Premiere of Census Americans, setting a twitter bot to music

I’m really excited for this piece. It’s based on protest songs from the IWW songbook, a classic of political music, and A Twitter bot called Census Americans. The piece is being premiered by Con Vivo Music in September:

Art Politic
Friday, September 8, 2017
7:30 PM
Jersey City, NJ (venue TBA)

This piece started with the Twitter bot, written by Jia Zhang when she was working at FiveThirtyEight. She wrote the bot in 2015, and right away I knew I wanted to work with it. The bot reconstructs tweets about real Americans, once per hour, based on an anonymized table of census data. Reading it is sort of amazing. Sometimes the tweets are little poems. Sometimes they’re descriptions of people just like you. Sometimes they’re about people who are completely different. It’s a great way to show how many people there are in this country, and how different we all are from each other.

It’s also a reminder of what people need. Often it tweets about how long people work, whether or not they have health insurance, and if they’ve fought in a war.

So I turned to protest music. In particular I turned to two sources for protest music: the Little Red Songbook and Frederic Rzewski.

The Little Red Songbook has been published by the International Workers of the World (also called the wobblies) for just about a hundred years. It’s a living document of the music of the labor movement, and it’s been a key tool for protest, and for celebrating victories like the 40-hour work week, the weekend, paid leave of any kind, and on and on and on. I used it for source material because I want us to remember that organizing and protesting can make the world a better place.

I chose two songs from the Little Red Songbook that I like, “Pie in the Sky” (also called “The Preacher and the Slave”) and “Dump the Bosses off your Back.” Both of them take older European hymn tunes, and give them new words. That speaks to my way of being American: taking a very complicated European heritage and trying to make it into something positive.

The other piece I used is Frederic Rzewski’s Coming Together. The piece sets the text of a letter written by Sam Melville shortly before he was killed in the Attica prison rebellion. It’s a classic of modern protest music, and is easy to put together, but it’s hard to find companion pieces for it because of its use of indeterminate instruments.

So I built Census Americans to be a companion piece, mirroring the use of a bass line and indeterminate instruments with narration, mirroring the structure, and even the instructions to the players as closely as possible. In fact, it’s getting premiered alongside Coming Together in September. If you can make it, go. Con Vivo is a great group, and the concert should be a great one.

Census Americans has a lot of different voices in it – the protest songs of the labor movement, Rzewski’s piece, Sam Melville, and the dozens of anonymous Americans whose stories are told by Census Americans. I’m really happy with it and I hope you like it, too.

I’m making this score available for free, and you can download it here:

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