A Crash Course in the Paper Bag: Theory of Spontaneous Composing and Controlled Chaos

a writing by M. Segal

Theory developed by M. Segal, Greg Segal, George Radai, and Kenny Ryman

with supplementary notes by Dave McIntire


What follows is a simplified version of the mechanics of the Paper Bag: Theory.

Moving in a clockwise rotation, each musician becomes the composer/conductor of a 4 to 7 minute piece.

The conductor must be ready to express an idea or direction to the other musicians immediately upon his turn. Past examples include:


Like, water, man...

Evil, pounding 5/4!

You- drummer...play sumthin'.

I pass. Next please.

Fast bebop, noise! Fast bebop, noise! Fast bebop, noise!

Indeed, the list is endless.


All eyes are now on the man conducting. Solos, changes in key, tempo or meter are in this person's hands. He also is responsible for bringing the piece to a competent close.

As the next musician takes his turn in the rotation, an important rule must be kept in mind: his concept must be completely different, a total one-eighty from what came before it. This part of the Paper Bag: Theory is the 'roller-coaster effect', and is essential throughout the set in order to ensure variation.

The longer it takes to relay your ideas to the other players during live performance, the more slipshod and haphazard it appears. Get the concept out articulately but quickly. If you can't, move to a back-up idea or pass the torch to the next player. Eye contact is really important. That is to say, eye contact is particularly important. Oh, perhaps I forgot to mention: WITHOUT EYE CONTACT THE 'PAPER BAG: THEORY' WILL NOT FUNCTION.



Once again, the importance of eye contact rears its ugly head, and more so in this instance than any other. Once the ensemble has decided that hand signals are to be used, to not pay attention to them at all times undermines the process of controlling chaos. Only the rare 'do anything you want' rotation renders this discussion irrelevant.

If the basic signals outlined here are not workable, create your own. Certainly when both your hands are busy, body signals must be created. You will find that many signals almost invent themselves.


VOLUME UP- rear the body upward.

VOLUME DOWN- crouch down.

GO WILD- (refer to soloist or ensemble) shake head crazily.

SIMPLIFY GROOVE, MELODY OR BOTH- close thumb and index finger.

THICKEN GROOVE, MELODY OR BOTH- opposite of above, done 3 times.

UP OR DOWN A 1/2 OR WHOLE STEP- (this is partially a verbal command) turn head to left and look up, or turn head to left and look down.

SOLO- the extended pinkie.

TO ENTER THE PIECE- a nod of the head in the direction of the player.

STOPS AND STARTS- eye contact, a verbal count, whatever works.

PUNCHES- same as above.

SPEED UP- nod yes.

SLOW DOWN- nod no.



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