Writers, Unblocked 

The Immersion Composition Society helps musicians overcome creative hurdles.

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The society and its exercises exist to foster productivity and creativity in any form — providing equal value to working songwriters facing writer's block and prospective composers unsure where to start. One song may be lost and forgotten the day after it was created while another may be polished and released as a hit single. To the society, both are equal. In the most basic terms, the ICS is a device to force people to make music. How it happens is where the true magic lies.

Eleven people occupy a dark San Leandro living room lit only by six colored candles and a dim blue lamp. They sit in a semicircle on couches, chairs, and the floor, facing a stereo system and a pair of three-foot-tall speakers that mustn't be blocked. They are motionless except for the gentle nodding of heads, tapping of fingers, and intermittent swaying to the beat. Some close their eyes or rest their heads in their hands.

The music they are listening to varies rapidly and drastically: clean drum 'n' bass, death metal, epic progressive rock, pop-rock grooves, atonal experimentalism, and countless approaches in between such as a hilarious mock BBC radio report set to ghastly white noise. The songs feature drums, handclaps, guitar, bass, keyboard, piano, banjo, saxophone, voice, custom contraptions including an eight-foot bass pounded with a mallet, infant warbling, ambient sound, and more. Moods range from exciting to hysterical to soberingly personal to utterly beautiful.

Even without this diversity, the music's impressive performance and production qualities would leave an outsider shocked to learn the trying circumstances under which it was created. With few exceptions, it was conceived and recorded earlier that same day, within a period of just twelve hours. Each person in the room arrived bearing his or her own "day album" to share with the others. Their presentations are preceded by brief introductions — describing the recording session, providing song titles, identifying challenges. "This was the first time I used a live drum kit," one says. "I didn't have time to do any mixing," explains another. Two hand out lyric sheets; some say almost nothing, asking the music to speak for itself. After each set, and sometimes during, members of the group smile, laugh, applaud, compliment, and trade expressions of awe that something so wonderful had been created so quickly — "You could release that! You could release that right now!"

By the assorted, casual looks of these nine men and two women in their twenties, thirties, and forties, they may as well be strangers off the street. By the sound of their music, they are maniacally unhinged, supremely talented artists. And despite the endless complexity, a common strain binds their music together. Its freshness confers an innocent, dreamlike quality, as if the ideas had flowed unencumbered from deep recesses of the creator's psyche and straight through the speakers only a few hours later. "Once you try, you get stuck," one person affirms.

A measure of mindlessness, it turns out, is essential. Making music only for one's lodge — a trusted circle of close friends and like-minded musicians — means members needn't cater to an audience during the creative process. "It's a very secret, privatized conversation with yourself," Mellender said. "It's having a protected nest in which you can say or do whatever you want musically. It's not a performance, it's not an album. Just take a deep breath and you can do whatever the fuck you want. It's really limitless."

The Immersion Composition Society may be unique, but it's not alone in the world of institutionalized productivity. Its best-known sibling, National Novel Writing Month, is an annual effort to write an entire novel during the month of November. NaNoWriMo originated in 1999 in the Bay Area, just two years before ICS, although the society's founders say they weren't aware of it at the time. A 2007 spin-off called Script Frenzy challenges participants to write a full-length screenplay or stage play in one month. The nationwide 48-Hour Film Project, which launched a few months after the ICS in 2001, holds competitions in various cities for filmmakers to produce a watchable film within 48 hours. And the Dallas-based Ad Lib Game Development Society corrals game developers and their computers into producing a new videogame over a predetermined period of time ranging from eight to 48 hours. It launched in 2004 and also appropriated the word "lodge" to describe local groups — although only one exists so far.

However, unlike fiction, video games, and movies, music doesn't have to make sense. So while the ICS isn't the only vehicle for accelerated output, it does nurture creativity to the extreme. Senior members like those at the recent meeting in San Leandro possess an enviable ability to cut loose on deadline and produce seemingly infinite permutations of sound and style, often at near-professional production levels. To borrow a favorite analogy of Dobson's, their work over the years has progressed from ink sketches to oil paintings.

Once they realized the weight of their discovery, Dobson and Mellender couldn't keep it to themselves. A third member joined within six months, and more followed soon thereafter. "Nicholas came up to me after class and started babbling about this thing they were doing," said Steven Clark, then one of Dobson's professors at Emeryville's Expression College for Digital Arts. Clark's interest was sufficiently piqued, so he began showing up at meetings laden with snacks and CDs containing music he'd made that day. With an initial roster of seven members, the Immersion Composition Society was officially born in 2001.


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