creative boxes
Image: Danny Clay

Explore all the posts from NewMusicBox’s 5-Day Creative Productivity Challenge here.

“How can I make the act of creating new art feel less like work and more like PLAY?”

I’ve been asking this question a lot—with my students, with my collaborators, to myself. It’s a question that I return to when I feel stuck—creatively and productively – as an artist and a teacher. My investigations into this question have often been noisy, lopsided, awkward, occasionally flatulent, and—on the whole—a source of profound joy.

I’m excited to be able to share with you a few ways I’ve tackled this question, and I’ve offered a few (incredibly specific) questions of my own, in the hopes of learning more about how YOU use play in your life, work, and art.

Making things BY myself, FOR myself.

It took a while to come to terms with the fact that for me composing might actually be a messy, disjunct assemblage of ideas. Why not just make something you feel like making?

Back in high school, I learned how to make music in broad, crude, strokes, by recording myself playing instruments, making strange sounds, and layering them together in ways I found interesting. Over time, for whatever reason, it settled in my head that composing was supposed to be a different kind of activity—quiet, thoughtful, cerebral, methodical. It took a while to come to terms with the fact that for me composing might actually be quite different—a messy, disjunct assemblage of ideas. In rediscovering this process, I recalled the importance of simply making things that seemed interesting, whether they would be shared with people or not. These sketches could be non-musical, too—a video of funny faces, a painting of Hank Williams, a cube made out of mirrors. Why not just make something you feel like making?

What would you try doing, out of sheer curiosity, if you knew nobody needed to see/hear it?

Making things WITH people.

Sometimes, in moments of creative weakness, I get fixated on the idea that a “score” is not only a necessary means of making music, but a very specific type of means, like a blueprint. But a score can be so many other things, right? A puzzle. A Choose Your Own Adventure book. A cake recipe. An invitation to a costume party. A map without a key. A random sequence of numbers. A series of hand gestures. A water balloon fight. A matchbook. A clock. While going off in shamelessly speculative directions as to what a score could be, it occurred to me that a score is not really the interesting thing about making art, however; it’s people. So perhaps, I thought, making music directly, with people, all together, might lead my collaborators and I to creative terrain that the interface of a score couldn’t—a kind of creative space where everyone was collectively testing, discovering, and building new ideas together.

This led me to my current obsession—using games as a way to create new pieces. I’d been employing simple theater and music skill-building games in my elementary school classroom—after all, who doesn’t like to play games?—but had never tried using this strategy to create things with adults. I found that by setting up simple rules and interactions between people, my collaborators and I could develop interesting, surprising, and often quite beautiful relationships and ideas. Not only could these games be used to make works that combine media (sound, acting, movement, visuals)—they could be used to make work with just about anyone, from professional musicians to a classroom of kids. How cool is that? I’m in love with the idea that people of vastly different levels of experience could create something together through the simple act of playing a game.

How could you create a piece WITH people, as a group, without needing to write anything down?
What are some “games” that you play regularly in your work? In your process? In your life?
Could somebody else play these games with you?
Could somebody else use ideas from your “playbook” to make something of their own?

Making things FOR people.

Oh—a score can also be a gift box!

Wanting to make something with people who live far away presents a compelling challenge. I got excited about the idea of incorporating distance into the process of such collaborations by making pieces that were simply boxes filled with stuff. A box could contain anything—instructions, written music, cryptic symbols, magazine clippings, bubble wrap, knick-knacks, etc. A box could be like a little ecosystem, or a junk drawer, following any sort of logic or non-logic. A box could contain surprises, traps, secrets. The idea was that a person receiving a box could make a composition of their own from the contents within, and maybe even send me a box in return so I could do the same. (Some wonderful folks have done this.) But what if the box gets lost in the mail? What if the recipient hates everything in the box? What if the recipient chooses to ignore it, or forgets to open it? I had to accept all of these as possible outcomes, and it led me to think about the idea differently—as a gift, a gesture of love, goodwill, appreciation for someone, from me to them, in the form of art.

Clay box examples

Some sample boxes Clay has created. What would you put in yours?

If you made an art gift for someone, what would that look like?
(For a family member? For a colleague? For a stranger? For anyone and everyone?)

Making things WITH KIDS.

Getting a job teaching elementary school music has profoundly changed how I make things. When I started teaching, I immediately asked the question: how can I make projects collaboratively with these kids and give them the tools to make new art of their own? The complex array of challenges that such a question presents, I think, is what got me thinking about play in the first place.

A class of third graders listened to nine notes by Beethoven and drew what they thought it looked like. These drawings were interpreted by a professional string quartet.

Every year, I ask my students to make their own “note”—a recorded sound with their voice and a corresponding image to represent that sound.

What could you make with a classroom of 8-year-olds as your collaborators?

Asking questions with lots of answers.

Among many things, working with children got me thinking about “the art of the art assignment” (a title I am stealing from a book that I’d highly recommend). How could a simple prompt—a question, a task, a challenge—serve as a springboard for creativity? Presenting such questions to people, and collecting answers—in the form of sound, video, words, thoughts—has always been inspiring to me, and I take tremendous joy in sandboxing with the material folks are kind enough to send my way. This culminated most recently in me mailing a sound “workbook” to volunteers from all over the country, containing twenty simple exercises that could be interpreted on any instrument. Some examples:

Exercise No. 1—Say hello. Sing hello.
Exercise No. 6—Devise a situation in which your instrument unintentionally/accidentally makes sound.
Exercise No. 9—Describe “home” in three sounds.
Exercise No. 16—Write down a secret you’ve never told anyone – match the syllables to notes on your instrument; perform. (Destroy copy; save recording.)
Exercise No. 20—“The sound of ___.”

I was overwhelmed by the creativity and beauty of the responses and am slowly (oh, so slowly) building little collages out of my colleagues’ responses to each exercise.

What are some challenges / tasks / questions that might inspire you to collect things?
If you designed an art scavenger hunt for people, what would it look like?
If people designed an art scavenger hunt for you, what might THAT look like?
What could you do with the things you collect?

Ok, enough about me. How do YOU find ways to play in your creative practice?


Bio: Danny Clay is a composer and teaching artist from Ohio, currently based in San Francisco. His work is deeply rooted in curiosity, collaboration, and the sheer joy of making things. His projects often incorporate musical games, open forms, found objects, archival media, toy instruments, classrooms of elementary schoolers, graphic notation, digital errata, cross-disciplinary research, and the everything-in-between. Recent collaborators include Kronos Quartet, Third Coast Percussion, Sarah Cahill, Phyllis Chen, Quince Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, concert:nova + the Cincinnati Ballet, the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington, as well as several groups in the Bay Area, including the Mobius Trio, Friction... Read more »


NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.