.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.

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.

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.

As lodges proliferated, so did the scope of the Immersion Composition Society’s activities. Its secret society underpinnings took on more overt characteristics including lodge colors, crests, full names, and Latin mottoes. Some lodges devised personal touches such as wearing capes or furry horned helmets and chanting incantations prior to meetings. Many lodge leaders adapted fanciful names such as Clark’s “Potentate and Coarb of the Diocese of Saint Leander, Grand Poobah and Worshipful Master” and Dobson’s comparatively terse “Supreme Tiger.” This penchant for fantasy gradually became a hallmark of the ICS.

As more society rules were established, more were broken. Even as the 20-Song Game became codified, it was manipulated to achieve different levels of volume. Experienced members found that once they’d created twenty songs a few times, it was useful to expend more attention on fewer ideas, perhaps turning in three songs per meeting for a while. When that became too comfortable, they’d change it up again.

Deadlines and quotas are important to the process, but far more critical is the underlying motivation. Concessions can be made with a frown and a wink. For example, those who cannot devote twelve hours in one day to a session are usually permitted to break the time up over a few days or to use a different day than the rest of the lodge. Some lodges rely heavily on collaboration, with members swapping song titles and parts during sessions or even working side-by-side. The society continues to bubble over with new ideas and ways of conducting sessions. Like regional dialects, each lodge has its own conventions.

Many have developed new games entirely. Dobson and Mellender often default to a game they created called Hat Lib, which entails writing sentence fragments on scraps of paper and conducting a randomized hat drawing to create a plot for a musical, concept album, or opera that will be written and recorded in its entirety the next day. The plot is often replete with incongruities and fantastical nonsense, making it all the more fun to soundtrack. One early example went something like this: “Below the cities shaped like a great screaming face when seen from space, a five-year-old girl named Lucy — who is an undiscovered alchemical clone of the divided good/evil emperor, full of conflict — must replace the head of the stone god because this is the ancient tribal rite of passage that holds off the nightmares of an innocent child.” Armed with such a prompt, players divide the plot into sections and spend the next day recording alone. In the evening they gather for a listening party.

One of the most extreme ICS twists originated in Minneapolis’ Bullet Lodge, formed in October 2002. Founder Kai Esbensen (title “Chief Trajectory Officer, Resonant Bellwether Severe”) was already keen on experimenting with sleep deprivation. So he developed a way to continue making music beyond the standard twelve-hour window. The Marathon Clause, and its fairly insane addendum the Debt Spiral, begins by extending the length of a session to 24 hours. Participants are allowed to sleep during that period, but if they reach the end without having dozed they can keep going. In fact, they’re granted unlimited time to work on the project, provided they continue to stay awake and turn in one additional song for every four hours worked beyond the initial 24. There are no referees, but the spirit of the game is to challenge one’s capacities at making music under serious duress.

On one such occasion, Esbensen lost consciousness in the middle of recording a song somewhere around hour 52. When he came to an hour and a half later, he was standing in front of the microphone and realized he’d continued recording while asleep, with all levels correctly set. The problem was, it sounded nothing like what he had been working on before. At about the twelve-second mark, one can hear the song cut abruptly from island-flavored big band to mellow mock-R&B — and sure enough, Esbensen’s drowsy vocals. After his brief respite, Esbensen continued on to reach 58 hours. The lodge record, however, is an astounding 68-hour, Sunday-through-Wednesday session.

Although far shy of such levels of distress, the typical ICS session is designed to induce a state of altered consciousness. “ICS is what your brain looks like naked,” Esbensen said. “You don’t have a chance to clothe your output in anything sensible. When you’re sleep-deprived, it’s even more raw and exposed.” In the ICS, this is not something to fear, but to strive for. Wig Lodge member Karl Coryat believes this uncorked sensibility is key. “Your mind starts turning to jelly,” he said. “It’s like a really long exam, and at the end you’re practically hallucinating. Your mind goes to a strange place and you’re more willing to try anything. Anyone can work on music, but when you really dive into it, some really crazy stuff can happen.”

Such crazy stuff may take the form of singing about what you ate for breakfast over a jaunty and perfectly acceptable acoustic guitar part. Or counting repeatedly to six over a slick and sexy Daft Punk-meets-Air electronic backdrop. Or recording as many absurd mouth noises as possible on a portable mic during the time it takes to drive once around the block.

Arriving at the point that this seems acceptable and worthwhile is not always easy. “You pretend you’re kidding in order to start working,” Dobson said. “There’s no reasonable expectation to think that anything good would come out of it.” This psyche-protecting measure allows natural defenses against traditional notions of absurdity to drop. “In doing so, your talent betrays you and you accidentally do good things,” adds Esbensen. In essence, you’re winking at yourself by saying it’s just a game. Some of the output is humorous in nature, but on a deeper level is a very profound artistic expression.

This is precisely what allows Wig Lodge member Steven Clark to turn ideas that begin as silly little sketches in ICS sessions into serious pieces performed by professional choirs and orchestras. He has employed sequential ICS sessions to craft operas about video games, Star Trek, and Dionysus — each of which has, in turn, been performed at venues such as San Francisco’s Goat Hall Productions and Oakland’s Metro Operahouse. Unlikeliest of all, he composed an overblown requiem for a Passions soap opera character named Timmy that, when completed, was commissioned by a friend in Vermont for adaptation into a requiem for choir and organ. It was eventually performed during a real mass, where only the friend and members of the choir knew its true origins — the priest and parishioners hadn’t a clue.

Clark believes this gets at the heart of what the ICS is all about. Achieving a lack of control is one of the main benefits he gets from sessions. “You want to shut off your inner dialogue. After eight hours and sixteen cups of coffee, you start to just throw out whatever-the-hell,” he said.

The ongoing success of the ICS eventually moved Dobson to enlist Coryat, a writer and editor with contacts in the publishing world, to help write a book about the society’s philosophy and exercises. The Frustrated Songwriter’s Handbook: A Radical Guide to Cutting Loose, Overcoming Blocks, & Writing the Best Songs of Your Life was released in 2006 on San Francisco’s Backbeat Books, owned by massive music publisher Hal Leonard Publishing. The book received wide distribution in major bookstore chains across the country and around the world at Amazon.com.

Of the thousands of copies sold, many have landed in Europe. Meanwhile, Mellender’s proselytizing of the society during Sleepytime Gorilla Museum tours there and continued growth of the society’s web site and forum (it currently boasts more than 220 registered users and 4,500 posts) have increased the scope of its visibility overseas. This led to a rash of new lodges in England, France, Finland, and the Netherlands over the past couple years. Twenty-three-year-old Reinier Loopik (ICS title “Ubiquitous Shrieking Being and August Patriarch”) founded the three-member Clutter Lodge in the Netherlands early last year. “The ICS is like this network of weird avant-garde nutcases,” he wrote in an e-mail, “and that makes me feel at home.”

After reading about the society on Sleepytime Gorilla Museum’s web site, Joseph Escribe of Paris, France founded the lodge Cromorne 13 last summer. It currently includes seven members and meets once a month. “It’s all about dedication to the music … to you and the music,” he writes. “It’s about assuming completely your will to create a music, no matter if it’s good or not.”

Steve “Prog Steve” Inman founded London’s Limey Lodge also last summer. His is one of at least three lodges currently established in the city and contains eight to nine regular members. “For me, it’s a chance to be excessive and uninhibited,” he writes. “The range of emotions and the speed to the changes is bewildering the first few times you play — like suddenly unplugging a huge reservoir of ideas and trying to catch them with a tea cup!”

If they began as frustrated and unproductive social outcasts, Dobson and Mellender are today content, settled, and highly functioning social outcasts. Sure, they can be geeky. Sure, they harbor a faint weariness toward the outside world. But they’ve also solved their productivity problem. They are massively creative people now, functioning efficiently within the insulated construct that is the ICS. Inspiration is no longer a hurdle, but an inevitability. Monthly and bimonthly meetings over eight years have trained their minds to think rapidly and honed their songwriting and performing capacities to produce album-worthy tracks in a matter of minutes.

For Dobson, who doesn’t play in any bands but makes part of his living writing commercial music, ICS sessions have afforded him expertise with countless modes, genres, and instruments. After hundreds of recording sessions and thousands of tracks, he can produce just about anything. Additionally, the process has taught him to accept randomness and embrace spontaneity, serving as a partial remedy for the anxiety he has experienced since childhood. “The society has enriched my life,” he said simply.

Even for those in successful bands, such as Mellender, the society remains a valuable tool for priming the songwriting pump and getting at ideas that later can be fleshed out in the full band setting. “It’s only gonna help every other thing in my musical life,” Mellender said. Where once the ICS was a songwriter’s salvation, it is now a moral mission that he perpetuates simply by participating: “It’s just to remind people of the limitlessness of music and that’s a very, very good thing.”

Throughout his eight years in the society, Mellender has been more protective of his output than most. None of it has been released publicly, and nearly without exception it has only been heard within the Origin Lodge. Even his girlfriend has been kept in the dark. But all that changed last month when, at the prodding of a fellow ICS member who recently released an entire album of polished ICS material under the name Ultralash, he decided to produce a compilation of some of his favorite work. “To make an album of those eight years was just cleansing,” he said. Now that the floodgates are open, he can’t imagine them closing again, and anticipates releasing more collections in the future. Old material is abundant, almost overwhelmingly so, and more is certainly on the way.

One Friday night in late June, a party at Dobson and Mellender’s house in West Oakland embodied the ICS spirit like no other. A group of about twelve ICS friends came together to celebrate Michael’s birthday and to help him create a series of fifty unique, handmade sleeves for his forthcoming ICS record. Cutting and pasting snippets of text from old art history books and adding colorful swaths of paint and patches of glitter, they decorated the sleeves the ICS way: completely off the cuff, with an understanding that anything goes.

Such unrestrained productivity points back to the society’s unofficial credo, something Nicholas figured out eight years ago when his frustrations compelled him to try a new approach: “When you force yourself to do a thing, and you do that thing, you have then done the thing you forced yourself to do.” It’s really as simple as that.


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