Rolling the Bones, and Creating Random Music

Noah Adams talks to Doyle Dean, a former rock drummer living in New Harmony, Ind. He writes songs that use chord and drum patterns randomly selected by dice rolls. He burns CDs with his songs and leaves them at places like truck stops, hoping the random people who pick one up give him feedback.

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Let's say for the New Year to come you want to write a song, always wanted to do that. But instead of scratching your head waiting for the muse to strike, you decide, well, maybe I'm over-thinking this deal, maybe I would be just as well off creating songs by leaving it all to chance.

(Soundbite of music)

ADAMS: And that is how the song you're listening to right now was created. It's by Doyle Dean, a former rock drummer, now a stay-at-home dad, living in New Harmony, Indiana, and here's Doyle describing his process.

Mr. DOYLE DEAN (Musician): I will roll dice and determine which drumbeat to play first, and then play that drumbeat and record it, and then move on to which chords are played by the guitar and notes by the bass, and they'll be determined also by dice roll. But to make sure that they make sense as songs, I will use randomly determined song templates. So I will take existing songs that my friend or maybe I have written, their pattern, like AB-AB, and replace the notes or the chords one at a time.

ADAMS: Dean wanted people to listen to his little musical experiment, which he calls the Utility Project. So he put these randomly created songs on CDs and left them at randomly chosen places, like truck stops and gas stations. He also put his Web address on the CDs sleeve, so people could send him feedback. Here's the story of how one woman found her copy.

Mr. DEAN: She and bought a Coke from the machine and out popped a Utility Project CD.

ADAMS: The CD pops out of the Coke machine, you said?

Mr. DEAN: It didn't exactly pop out, I don't guess, but she probably grabbed a CD when she was expecting to grab her Coke.

ADAMS: Oh, you put it - you put it there.

Mr. DEAN: I put it there, yeah. And my favorite part about her story was that she thought it was a really cool idea but she didn't like the music.

ADAMS: As it turned out, Doyle Dean did communicate with her as a sort of musical pen pal. And then he wrote another song about her initial reaction.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. DEAN: (Singing) A cool idea I thought, but I didn't dig the tune.

ADAMS: And now we're deeper into the story. Doyle Dean wasn't just experimenting with random notes and chords; he was writing songs about the random interactions he had with random people. And people he'd never met before started commissioning songs from him using information from their lives. They weren't only strangers. He used the same random method on the song for his mother.

(Soundbite of song)

And that's a story about my mom. I'd grown in rural Mississippi and she had this, you know, basically shack that she was raised in and one summer it was so hot she just cut a hole in the wall to let some of the - some air into the house. And that just stuck with me as something completely absurd.

ADAMS: Doyle Dean sites the experimental work of composer John Gage, and says he has no plans to inject order into the chaos of his music.

Mr. DEAN: I wanted to take choice away from myself, and that challenges me, because it puts me in a corner, but it's also liberating because I don't have to decide or second guess myself.

ADAMS: Talking with us from WNIN at Evansville, Indiana, that is Doyle Dean. There are now 2,000 of his CDs out there randomly floating across the globe, and each one carries the chance of another random encounter and the potential for a new random song.

NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.

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