I finished my PhD last year and wrote rather a lot about the finer points of dialogue in collaborative relationships between performers and composers. Not so long ago, Lauren Redhead wrote an excellent post on her own blog discussing some of her own collaborative experiences and also referenced a few key points of my own research.
I wanted to contribute some of my own thoughts on the matter in as practical a way as possible, based on the research I conducted and the things I read (in the fields of social theory, collaborative creative writing, dance, music, visual arts, etc.) throughout my PhD. While my last post on the subject focused on things that composers can do (or shouldn’t do) in a purely professional sense, I wanted this time to look at relationships that set out to be collaborative. A Utopian view of what the new music scene could be like, perhaps, but I’ve had just enough experience to know that composer-performer collaboration can work and can work well, and there are skills here that we can develop.
(That said, sometimes collaborating just doesn’t work. People want different things out of it, and the magic just isn’t there. It fizzles. But, I really believe that collaborating is something we can all practise and get better at… so if just thinking about how you do it for 10 minutes today helps you… hurrah!)
The question this post asks is, what can you do as a performer or composer to make yourself a better collaborator?
So here follows my top 10 tips for improving your collaborative skills:
1. Keep a diary. This helps to build self-awareness. It doesn’t need to be long: the date, what you worked through, if it inspired any thoughts about other aspects of the instrument/the piece. When you read back months from now, you’ll have a way to track your own collaborative process. I’ve had a few “Wait, I was already thinking about that in 2010?” or “It’s like I wasn’t even listening to him at all.” moments, all of which have been really useful for my own personal growth. Enjoy the ‘sense of purpose’ that can emerge from seeing your collaborative practice as a whole.
2. Learn how to be a good listener. If you’re a performer, learn how to listen for what really interests the composer and focus on these things (an easy way to prevent the “box of tricks” style pieces that I enjoy less and less). Allow for long pauses in conversation, especially if you’re the performer. Sometimes a composer needs a little space to think about what you’ve just shown them and to refine their idea of the technique or passage in order to ask the next question. Don’t rush forward onto the next thing. Don’t feel you have to demonstrate everything.
3. Show an interest in your collaborator’s life and other interests. ‘Off-task’ discussion helps to build trust. It creates an environment in which anything can be discussed. You want your collaborator to be able to share half-baked, emergent ideas, and for this a trusting environment is rather useful for that. And, believe it or not, but sharing the details of the crazy thing your cat did that morning actually helps to build trust. Unless your collaborator is deeply afraid of cats.
4. Acknowledge that there is a difference between collaboration and co-operation (or commission, as Lauren pointed out), but also be aware that sometimes co-operative interactions can act as a springboard to something deeper.
5. Start the collaboration early and try to build long-term collaborative partnerships. Working with composers on multiple works, becoming familiar with their oeuvre as a whole and hearing “that’s a good idea, but let’s save it for the next piece I write with you in mind,” are some of the great joys of this kind of collaboration.
6. Arrange for long sessions. Get distracted and take coffee breaks. Record things, make videos, notate multiphonics. Make the visual foreignness of your instrument less visually foreign to the composer. Even playing a chromatic/microtonal scale on a clarinet, slowly, is sometimes enough to bring enlightenment.
7. Honesty important and should be encouraged. The word “impossible” should be banned. I like using percentages. “Sixty percent of the time this will work in performance,” is a nice way to assess risk and an easy way to help composers decide if the risk is working taking for them. (But anyway, take risks!) I hate having to tell composers “you can’t write ‘this’ kind of piece for me,” but there are certain things I don’t like anymore: pieces that cause me physical pain. Being honest about that is hard, but when I enjoy playing the work, it gets played more often. Full stop.
8. Playfulness is worth encouraging! Humour is good too. Play helps you to test boundaries, experiment with accepted modes of behaviour. It helps to shift power relationships. It breaks down inherent hierarchies in the established composer-performer modes of operation.
9. Do not absolve yourself of responsibility at any point during the collaborative process. For performers, this means being consistent about answering questions (and in my experience means being available to make recordings of small sections or little experimental effects); for composers this means remaining available and supportive during the learning process.
10. Don’t be afraid of conflict. Don’t be afraid of being proved wrong. In this kind of artistic space, problems don’t exist to be ‘solved,’ necessarily, but to be ‘interpreted’.
Well there you have it. Ten top tips for better collaboration. As for my thesis, you can download the whole thing here, but why read 150 pages of case studies and academic references when you can read one blog post and get on with the business of collaborating!
Think I’ve missed something? Leave a comment!