Writers, Unblocked 

The Immersion Composition Society helps musicians overcome creative hurdles.

It was a crippling lack of productivity that led to the genesis of the Immersion Composition Society. Nicholas Dobson was writing, singing, and playing guitar about eight years ago with a band in Sonoma County. But the scene was killing his creativity; he felt forced to write music that would interest his band mates, sound commercially viable, and appeal to a conservative audience. All of these restrictions were wholly at odds with his musical impulses. "I had this experience of feeling intense social pressure," Dobson recalled. The greater the expectations he faced to make one kind of music, the more unable he was to create it. Single songs were taking years to write. He had developed a debilitating fear of listeners and needed a way out.

His escape began as a lighthearted competition. He and good friend Michael Mellender, now a member of the experimental Oakland rock group Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, were spending an inordinate amount of time waiting for inspiration to write music instead of actually writing. So they invented a game in which the object was to force yourself to write. Dobson, now 34, challenged Mellender to a "psycho-tape contest" — a composer duel in which they would assault each other's ears as offensively and as many times over as was possible in a short period of time.

One day they absconded to their respective studios and spent hours recording short compositions on four-track tape. That night, they shared what they had created. Thus was born the first meeting of the Immersion Composition Society, although at the time it had no such name. "It started out as a private world between two friends," said Mellender, 33. "It was just a fun game where we made music and drank whiskey at night." Initially the two friends met every other Saturday to repeat the process, but as they became more engrossed in it that changed to once a week.

Over the next few months, their duel evolved into a more sophisticated competition to write as many songs as possible in a day. Dobson and Mellender fought to employ the greatest number of noises, to flip out the hardest, to shriek the loudest. Nothing was off limits — not even the sound of glass shattering or of a body hitting the floor amidst a creative fit, as Dobson was apt to do. The exercise became a way of lifting the veil under which both songwriters had suffered, and they found that they thrived on the lack of judgment provided by the game. The music wasn't always pretty, but among the rubble were hints of what was to come.

The change in their creative lives was immediate and powerful. "It was the answer," Dobson said. No day of songwriting could ever go unrewarded again. Since every piece of music written for the game would be performed for an audience that very night, the consideration of what was worthy and what was not — the stumbling block that had crippled their creative processes — became a moot point. Their meetings offered a safe place for music, where mental noise and resistance went away, where composition could be fearless. Recording sessions became cathartic therapy, tapping into feelings and ideas that had been held inside all their lives. Dobson and Mellender had finally found a way to remove the bounds that hem in creativity and hinder productivity.

"It was as if our entire lives as musicians had been a farce, and we had been hiding the brightest, best parts of ourselves behind cautious, two-dimensional, apologetic musical personas," Dobson later wrote.

Today, the Immersion Composition Society is a loosely affiliated international band of "lodges" with around three to twelve members each who share the common goal of boosting their productivity and unleashing their creativity as musicians. The two oldest and most established lodges, Origin and Wig, are still based in Oakland — along with at least another three. San Francisco harbors at least one more. More than 25 other lodges and hundreds of ICS members are scattered across the United States and Western Europe.

Local artists who have bounced off the society include members of such respected groups as Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Rogue Wave, miRthkon, Svelte, Faun Fables, Extra Action Marching Band, the Fuxedos, and Rube Waddell, as well as solo musicians Val Esway, Carla Kihlstedt, Lucio Menegon, and many more. For some of these musicians, ICS output is quarantined from public material; for others, ICS snippets can develop into full band pieces.

Yet even within the most proficient lodges, the majority of Immersion Composition Society music never leaves the lodge in which it was created. Only a tiny percentage ever escapes the confines of the society. The reason for this is simple: sharing the music with the public is completely beside the point. The process is paramount to the product.


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