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110 Improvised Songs for 110 Strangers

Artist musician Grey Gersten's 'Custom Melodies' explores songwriting as interactive, biographical art.

At the Mmusuemm in New York City, artist musician Grey Gersten created 110 custom songs for 110 strangers in an “exhibition” titled Custom Melodies. Participants simply filled out a Custom Song Application, answering questions on childhood memories, lifestyle habits, reoccurring dreams, and more. The application also included areas designated for a band name, song title, cover art, and self-portraits. Gersten was exploring, in real time, the very idea of the musician or producer as artist. Each participant was then invited into the Custom Melodies song factory for a 20-minute appointment, during which Gersten wrote, performed, and recorded the person’s custom song. He did this using various synthesizers, a drum machine, a sampler, an electric guitar, a pocket piano, and an old school Omnichord.

This exhibition resulted in over seven hours of live, unedited music, which Gersten is now making available on a new Custom Melodies website so that others can experience the improvised art music recordings. Each song has its own interactive multimedia web page, featuring excerpts from the participant’s Custom Melodies application. Gersten says that the project wasn’t just an exploration of music, but of people—a portrait of individuals with details taken from their lives.

Courtesy the artist.

“The goal is not to create a comprehensive biography of each person,” Gersten tells The Creators Project. “Custom Melodies is about capturing a moment or feeling in an immediate unfiltered way. Each song is an emotional time capsule. The exhibition ran for about two weeks and each night I made 10 custom melodies.”

“Songwriting is about listening and being open,” he adds. “You have to commit to the moment and resist the temptation to judge what is happening. My main priority is to be emotionally present, aesthetic concerns are secondary. “

Grey Gersten talking to a ‘Custom Melodies’ exhibition participant. Photo by Christopher Gregory.

Gersten worked with designer Matt Goodrich and programmer Julia Wallin on building the site. Graphic artist Nicole Ginelli’s ambient backdrops were designed to give the website mesmerizing depth. Gersten decided to display all 110 songs from Custom Melodies in an interactive, multimedia way because he wanted to release the music to inspire people to connect with the material.

“If I made CDs or did a promotional radio campaign, I don't think people would see the full picture of each person and the song that we created together,” Gersten says. “You can read each participant's dreams, early memories, see their self-portrait and hand-drawn record cover, etc. Custom Melodies explores new ideas about what a song can be, how it’s made and how it’s shared with the public.”

Courtesy the artist.

“My friend Melati from Young Magic said that the Custom Melodies website made her love human beings,” he adds. “Hearing that feedback was really satisfying because that’s what I felt when I was writing the songs and creating the website. Laura Poitras said ‘art has the ability to build structures of empathy and universal condition’; Custom Melodies aims to utilize the universal language of music to build a structure of empathy and universal condition.”

Gersten plans to curate other artists’ and musicians’ involvement in the project and exhibit Custom Melodies internationally and at prisons in the United States. For him, the project is an open platform that hopefully inspires humans to speak and listen to each other in new ways. “The more voices we involve, the broader our consciousness will become,” Gersten says.

Click here to check out more of Grey Gersten’s work.

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