WQXR: Bite-Sized Bytes: Ray Lustig Composing in 15 Seconds

WQXR's Q2 Music

What would you do with 15 seconds? For composer Ray Lustig, it's the perfect amount of time to set up a low-stakes creative lab and ongoing audio-visual experiment. He explains below the inspiration behind his 15-second Instagram compositions, dubbed "composagrams," and how they feed his artistic growth.

Last summer I started a new little creative habit: making tiny 15-second compositions with video, a new one, roughly every week, to post to my sleepy little Instagram account. I’d heard that Instagram, formerly dedicated to photos, had recently started hosting video posts, but only up to a 15-second max, and this constraint grabbed my interest. Was it possible to do anything musically meaningful in just 15 seconds? At first I wasn’t sure. Many of my favorite works — Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, and Steve Reich’s Drumming — are over an hour long. 

I gave 15 seconds a try. And then another, and another. I started calling them "composagrams" and even started tagging them with the hashtag #composagram to encourage others to do it, too.

Then I started to realize that my little collection of composagrams was serving as a kind of creative lab for me. I was testing new things out, putting new spins on old things, dipping my toe in waters I might not have gotten to in my larger more visible projects, actually expanding my experimentation. Yet at the same I noticed I was following the evolution of my sound preferences with more focus, via these little bits of experimentation.  

And now, 15 seconds seems to me kind of perfect. It’s too short to even give a listener time to become bored, yet it’s longer than a gesture, even longer than a phrase. It can be a sentence, a concise one, a to-the-point sentence. While it’s an actual public post of my music, it's low-stakes. If one turns out not so satisfying for me, well it’s only 15 seconds, and I can just start another one.

There's using social media creatively for self-promotion and dissemination of one’s work, but this is different. This is using it as an actual creation platform, music written just for the consumption style of the social media feed. And it's not simply an opportunistic niche. There's something to casting work into the public light regularly that helps you hear it differently, gives you that crucial new perspective on something we artists spend all our time so close to, our own work.

Composers out there, give it a try if you don't believe me. And use the hashtag #composagram so that people who see one and like it can check out a few more. Instagram changed its limit to 60 seconds, but that's an eternity in social media time, so discipline yourself to keep it to that perfect little 15-second window, that bite-size, to-the-point little sentence. If you can't decide what to do, do a bunch of them so you don't have to decide. Make it a habit that feeds your artistic growth. — Ray Lustig

Born in Tokyo and raised in Queens, N.Y., composer Raymond Lustig is deeply inspired by science, nature, and the mind. Also a published researcher in molecular biology, he studied cell division, the cell skeleton, and cell polarity at Columbia University and Massachusetts General Hospital before beginning his graduate studies in composition at Juilliard, where he completed his MM and DMA degrees.