Reverse-Engineering Musical Composition Prompts

A response to a frequent Disquiet Junto question

Someone recently asked if the well of Disquiet Junto projects, now numbering 424, will ever run dry. I get asked that on occasion, so I took a few minutes to respond about the thought process that leads to Junto projects. The short answer is no, it likely won’t run dry, in part because of the generative nature of impetus for the majority of the projects, and in part because projects also originate from members of the Junto and third parties.

For background, the Disquiet Junto is an online music community in which participants each Thursday receive via email a compositional prompt, and then they have roughly four days or so to respond with a recording. I started the Junto back in January 2012, and it’s been running weekly ever since. The ongoing flow of prompts comes up on occasion as a topic of discussion, so I thought I’d post a lightly revised version of my response here.

The best way I have come to explain the Disquiet Junto project development process — how the weekly prompts come to be — is that the vast majority of the projects result from a kind of “reverse-engineering” scenario. Something – a natural phenomena, a bit of math, a cultural or historical tidbit, a bit of text in a novel, a report in the science pages, a stray observation – is noted, and then I work to figure out how that source concept could become a Junto project: How can we probe the source concept by investigating it through music and sound and, by extension, online collaboration. Then, having selected one of these topics, I break it down into steps. Each weekly prompt consists of those steps.

This approach goes back to the start of the Junto. When the Junto began, an especially important founding concept was the idea of non-verbal communication. The Junto was a way for us to communicate across cultures musically/sonically, and to pursue ideas musically/sonically. (If you’re interested in the topic, there’s video online of a presentation I gave at the SETI Institute.)

An example would be helpful: There’s an upcoming project that resulted from the t-shirt a friend happened to be wearing one day. The shirt depicted a common mathematical sequence in an unfamiliar (to me) way. Soon, we’re going to take that unfamiliar way (it’s visual rather than numerical), and imagine it as a graphic score. That way we’ll “hear” the source mathematical concept in action.

I spend a lot of time thinking not only about the individual projects, but about the sequence of projects: making sure they’re balanced, that we alternate heavy concept ones with straightforward ones, and ones that require wholly original production with something sample-based, and so forth.

Sometimes we repeat past projects, or tweak previous ones. Some are proposed by other people, such as the 424th, which was proposed by an artist we’ve worked with in the past. I regularly add to a long list of potential projects, and often those are delayed because other ideas present themselves and are acted on immediately.

Proposals for prompts are always appreciated, both from Junto members and observers, and from folks interested in having their ideas acted upon by a diverse, global community of curious, talented, experimental musicians who are generous with their time and creativity.

Read more at the Disquiet Junto FAQ.

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