Group Interview on Creating Music Together

This interview took place after the June 16th day-long Creating Music Together workshop at Church of the Annunciation in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The conversation is among the Assistants organizing the Creating Music Together retreat January 3-10, 2018 in Oxford, Michigan, outside of Detroit. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Frank Sheldon: The first question that came to me was, what, if you were looking at the people as they walked in in the first five or ten minutes, how did they seem compared to how they were at the end of the day-long workshop ? Did you notice anything?

Erin Rogers: There was an energy and excitement when they came in that was different than the energy and excitement when they left. And I think there was a sense of anticipation and a little nervousness, not so much nervous for the situation, but just not really knowing what the day would bring. And by the end, it felt much more comfortable, and there was this feeling of success, I think, sort of like we conquered the day, at the end, that we’d all kind of become friends and gone through this journey together.

I’ve only known these people for three or four hours, and yet I feel like I personally trust them, and would call them if my house were on fire.”

Tony Geballe: I noticed thatstarting about half-way through the day, by the time we reconvened after the lunch break, there was a sense of trust and mutual support in the group that had sort of been there at the beginning in the sense of, we all wanted this to go well. But by the time three or four hours had gone by, I was thinking to myself after lunch, I’ve only known these people for three or four hours, and yet I feel like I personally trust them, and would call them if my house were on fire. So it was very interesting. It was very quickly established, the level of communion.

Frank: For people who work together in business or in nonprofits or any kind of organization,sometimes, as we know, it’s not always easy to work together. And I thought Creating Music Together might do that, because, well of course one of the amazing things to me about music, being a non-musician, is how it happens simultaneous rather than a cause and effect. This thing happens and this thing happens and this thing happens. It’s all kind of synchronized. I’m not sure what the word is. And people are playing the same thing at the same time, rather than one thing after another. Everyone is literally sometimes on the same page. And this is not so common in life. So anything that can help that would seem to be a good thing to me. I was on [the workshop] Music for Non-musicians, and that’s one of the things I noticed, that just as you were saying, Tony, I noticed, you just start to feel very good with the group. You feel comfortable with them. You feel like you’re all on the same team. You can trust people. And that’s, anything that can cultivate that has a high value, such a high value that it’d be worth, beyond price, beyond rubies and pearls and all that stuff, worth lots, and people should pay money for something like that, because it will pay for itself many times over. Okay. I shouldn’t interview myself. Don’t let me do that, Tony.

Tony: So I think you’re right on about that, Frank.

Frank: Right on about what, Tony?

Tony: About this, that group work in this way, particularly with music, and I can say this directly, this is what happened [at the day-long workshop]; I felt a part of something that my contribution was an equal part to everybody else’s in each piece, whether it was by my piece or somebody else’s piece. Every part was equal and important, and we were creating a whole, and the whole was greater than anything we could have done on our own. I mean, people do great solo work. I’m not saying there’s not a great benefit or value to solo work. But there’s something about working in a group. And that experience is, as you said, very valuable for anybody who works in groups. And we work, and we will work on this upcoming retreat with specific exercises in working together in groups, as well as being open to the creative impulse. And those kinds of things can be very valuable in people’s daily lives.

The silence was larger than any sound that was being made.”

Erin: There were a couple of things that I think would be useful to someone who comes from a nonmusical or maybe corporate environment. And that is that the dominant force in the room is silence, and that after a day of this, you are comfortable in silence. And that’s not always the case in corporate America, in the board room, in interactions. There’s this constant need for somebody to be presenting and speaking, and putting ideas forth, and acting. And in an interesting way, when we did some of the improvisations on Saturday with some of the instruments and vocal exercises, the group was encouraged to be open to the inspiration come from forces around you, external and internal, so that every sound that was made was very carefully planned to break that silence. And that silence was the default. It wasn’t an improv where everybody just starts playing their instruments and then we try to find sounds that work together and this and that. The silence was larger than any sound that was being made. And I think because everybody felt that that was the larger force in the room, there wasn’t one person that could break that with a lot of talking or ideas. It was very clear very early that we’re all comfortable in the silence, and we’re all welcome in it, and that we should embrace it. And what it did is, it immediately established that energy amongst the group that was unique for, even for myself. I noticed that right away. So I think that somebody else coming from [the business] world would benefit greatly from something like that.

Tony: Another thing that I found very, very useful, that we really, we didn’t explicitly explore, but I saw it very much at work in Craig’s process as the facilitatorof this one-day workshop, and I think I would like to more explicitly explore it in the week-long workshop, is that a supportive atmosphere for people to find and be true to their creative impulse, that the work of the group was to encourage people and draw out their inner voice, and to ask them, what do you, if a piece is originating with a single person, what are you hearing? What’s working for you? What’s not working for you? What would you like to hear? How would you make this better? It was very supportive. It was uncritical, and it was very positive. I look forward to exploring that more.

Frank: Well here’s sort of a difficult question. I was wondering who this could be for. Would there be, when you, the project you did, people self-selected themselves, of course. They showed up cause they wanted to be there or at least decided they would be there. But I wondered if you could do it with any group. And so I thought, could you go into a prison and do a program like this?

Craig Shepard: So far, there have been four workshops that are connected to the Creating Music Together retreat, and we’ve had a mix of professional musicians, some experienced composers, and also programmers. We had some artists, some singers, as well as engineers. The best result for us has been a mix of people with experience and none. The people who don’t have any experience end up revealing the limits of training. They show us what our blind spots are, and they indicate ways of working together that we may not have seen. And in that situation, the role of the people with more experience is then to not tell them what they should be hearing or should do, what kind of music they should be making. The role there is to help them to bring into the world what they’re hearing inside. That’s what someone with no experience needs, and that’s what the experienced musician or trained musician can offer. So I have also done similar exercises with middle school and high school students, although Creating Music Together, the retreat, is for those 18 years old or older. We have found that some of the people who resonate most with this are those who are looking for silence, looking to take time out, who are looking to have a direct connection that doesn’t have a device in between them and the people they’re talking with. We're talking to yoga communities, to other kinds of sitting practices, as well as to community organizations. Choirs would find this very interesting to experience together as a group, not just to experience it on their own but also experience it together with the other participants. That being said, this is not for everyone. If those who have a difficult time with silence, they might have some unresolved issues that the silence will bring up, and there are people who are unwilling or, for whatever reason, unable to make a commitment. One of the things that we ask is that people commit for the duration. And that means that everyone takes a turn doing all the roles. And if for whatever reason maybe they have other concerns with their family or with work where they’re just not able to take the time off, or take time out, and to really be present, then maybe they might consider coming another time.

Tony: Well that brings up one of my questions, Craig. In the material for the retreat, it says that people will be preparing meals together. What can preparing meals together have to do with composing music?

Craig: One, when you have a meal, say a lunch at 1 o’clock, that is a very specific performance deadline. That means there needs to be something that meets the needs of nutrition and taste, and it needs to feed a certain number of people. This is not a concept piece. This is an actual creative endeavor that people need to engage together with. And so working in the kitchen, even though it might seem mundane, it might be not clear how chopping carrots is going to help developing composition skills, that experience of working together in a creative capacity to make something specific that meets specific needs ends up informing the other creative work. It’s also sometimes where you get to meet other people. And you might not like them in the kitchen, but you might like them in the concert hall, or vice versa. You might, for example, not like their music very much, but they might make a mean cup of coffee. And so any way to find some excuse to like somebody supports the work that happens on the retreat. And this ability to change roles gives everyone the opportunity to change it up a little bit, and to get to know people in a different way.

Dev Ray: If I can add one thing to what Craig just said, the great thing about working in the kitchen is that it is an intensifier, and with a very short deadline. So you have a bunch of people that are working on a project. In this particular instance, it’s making a meal. And they have to decide what to do and figure it out and make it work within a very short time frame. And oftentimes, these people haven’t worked together yet. Maybe on this meal is the first time that this particular group of people have gotten together and worked on something. So it’s the first time that that group, that unique group, has worked together. And they have to solve problems and work together in a pressure cooker. That’s time. And like Craig said, with taste and all these other things that are involved. So it’s a larger thing that gets compressed into its own performance.

Craig: And I think that speaks also to Frank’s first question about why people would do this. These are practical, direct experiences of working together as a group and making something. And we don’t have too many opportunities in our culture to really practice working as a group. There are some team sports where that is a possibility. There are some group projects where that happens. Certainly music performance is one opportunity. Here, on this retreat, it is a definite focus. How do we make something together as a group of equals, without being told by someone and without anyone being able to kick us out? There aren’t a lot of opportunities to do that. When problems arise, you have to deal with them. When you don’t like somebody, you have to deal with it. When they don’t like you, you have to deal with it. There’s no way, there’s no firing anybody and there’s no getting around it. So there is an aspect of being willing, and an element of good will, being able to show up and to do the deal and to give people the benefit of the doubt that is not only called for, but is also developed on the retreat.

Frank: That kind of relates a little to another question I had. Last person chosen for the kickball game syndrome. Some people have the experience of not being able to participate with something because they’re not good at it. You know, and then if they do participate, they kind of don’t do well. Everybody’s watching them not do well, and it’s not a fun experience usually. So how, in the one day workshop,did you get any sense that some people were feeling that, like I don’t really know what’s going on here? I’m not sure I’m not floundering. Or did everyone find a way to kind of— Did everyone find a way in?

Erin: There was definitely some trepidation, and it mostly surrounded the idea that the day was going to culminate in a public performance. And that was an early thought in the day, that, I mean, the meditation and the silence and the exercises were great. But then as soon as it became time to start putting a piece together, writing notes down individually and coming up with ideas, there was some nervousness, and a little bit of trepidation about the idea of putting together a public performance, and how it shifted from a nice relaxing group atmosphere into, okay, now you’re responsible for some heavy weight. And what ended up happening is, we worked through those ideas, and once they were realized by the folks who were composing them, there was a relief of the pressure. And once that was lifted, they were able to perform, and as the day went on, they were more and more comfortable in the idea that they were going to perform their piece. And the truth is that it doesn’t really matter what level of music training you have, or just how comfortable and experienced you are in composing a piece with voice and hand percussion. I felt like the success of the pieces had no relationship whatsoever to the experience of the composer. So that was a really refreshing thing to see.

Craig: One thing that’s important in understanding what’s going on is that we are not in competition here. So in a kickball game or baseball game or another sport competition, there is a feeling that if you have somebody who’s a weak link on the team, then you’re going to lose. My understanding of inspiration is that it’s available to everyone at all times. And it’s only that sometimes we don’t see it, we don’t hear it, or we’re not available to it when it happens. But in that situation, the newcomer, the one who has the least amount of experience can sometimes be the greatest instructor, in the sense that those of us who have experience, we train ourselves not to hear it, or to ignore it, or we’re constant-, especially the professionals, we might edit ourselves for what our audience might like, or what might make us money, or what might get us a job. And these are all natural things. They do need to be done. If you’re in an orchestra and a conductor says, play it this way, you have to play it that way. In this situation, however, the goal is the creativity; the goal is to create music. In working towards this goal, the person who might feel the most out of place often has the most to offer. Our job then, as Assistants, is to help that person to tap into what it is that they’re hearing, what it is that they want to bring into the world. It's a different kind of engagement than in a sports team or even in a professional music performance, where if you’re in a brass section and the second trombone can’t play in tune, everyone sounds bad. This is a little bit different. There is no public performance, and all the roles of the informal performances on the retreat are really just to encourage and to further develop the music and the creative energy.

Frank: I think what all of you just said is important. You know, what I hear coming out today is a lot of value, things that would give people a reason to want to participate, or to encourage people they know to participate. The value that it has becomes apparent. And it becomes available in some way. Maybe people listen to one of you saying this, or maybe they read a quote. Maybe you transcribe it, or it’s a voiceover over an image or something. It can make, things like that can make a big difference. And when I first came into this project, it was sort of like, what is this? What exactly? We’re going to meet, and oh, they’re not going to have instruments? They’re composers, so they’re going to clap or something? And it’s a week somewhere in some cold, remote place. Is that a bunch of weirdos?

Craig: Frank, I actually would like to hear personally from you and also from Dev as to why you guys signed on to this. So you explained what was so strange for you, but this is quite a bit of work to organize and to set this up. And I am very flattered that you would sign on for something like this. So if you could just talk for a bit about what you thought initially, and why you are putting so much of your time and energy into it.

Frank: Well, I think the first main reason was, I trusted you, Craig. It’s as simple as that. And I often, if there’s 20 people in the room and 19 of them know what’s going on, I’m the other one. I realized this week as I was driving, I realized, I came up with a new term. I have social dyslexia. So I’m often not getting things. So I’m probably a good test case. And in other ways, I get things before other people do. So maybe it’s just one of those things. You take a little from here and put it there, and then you don’t have as much there. It’s just the way it is. Anyway, it is the way it is. So the initial thing was, I knew you a little bit from some of the projects we’d done online, and I remember you from being in person. And I trusted you. But then, not being a musician, there’s something to people like me that is mysterious and magical about music. I know it’s possible to, in a very intentional, calculating way, simply to put sound together in a certain way and make people feel something, even if the person who put that together is a heartless, horrible creature. A friend of mine told me a story about Beethoven. He said Beethoven would go out and play, cause he was also a pianist. Supposed to be also a very good pianist. And he would play, and then he would have the whole audience would be weeping, a and then he would stand up and laugh at them and walk off the stage. I don’t know. Maybe a little social dyslexia on his part. So music is mysterious, mysterious. And in our culture, there are people that do it, and then there are people listen to it, and they’re not the same people always. And there are people that love music and listen to it but never make it, and if you ask them why, it’s just, well I’m not a musician. I don’t know how. And so you created a course that is saying, [to those who haven't experienced it yet]: this is actually for you. Don’t stop reading. Don’t look away. Don’t stop listening, whatever it is. This is actually, this course is for you. Because a lot of people said, well, it’s not for me. And so that’s the kind of key message there. And it’s why I could imagine myself taking part in this and not completely destroying whatever was going on. So that’s something.

Dev: Well I’m not sure how to follow that, but what I’ll say is that one of— There’s a few major reasons that I got involved in this. One is that you asked me. And my impulse was to say yes. And I guess that also leads back to what Frank said, is that I trusted you, Craig. So that’s number one. Number two, one of the things that I find most fascinating in the world is creativity. All forms of it. And this idea that everyone can be creative, obviously this is geared towards composition and music. Music is my chosen medium as well, and so creativity in music is something that I think I am desperately fascinated with in all of its forms, and how it gets created.This idea that we would be focusing on creativity and music, and with people of varying degrees of experience, from experienced composers to non-experienced composers, people that don’t even call themselves composers, people that don’t even call themselves musicians, necessarily. And I find this very, very fascinating, and it’s something that I’m looking forward to working with. The third thing that is really big for me is group work. And this has to do with the fact that personally, I know that when I work with other people towards a common aim, what we can achieve is greater than what I can do on my own. This has been proven to me time and time again. And so the idea of taking a bunch of people, working together towards a greater aim, helping each other work on our individual aims and then maybe having a larger aim that we’re all sharing, this type of work is very dear to me, and I think it’s very important, not only for us as musicians, or for the community, but I’d say for the world at large. The problems that we’re all facing in the world, these can’t be solved by individuals. People need to work together and take action together. And I think that this is a microcosm of that. And so those are the main reasons that I was excited to do this, and when you mentioned the team that you had assembled, I was also very excited about that.

Craig: And then Erin, I was also touched when you agreed to join. You are such an accomplished, experienced, wonderful performer on the saxophone, and monstrous chops as a composer. So I’d like to hear why you signed on, because as you know, it’s a lot of work organizing.

Erin: Well, I’m now the third person to say this, but it had a lot to do with you, Craig. I think if this was the first project that you and I would have worked on, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I don’t do residencies, and I’m not really, I’ve never really been drawn to the idea of retreats or going into separate quarters with artists and finding that group mentality. That’s just never been something that I’ve had interest in. But over the past three years, I’ve become really, really interested in Music for Contemplation, and the projects that we’ve worked on. And every time we finish a project where I’m involved with you and the team, it’s really amazing how much I feel changed. And that’s been growing with every project that we do together. And so now, I almost have a thirst to explore this part of myself, to embrace silence in this way, and this sort of corner of my consciousness that hadn’t been touched and had really been avoided for a long time. So for me, the day-long workshop cemented the idea that I’m very, very interested in working with you and the whole team for a week. I know I’m going to be able to do it, and it’s going to be great. The day that we had on Saturday was pivotal in my mind, and it continued to help evolve this thing that I can feel is happening with my compositional voice, mentality about music, mentality about silence. The energy of working with more than just yourself, it creates at whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. There’s something very special that happens when all of those energies gather, that allows people to take risks and do things. It allows a platform for people to grow. And I am really excited by watching somebody take a risk and grow from that, whether they fail and reboot or they succeed in doing something they never thought they’d do or couldn’t have done before. And a lot of that has to do with there being a team of people there to support you, to do something in front of people and with people that you might not be able to do on your own. So I think that’s what I’m thinking right now, at least.

Craig: Thank you. And then I also would like to hear from Tony. Tony, you’ve been doing work in theater and in the Guitar Craft and Guitar Circle more than 30 years. I was honored that you agreed to do this, and to bring all that experience to it. What is new or different about this project that made you sign up for it?

Tony: I’m by profession a musician and composer, and producer and performer. And professionally, I’m concerned with the quality of my work, and the quality of my composing. Is this good enough? Like Erin was saying. Is this a good enough piece? You know, I start writing music, and immediately my thought is, is this good? Or I start playing, and I think, am I playing well? Can I play this? Is my technique up to snuff? And these are the concerns that color my work. And in a situation like [Creating Music Together], where I’m working in modalities that are completely foreign to me, with instruments I don’t normally play, people I don’t work with, situations that I don’t normally encounter, all that, I’m able to let go of all that. I’m free of that. I’m no longer concerned with the quality. Is this good? It more has to do with simply coming into contact and responsiveness to the creative impulse and the group dynamic. And this is something, I’ve experienced it a few different places, in different workshops I’ve taken, and I have found it tremendously valuable, both to my professional work and to my life. The ability to open up in these new ways to people and processes and creativity in ways that have nothing to do with how I normally approach my work. And certainly what happened Saturday is a confirmation of that, and I’m very much looking forward to the week in January.

Craig: I’ll just answer my own question:Why am I doing this? It didn’t become clear to me until the last day-long workshop that we did in June. I have found that I can’t do anything alone anymore. I just can’t— A lot of composers, they go and they have their process and they’re alone and they’re in their studio, and I’m just unable to do that anymore. And so I really need a group, a place of other people that I trust, in order to do anything. It sounds like a lot of work. Even if you’re not an organizer, you’ve got to go to Detroit, and it’s cold, and it’s winter, and you have to get the money together to go. And every time I’ve done one of these, I always feel like this is so much work. Why am I doing this? Till the moment it begins. And then I always get much more back than I put in. So we had a workshop this past Saturday, and I’ve already written two pieces, and there’s a couple ideas for more. There’s some clarity about some other projects that are going on in my life. I had a solution to a thorny tax issue (I'm a tax analyst) that I’ve been working on.

For me personally, there are many rewards that come out of going into this place. I also feel that this is a service, a greater service. We don’t have many opportunities to learn how to work together. And one of the things that we can do as artists is we can experiment with different ways of working together and of operating together and of getting things done-- almost like the research and development wing of social organization. There's a lot of value to that.

Connected to that is, there are a lot of young musicians coming up that I feel really want to be working with other musicians. Unfortunately, the costs of education excludes many of them. In Creating Music Together, we charge just enough to cover our costs. We all pitch in. Whoever pays the piper calls the tune. So if we’re all paying for it, then we’re the ones in charge, and we’re the ones that get to say how it goes. And so that’s something I think that is often underappreciated. Most people want a grant, or they want someone else to pay for it, or they’ll take out a loan and maybe pay it ten or twenty or thirty years later. In this case, I think it’s important that the participants themselves pay for it, and we’re there really to assist them. We receive a very marginal fee for doing all the nuts and bolts organizing work. It takes a lot of organizing to go in. And in order to keep it that the participants are the ones that are calling the shots, they payfees to cover the costs for that.

One thing that has become very clear to me is that this retreat will happen in January. I’ll be there no matter what, and there will be a meaningful experience. I have no doubt of that. I can't tell you exactly what form it will take, but I do know that something will happen.

I’ve done four of the day-long workshops. And I really have a sense of connection and friendship with each of the participants--about 30 so far. And so this friendship, this connection is something that is real, and I feel this connection and friendship with these people that I’ve been with with one day that’s taken years to develop with co-workers at the office, for example. So that is another thing that people can get out of this, and it’s a real thing.

Dev: Creative thinking, group work, team-building, problem solving all these types of things, are really things that business people value tremendously, and it’s good for their workforce to be able to, to work on these skills.

Tony: I had two other questions that we didn’t get to, well three, actually. One was, how do we encourage openness to the creative impulse? I mean, that’s the task of the week, really, and responsiveness to it. Another was, how can somebody prepare for the workshop or the retreat? And the third was, I actually had this specifically directed at you, Erin. I don’t know why. Composing is generally thought of as a solitary activity. Can music be composed in a group?

Erin: Yeah, it definitely can be composed in a group. There’s different ways, I think, but I keep learning every time we all work together, or that I work with some of my groups collaboratively. It can be done, and the process is the interesting thing, how it can be done, or how it is done, and how you get there.

Prior to my experience on the day-long workshop, most of my collaborative composing had been done with my chamber group, ThingNY, which is a theatrical chamber group comprised of composer-performers, and we’ve been working together for ten years. We've written three operas together, and each one’s a little different. But the thing with the personalities and the way that it’s come together is it’s very much based around trying to come up with concepts and ideas, and there’s been almost zero attention to process or to analysis of the process. Things pass by, whether successful or not, and there’s really no kind of deeper investigation into whether that worked or didn’t. The question is, do we have a product at the end? And so what I’ve found is that it just takes a lot longer to get something, but that the quality of the final product is bigger than all of us and greater than anything we could have individually produced. So it’s really a balance of time and effort across the board. I think with the process that I just experienced at the Creating Music Together workshop, it’s very different, and I think that all of the works there were somehow collaboratively composed, although there was more individual ownership, and I’d be curious to explore a little bit more the process of equal ownership of all pieces, which is a tougher situation to kind of get into.

Craig: So are there any other questions, or anything else that people are feeling would be useful?

Frank: Well, one thing I wanted to say, I think you probably did, I know you generated some good stuff today that could be used in a variety of ways. But it was also helpful as a meeting, I think, for us. It felt like a kind of deepening of kind of where we’re going, what might be possible, what’s needed to there, and why, maybe most important, why even bother to do it? And more and more I get the feeling this is going to be a wonderful thing, and people are going to be so glad they went to it, and they’re going to go back and tell those men asleep in England that they missed all these lucky few and all that. So some of the things you said about, Tony and Erin and Craig especially about, although you are composers, and this could be looked at as kind of a very rudimentary, beginning course in some ways, you also gave a lot of reasons why if somebody was a composer or more of a serious musician or whatever, that this might be a good thing for them. And even though we kind of moved towards music for everybody, I think you don’t have to abandon the other group either. They may be composers. They may be serious musicians who will see the value of this, and they may see it when they listen to you, when they listen to you say what you said, cause it really was very effective for me. It sold me completely.

Craig: Anything else? Okay, well we have a planned call tomorrow at 12 noon, so at this point, I would just like to once again extend deep gratitude to Tony, Dev, Erin, and Frank. This project has really got me on fire, and it was a very strong experience on Saturday. And one thing that I learned which I kind of knew, but I didn’t have direct experience with, is that it takes a lot of work to show up when something is really good. So there was a lot of really positive, wonderful energy on the workshop on Saturday, and it was, I was exhausted the next day. So one of the things that I get out of this is just increasing my capacity for the good in life. So thank you.