— Exhibition —

The Utility Project

Doyle Dean
New Harmony, Indiana

Utility Project CD
Utility Project CD

A Pop/Rock Music Experiment in Random Determination

We have produced a compact disc containing thirty songs that have essentially written themselves. Each song is ninety seconds in length and each was conceived by methods of random determination. Song structures have been used as blueprints upon which individual notes or chords have been changed according to dice rolls. From drumbeats and guitar sounds to vocal and lyrical content, chance and fate have nurtured the songs into being. The pieces were written and recorded at the time of creation, one element at a time. The musicians have never performed nor ‘rehearsed’ these pieces in a conventional manner. Only now do the elements come together in song form.

One thousand compact discs are being sent out into the world using (quasi) random methods, e.g., left in a restaurant in Topeka, a subway car in New York, or aboard a boat in Bangkok. The discs will then be (re)distributed by willing participants. The multi-lingual liner notes will encourage one who comes across a CD to listen to and/or copy the material and then pass the disc on, either to a friend or by random means. They will also be encouraged to log on to our web site and enter the disc number, location and date. The CDs are not for sale, nor are they to be kept.

The desire for such a project grew in me as a drummer who has for many years been at the mercy of other songwriters. Traditionally (within the alternative pop/rock aesthetic) a singer/songwriter comes to his/her group with vocals and music already in place. I wanted a way to instigate the creative process, and hence, became fascinated with the artistic and political implications of assigning randomly chosen notes to a song. This also dictated a new order in the creation of the material, i.e., drums first, then guitar/bass, and finally vocals/lyrics. The process has been incredibly enlightening. I would argue that while on the surface this appears to be an inhuman and unnatural process, the result is more purely of and by ourselves than what would exist had we deliberately set out to create. The method, rendering all artists involved ‘utilitarian,’ gives birth to the songs in such an unfiltered manner that the pieces exist without pretense, without ego, and without the bias of taste.

Of course there are no absolutes; this is a project not without contradiction.

Utility Project CD - Outer Cover
Utility Project CD - Outer Cover


In spring 2001, Utility members met and rolled dice on a porch in Santa Monica, California, laying out the foundation for thirty songs, from drumbeats and chord structure to vocal and lyrical content. It was pre-determined that the songs be ninety seconds. This seemed to be ample time for a piece to blossom.

It was decided in advance that the final song on the album would have the title ‘(1;30).’ For the remaining songs, 1-29, we determined the names one at a time by rolling dice and randomly pointing to words on a page using six different selected sources:

  1. Rand McNally's World Atlas
  2. Edgar Allan Poe's ‘Angel of the Odd’
  3. Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary
  4. The Complete Shakespeare
  5. Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces
  6. The Bible.

A source was determined and then a word was found, a Utility Member was allowed to decide if there should be a second word in the title. We took turns having authority. If a second word was desired, the process would then be repeated.

We set out to create music similar to that which we enjoy playing, so we imposed existing song structures upon most of the songs. The structures would allow the ‘naturally’ occurring pace of chord change within a given song. Verses, bridges and a chorus would exist by ‘inference’ though upon recording, the timing of the changes would be completely up to artist discretion.

Six different existing song templates were used, three written by Utility Member K and three written by Utility Member D. It was decided that twenty of the thirty songs should originate from the structures, one would have only rests and the remaining nine would consist of songs with a randomly determined number of notes between one and six. The songs were then assigned a randomly determined structure by rolling dice. To simplify the process, it was decided that we leave minors, sharps, flats and sevenths in place within a given song structure, so the only thing to be replaced would be the root note. In the nine songs without structure, a coin flip would be used to determine whether the song would be major or minor.

The dice were then rolled. We used the six points on the die to represent the notes A-G. Since there are seven notes, we eliminated from the possibilities the note that had just appeared, i.e., if a two is rolled, the note is a B; if a two is rolled again, the next note is a C. If a song template reads (AGAG) (BCm), then through dice rolls the song created could be (EDED) (DGm). This process was repeated throughout the twenty songs with structures. The same principle was applied to those without structure: roll a four, and the song has four notes; then roll the dice to determine the notes.

We had also decided that the instrumentation would be what was familiar to us: using drums, electric bass, acoustic and electric guitar, and vocals with the occasional addition of organ, accordion, shakers and effects.

The drums were to be recorded first, and it was apparent that certain lasting song elements would be determined by the instrument recorded next, be it guitar or bass. So coin flips decided which would come first. The timing of the chord changes would be left up to the artist recording his/her part first and were often inspired or directed by an accent in the drum part.

A key operating principal throughout the project was that the dice would be used as a songwriting and song-shaping device, and that to serve the pieces properly, the dice would stay out of certain performance and technical aspects. This is where we break, perhaps, from a hardcore random aesthetic. It was a conscious choice.


Once all of the chords and the order of instrumentation had been plotted out, the Utility Members began determining lyrical/vocal content for the songs. It was felt that not all songs should have conventional lyric and/or vocal content. Nor would it be desirable to have thirty songs containing randomly juxtaposed words. Hence, two were determined to be instrumentals: ‘pacific’ and ‘LACMA area,’ a few were set aside for a more experimental approach, and twenty-three were to use subject matter to inspire lyrics. This method, we believed, reflected that of a guitarist adapting the assigned chords to a pre-existing song structure: the singer would interpret a concept and then tell a story within that song.

Sound File
Track #TitleDurationFormats
17 pacific 1m45s MP3 (2.4 MB)
OGG (2.4 MB)
WAV (17.7 MB)

First, some unconventional lyrical methods were assigned randomly by pulling slips of paper from a hat. One song, ‘Fort Morgan,’ would contain verbatim eavesdropped words; ‘spiders and’ would contain randomly selected words to be read by a computer-generated voice; the song ‘1885’ would consist of randomly selected words that were to be read from the beginning to the end, and simultaneously from the end to the beginning; ‘sierra leone basin’ would employ random passages from books; and another, ‘the,’ would contain jibberish.

Sound File
Track #TitleDurationFormats
29 sierra leone basin 1m42s MP3 (2.4 MB)
OGG (2.4 MB)
WAV (17.3 MB)

Next, conventional subject matter for the remaining songs was determined. A similar method was employed for subject matter as used in the title process. The chosen sources were:

  1. The Biographical and Geographical sections in Webster's Dictionary
  2. The World Wide Web
  3. The New York Library Desk Reference
  4. Granta Magazine
  5. The New York Review of Books
  6. Videohound's Golden Movie Retriever.

These sources were used with the idea that many ‘story possibilities’ existed within. We proceeded as before with the book sources: eyes closed, point to a word or story. If a ‘2’ (web) was rolled, we would then randomly find a word in a rotation of the sources and then later enter that word into a randomly chosen search engine, the first site listing and the first page upon opening that site would determine the subject matter for that song. Example: the word ‘lithosphere’ appeared and was later typed into a search engine resulting in a web page run by the Danish Lithosphere Centre (DLC), hence the song titled ‘including’ contains lyrics which reference work done by the DLC.

Sound File
Track #TitleDurationFormats
27 including 1m41s MP3 (2.3 MB)
OGG (2.4 MB)
WAV (17.1 MB)

It should be noted that no concession is given to song title in relation to lyric creation. The predetermined elements exist independent of one another until the song is complete. As a rule, the lyrics that were collected or written during this period were adjusted slightly to fit the insinuated lyrical patterns of a given song. In only one case were the lyrics completely rewritten in order to fit into a song's structure.


We also had a list of approximately twenty experiments that we wished to impose on the songs. They were assigned randomly by picking slips from a hat. This is surely a break from any kind of scientific method, as radically determinative attributes were arbitrarily assigned to some songs. The lack of any pre-existing emotional ties to the material made it both easy and advantageous to employ these experimental methods.

Some of the experiments were: a one-take song; a song, ‘unusual injuries,’ with each instrument playing the same staccato rhythm; a song where the resolution chord in a given sequence is missed by one, then two, then three whole notes during each subsequent overdub; a song constructed like a pyramid; a song where each artist must play his/her part without hearing the other existing tracks; a song using a car alarm for rhythm; a song using both forwards and backwards randomly selected material from a cassette tape, and a song ‘cycadeoidales’ in which the chords were played one string at a time on the guitar during six subsequent staccato overdubs. The strings did not ring out as they would have if strummed. The resulting frenetic activity brought the instrument to life.

Sound File
Track #TitleDurationFormats
11 cycadeoidales 1m36s MP3 (2.2 MB)
OGG (2.2 MB)
WAV (16.2 MB)


The drums now needed to be determined. We assigned dice values to possible drumbeat styles, tempos, decisions whether to use fills and breaks, and so on. The dice were rolled and we had a framework for the drum tracks.

The drumtracks were recorded using an ADAT and two microphones in Van Nuys, California. Most songs were complete with one or two takes. The session lasted approximately four hours. The drummer played alone, with only the moral support of a recording engineer and Utility Member K. A stopwatch was used to cue the drummer as he approached the ninety second mark.

A two-day trip to Marshall, Michigan and a recording date with Utility Members J and B, yields the basic tracks for sixteen songs. We used various software programs and recorded onto a computer hard drive. It should be noted that this project would have halted abruptly at this point had it not been for computer technology. The artists found it absolutely essential to view the waveform of a given song in order to anticipate breaks and changes in the drum pattern of a song they had never played before. J played bass and guitar and acted as an Audio Engineer. B played guitar and car alarm. D played accordion and the tape recorder. We set a framework for the guitar sounds:

  1. Acoustic
  2. Jangly
  3. Chunky
  4. Distorted
  5. Thin
  6. Clean.

These were then assigned to the songs using dice rolls, and we allowed one for the rhythm track, one for a second guitar part. We decided to keep the bass sound consistent.

The ADAT drumtracks had been transferred to a compact disc and entered into the computer. We found that one drumtrack was missing, so the song ‘pacific’ contains only the car alarm sound as prescribed.

Further lyrical adjustment but little additional writing occured after hearing the basic tracks for sixteen songs. Like with the drumtracks, the musicians were working rapidly, and the first or second take was often used.

Another two-day trip to Marshall, Michigan and a recording date with Utility Members J and B yields the basic tracks for the remaining fourteen songs. Minor lyrical adjustment was made to the remaining songs. All of the subject-matter-inspired lyrics had been written before the instrumentation existed. So any juxtaposition or correlation between instrumentation and lyrical mood is purely due to chance. On the surface this is easy to take for granted, as song titles, lyrics and music work together within a traditional aesthetic; here it was all at the mercy of chance.

A final two-day trip to Marshall completed the project. Vocals, a few guitar overdubs, and the final mixes were complete. The songs were ordered randomly, using the web site random.org to generate a random sequence of twenty-nine numbers, as it had been pre-determined that ‘1;30’ would be the final track.

Minor mix adjustments were made, and the master disc was sent along with artwork to be manufactured. We have used a tough recycled cardboard sleeve to house the disc. Each disc jacket is number stamped 1-1000 and will be tracked worldwide through willing participants who come across a disc and log on to our web site.

Example Experiment

I will elaborate on one notable experimental method result. The song titled ‘the’ called for a vocal that was jibberish. A lyrical foundation was laid down, by simply verbalizing a mock melody where vocals ‘ought’ to be. Then, on a separate track, a few randomly selected songs were sung as raw material. The raw material was then measured in 1/2-second units and randomly ordered using the web site random.org. Going back to the ‘mock melody’ and measuring the number of 1/2-second units used by each section of vocal, we determined the number of units that were needed to replace each mock melody section. The raw material was then re-ordered randomly for each vocal section being replaced.

Sound File
Track #TitleDurationFormats
16 the 1m34s MP3 (2.2 MB)
OGG (2.2 MB)
WAV (15.9 MB)

For example: Mock melody section #1 was four seconds long (eight ‘1/2-second’ units). The raw material, which is twenty seconds long (forty ‘1/2-second’ units) was re-ordered. To replace the eight units of mock melody we needed eight units of raw material, so we took the first eight numbers in the randomly re-ordered forty-unit sequence. We also wanted to create a feeling of ‘rhyme,’ so each verse repeats the final two units of sound. Each bridge part simply repeats.

So the randomly created sequence in the song described above might look like this (each number referring to a 1/2-second piece of vocal raw material):

Verse 1:39 22 10 5 25 4 1 38
Verse 2:11 8 29 3 31 9 1 38
Bridge:7 22 15 21
7 22 15 21

Certain words are nearly discernable and the overall effect is much like turning the radio dial and catching only moments of speech. Within the context of the song, this provides a certain motion or ‘fluidity’ within the track which would clearly not be attainable through conventional methods.

Utility Project CD - Inner Cover
Utility Project CD - Inner Cover


There were a few breaks from the strict random approach. While performing the final mixes, it was felt that the vocals of two songs should be removed, as they did the songs a disservice. So ‘Natural Koko’ is without the assigned lyrical story of a German tank commander named Guderian, and ‘unusual injuries’ is without the story of Puppet Master 3, a movie about puppets coming to life on a train. It was decided upon listening to the final mixes, that the songs were better served as instrumental pieces. Perhaps this is stylistic judgement, but the paramount goal throughout has been to serve the songs.

It became immediately apparent to the artists involved exactly how melodic this music was (you could certainly argue). We had not expected the songs to take a familiar shape from such a creatively imposing process. Perhaps because of the implementation of the templates or merely because we are humans playing music we do fall victim to musical convention. Generally, the songs ‘change’ on the fours; they tend to include a verse and a chorus; there is generally a guitar lead-in at the start; and a solo occurs after the chorus. There does exist an underlying tension within the work (because of the process, I believe) that provides a link between the pieces.

The concept of fate has also become a point of fascination upon completion of this project. Obviously these pieces would be forever altered by different dice rolls, different subject matter, different recording dates. How radically changed they also would be with different artists interpreting the very same information.

The entire experience has been incredibly enlightening. The change in process is immediately palatable to the artists. From simply breaking down songs to their most fundamental elements during the determination phase to the implementation of the randomly assigned chord changes and experimental methods during the recording process, each step has offered a unique variety of problem solving events. The artists were consistently forced to take a given song from beginning to end using only their instrument and the rhythms, chords or words assigned. Under these circumstances it is nearly impossible to harbor a stylistic bias, the artist must submit out of desperation and accept what fills the void. The simultaneous distance and intimacy within the creative process is precisely the design of this method. It is difficult to imagine working in a conventional manner now. How arbitrary it seems to pick up a guitar and strum, sing a few bars and decide ‘this is a song.’

Reflecting on the experience as a Utility participant, I would hasten to add that this is a project ripe with contradictions. As we tried to insure that untampered fate was to create and nurture the songs, we have human hands, thus the pieces are subjected to constant contamination.

I welcome any questions or comments. Utility compact discs will begin their world travels in the autumn of 2003. For more information, see the Utility Project web site. If you would like to obtain a disc, see the Utility Project Pledge.


Utility Member B is Brad Richards, Utility Member D is Doyle Dean, Utility Member J is Joel Boyea and Utility Member K is Kjehl Johansen. The CD layout was done by Manfred Hofer and the Utility Website was built by John Carrick.

The Utility Project was made possible by the Arts Council of Southwestern Indiana; the Indiana Arts Commission, a state agency; the National Endowment for the Arts, a federal agency; The New Harmony Artists' Guild; and private support. The image of Laura Bridgman used on the CD cover is courtesy of the Perkins School for the Blind.

About the Artist

Doyle Dean is a freelance artist and instructor of Video Art at the University of Southern Indiana. He can be contacted at doyle_dean@yahoo.com.

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