Intimacy in performer-composer relationships: the dynamics of collaborative space

OR Ramblings from a paper presented in Leeds (October 2010)

“Collaboration is like a love affair; it segues from admiration to anxiety, rejection to rage, desire to envy, powerlessness to misunderstanding, from not getting what you want but maybe coming nearer to knowing what you thought that might be.” (Clark 2006 p. 52)

As musicians and artists, collaborative practices are inherently important to us: we learn to collaborate instinctively, and we assume that we do it well. This paper, through exploring one possible conception of the collaborative process, aims to suggest that as performers and composers, critical self-reflection on our own creative and collaborative process is unequivocally beneficial to the productivity and enjoyment derived from such a partnership. It is the aim of this paper to suggest the possibility of a relationship founded on dialogue, and the trust and risk-taking possibilities that emerge from it: an ‘intimate’ collaboration that works and lives in the social world. It is not the aim of this paper to insist collaboration can only exist one way or in one ‘space’: in fact, collaboration has many faces. Here is presented one possibility; one that insists on connection, on a ‘shared voice,’ on social intimacy. Here is presented a possibility that reflects the value of conflict and the development of trust, and above all, the unending importance of dialogue between the composer and the interpreter.

When a composer has a deep interest in and a passion for the instruments he writes for, and when an interpreter as the parallel concern for stretching the possibilities of their own technique and their understanding of new music, composers and interpreters develop a dependant relationship. Driven to the next possibility, they need each other to reach it. Collaboration is essential to our growth as performers, as composers, as musicians. This is as true now, if not more so, as it has been in the history of the repertoire of each instrument. How many instrumentalists were educated with the history of the well-known collaborations practically told as bedtime stories? Certainly this is true for clarinettists; relating the stories of Brahms and Mühlfeld, Mozart and Stadler, and Spohr and Hermstedt is child’s-play. In today’s music market, ‘collaboration’ is a buzz-word for any musician wanting to market themselves appropriately. Indeed the published mission statement of every single contemporary music ensemble working in Europe makes reference to its practice of collaboration with living composers. The Ensemble Modern, for example, “…strives to achieve the highest degree of authenticity by working closely with the composers themselves.” And the Arditti Quartet “…believes that close collaboration with composers is vital to the process of interpreting modern music and therefore attempts to work with every composer it plays.” [1] Undeniably to collaborate is a skill that is both necessary and worth cultivating. It is one possible method for that cultivation that is explored throughout this paper; what is most important, however is the recognition that a critical attention to one’s collaborative practice is essential. We can be better collaborators.

As performers in a classical tradition we build instincts through education and experience, for creating and interpreting together. We, as players, “depend on a highly complex set of interpersonal skills in order to produce a unified performance.” (Davidson & Good 2002) What is necessary is the ability to communicate on a variety of different levels, including those verbal and gestural. In fact, as Davidson describes, often in instrumental rehearsal and performance – particularly within the scope of chamber music – it is through gesture alone that problems are solved. An ensemble develops a unique gestural language as they come to understand each other. Thus, the majority of problems of interpretation, articulation, dynamic and balance can be solved efficiently through the actual action of music making combined with physical gesture. But it is through verbal dialogue alone that the performer communicates with the composer.

Dependent on dialogue, the composer – performer relationship is dramatically different from that between performers. As a result, the skills required are equally different and require attention and care. Suggested here is the possibility of an ‘intimate’ collaboration: a term stolen from Alm (1997) and used to reflect both the emotional and social dimensions of collaboration within collaborative writing practices. Intimate collaboration is one founded on dialogue, intrinsic motivation and commitment to a long-term relationship. With an almost complete disregard for the realities of the music business (wherein too many artistic collaborations are contradictorily founded on financial and temporal concerns) the focus here is on a practice whereby the composer and performer are responsible for shared goals, committed to continuous dialogue and invested in a long term partnership; a unique synergy is thus created in the relationship between composer and performer.

“The way one world follows another, with the conversation taking its own twists and reaching its own conclusion, may well be conducted in some way, but the partners conversing are far less the leaders of it than the led. No one knows in advance what will ‘come out’ of a conversation.” (Gadamer 1990 p. 383)

One cannot predict the path of speech. A collaboration between two people cannot predict the path that might be taken if an exchange that is founded on dialogue might take. Talking – and a lot of it – is the bedrock from which an ‘intimate’ collaboration is built. It leads to the creation of a ‘shared voice,’ a unique blending of personalities, aesthetic preferences and the development of a common history. It develops in a space built for collaborating. It builds a relationship of trust, in which risks can be taken: collaborators can feel free to make suggestions that might otherwise come across as strange or unrealistic. The most successful creative partnerships are those in which the pair are ‘in sync’ with each other, “…finishing each other’s sentences, eliciting responses from one another, ‘talking in text’—all are evidence that collaborators are…participating in a synergistic relationship.” (Alm 1997 p. 132) ‘Talking in text,’ in terms of the composer-performer relationship, refers to the way that the composer and performer speak using cues taken from their own training in music, from their professional experience and from the development of their own personal relationship or from their understanding of the other’s work.

Important to remember is that ‘dialogue’ contains an exchange of information. Equally important to talking is the practice of really listening to your partner. One listens to gain understanding, to create a synthesis of ideas, to create the aforementioned ‘shared voice.’ “’Really talking’ requires careful listening; it implies a mutually shared agreement that together you are creating the optimum setting so that half-baked or emergent ideas can grow.” (ibid. 130) For the creative potential of the project to flourish, both partners of a collaboration must know that their ideas are heard and considered. This kind of intimacy in collaboration becomes like a line that connects the two artists and the work that they create. It creates an ‘interior text,’ one that is “…constantly evolving and changing even after the physical text is completed—or even if the physical text is never completed. An interior text expands, growing from a single idea or image to a complex network of related ideas and images.” (Harris 1994 p. 80) It is through dialogue, through a true exchange, that this line is created.

In addition, it is a contributed sense of playfulness that provides authentic dialogue with the necessary components that lead to a long-term and productive collaboration. Within the collaborative space, there should be a sense of the playful; herein mistakes can be made and laughed at: ‘talking in text’ as ‘laughing together’. Jenkins describes play as “the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving” (Jenkins 2006 pg. 4) and describes it as a key skill in our educational development. Playfulness, in fact, shifts power relationships; it enables experimentation with accepted modes of behaviour (Carrington and Hope 2007). Here in the collaborative space, we test our boundaries.

“In a musical culture that has understood the performer’s role primarily as mediator between composer/piece and audience, very little attention has been paid to the performer’s potentially significant mediation between composer and piece. When the latter interpretation of the role is brought into play early in the conception, the performer may take a vital, inventive stance in which ‘problems’ (musical ideas) are formulated and reformulated in tandem with their ‘solutions’. The composer-performer collaboration may thus become a site for the playing out of the dialogic aspects of artistic creation.” (Fitch and Heyde 2006 p. 72)

It is this regular dialogue, whether or not formalized in some way, which forms the basis for collaboration. It is necessary from the outset of any given collaboration to arrange for regular discussion; and by this it is meant regular discussion throughout the process of collaborating. It is the aim that these discussions should not simply result in a simplistic exchange of information such as techniques presented as a box-of-tricks to the composer. It should not be a process that ends where collaboration is just beginning: before the composer even puts pen to manuscript. Regular, almost ritualistic, discourse should continue until throughout the entire process. It is the aim that through a dialogue that not only engages with the instrument in question, but with the aesthetic and performative interests of the composer. Through this process one creates the collaborative space, one creates an intimacy in the collaboration, a ‘shared voice’.

Through dialogue comes trust: as a result of this trust, risks can be taken and mistakes can be made without fear. Trust has been developed when each collaborator feels the freedom to say anything. Composers and performers have experience in building trust that develops out of their relationships with their composition and instrumental teachers. In writing about the process of teaching composition (and whether this is even possible), Brian Ferneyhough writes, “This weekly or bi-weekly encounter furnishes a focus for continuing evaluation of progress as well as for establishing the special personal rapport which is the sine qua non for fruitful collaboration. The almost ritualistic regularity of these lessons forms a stable framework within which virtually anything at all may be discussed…” (Ferneyhough 2006 p. 31) Moran & John-Steiner echo the writing of Ferneyhough in their discussion of a “safe foundation” that provides the “emotional and intellectual scaffolding” required for the taking of risks within a collaboration (Moran and John-Steiner 2004) Undoubtedly, it is the trust developed between the two collaborators that results in material neither could have thought of alone. Solomon describes this as “…moving beyond Knowing What We Know to Knowing What We Do Not Know and then to learning What We Do Not Even Know That We Do Not Know.” (Solomon 2002 p. 50)

It is also clear, that as one develops a “ritualistic regularity” to dialogue, one must also strive to have a close respect for the continuous learning process of one’s colleague. The two collaborators must accept the gaps in their own knowledge, those in their partner, and their mutual ability to fill those and increase each other’s knowledge. “We learn something, we build connections to this knowledge. We continue to learn by a process of continuous relation to that first thing and to each other (Ranciere 1991)”.

It should be noted, that, on a practical level, for the performer this often means understanding the difference between “It’s impossible” and “I can’t do it (yet)”. It is an important distinction. But it is worth highlighting that Carlos Salzedo in what is one of the earliest examples of an ‘extended’ technique guide for an instrument, “There is nothing difficult. There are only NEW things, unaccustomed things.” (Salzedo 1921 p. 6)

All too often, collaboration between the performer and composer is an enforced relationship, and its success is hindered by a lack of intrinsic motivation. For students, the dealings between performers and composers are an all too often fit within this category, one that is essentially set up for failure. Fabrice Fitch and Neil Heyde, in their 2007 article exploring artistic collaborations between composers and performers explain that a recent attempt to create collaborative relationships at the Royal Academy of Music was disbanded within a year. The composers expressed a “serious discomfort at the ‘intrusion’ of the performer into their creative space,” the presence of the performer dissuading the performer “from exerting his own necessary construction of ‘authority’.” (Fitch and Heyde 2004 p. 18) Fitch & Heyde suggest that in student-led collaborations, there exists the problem of a lack of model. Students had no base of knowledge to support the development of this kind of relationship.

In addition, one also finds in the above example the aforementioned lack of self-induced inspiration: Conflict, Moran & John-Steiner write, is lessened when the collaboration is intrinsically motivated. Herein, partners share a “sense of purpose” rather than through individual aspirations to achieving wealth or recognition. Intrinsic motivation aids in dealing with conflict, when the “control of the project [comes] from the integrity of the project itself.” (Moran and John-Steiner 2004 p. 18) In fact, they go on to explain that enough intrinsic motivation will co-operate with the extrinsic; shared passion will prevent outside pressures from damaging the relationship and the creative process.

None of this to say that the ‘final product’ lacks importance, or isn’t something one shouldn’t ultimately be professional about. The very opposite is in fact true. What’s critical in this scenario is that the project itself inspires the collaboration; from this, the composer-performer team create goals for the project together. The ‘shared voice’ is actually a shared understanding, of where the project should go and how it should progress. Like the chamber musicians who communicate through gesture and a mutual understanding based on action, we communicate through dialogue: we express our aesthetic interests, our technical knowledge; we share our sense of humour and the elements of our daily lives; and we try to be as practical and responsible as possible, by communicating our goals and wishes for the project and making decisions about deadlines together. While it is extensive dialogue between performer and composer that creates, without shared goals one discovers very quickly how conflict and disappointment can enter into the collaborative space.

Back-pedalling slightly, it should be stated that conflict within the collaborative space does not always bear negative consequences. In fact, conflict is exceedingly important in collaborative relationships and is in fact “…at least as important as consensus in the process of knowledge creation.” (Saltern and Hearn 2001 p. 556) The difference is thus between types of conflict; when conflict benefits the collaboration it is termed communal (Wheaton 1974 p 328-48); when the means of the collaboration (the aforementioned mutual goals, for example) have been determined, the collaboration can thus accept conflict into the aesthetic and technical areas of its space. Moran & John-Steiner write that an overemphasis on consensus stifles creativity, and that collaborators should work “on an effective synthesis of multiple perspectives.” (Moran and John-Steiner 2004 p 12) Again, here, the playful approach advocated above is useful in adoption: easing the negative effects of conflict and celebrating its benefits.

“I have always felt myself extremely lucky to have encountered a number of performers who were not only extremely proficient on their instrument, but also powerful individuals not afraid of engaging intellectually and spiritually with the object of their labours.”

-Ferneyhough (Heaton 2006)

Unfortunately, one kind of conflict many performers encounter does not occur within any kind of collaborative space but is a direct negation of collaboration itself. Just as the performer must understand the difference between “It’s impossible” and “I can’t do it (yet)” the composer must retain some kind flexibility when writing for a specific performer. The no-that’s-what-I-wanted-and-I’m-not-going-to-change-it approach only results in frustration for the performer and in most cases, making changes without the knowledge of the composer.

Are there any conclusions to be made from this course of research? There are no certainly no guarantees: no expectations can be had of a collaborative process; there are an infinite number of variables. So can a model really be devised for ‘intimate’ collaboration? Can one really find an ideal ‘collaborative space’? Perhaps not. But we can, as performers and composers, continue to grow and develop our practice by asking questions of how we collaborate. We can continue to strive for a dialogue-based model that is founded on trust and respect, where goals are shared and conflict is in the realm of the communal.

[1] The Ensemble Modern ( and Arditti Quartet ( do provide concrete examples, however, they are not alone in this. Other ensembles across the globe claim the same emphasis on collaborative practices. Further examples include:

musikFabrik (

“It is never just a question of interpretation, but of taking new paths of development. The Cologne-based soloist ensemble has built up a close collaboration with prominent conductors and composers.”

ensemble intercontemporain (

“Under the artistic direction of Susanna Mälkki, the musicians work in close collaboration with composers, exploring instrumental techniques and developing projects that interweave music, dance, theater, film, video and visual arts.”


“The ensemble has a reputation for delivering authoritative interpretations of complex, unusual and challenging aesthetics often developed in close collaboration with the composer.”


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Clarke K. in Fernie, J. (2006) Two Minds: Artists and Architects in Collaboration. London: Black Dog Publishing

Davidson, J. W. (2004) Music as Social Behavior in Clarke E., Cooke, N. Empirical Musicology: Aims, Methods, Prospects. New York: Oxford University Press

Fitch, F., Heide, N. (2007) ‘Recercar’ – The Collaborative Process as Invention. Twentieth-Century Music. 4(1) 71-95

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Jenkins, H. (2006) ‘Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century’ 4

Moran, S. & John-Steiner, V. (2004) ‘How collaboration in creative work impacts identity and motivation’ in D. Miell and K. Littleton (eds.), Collaborative Creativity: Contemporary Perspectives London: Free Association Books

Ranciere, J. (1991) The Ignorant Schoolmaster. Stanford: Stanford University Press

Saltern & Hearn qtd. E. Creamer (2001) Working Equal: Academic Couples as Collaborators. New York: Routledge

Salzedo, C. (1921) Modern Study of the Harp. Milwaukee: Schirmer

Solomon, R.C. (2001) Building trust in business, politics, relationships and life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wheaton, B. (1974) Interpersonal Conflict and Cohesiveness in Dyadic Relationships. Sociometry 37(3) 328-348

2 Responses to Research

  1. kamal sabran says:

    this is a good research! good luck


  2. Goaxgoonien says:

    I highly enjoyed reading this post, keep on posting such exciting articles!!

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