It’s not usually the case that filling out a revealing questionnaire, waiting in line, and encountering someone with a lot of tools at their disposal ends up being fun. Like, ever. But people who participated in Custom Melodies, an exhibition held last summer by Grey Gersten (aka the musician known as Eternal Lips) left not with a sinking sense of shame, but an original song composed according to their unique personality traits and experiences. (You can explore the melodies on this special, interactive website, which launched today.)
With the aim of creating music based on a momentary symbiosis with exhibition goers, Gersten met and interviewed close to a dozen people per night, for 12 straight days. Visitors were first instructed to fill out an intake form that asked various multiple choice and true/false questions. Instead of sitting for a photograph, participants were asked to draw an image of themselves. Then, participants were told to approach a booth where Gersten stood, surrounded by instruments. The “super lo-fi” recordings were done on a phone, with Gersten playing all the instruments simultaneously. “We’re talking about making a record’s worth of original music, every night for almost two weeks,” he said. “It was insane.”
Gersten is one of those multi-instrumentalists whose musical attention moves outside the constraints of genre. Instead, he’s driven more by experimentation. One of his recent straightforward recording efforts as Eternal Lips is a sort of Hot Chip-minimalist melding of rock and pop (see his Michael Jackson-inspired video for “Voice“), but where Gersten gets really wacky is with his art-pop initiatives (Custom Melodies is one) that branch outside of the write-play-record-tour-distribute paradigm we’ve come to know and love.
“I’m trying to think about new ways for people to experience music, and have them get inside of it so they feel less like it’s something happening to them and more like it’s an exchange,” Gersten explained. “A lot of times, the way people experience music, it’s as a piece of media that’s already been created that has nothing to do with them. It’s given to them and they assign their own meaning to it.”
The environs at the interactive exhibition portion of Custom Melodies, including the assessment form– which borrows from personality tests, dream interpretation, psychological analyses, and the wisdom of fortune cookies– were intentionally set up to feel “very bureaucratic, like the DMV or the Customs Office or something,” Gersten said. The model has the same alien almost cult-y but emotionally-stirring vibe that the Institute for New Feeling is concerned with.
But Gersten took Custom Melodies far beyond simply reading the form and playing music according to the answers. “Each appointment was about 20 minutes– that was about five minutes to talk to the person, hear about their life, and try to get them to say something interesting,” Gersten recalled. “Usually they would.” These soundbites became the lyrics, which Gersten put together along with instrumentals, to make a song in ten minutes or less.
“I’d get a a quick, intuitive sense of the person— ask them a couple of questions, try to get a feeling from them, and then try to illustrate that feeling,” he explained. Then he had about five minutes left to actually record the song– live, in one take. “It was such a short, intense thing,” he remembered. “And then I’d let go of it, instantly, and let someone else come in.”
Overall there are 110 complete Custom Melodies ranging from dreamy, washed-out tunes with meandering or non-existent rhythm to grinding keyboard rants and burbly, blissful synth sounds. Gersten said that, surprisingly, the show attracted “a really wide scope” of people– “ages 12 to late-60s, people who live in New York, and people who don’t, people who are from America, and people who aren’t.” But while people presented a great deal of unique stories, and “everyone had their own emotional reality,” Gersten said that he was impressed by the profound commonality he discovered. “One of the things I walked away with is that everyone’s dreaming the same dream,” he remarked. Gersten meant this quite literally– many people were prone to “anxiety” dreams. “It dances between, ‘Wow, okay, there is this uniform human experience’ and, ‘Man, each of those people are completely on their own island.'”
Each song can be accessed on the website, which is an essential part of Custom Melodies. “I felt like I would be selling the project short if I just made CDs or a download code for the songs,” Gersten explained. “Other people should encounter the work in a really unique way too, in the same way the people did who had the initial experience.”
With so many songs that are all quite different, does Gersten find it easy to recall the people behind each composition? The answer is yes and no. “Sometimes it’s really clear,” he said. “I have very specific memories of some of the people who came through.” What helped is that everyone was very willing to open up. “We got to a really confessional, emotional space,” Gersten said. “I felt like they were very trusting.”
But this zone of realness might not have been possible if things had played out differently. Initially, Gersten planned to design the form so that each answer would correspond to a concrete sound. “I’d ask, ‘Do you have an awareness of your heartbeat or not?’ If so, I’d put in a drum, there would be a rhythm to the song. Or, ‘Is your apartment messy or really tidy?’ Then I’d make the song either really sloppy or really tight,” he explained.
But Gersten quickly realized things weren’t going to work out that way. “As soon as I was there with the people, it became really clear to me there wasn’t enough time,” he laughed. Thankfully, the project ended up acting less like a computer algorithm and more like a surrealist game, or as Gersten described it, “more human” and less “musical Mad Libs.”
“I think the danger of doing it the other way is that you’re trying to get this complete portrait of a person,” Gersten said. “I think that’s probably an impossible pursuit, and also not that interesting. What’s more interesting is trying to capture a person’s feeling in a moment.” And, as Gersten pointed out, people would have indicated different answers to certain questions depending on their mood anyway. “The idea that there’s any kind of accuracy or consistency, just goes out the window.”
The project, a marathon-level of songwriting, must have have been completely exhausting. Gersten admitted that interviewing and making original music for close to a dozen people a night for two straight weeks, back-to-back, at first seemed daunting, almost impossible. But the musician said that he reached a familiar place with this project. “Significant fatigue can be discouraging, but it’s also really liberating. I’ve toured a lot as a musician, and there’s a point where you lose perspective on everything,” he said. “But it can also be a really creative space. If you have too much energy, you start getting over-analytical, but if you’re completely exhausted all you know is that you have to make a song right now, then it becomes very intuitive.”
While it doesn’t sound like Gersten is hurrying to carry out another Custom Melodies anytime soon, he did say that he learned a great deal from the experience. “The process is very much about committing to the moment and not second guessing it or revising,” he said. “If you’re really present and really emotionally engaged in what you’re doing, then you’ve succeeded and everything else becomes peripheral – the recording quality, did the solo go on too long? is this drumbeat interesting?– all these structural and aesthetic concerns.” And regardless of “physical problems,” he argued “an emotional presence shines through,” something he said artists like Neil Young have mastered. “He’s able to just really commit and have that emotional presence be the weight of it,” Gersten said. “Yeah, maybe he hits a wrong chord here and there, or the recording of the performance isn’t that great, but you just start to put priorities on different things.”
There seems to be a move recently, on the part of experimental musicians especially to come down from the high-heights of pretension where most of their predecessors sat and admit that they’re human. Which seems counterintuitive, right? Given that experimental musicians are intentionally outside of other genres or musical traditions. Whereas noise music and out-there experimentalism can sound inaccessible to the uninitiated, Gersten and others like Sam Hillmer (aka Diamond Terrifier) and his Monday night series at Trans-Pecos “Practice,” are all about making what once seemed alien and distant, familiar and accessible.
By tearing off the stage curtain, in a way, Gersten is making the means of producing music seem a little less mysterious. But Gersten said he’s not trying to start any revolutions, he’s simply trying to play with the idea of authorship. “This project isn’t an assault on any traditional type of music making, or that type of philosophy– like, I just finished making a record that’s very much a listen-to-it record,” he explained. “But I think if you remove something from a traditional structure, maybe someone can have a different experience of it.”
To celebrate the launch of the site, CustomMelodies.com, Grey Gersten is throwing a launch party Friday February 5, 7 pm to 9 pm at Chinatown Soup Gallery.