Report on Vocal Immersion and writing music together

In March of 2013, I went for a cruise to see humpback whales, and learned that there are only three species that have so far been identified as composers: humpback whales, a species of bird (I can't find which one), and human beings. While many animals make, and imitate distinct sounds, some of which are called "songs", biologists have made a distinction between reproduction and composition, which they define as creating a new order of sounds which hasn't existed before.

It seems that making music may be an essential part of our nature. If each human being has the capacity to write music--to imagine an order of sounds which has never existed before--then how to identify that mechanism and develop it? The Vocal Immersion workshop on October 8th as well as the composition project at Music in the Woods October 21-23 were the beginning of ways to answer this question.

To begin, I make the following assumptions:

  1. Everyone has the innate capacity to write music
  2. There are ways to identify this capacity
  3. There are ways to develop this capacity

To prepare, I reviewed my own experience. In trombone lessons, Frank Crisafulli talked a lot about "hearing the tune". In a lesson preparing to play John Cage's Ryoanji, made up of very low slides sounding something like humpback whale songs, Crisafulli insisted that I needed to hear them in my imagination. We spent a lot of time singing them up one or two octaves, buzzing them on the mouthpiece, and playing them up the octave on the trombone. I remember one brass class with Rex Martin where I was playing a third consistently out of tune. He stopped the class of twenty, and had them play the root and fifth, against which he had me sing the third, and then buzz it on my mouthpiece. I had an "ah-hah" moment, realizing that I could hear the pitch in my imagination, and that if I trusted that, and paid attention to it, then playing in tune was much easier. On a subsequent class, we spent twenty minutes with eyes closed. He named a number of sounds, such as a snare drum roll, and asked us to "hear" it in our minds. Then he would ask us to transform the sound: louder, softer, crescendo, decrescendo. In this way, Martin helped me to develop the inner hearing.

I also reviewed the Deep Listening Course I took with Pauline Oliveros in 1997. One thing Pauline said was that the one thing we all have in common is the voice. In Deep Listening, the human voice became the means by which we could share a common experience. For this reason, everything to be composed was for voice or hand percussion.

As I had no way of knowing what people might compose, and had a responsibility to the audience for a quality evening of music, I made sure I had back up material in case participants didn't have any music to present. I reviewed Pauline Oliveros' Software for People and Christian Wolff's Basel, both of which have good platforms for group composition in them. I also reviewed a piece of mine in case we needed more material for the program. The night before, I walked through the space, set up a circle of chairs, and went over in my mind what exercises I might introduce the next day.

What we did on Music for Contemplation October 8th:

9:00 am. Arrivals.

9:15 am Sitting in the circle, we did a simple relaxation exercise, scanning the surface of the body for any unnecessary tension and letting it go.

9:45 am Listening Exercises After the sitting, each of us spent time noticing our own breathing. After a while, I asked everyone to let the vocal chords engage on the exhale, each in his or her own individual rhythm, staying on whatever pitch was natural to them. After this was established, I asked everyone to try out different tones and notice where their body resonated.

After this, we sat in silence for thirty seconds and listened. Each shared what we could hear. Then one minute of silence, and sharing again, then two minutes, again sharing the sounds that we could hear. After each period, we each began to hear more, and began to listen for what the others were hearing. I've done this exercise a number of times in groups, and am always amazed at how much more I can hear and how much other people can teach me about listening.

10:45 am Break for coffee/snacks.

11:15 am Introduction to Composition. One sound that each of us is familiar with is the sound of our own name. Each of us has heard it tens of thousands of times. I asked each member to spend a moment hearing the sound of their mother calling their name. Then we went through a number of different scenarios.

Can you hear your mother calling your name when she's surprised and happy to see you? Can you hear your mother calling your name when she's scolding you? Can you hear your mother call your name on the phone?

Then we went through other scenarios with the sound of one's name.

Can you hear a group of your friends calling your name drunk at a bar? Can you hear them calling your name from across the street?

Taking inspiration from an exercise introduced by Pauline Oliveros during a Deep Listening course, I set a two minute time within which we each said our name as we would like it to be said. We then took another two-minute time frame, and each of us said someone else's name. Then a period of five minutes where each of us spoke everyone else's name.

We then took the listening exercise one step further, asking a new series of questions:

Can you hear the announcer of the World Series say your name over the PA? Can you hear Bob Barker announcing your name to "come on down"? Can you hear a presidential candidate say your name in an answer to a debate question?

For most of us, these are situations that have never happened. This was the step into composition: hearing in the mind a sound that has never existed.

Continuing: can you hear the sound of seagulls calling your name? Can you hear a flock of seagulls calling your name over the PA in a sport arena?

After this, we spent more time sitting in silence, paying attention to any sound that may come into the imagination. Asking the group to stay present, and pay attention to any sounds that may come up, we took a break for lunch.

12:30 pm break for lunch

1:30 pm Initial sharing of compositions. We went around the circle, and everyone shared what sound or idea they had for the performance. My role was to listen to the ideas and think about how to support the group in making a coherent performance. This meant really listening to the music presented, and think about what would be necessary to rehearse. In this case, six pieces that needed their own individual time performed by the entire group, and four pieces could be performed simultaneously with others, and could be rehearsed in smaller groups.

From 1996-2003, there was a massive outpouring of creativity among the Wandelweiser Group. I suspect one reason was that we took turns composing and performing each other's music. In the workshop, each participant had a turn being the composer, and the group dedicated time to rehearsing each individual's work. This also meant that each performed others' work.

The shifting of roles from being in charge to supporting helped to give a good atmosphere in the group. We were all there to help each other to identify what each individual was hearing and the bring it to life. Because each of us had a turn doing what we wanted, each was much less attached to what others were doing. My roll was to facilitate this as best I could. This meant encouraging those who may not have a lot of experience being in charge, and to make sure that experienced composers did not get in the way of what other participants might be hearing.

One thing I invited the participants to do was to note any compositional ideas that might come up during the workshop--especially if they came up when performing another's work--and save them for later. By giving an outlet for this creativity, each had more possibility to let go of their own ideas when performing others' work.

3:00 pm Break

3:10 pm Rehearsals. We continued the rehearsal, breaking up into smaller groups for the smaller pieces. As we approached the end of this rehearsal, my role as facilitator was to see how all the compositions might make sense on a program. This meant making decisions on the fly, sticking to them, and making sure the group could memorize the order. As it turned out, the group composed a wealth of material, and we were a little tight with rehearsal time. There was no need for me to use the back-up pieces I had ready to go.

5:30 pm Run-through for evening performance.

6:30 pm Break for dinner

7:30 pm Quiet time and performance preparation exercise

8:05 pm Performance. The performance lasted one hour, and included all eleven compositions by the participants. As it turned out, the performance was far stronger than the rehearsals and the run-through. We had a great group who brought their full attention and presence. One member noted that the audience changed the music, and some of the compositions took on a character beyond what the composers had expected.

What we did at Music in the Woods October 21-23:

The workshop at Music in the Woods had were six participants and two sessions: a ninety-minute session on Friday, and a three hour session on Saturday with a performance during dinner Saturday evening. On Friday we went right into the listening exercise, followed by the name exercise and an introduction to composition. At the end of the introduction, I asked each participant to pay attention to what sounds might come to them that evening or the next morning.

On Saturday, we had a rehearsal from 2:30-5:30 pm. Participants were asked to present a sound or composition that was possible to perform with the people in the group with the voice or objects which were available. Again, I was surprised by just how much material the participants had come up with. One member shared a very clear image of the sound that came to him: a shovel being dragged along a gravel path, trailing behind someone walking. The group then worked out ways that this sound could be performed with the materials available to the group. As we tried out different solutions, the composer let us know if we were getting closer to the idea. We settled on scraping mugs around the bottom of plates.

As we rehearsed the pieces, my role was again to see how the overall program might work together and which pieces could practically, and musically follow each other. The performance after dinner lasted twenty minutes, and the live experience again exceeded what the group had expected was possible during the rehearsals.


  • During both workshops, there were participants that came up with concepts or situations within which the other members chose sounds to make. It occurs to me that in doing so, they were "sub-contracting" out the act of accessing the internal image of sound, asking the other participants to choose the specific sounds for the performance. This is interesting to me, and helped me to understand some recent trends in music. Much of what are called "text scores", and "concept music", are themselves situations and structures within which musicians choose sounds. In doing so, these musicians become a group of composers. The breadth and scope of the frames and situations varies; sometimes the musicians have to then further define the scope of choice, other times, the choice is very narrow. The interest among free improvisors in having a frame or structure within which to improvise--and the fact that those with free improvisation experience tend to have better realizations of these kinds of works (Greg Stuart knocking it out of the park repeatedly with Michael Pisaro is a case in point) than those without free improvisation experience (including many classically trained musicians)--seems to confirm this. This collaborative composition subverts the traditional classical hierarchy with composer at the top, then conductor, and then instrumentalist. In this new form of collaborative composition, what is called the "composer" is more like a programmer: they design the situation within which certain music is possible, but do not author the results.
  • For the purposes of the composition workshop, developing inner hearing and imagination were the scope of exploration. There are other ways to write music, including using systems, patterns, computer programs, field recordings, etc. Those composers who had an established practice in these areas had some difficulty letting go of their existing tools. Part of it was shyness. Learning something new can be embarrassing.
  • The groups were mix of beginners with no musical training, professional composers, professional singers, semi-professional singers, and semi-professional composers. The singers were new to composition, and had a sense of play in being able to share their work. The beginners dove right in, and had the least resistance to the exercises. The challenge for them was to communicate what they heard in a manner which the other members of the group could understand. One member had zero experience; and seemed to have a clear idea of music in their head. It took a lot of work to get to a piece of music. It wasn't clear whether they had difficulty communicating it, or that they doubted that the sounds they were hearing were OK as music. By inviting the other members of the group to help the beginner, they learned a new role. This was especially useful to the pros and the composers, who seemed to struggle to let go of the need to make it something "good". The aim was to find out what the beginner was hearing, whether or not it was "good". My role was to negotiate this situation, and keep the focus on the beginner's inner hearing. When a pro composer began to give "helpful suggestions" about what the piece could sound like, I interrupted them, and brought it back to the question of what the beginner was hearing.
  • I was surprised at just how much creativity was set loose in my own work. During each workshop, a solution to a problem in a piece I am working on became clear, and I got ideas for new pieces.

Things I would do differently next time:

  • Meals: On MufoCo, we each brought a bag lunch, and ate our lunch together sitting in a circle on the sidewalk. Dinner was unplanned, each finding a different item to eat in the neighborhood. One member had planned dinner with friends, and because rehearsal went late, opted to go to dinner with friends rather than participate in the performance. Next time, I would structure the meals better. Either do a pot luck, and reserve a cafeteria where we could sit down together, or reserve a table at a restaurant. I tend to lean towards feeding each other, but this can be complicated for those coming in from out of town.
  • More rehearsal time: I underestimated how much creativity would be unleashed, and we could have used more rehearsal time. This is a tricky thing to get right. When time is increased, there's more time to doubt one's composition. Knowing that "the show must go on" invites the composer to make a decision and go with it. Still, I felt that in both cases, although the performances both came out well, I felt that some of the pieces would have benefited from more time in rehearsal. It's not clear how to solve this problem. In NYC, it's VERY difficult to get a group of people to commit for two days in a row. As it was, we had some who were interested, but asked to attend only the morning, or join later. If it was done as a "retreat in the city", where people attended during the day, but slept at home or with a friend at night, then the introduction could happen on Friday evening, resuming Saturday morning with rehearsals. The problem then is how to invite people to make a firm commitment for the two days? Perhaps asking for payment up-front with no refunds. The amount of money would need to be high enough to be a significant loss to participants. Money then becomes a support for the commitment. Another way to solve the problem is to have a retreat outside the city where there's nothing else to do.