Musical Game Structures

Quite early in my musical life I became interested in Game Structures. I’ve already mentioned discovering some avant-garde composers through my high-school library’s bizarre decision to subscribe to “Source: Music of the Avant-Garde” during my junior year (two issues/year…and at the end of the year, noting that I was the only person who ever read them, and that I read them constantly, the librarians gave the magazines to me; they’re on the shelf behind me as I write). A few years later, living in Cambridge, I worked with Karl Boyle, who was writing some quite astonishing music that radically transformed the conceptual frameworks of everyone who participated in it.

Particularly important was a set of three pieces called the “Sound/Movement Murals,” an attempt to create performance structures which would engage musicians and dancers in the interpretation of a single set of instructions; all of us were “reading off the same score.” They were performed on stage in Boston; if I recall correctly it was as part of a festival of performance art.

These pieces have continued to influence me, off and on, for the last thirty years or so. Perhaps Karl has them somewhere in his files, and perhaps he would consider releasing them for others to learn from. I hope so.

In 1996 I was developing a music and music-making curriculum for the City of Boston’s After School program. As part of the materials, I wanted to include samples of alternative “notations,” so I generated a few pieces for inclusion in the curriculum (which is still available through Arts in Progress under the title “Ways of Listening”)

One of the pieces, which existed only as a diagram I’d come up with on the spur of a 3 am moment, was the following schematic:

Note that the eight cells are connected by straight and dotted lines, and that all the lines have arrows indicating directionality. Here are the “rules” of this piece:

And here are the original instructions for what to do, sonically, on each of the eight cells:

For a couple of years after generating the piece, it just sat in the curricular material I’d prepared. Then I was stuck for an activity; I had to teach a room full of MBAs something about creativity and music-making, and I didn’t have much time to prepare. Suddenly I remembered this “game structure.” I dug it out and made a giant version on a big piece of paper.

It was a smashing success. Everybody loved it, learned a lot, had a lot of fun. Since then I’ve used it often, and I have several copies made on GIANT sheets of paper that I can tape to a wall anytime I want to create some manageable chaos.

A couple of weeks ago I brought them in to my class on Improvisation and Music Pedagogy at New England Conservatory. We did the piece twice: the first time with the original sonic content, and the second time with fresh content (instructions that the students created in response to a request for “eight musical objects,” before we’d played the game the first time). Everybody is “reading the same score.”

I thought both versions were very enjoyable. Check them out for yourself (and enjoy my suspenders!):

Um….ohhhhhh-kayyyyyy. If you say so.

I like your video, it reminds me the guy from Piano Briefs who makes improvs in underwear lol


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