Composer-composer-performer: Risk-taking in Collaboration and Composition

This is the first in a series of posts I’ll be writing over the next couple of months, documenting the process in a three-way collaboration between two composers (Mic Spencer and Scott McLaughlin) and one performer (me!). Working simultaneously with two composers provides a unique opportunity to reassess my own views of collaborative practices, and hopefully provides an opportunity to make some general and useful comments about how collaboration works. This project is generously funded by an Ignite grant from the CCI (Creative and Cultural Industries Exchange) at the University of Leeds and more about the project in general can be found here, where Scott and Mic are hosting their own blog. 

We’ve also got a 10 minute video of the workshop, beautifully shot and edited by Angela Guyton, in which there’s a lot of (hopefully) useful discussion of the specifics of working with multiphonics — composers and clarinetists alike may find this video helpful.

In our workshop, Mic joked, in front of the students, that it might be helpful for them to see their teachers make mistakes. Scott chimed in, “if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not learning.”
It isn’t making mistakes that is the important thing, of course. It’s the risk taking that may or may not lead to these mistakes. Finding situations for yourself where you have to take risks, this is the space where learning takes place, and one of the challenges of our current project.

As a performer of new music, and a reasonably adventurous one, it is not difficult to find these opportunities. Working with new composers, in different styles, in different contexts (ensembles, solos, theatre, etc.); these challenges seem to present themselves naturally.

For composers, I suspect it’s more difficult. As Scott and Mic spoke of in the workshop, it’s very easy to fall into normative patterns of composition. You have your process, methods by which you generate rhythmic and pitch material, orchestrate for different instruments, experiment with extended techniques, etc. As a student, your teachers are there to help you challenge your ways of working, to help you find a style. It used to drive me crazy that the composers I work with as students seemed to need to reinvent themselves for each new piece. This is of course, required for the development of the composer. Deciding on a method, following it through in writing a piece, testing it with live performers, analysing the performance and its perceived success or failure, and making a reassessment for the future.

But how can you challenge your process later in your career, once you’ve created habits and good practice?

This project, the attempted symbiosis of two different composerly minds through collaboration, is the challenge. The question then, is, will this project fracture the normative practices of these two composers? And will those fractures find their way into Scott and Mic’s work after this piece has been finished, when they return to composing as individuals?

I suspect the answers are yes, and yes.

Even in our first workshop together, they were able to point out specific ways in which one had influenced the other. As a first experiment, the idea seemed relatively simple. Mic provided the rhythmic structure, and Scott the pitch material (made up almost exclusively of multiphonics). So in this case, Mic’s complicated rhythmic structures were foiled by the transitioning multiphonics that Scott lay over them, for example.

But I think the change goes deeper than this. In order to cope with a kind of material Scott has not encountered in his own work (namely, rhythms), he was, as he said, “forced into a corner from which I was expected to fight my way out.” By which he meant he was presented with material wholly foreign to him, from which he needed to find creative solutions for his own musical material. So that, when using the multiphonics he loves, and which are used extensively in his own work, he needed to do things he hadn’t done before.

Thus, many of the multiphonics were articulated in various ways: fluttertongue, bisbigliandi, smorzato, having different parts of the multiphonic speak at different times, as well as tenuto and marcato markings.

In order to satisfy the conditions of the creative challenge Mic proposed to him, Scott had to take all kinds of risks with the material that he wanted to use. The “mistakes,” such as they were, are unimportant. They amount to, for example, a multiphonic that breaks when fluttertongue is added, or a bisbigliando that doesn’t work because the pitches of the multiphonic change too wildly.

These “mistakes,” such as they were, are the things I am there to assist with. One of my collaborative roles is actually to suggest other ways in which Mic and Scott might solve their own creative problems while working with the clarinet. To suggest ways in which they might take their relationship with my instrument even further. (In the above example of articulated multiphonics, he hadn’t considered using slap tongue, for example.)

But as I wrote, the mistakes are not important. It is the risk taking, a result of the creative obstacles these two composers will continue to place in front of each other over the course of their collaboration, which will radically – I hope – alter the way in which they conceive of their own practices.

The question remains as to what challenges our collaboration will inflict upon me, and I look forward with anticipation to the answer.

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3 Responses to Composer-composer-performer: Risk-taking in Collaboration and Composition

  1. Pingback: videos for Scott Mc Laughlin | Angela Guyton

  2. Pingback: Heather Roche – Composer, composer-performer – Risk-taking in Collaboration and Composition | I Write The Music

  3. Pingback: Index / TOC (scroll down for recent blogposts) | heather roche

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