(Performer-Composer) Collaboration: ten tips for improving your skills

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!

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11 Responses to (Performer-Composer) Collaboration: ten tips for improving your skills

  1. Alan Taylor says:

    Thanks for this Heather. As a composer frequently collaborating with performs, I agree with everything you say. I also find there is a line somewhere between collaboration and co-operation, and it seems to me to be about the division of labour – in co-operation, task are shared between people, but there is no hierarchy. In collaboration, tasks are shared – still no hierarchy. Taken literally, that makes it very hard to collaborate in composition – sharing writing the notes down? Hard to envisage. However, I have found myself working like an amanuensis, figuring out how to structure and notate a piece using the performers ideas – see my piece Muted and Changing Voices on my web site.

    Would be nice to talk more about these things some time. I’m based in London.

    • heatherroche says:

      One thing I’d love to see in terms of compositional collaboration is more people working together with specific skill sets. The obvious example would be those who are fluent with electronic music and those with instrumental: relatively rare that a composer is really skilled and musical with both… but finding the right partner would seem to be an impossible task!

      I look forward to having a peek at your work and thanks for your comments! If you’re ever in Cologne, do give me a shout!

  2. Paul Roe says:

    Thanks Heather enjoyed this. Delighted to hear that collaborative processes between performer and composer continue to be the subject of investigation. I did my PhD on this subject [A Phenomenology of Collaboration in Contemporary Performance & Composition] at U. of York graduating in 2008. Would be interested in reading your work as a fellow clarinettist. You can read a sample of mine at http://www.paulroe.org
    best wishes

    • heatherroche says:

      Hi Paul! I read your thesis a few years ago (had the library send me a copy) while I was working on mine! I should have got in touch then, but I found it really interesting and loved your approach.

      Thanks for reading and getting in touch :)

      • Paul Roe says:

        Thanks Heather
        Is your thesis available would be interesting to read? Your from Canada-I spent a wonderful few weeks there in the mid 90s. I recorded some chamber music in Banf and then had a lovely holiday driving to Vancouver etc
        keep in touch

      • heatherroche says:

        There’s a link to a download at the bottom of this post.
        Very nice drive – I’m from Victoria, perhaps you made it across to the island during your trip?

  3. I’m all for composers keeping diaries, no matter how brief – I find it an incredibly useful part of my daily practice now because it makes me so much more aware of my process – how I think, how I work – and builds up understanding of the things that contribute to problems like stalled pieces, procrastination and creative exhaustion – and how to dig myself out of those holes next time they happen. I usually track not only the work I did, but things I’ve been listening to, reading, places I’ve been, exciting or depressing news – it all contributes to how well or badly the work is going! Love your percentage approach too – I can see that that would be hugely helpful.

    • heatherroche says:

      Yeah, I love the diary approach. I think you’re spot on – perhaps important for performers as well, as sometimes I forget where the creativity of my own practice lies while I’m interpreting others’ creativity!!
      (Also this totally went to spam!!! Grrrr, wonder how many other comments did!)

  4. Alan Taylor says:

    Thanks for your reply Heather. I’ll certainly contact you if I’m in Cologne, but that is not very likely unfortunately. The main thing I find in working with performers is their (self?) limitation to engaging in more than technical terms (Will it work on their instrument. What else can the do with their instrument. Etc.) and a difficulty in engaging discussion of compositional concepts. Really limiting I find in most cases, but not surprising perhaps.

    Pail, thanks for the reference to your thesis, which I’ll look up.

  5. Pingback: …on writing air sounds for clarinets | heather roche

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