I’m not a trained musician. But music is my favorite way to carve things out creatively. That is to say, I tinker with instruments to make noises that sound good together until I am smiling a lot. I'm not spitting out perfect tracks, but I'm having fun.
Since 2008, when I officially started making music under the name Crunchybird, I’ve learned a fair amount about recording and playing. One of the biggest lessons has been how awfully lonely being a one-man band can be—not just socially, but creatively. There's no pushing and pulling, no building on each other's ideas.
So I asked myself: How could I pull in some of my friends from around the globe to make music with me?
I’ve always loved the concept of Exquisite Corpse, the Surrealist parlor game where someone starts a drawing and passes it on to others to continue. The final artwork is always unexpected, occasionally horrifying, and unavoidably original. Could we pull off a musical version? I was curious to see where it could go, so I threw the challenge to a motley crew of musically-minded colleagues around the world.
The rules were simple: Start something and pass it to someone else, somewhere else. That person spends a day adding to it, then sends the track to the next collaborator. And so on. We called the project "Exquisite Chords."
I learned a lot from the process. Before I walk you through the track my friends and I built together, here are some design principles to get you going.
Start small and let go. When you collaborate with others, it’s tempting to set up a very detailed structure with a lot of constraints. For this project, it was fun to start with something more basic and give people the room to interpret it and shape it their own way. Don’t overthink it. Just let everyone throw something into the mix.
Make each other successful. It can be really cool to see how participants take each other's work and improve on it. It's the musical version of the classic improv response "Yes, And…" Take what’s awesome and make it more awesome.
Guide the vision. Creative collaboration can be terrifying. You have no clue how something will turn out, and it can be a disaster—the phrase "too many creatives in the kitchen” comes to mind. But as the leader, you have the opportunity to influence the end result. It’s important to respect people’s contributions, but to also know when to take the wheel and shape the outcome.
Here's how our musical experiment started: One night, while sitting on the couch on our tiny apartment in Tokyo, with my wife and kid sleeping in the next room, I recorded a one-bar bass line over a simple beat on my Mac. What you’ll hear is an insomniac trying to make some sound very quietly:
I tossed the track over to my friend George Joseph, a communications designer at IDEO San Francisco, and an actual musician. He laid down some sweet, dynamic goodness atop my track in just a couple of minutes because he is, as noted above, an actual bassist. He also recorded an awesome vocal take. The lyrics are still a mystery to me:
George then shared the track with our friend Simon Heather, a business designer at IDEO New York, who we had heard has some shreddy chops on the electric guitar. It was true:
Simon passed the ball to Nick Dupey, a design director at IDEO Cambridge. Nick has a toddler named Julian Rose, who he recorded making toddler sounds:
Nick punted it to merry Munich, where design directors Franz Blach and Trent Huon took the whole affair to another level. Franz busted out a cornucopia of manipulated acoustic guitar sounds. He then arranged the pieces into a more dramatic song structure—verse, chorus, bridge, and outro included:
Trent added a touch of madness, crooning about the changing of the seasons on top of the new arrangement, improving the melody George had created:
And then it went back to San Francisco, where interaction designer Zubin Pastakia tacked on some angelic synths to round out the crescendoing finale:
Once the track was back in my hands in Japan, I realized the bass line that started it all would work better on the piano, so I re-recorded the melody and added a few parts to fill in the new arrangement. The piano complemented Franz’s acoustic guitar, which unfurled into a nice little wandering outro that could probably go on to be another song.
Finally, I worked with my producer friend Hamacide (a.k.a. Yusuke Hama) here in Tokyo to help tuck everything in, smooth it out, and make some final mixing and mastering adjustments to bring it all up to the next level.
Here's the final track, “Leaving Light”:
Our first collaboration as Exquisite Chords was indeed unexpected (and not too horrifying, I hope). What started as quiet plucking on a sleepless Tokyo night had blossomed into a trip-hop adventure for eight people from five cities in three countries. We never spoke to one another—it all happened over email and Dropbox.
It may not be perfect, or even be for everyone, but it's ours.
Want to join our digital jam sesh? Download the tracks above, add your own layer of sound, and tag your new mix with #ExquisiteChords!