Early on in my career, I made the mistake of writing a lot of very melodic music for performers who were more predisposed to Berio than to Berlioz. Despite everyone’s optimism and best efforts, these projects were usually stressful and rarely among my most successful.
I used to think, perhaps narcissistically, that it was exclusively the job of the players I was working with to make my music sound good—that I should write whatever my little composer heart saw fit and then leave it to them to figure it out. We are, after all, taught in class that Bach is God and that musicians are the vessels through which the deity speaks. These early projects, however, taught me that in the real world the reverse is often true, and that it’s a huge part of YOUR job, if not literally the entire job, to write something that will make the players you are working with sound great. Ideally if you are successful in doing that, you will make yourself sound far better in the process as well.
There’s a lot that can go right and wrong when collaborating with musicians in pursuit of the above. However, I’ve found for myself that there are a lot of consistent questions to ask and methods to employ along that winding road to hopefully making “Good Art” that can increase one’s chances of staying the course. Ultimately a lot is common sense and falls under a consistent umbrella: you will never be wasting time by really getting to know your players, writing for them specifically, considering the specific parameters of the project, being sure of what you want to do while remaining open to input and creative detours, and experimenting with techniques to make all that happen.
For me the solution to the above, besides planning well early on, has been to workshop music I’m working on extensively with musicians while learning to be a good collaborator—a lifelong undertaking in itself.
Before getting there, however, there are a lot of obvious questions to be asked about who I’m writing for, what their aesthetic comfort zone is and how it relates to my own, what the circumstances of the performance/session are, how many rehearsals you get, whether it’s a pick up group or not, as well as the most interesting one: is this a player(s) who wants to be challenged or not? Some musicians will get bored if you’re not writing something that stretches them. Others may feel best about music that’s easy to keep alive in their fingertips. No one wants to put the time in to play something well that they don’t feel “fits them.” For me the most exciting things always happen when you’re working with players you can push a little beyond their comfort zones and who can push you past yours.
I am a huge believer in workshops if you can do them, because they’re really the best way to get into the weeds with a piece of music and collaborator(s). If you’re writing something good, you can file that away and develop it. If you are writing something stupid, they’re a great chance to pretend that never happened and course correct. Overall they’re invaluable opportunities to try things on your “growing edge” while getting to know the strengths, styles, and limitations of the people you’re working with and figuring out how to mold your writing to their hands. This does not mean sacrificing your voice, so much as playing with how it can be bent and expanded and trying things that you don’t already know how to do, which I’ve found always leads to better and more interesting pieces than I could have written alone with Sibelius. Ideally you meet each other part way, with a piece that sounds like you, but is tailored to the performer.
For workshops to be successful, I’ve found that doing three is best. One with early sketches, one about 1/2 – 2/3 of the way through the composing process, and one when you are almost finished to fine-tune. They are always short (musicians are busy), I record them, and in planning for them, aim to be over prepared but leave space for sounds and ideas that are unexpected to emerge. A balance between order and chaos.
The order side is easy: parts need to be clean, any technical electronic elements must be road-tested, and the writing must be well-developed/written enough that players can feel the bones of what you are trying to say. And you should have some idea of how you want to structure and lead rehearsals, since some material is invariably better approached “cold” than others. I try to start with something easy that I know will work. You should also be as sure as you can that you’re writing idiomatically, since no matter how keen you are to expand the possibilities of the harp, if your harpist is tap dancing all over the place because she needs to be some sort of eight-footed octopus to cover her pedal changes (I know, I know, harps only have 7 pedals), you’re both going to sound like garbage. And not in the cool Shirley Manson way.
Facilitating the unexpected is harder and in itself an endlessly broad subject, but to get there some of the things I try include:
Giving players a few looping musical “cells” from the piece to improvise with, or perhaps leaving some holes or incomplete endings in musical phrases (ones that feel as though they could be jumping off points), then asking them where it “feels” (excuse the flowery language) like it wants to go. Even if they’re not improvisers, musicians obviously have a deeper and more intuitive grasp of their instrument than you do and sometimes just hearing where their hands wander naturally can give you a sense for how to better tailor your writing to their instrument and personal playing style, while still keeping it within your own language.
Coming in with specific techniques that you are interested in exploring that feel as though they could fit the music you are writing, even if they’re not developed, has also proven useful for me. Sometimes I’ll have the earliest sections of a piece formed, and then ideas for some more bombastic moments later on that I don’t yet know how to pull off. Putting some half-realized stabs at them on a page to give the general sense (something like the rough under-painting a painter might do), and then honing the details from there with a great player’s input has proven productive.
I tried all of the above, for one, with violinist Jenny Choi, who—after telling me that it felt like a section of my solo piece for her wanted to open up—gave me a crash course in barriolages before I really knew how to write them well and was a great cheerleader who encouraged me to follow the lines of what I was writing as far as I could take them. I did something similar with a piece for harpist Ashley Jackson, wherein I wanted to try some more folksy, virtuosic, uptempo writing that I wanted to explode off the page. In both cases, I had specific techniques that I wanted to try and vague ideas of where to place them, and through fumbling around in the dark was able to put all the pieces together and find moments for them to really take off. Had it not been for the input of those players, the music I wrote would sound vastly more closed off.
This also takes different forms when working with rock bands—a different, but related story. Players from this world improvise by nature, so balancing space and structure in a musical road map becomes even more important. You have to know exactly where you want to go in the big picture sense, while being open to how you get there with the details. In approaching how to work on my own record, for example, some things I tried included: bringing in a sketch of a melody or lead line and asking players to embellish, demoing a synth sound/part myself to establish a general direction and then having someone else work around or replace that, or literally just building in space for a band to jump on some sort of groove and build out an arrangement collaboratively. David Bottrill, who I co-produced my project with, also had some great tricks, my favorite of which was sitting on the floor and changing guitar pedal settings mid-performance to see if that sparked anything unexpected. It usually did.
In all instances the material you are working from has to be something that feels open-ended rather than resolved, as though it could “lead somewhere.” It’s a hard line to navigate: come in with nothing/too little and players won’t know what to do. Come in with too much, and they won’t have space to try anything and will get bored.
Ultimately—and here’s where we all say ‘kum ba yah’—it’s all about learning the art of being a great collaborator, checking your ego at the door, remaining open to unexpected ideas, and recognizing that all musical partnerships are opportunities for growth—sentiments that were missing from those early, rocky projects of mine. Partnerships between composers and musicians work best when both parties feel stretched and challenged, everyone is receptive to ideas but in control of their voice and what they want to say, no one should be pandering or selling their ideas or talents short, and the end result is something that’s been executed well that everyone feels pride in/ownership of. It’s often messy, and along the way there are conversations about whether you should be writing to please yourself or other people, how exactly you are supposed to get there, and when to push people and when not to, all of which require different answers project by project. The hard part is knowing which is which, what the players you are working with are capable of, and what you are capable of yourself.