Writers, Unblocked 

The Immersion Composition Society helps musicians overcome creative hurdles.

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Each new participant experienced the same profound relief that Dobson and Mellender had. "Throughout my entire musical life I'd struggled to write enough music," said Clark, who holds a Ph.D in Music Composition. "Writing was always an incredibly painful process. So ICS was just this incredible breakthrough. They go straight to the heart of the very problem that all creative people experience, which is that you're criticizing yourself while you're creating. The ICS is a tool to separate the creative process from the critical process."

Karl Coryat joined around the same time. "Before I was in this thing, I was very non-prolific," he said. "If I recorded anything at all, it would be spending three months on one song. This is just a way to force yourself to do this thing and be creative. When I'm done, I just feel really glad that I did it."

Only a few meetings into the society experiment, Clark came to Dobson and Mellender with an idea: he wanted to form his own splinter group with Coryat and other recording artist friends. True to the group's vision of itself as a secret society of tortured geniuses, he suggested the two factions be referred to as lodges. The transition was an immediate success. Within a year, three lodges existed in Oakland: Dobson and Mellender's Origin, Steven and Karl's Wig, and one named simply New Lodge. They were joined by a fourth when the friend of a friend started one in Vancouver, Canada, and even more as word of mouth spread. At the end of the second year, seven lodges existed. After that it was difficult to keep track. Dobson and Mellender weren't nearly as alone as they once thought. The solidarity that is the hallmark of an ICS session, of knowing that other people are enduring the same challenges, frustrations, and joys at the same time, began to assume a much bigger scale.

By this point, the society's standard exercise, known as the 20-Song Game, was well established as the training ground and basic foundation for new members. An extension of Dobson and Mellender's early duels, it is played by writing and recording as many songs as possible in one day. To Dobson's knowledge, the record is 27. A Latin motto was developed as a guide: "Enumeratum Ergo Carmen Est," or, "If It Has a Track Number, It's a Song."

As such, filler songs are an integral part of the game — tracks made out of desperation in an effort to boost the session's track count. This explains people singing random sentences out of books and writing songs about socks, carpets, or chairs. Often, the songs that are the most fearless, the most reckless, and the least intellectualized become the gems of the session. Likewise, a creator's least beloved, most frustrating tune may end up as fellow lodge members' favorite. If not, Plan B is simply to make them laugh. When all else fails, why not strive for something so outrageous they'll hoot and holler when they hear it at the next lodge meeting?

Typical ICS tracks run between thirty seconds and three minutes. They can sound like anything and everything, with or without song structure, vocals, or familiar instrumentation. Production and mixing is optional, depending on the artist's wishes and the amount of time available. ICS music is, in essence, a genre unto itself. A cursory survey of Oakland lodge highlights from over the years reveals: an impossibly catchy grunge-march featuring multiple layers of dirty saxophone, flute, drums, and guitar (composed in the car between sax lessons); an effortlessly slick Latin-electro-hula belonging to no known time or place (the result of a collaboration between two Wig Lodgers known as Svelte); and a ninety-second heavy metal fantasy film score (created in response to a scrap of paper that read simply "A ship the size of a planet with black sails").

Lodges tend to form around a particular musical approach or sensibility, although anything goes. "We figure out what scares us and then we do it," Dobson said. If someone is known for making neo-classical prog or futuristic electronica and feels inclined to record an Al Green-aping soul number, that's great. If they're not planning it and it just slips out, even better. At the most extreme end of the spectrum is music that's never been heard before — music with no identifiable origin, genre, or form. Due to the pressure to produce, a lot of music gets recorded within the ICS that perhaps otherwise never would. Imagine all the ideas that course through a typical musician's head in a week. In most cases they are discarded in favor of only what is considered worthwhile to record. In the ICS, they are indulged.

But the society's steep learning curve means that for almost all participants — even those with little to no prior composing experience — music quality is constantly improving. Much of this has to do with training one's mind to make quick decisions and to trust instinct and impulse. But it's also related to learning new instruments and more efficient recording, mixing, and production techniques, especially in the digital realm. And while the tight-knit lodges eliminate most concerns of audience, they also foster a healthy level of competition and one-upmanship that continually raises the bar on what is considered good. Where new lodges boil over with freedom and manic, sprawling experimentalism — a joyous, mind-expanding place to be, no doubt — older lodges tend to be more disciplined and lean toward quality over quantity. All of this has added up to surprisingly sophisticated output from the 20-Song Game over the years, even to those who have watched it happen.

Spurred by word of mouth, member relocations, the society's web site (ICS-Hub.org), and Sleepytime Gorilla Museum tours, expansion continued steadily in the early years, with size nearly doubling every year. As new lodges sprouted, they adopted practices established by the first Oakland lodges. ICS doctrine came to provide a recipe for organization that could be applied by anyone, anywhere, without direct outside intervention. Each new lodge could be totally self-sufficient, and many now are, to the extent that Dobson often doesn't hear when old lodges die and new ones open. "That's how you know it's something good," he grins.


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