different colored jigsaw pieces being put together
Composers Collaborate!

Composers Collaborate!

In the beginning of August 2018, I was in Montpelier, Vermont, preparing to give a talk to the students enrolled in the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Music Composition Program. My talk was titled, “How Many Hats Can a Composer Wear Successfully?”. I looked out at my colleagues in the room. I knew what the response would be: one of beleaguered pride, the pride of a warrior who knows the score and has survived despite the odds against him or her. In that moment, I realized that I didn’t really want to talk about how many hats we wear as a badge of pride. The point I really wanted to bring home was how much we lose when we choose to write, arrange, perform, and produce in our own solitary creative bubble.

Our first instinct is to grab as much as possible of the already too-low fee for ourselves.

Early on in my career, I discovered the professional advantages of collaboration quite by accident. During the late 1990s, I was writing music for several dramatic reality TV shows when I got a request for some hip-hop music. My first thought was, “I can do that.” I knew I could, although it certainly wouldn’t be very authentic. But I did have several colleagues at the time who were more than capable of producing authentic hip-hop tracks. I made a decision that forever altered the course of my career. I brought in these colleagues to write and produce the hip-hop tracks. The reason this is so important is that as composers, especially at the beginning of our careers, most of us are, to put it plainly, broke. Our first instinct is to grab as much as possible of the already too-low fee for ourselves. After all, we have been laboring for years and have never been fairly compensated for our efforts, right? The idea of sharing the credit/fee or hiring help hasn’t crossed our minds yet. My good friend Paul Chihara has many stories of his early days in Hollywood as a film composer. In most of those stories, he talks about having to spend the entire fee on union contractors, arrangers, music editors, conductors, and players. Often, the expenses would be more than the fee. The results for Paul now include a long list of Hollywood film-scoring credits, including collaborations with the likes of Louis Malle, Arthur Penn, and—most notably—a long working relationship with Academy Award-nominated director Sydney Lumet. It was during one of those projects that we met, and Paul hired me to edit and prepare tracks for him.

Elaborating on the concept of collaboration, I’d like to share several examples that have stood the test of time.

In the not so distant past, any one of the following categories would have been considered a full-time vocation. Most of these people were composers themselves, but focused on one area of music production.

role chart of composers, lyricists, arrangers, producers, instrumentalists, and vocalists

Other related fields often not credited (except on the inner sleeves of record albums or the super tiny type on CD jackets):

Recording Engineer – Mix Engineer – Mastering Engineer

I look to the past not for sentimentality but for inspiration.

Here are several instances of truly inspiring collaborations over the years. Notably, most of these examples reach back into the past.  I believe there are several factors that contribute to this. First and foremost, the advent of digital technology was a game changer. Personally, I wasn’t able to participate in the pre-digital era of recording and producing. It was simply too expensive to work in the medium without the deep pockets of a record company.  For better and for worse, the era of digital technology levelled the playing field. Many of us were finally able to jump in and start making respectable sounding recordings. However, with the levelled field (which ultimately led to the demise of the record industry as we had known it) came a new breed of musical autocrat. I have never heard it better expressed than by Molly Sheridan who dubs it the “Absolute Great Man” syndrome. While the “Absolute Great Man” can now achieve what used to take several people to do, the loss of the collaborators and their different perspectives is, I believe, sorely felt. I look to the past not for sentimentality but for inspiration. Because although much of the music is dated, there is no argument on the high quality of the craft inherent in these examples.


It’s easy to call it a Michael Jackson effort, but the song “Thriller” was written by Rod Temperton and produced/arranged by Quincy Jones.

Let’s take a look at the track “Thriller” from the hit record album of the same name. It’s easy to call it a Michael Jackson effort and because of that, he is much revered for it. However the song “Thriller” was written by Rod Temperton and produced/arranged by Quincy Jones. To quote Alan Light from Rolling Stone October 30, 2009:

When asked today about the album Thriller, Jones points out – taking care to insist that he is not minimizing Jackson’s role – that it requires an entire brain trust to make a classic album. “Michael didn’t create Thriller,” he says. “It takes a team to make an album. He wrote four songs, and he sang his ass off, but he didn’t conceive it – that’s not how an album works.” Jones gives particular credit to the contributions of engineer Bruce Swedien and especially songwriter Rod Temperton, who had become a trusted Jones collaborator, contributing three songs for Off the Wall, including Rock With You and the title track.

Temperton had already written hits such as “Always and Forever” and “Boogie Nights” when he was in the band Heatwave during the mid to late 1970s. Quincy’s credits are too numerous to mention. But early on, he was in Elvis Presley’s backing band during his early TV appearances, played trumpet in Dizzy Gillespie’s band, and studied in the late 1950s with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen. Whew! And this doesn’t even include his film scores, among which are The Pawnbroker and In the Heat Of The Night (which earned him an Oscar for Best Original Score). Bruce Swedien, the engineer for the track, was the engineer for many Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons records, not to mention recording and mixing records by Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Herbie Hancock.

Upon listening to “Thriller,” even by today’s standards, it stands out for the excellent quality of the recording, arrangement, and—most especially—Michael Jackson’s performance. The opening bass riff is probably Quincy. At least four people are credited with bringing the synthesizers to life. In our current paradigm, it would probably have been just one person putting together the entire track. The production of the Thriller album really marks a turning point in the production of popular music. Not only is this the beginning of the digital era, MTV was launched less than a year before Thriller was released. Suddenly pop music writers, producers, performers and audience members were confronted with an evolution from what had been largely an aural experience, to a hybrid aural/visual experience. Now we watch the Buggles video of “Video Killed the Radio Star” and take its truth for granted. At the time however, the very idea of the visual component becoming part of the music production process was terrifying to many composers and musicians. Many careers did not survive the transition. The generation that springs forward starting in the early 1980s, encompasses this entirely new phenomenon. The evolution of digital technology has fundamentally changed the nature of collaboration. More recent collaborations might now include Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan’s “Heartland” 1993 (written through exchanges by fax) and the Kanye West- Rihanna-Paul McCartney composition “FortyFiveSeconds”. The new level of inter-connectedness provided by the ever-evolving technology has forever altered the landscape of collaboration. Now we can trade session files in a way that makes it possible for collaboration without even being in the same country, something unimaginable in the not so distant past.

Listening to “Thriller” today, the sound is still awesome in the truest sense of the word. Given all of this combined experience, what you get is a recording of a song that stands the test of time—a true collaboration by four heavy hitters, all at the top of their game.

“(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman”

I recently watched the PBS American Masters interview with Carole King during which she talked about bringing in a song to a publisher when she was working in the Brill Building in Manhattan. “That’s great kid. Here’s 25 bucks,” says Carole, quoting the publisher. She went on to write dozens of songs with her husband Gerry Goffin during the ‘60s, including “Chains” (covered by the Beatles on their first UK record), “Locomotion” for their babysitter Little Eva, “Pleasant Valley Sunday” for the Monkees, and most notably, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” recorded by Aretha Franklin. Listen to this Atlantic single (preferably on vinyl or CD, but for expediency you can also experience it through this YouTube Embed below):

Here is a divine melody, a unique POV (few pop songs had been written from such an emotionally confessional female point of view up to that time), sterling production by Jerry Wexler, a pared-down precision performance by Spooner Oldham on piano, and of course Aretha in top form.  The track is a true collaboration and meeting of many top talents. Keep in mind that Aretha was only 25 years old at the time, as was Carole. Spooner was 24 and Gerry was 28.

“Mack The Knife”

Another famous collaboration is that of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill on “Die Moritat von Mackie Messer” (which most people know by the title “Mack the Knife”) which was originally written for Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera) in 1928. Grab a listen to an original version performed with organ accompaniment and a vocal by Brecht himself.

It’s written in an eccentric “Singspiel”-type song form, which lends itself to storytelling.

Fast-forward to 1959 and find the “big band” arrangement with a superb interpretative vocal performance by Bobby Darin. What really makes this record special is the addition of the arrangement by Richard Wess.

It’s as classic as it is unlikely during the era when rock and roll was taking over the airwaves. It was a collaboration among many talents across many years.

“The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jiveass Slippers”

Charles Mingus has always been a favorite of mine, and if you haven’t taken a deep dive into his material you might check out his 1972 record on Columbia Let My Children Hear Music—specifically “The Shoes of the Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jiveass Slippers.” When I was younger, I thought it was written and arranged/scored by Mingus. But it turns out that Sy Johnson is credited with the orchestration, transcription, and arrangement, as well as the conducting. And the ubiquitous (at the time) Teo Macero produced the record. Teo wrote, produced, and arranged for the likes of Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, and Gato Barbieri. He later went on to produce for Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Dave Brubeck, and Tony Bennett. This collaboration is unique in that the complexity of the composition calls for a high level of familiarity with the fusion of European classical harmony, blues, jazz, and extended song form, which gave birth to the newly emerging form of extended jazz compositions such as this one. (Mingus spent five years studying bass and composition with the principal bassist of the New York Philharmonic, Herman H. Rheinshagen, while Miles Davis attended “The Institute of Musical Art” now known as The Juilliard School). Both Sy Johnson and Teo Macero were more than up to the task. The result is a recording that takes Mingus’s composition (in the Ellingtonian tradition of “symphonic style” jazz) and elevates it to heights heretofore never achieved.

“On Broadway”

Four writers were listed on the record.

Another example is “On Broadway” by Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann (with kibitzing by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller). Cynthia and Barry originally wrote the song from a female point of view.  After a couple of attempts to get the song recorded, they had the chance to present it to Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller (their idols at the time) who were the principal writers for the Drifters. Leiber and Stoller both liked the song and gave Cynthia and Barry the chance to either rework it themselves, changing it to a male point of view, or to collaborate with them. The result was four writers listed on the record. It has been recorded and arranged multiple times—first by The Cookies in 1962 and very soon after that same year by The Crystals. The first “definitive” version was recorded in 1963 by the Drifters, with a guitar solo by budding songwriter (at the time) Phil Spector and an instrumental arrangement by Gary Sherman.

Fast forward again to 1978 when a second “definitive” version was recorded by guitar virtuoso George Benson. George’s version ended up in the movie All That Jazz and later Benson performed it with Clifford and the Rhythm Rats for the 1994 Muppets album Kermit Unpigged.

Another time-traveling collaboration suitable for “all ages.”

“Eleanor Rigby”

Most readers are likely familiar with “Eleanor Rigby,” written primarily by Paul McCartney but attributed to Lennon/McCartney. This recording was an interesting project for many reasons. It was an early example of the Beatles’ transformation from a rock and roll act to a more experimental, studio-based band. But it is George Martin’s arrangement for double string quartet that makes this recording really stand apart from the rest of the Beatles’ canon. While many previously recorded rock ballads had utilized string arrangements, this was arguably the first to feature a classical-style quartet on a song that actually rocks. This opened the door for the likes of The Moody Blues, ELO, and later Queen, Kate Bush, and Arcade Fire, to name a few. It is one of many collaborations between producer/arranger George Martin and the Beatles. It’s hard to even think about this song without imagining the staccato eighth notes pumping and driving this recording.

“God Only Knows”

Lastly, let’s consider the production and recording of Brian Wilson and Tony Asher’s “God Only Knows.” It is a stunning example of a collaboration between peers. Brian wrote the melody and then ad agency writer Tony Asher wrote the words. The tracks were performed under Brian’s direction by the now famous “wrecking crew” of top flight LA studio musicians. At the 11th hour, Brian decided to have the vocal performed by his brother Carl. According to “The Making of Pet Sounds,” an essay in the booklet notes for The Pet Sounds Sessions, Brian originally intended to sing lead vocal on “God Only Knows,” but after the instrumental portions of the song had been recorded, Brian thought Carl could impart the message better than he could.

Brian reflected in October 1966, “I gave the song to Carl because I was looking for a tenderness and a sweetness which I knew Carl had in himself as well as in his voice. He brought dignity to the song and the words, through him, became not a lyric, but words” (From “Brian Behind The Beach Boys” Hit Parader 11, Oct. 4, 1966).

These are some great examples of what can be gained when one lets go of “Absolute Great Man” control.

In recent years there have been many outstanding collaborative efforts, especially in the field of film and TV scoring. The score composed by Wendy Malvoin and Lisa Coleman for the TV show Heroes is one of the most original-sounding and effective scores for TV I’ve heard, especially the first season. Another standout collaboration is the score by Peter Nashel and Eric Hachikian for the Netflix series Marco Polo. My collaboration with Chicago-based composer Renée Baker on the re-score of Oscar Micheaux’s Body and Soul screened at the Chicago Museum of Modern Art and Ebertfest in 2016; Renée’s score was performed by her Chicago Modern Orchestra Project and is outstanding for its vibrant originality and free jazz style. In the pop arena, one super standout is Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s Everything Is Love. My favorite cut is “Apeshit” and the video kills it.

When we collaborate, we can also expand our audience.

So when we collaborate, not only do we create situations for a cross-pollination of musical ideas, but we can also expand our audience. A recording of one can certainly appeal to all of one’s established audience. However, collaboration among artists increases the potential and broadens that reach exponentially. I advocate for collaboration whenever possible. I have found the composer’s career to be a long, slow, and bumpy ride. It often helps to have some company at times. There is plenty of time for “solo” composing. I try to keep an open mind, and by all means possible, experiment! As Marcel Proust once commented, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” In this case, it’s “new ears”!

Don DiNicola is a composer, music supervisor and director.  He has worked on the Emmy award winning shows; “Suicide Bombers/Cult Of Death” – DISCOVERY, “The Art Of Failure; Chuck Connelly Not For Sale – HBO” (both as Music Supervisor) and most recently the Emmy Award Winning “Baring It All”  (as composer).  He has written and produced music for HISTORY, PBS, A&E, TLC, DISCOVERY, CNBC, STYLE, SUNDANCE and HBO networks.  Don also produces and directs original media content.  His feature directorial debut, “Nowhere Now; The Ballad Of Joshua Tree” enjoyed a... Read more »

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