110 Improvised Songs for 110 Strangers

Artist musician Grey Gersten's 'Custom Melodies' explores songwriting as interactive, biographical art.
February 16, 2016, 9:05pm
Grey Gersten recording a song at the ‘Custom Melodies’ exhibition. Photo by Dean Neistat

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.

“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.Courtesy the artist.