Artist and musician Grey Gersten is painting a picture of the human condition. What started as an interactive music exhibit, Custom Melodies grew out of a desire to dream. The project originally graced New York’s Mmuseumm for 12 nights in June 2014, in which participants worked with Gersten to spontaneously create 110 biographical songs. Now, he’s releasing a website showcasing all 110 tracks, with new interactive features.
Gersten and I sat down over a plate of pierogies at Veleska, a 24-hour Ukranian diner in New York City’s East Village, to talk about it. Like his project, the restaurant was a perfect mix of people—a lively table indulging in 10:30 a.m. pie, regulars sipping on their morning coffee and, a mutual favorite, a girl in rhinestone glasses and winged tennis shoes putting down a plate of pancakes larger than the city itself.
“I feel like a lot of us are the same,” Gersten said. “I mean, the response I’ve been getting from friends and collaborators when they check out the project is that they’re feeling a lot of compassion and a lot of empathy. A friend of mine said, ‘It’s making me love people.’”
So what goes into a Custom Melody?
The process starts with an application, but no need to cringe. Actually, you can forget everything you know about applications. While it may look serious and official at first glance, a quick skim reveals it’s anything but. Gersten’s more interested in knowing if you’re allergic to any music genres, if you’ve ever felt possessed and if you’ve ever been involved with space travel. The application also leaves room to do that thing that’s so important in Custom Melodies, and that’s dream.
“You give people a little bit of space to play and imagine, and, through doing that, some incredible truth comes out,” Gersten said. “It’s like you’re letting them dream a little bit, and then something really honest is revealed in that dream.”
One way they were able to do this was by their “Imaginary Band Basics,” which included coming up with a band name, song title and drawing an album cover. They even unknowingly came up with their own lyrics.
“If they said that they had never broken someone’s heart, which I think is a strange response, I would ask them about that,” Gersten said. “Or if they said they had been to outer space, I’d ask them about that. Then, I just tried to get them to open up and trust me and be present in the moment and say something compelling. When they did, I would just be, like, ‘that’s the lyric.’”
After coaxing out a lyric to build the song around, he’d spend the next 10 minutes forming the song in front of them. The last five minutes of the appointment consisted of Gersten performing the song, then they’d be off, and his next subject would take their seat.
“It was amazing how open people were,” Gersten said. “If you just create a space where people reflect on their life a little bit, you’re willing to listen to them, you care and they can be anonymous, it’s amazing what people will tell you. I felt really drained by that, by the end of the day, because I felt like I had absorbed all of these feelings that these people would have, you know? Just things that I never thought a stranger would tell me.”
But that wasn’t the only heaviness Gersten absorbed.
“It’s such a logistical nightmare to try and do this performance because there’s so many moving elements,” he told me, laughing. “But I tried to just be, like, ‘alright, each of these problems is an opportunity to do something cool,’ and so one of the problems early on was, ‘how are we giving people their song?’”
Where emailing the song didn’t feel right and quickly popping it on a CD didn’t feel too cool either, it took a conversation with one of Gersten’s old Bard professors, Peggy Ahwesh, to really make things click.
“She was just like ‘don’t give them the song, everyone gets everything immediately right now, don’t give it to them,’” Gersten recalled. “And I was, like, ‘that’s so cool,’ and I thought, ‘okay, I’m not going to give it to them, how do I justify that? Okay, I’ll make like a website where everything is.’”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise at this point that the website doesn’t fit into any pre-existing molds either. Built from scratch, it’s designed by Gersten and his team (Julia Wallin + Matthew Goodrich) to transform Custom Melodies even more so into a world of its own. The homepage consists of seven nondescript symbols, each one leading to a playlist. While the symbols don’t necessarily point to one theme or another, each playlist depicts a certain mood.
“If you listen to five songs in that triangle playlist, I think you would get that they’re about relationships,” Gersten said. “So just trying to create different ways for people to experience it and kind of give each of them a different world, a visual world, too, so that the experience doesn’t feel that redundant.”
And it doesn’t. Every click gives way to a new, color-changing world. Apart from the playlists, features include radio (we’ll get to it), general info and the ability to check out the application from which the whole song was born. Even moving your cursor around the page will give you snippets of the participants’ answers, thoughts and dreams. But, if you’re not in the mood to go on such an expedition of human experience at the moment, there’s the radio feature.
“I love things that are uncontrolled, like, I love randomness,” Gersten said. “It’s also another thing that people don’t get a lot, everything is on demand, everything is catered to you, and I really appreciate that, but it’s also nice to just surrender to media and not have control. That’s a beautiful thing.”
Honoring the spirit of what a radio station is, Custom Melodies radio station shuffles all 110 songs, but doesn’t forget about the art of the commercial either. Another unique part of the project, Gersten taped commercials off the radio that he thought were interesting, and, maybe the best part, recorded his grandpa reading old weather reports.
“It’s not, like, 45 degrees and rainy, it’s, like, we find ourselves in the perfect spot, the weekend will be amazing, like, when could that not be true?” Gersten smiled.
So, with the website, Custom Melodies’ original acts will finally get to listen to their song.
“I feel amazing,” Gersten said. “I’m excited to just have it be public, and I feel really interested to see all the different things that people see in it because I think there’s so many different ways to explore it, there’s so many different things that it’s about. I’m also excited to give the songs to the people, they’ve been really patient. I’m just excited to let it fly. That’s the main feeling.”
The release of the website only marks the beginning of the portrait Gersten has started, though. Now, he wants to take it to other countries, as well as prisons. During his time at Bard, Gersten took part in their prison initiative program, and taught music at a maximum security prison for a couple of years.
“We’ve kind of taken away those people’s voices, forgotten about them,” Gersten said. “And so I love having like a cool art crowd or a cool city crowd come do Custom Melodies, but I also feel like let’s broaden it and get as many different voices as possible. What about these people that maybe no one is listening to, who very few people are listening to, and aren’t represented in any kind of media places? Let’s give them a space.”
But, for the moment, Gersten can revel in the fact that he’s started what he has, and designed an interactive website experience to go along with it.
“Regardless of class or race or where you’re living in the world or what you’re doing, there’s just some core elements of the human condition that we’re all experiencing,” Gersten said. “I feel like that was something I really felt after essentially interviewing 110 people. And that wasn’t a goal or a thought or a consideration at all going into it, I wasn’t trying to prove anything, but that’s just what I felt after listening to it all. It was like, okay, there’s a few basic things that we’re all going through.”
Check out the newly launched website here. In New York? Gersten will be celebrating its release this coming Friday, Feb. 5., so come to Chinatown Soup at 16 Orchard St. from 7 to 9 p.m. to really immerse yourself in Custom Melodies’ dreamy world (free moonshine included).