Instructions for Indoor Music

What can you make with simple rules? For our first assignment in Living Art, we were tasked with coming up with a simple set of instructions for the class to execute that would produce an interesting result.

A silly, but compelling, example is 241543903:

Google Image search results for “241543903” shows exactly how effective this set of simple rules has been at generating a lot of interesting activity.

Morgen and I decided to team up to see if we could create rules that would use music to explore a physical space. The idea was to use logic about where the performers are located in the room to differentiate them into different sound-making roles so that the resulting music would change based on the specifics of where it was performed. To accomplish this, we had to figure out a way to use a single set of instructions to differentiate the performers from each other based on their position in the room. To do this we came up with a series of if statements based on spatial position. The idea was that it might be complicated and confusing to read through the piece the first time, but once you’d identified which rule applied to you, actually performing your part would be relatively straightforward.

We also tried to give the piece some dramatic shape, to design something that would have a beginning, middle, and end. To accomplish this, we came up with the idea of giving the performers phrases to play that would phase against each other — musical patterns that repeated at odd intervals so that they would only line up after a number of repetitions.

The result of all of this thinking was Instructions for Indoor Music:

If you are sitting closest to the door
begin stomping your feet in an even pulse.
If you are the person closest to a corner
clap on every stomp.
If the person next to you is in the corner
clap on every other stomp.
If you are more than two people away from any corner
say "ah" on every third stomp.
If you are exactly two people from a corner
radically change the height of your head on every seventh stomp.
If you notice a stomp, clap, and "ah" happen simultaneously
say "oh" on the next stomp.
If you hear "oh" three times
stop everything.

In the process of designing the piece, I put together a demo of what it might sound like using bloopsaphone:

In that example, the low tonal sound is being used to represent someone standing up. This demo also indulges in the fantasy that all of the players would start together and stay together, an idea of which we were suspect even in the design phase.

On additional detail worth noting: we tried to exclude any expectations or requirements for the space or the people in it so that it would be applicable to (and malleable by) any possible space. That’s why the only feature of the space we explicitly mention is the door and why we went for the awkwardly phrased instruction of “radically change the height of your head” instead of just staying “stand up” — so that the piece could be performed in a room without chairs (although I’m noticing now that we do refer to the “person sitting closest to the door” so maybe that’s a bug that should be removed as well).

When class came, we put the instructions up on the screen and people started clapping and stomping. As expected, different people started at different times, with the person closest the door figuring their part out first and kicking things off. Unexpectedly, people didn’t necessarily wait to understand the conclusion condition before starting and they also struggled mightily to both play their part and listen to others simultaneously. The result was a bit of a chaotic mess with some performers thinking they saw the stop condition and hence ceasing while others still continued. We even tried to perform the piece a second time after the rules had a chance to sink in and while those results were better the effect was still very little like a group of people playing music together.

I think the (interesting) failure of this idea came from a couple of factors. First, the complexity of the many rules was just too high for people to grok. Since their situation in space might have meant that multiple rules applied to them and since everyone had to listen for the conclusion condition (the last rule) on top of that, it was just cognitive overload for a lot of people. Second, the way we presented the rules — all at once on screen — probably worsened this problem, not giving people enough time to let each rule (and whether or not it applied to them) sink in.

Morgen shot some video of the performance and I’ll post a link to that sometime soon when he’s got it online.

In the aftermath of class, I started thinking about a radically simpler complement piece to follow up on what we learned from this first effort. As the piece evolved and we started thinking of it as “Instructions for Indoor Music”, that naturally begged the question: What would ‘Instructions for Outdoor Music’ look like? Here’s a piece that tries to learn from the failures of Instructions for Indoor Music while also answering that question. Instructions for Outdoor Music:

If no one is clapping
begin clapping.
If more than one person is clapping
stop clapping.
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