure to remind myself that I cannot cast judgement on the sounds, and it became an enlightening experience for my own work. If I can remove doubts and uncertainty with ideas in this project, maybe I can do it for myself.
In the context of my personal taste, I also found that those whose ideas were very straightforward often worked out the best in terms of mixing with everyone else. More complicated lines often were more difficult to manage, and it made me think about the role of complexity in music, and how often things end up being busy just for the sake of it. I didn’t necessarily feel more emotionally attached or drawn to those ideas. In fact, my personal favorite contribution was a small pizzicato string vamp that became a background texture for a gentle flute melody.
To wrap it up:
This was such a fun and engaging project and I’m so glad I decided to follow through with this at VGM Con. It became an active way to meet new people and connect through music on a deeper level. It was my version of a video game in a way. I saw the same sense of satisfaction in completing a level through bringing an idea to life and working with others, and I saw connections made between people that otherwise wouldn’t have happened. My original goal was also to get 100 composers, so perhaps I will have to try this again some day on a larger scale.
Thank you so much to these people for their contributions:
Alex (VGM Con Volunteer)
8-Bit Music Theory