Composing with Collaborators

Composing with Collaborators

Good musical collaboration is a trait that most composers find helpful on a regular basis when working with performers and conductors. The ability to be able to navigate through the minefield of various personalities can not only protect oneself politically but also actually strengthen the bond between composer and performers and ultimately result in a stronger composition and performance. When it comes to full-blown artistic collaboration with someone who is not a musician, however, life can get very interesting very quickly. With quite a lot of various and sundry collaborative experiences notched in my belt, I’ll admit that “How has working with collaborators affected your musical creativity?” seemed to be a “gimme” type of question to ask my interviewees, allowing for a wide array of directions with which the composer could take the discussion. I was in for a bit of a surprise.

There were a handful of composers who had extensive experience creating new works with collaborators. Because of the nature of the art forms that composers can collaborate with, the experience is not the same across the board. Working with a choreographer puts the composer’s work very early in the overall timeline of the project, while a narrative filmmaker may not be able to add music until the very last. Whichever the collaborative art, all of these endeavors somehow force composers to step out of their comfort zones, adjust their own process, and deal with the specter of relegating some of the creative power over their music to someone else. While this situation can ultimately create a work of art that any one person would not have been able to invent, it can also be extremely disconcerting for composers who are used to exercising complete control on their music.

It turns out, however, that a large portion of the composers with whom I’ve had the luck to sit down with so far have had relatively little experience working with collaborators (choreographers, poets, filmmakers, theatrical directors, etc.) and a couple were just recently dipping their toes into the collaboration pool (if you can call writing operas for major companies around the country “dipping a toe”). For the ones who had not yet collaborated in such a way, I don’t remember anyone saying it was because a desire not to collaborate, but rather they simply had not had the opportunity. And practically everyone said that they wanted to collaborate more. Ballet, film scores, theatre incidental music, opera—all of these have a siren call that many composers ultimately follow.

Have you had good or bad experiences collaborating? How was your music different?

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3 thoughts on “Composing with Collaborators

  1. Steve Layton

    Maybe it was just where I studied, but as an undergraduate at The (very interdisciplinary) Evergreen State College, I was working with dancers and theater folk from my first year on. Not that it was all required; more just that here we were in the same place, we like what the other person is doing, and so why don’t we…? Later, as a graduate student at the University of Idaho, I did the same soon after I arrived. There, it was as simple as paying a visit to the woman who directed the dance program and having a chat. There was a sense that it wasn’t happening before just because no one had thought to ask! All of the various projects we worked on there on were pretty stimulating, and led to many more collaborations with dancers and videographers in the years following.

  2. Jon Silpayamanant

    For the past 7 or 8 years I’ve been working regularly with dancers with a number of my ensembles (though my history working with dancers goes back many more years intermittently). Throughout most of this time the collaborations have been with bellydancers, which are obviously a group that have their own idiosyncratic dance form and music to accompany it so much of the music and arrangements have been tailored to that particular genre.

    The best thing about doing that has been getting a very healthy understanding and appreciation for the art musics of cultures outside of the European mainstream. So many of the questions I had about the Western Art music traditions were in some ways answered, and in other ways exacerbated by my recent and current musical activities. It’s like having a completely different set of tools to work with and rules for their usage. Until I started doing this kind of work I’d spent so many years doing the more experimental and avant-garde kind of music, but this has opened up my musical palette even more than extended Western compositional techniques ever did as well as new ways of looking and thinking about music.

    Going back to the collaborative work, well, it becomes as much of a give and take as working a musician when composing a piece for a specific instrument, but in this case being schooled by dancers in what are appropriate ways (or at least the rules to be learned that can be broken) to think about music and then actually performing it (since much of this music is written for ensembles I play in) is an interesting exercise in translating ideas about movement into ideas about music since our artistic vocabulary doesn’t overlap much an many of the dancers aren’t necessarily trained musicians in any sense.

    I’ve done some work with poets that is more improvisatory (another skill I think classically trained musicians sorely lack) and have provided music for my own as well as other Performance Artists or Multi-Disciplinary Artists works and have been on the recording end (for others as well as myself) of film scores or music for videos. Those are rewarding experiences in different ways since the former is more freeform and in the moment and the latter usually has a finished recorded product that isn’t necessarily a part of a live performance.

    The latest project I’ve been involved in is writing a Klingon Opera-Ballet, which poses a number of different problems as I’m both “re-creating” as well as creating the music of a culture that doesn’t exist in any real sense. The development of the music and slowly learning the idiosyncratic rhythmic and prosodic subtleties of the Klingon Langauge (if the Klingon language could ever be considered “subtle”) is always constrained by what’s already existent in canon (the films, tv series, as well as written texts by the creator of the Klingon Language, Mark Okrand) as well as by the limits of my own imagination (since I’m obviously not a Klingon) but I think, in many ways, my understanding of a far greater amount of the world’s actual music than your average Terran probably gives me a bit more insight in how to create something truly alien as opposed to just something that sounds alien to a particular culture (i.e. Americans).

    The other interesting issue with working on the Klingon Music Project is that there is a relatively big fanbase for Klingon culture, many of whom who have been studying, re-enacting, or living some aspects of Klingon culture for, in some cases, decades. What they might consider to be good Klingon Music doesn’t always line up with my ideas, but they are relatively open to so many new things since, for all intents and purposes, there’s really not much Klingon music being performed out there!

  3. mclaren

    In the 21st century, collaboration will expand explosively beyond different creative realms to include the same creative realm. At some point in the near future, a musical composition will be as likely to consist of a wiki with component parts (3 melodies, 4 harmonic progressions, 5 algorithms, 4 gestural curves, etc.) which get put together by other composers in various different ways.

    In the near future, there will be no such thing as “the composition,” only a kaleidoscopic variety of different instantiations of some meccano set of basic materials provided by one composer and modified by another composer. And as the audience gets involved, the distinction twixt “composer” and “audience” will disappear.

    Of course this is wild wacky talk, pure blue-sky B.S., which is why William Duckworth is already doing it on his cathedral website. Tenney’s Postcard pieces already did that 40 years ago: the digital version will simply eliminate the postcards and make everything into bits.

    In Bruce Sterling’s “internet of things,” every object has an ip address that points to its downloadable manufacturing process, its CAM/CAM solid printer instructions, its history, its component parts, and its recyclability. In the future, every note in a musical composition will have an ip address that points to its downloadable generating function, its performance instructions (perhaps acoustic and done live; perhaps electronic and done by softsynth), its history, its component parts, and its recycability as a component part of other musical compositions.

    In the near future, many musical compositions will eventually consist of noting but remote function calls to pointers representing the components parts of other musical compositions altered by various modifying functions. With an appropriately complex mapping function Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony can be mapped into Terry Riley’s “In C.” On a sufficient level of abstraction, every musical composition is nothing but a tensor transformation of every other musical composition. In the 21st century, we’ll start to act on that understanding.


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