Archive for October, 2012

In a sense, all artistic creation is collaborative. There is the idea left over from the Romantic era that artists create alone, wrestling with their imagination in private so to speak. A more modern view would be that all creative activity is dialogic – carried out in dialogue with, and in an awareness of, previous artistic creation. The term ‘dialogic’ comes from the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, writing in the 1920s.

As well as this dialogue with other art, I would argue that artists are always working in dialogue with their own background and previous artistic creation, and in dialogue with their generaL environment. The idea that the artist ‘creates alone’ is an illusion.

However, this view of interpretation of artistic creative activity, which defines all of it as collaborative in this broad sense, is of limited value in the study of collaboration. It will be more fruitful to define collaboration in terms of the nature of the interaction with others as part of the creative process, rather than in terms of this dialogic process which all artists are said to follow.

I suggest that, when questions are asked about the way composers work with others in writing their pieces, there may be limitations to the extent which composers can collaborate, though there may be ways in which these can be overcome.

First, a definition of collaboration – that the people involved in the process have to be open to what they doing changing as a result of the process of working together. The composer has to accept that the music they write is likely to be different from the music they would have written if they have not been collaborating in its creation.

Collaboration should be seen as distinct from the co-operation normal between composers and performers, for instance. A standard view of the process of writing a piece of music might be that the composer is asked to write by particular performers, that they either know about these performers or find out more about them, that they then go away and write the music, and that they they may possibly work with the performers in developing a performance of the music.

I would define all this joint working as co-operative rather than collaborative. The composer will certainly take account of the players in the process of writing, and will write for the forces available, but there will be no process of interaction leading to different music being written. The composer composes. The players play. They co-operate to achieve a performance, but they do not collaborate in the process of artistic creation.

There are many ways in which a composer can collaborate with others in the process of writing a piece which go beyond just co-operating in carrying our separate tasks towards the shared objective of a performance. I’ve explored a number of them so far as part of my research. They include:

– detailed workshopping of initial ideas and drafts for the piece with the performers prior to its completion, resulting in many changes to the detail of the music.
-lengthy discussions prior to starting to write, including discussion of how the music might sound, in order to develop a joint view of the character of the new piece, which will be different from that which the composer would have developed alone.
– inviting the performers to put forward ideas for the piece, and then seeking as the composer to find a way of using them. In this case the composer acts as an editor, selecting from amongst ideas put forward by their collaborators rather than developing the initial ideas themselves.
– working with other artists where the outcome aimed for involves more than one field of art, e.g. working with choreographers or in music theatre. In these cases, the development of an explicit or intuitive mutual understanding would be crucial prior to starting to create.

However, in all of these there is a potential barrier. In literary arts the communication between collaborators can take place in the same medium as the art is created, words. In the case of many other arts, potential collaborators will have a good sense of what it might mean to be in the position of their collaborators. For instance, choreographers commonly create their dance through a process of collaborating with their dancers, inventing the dance ‘on’ the dancers. They also work closely with designers, bringing the costume and stage design process into that of the overall process of artistic invention. Both costume/stage design and dance are essentially visual dramatic arts, so discussion between the collaborators in feasible.

Composers face a barrier, in the form of the technical nature of notation and the slow speed at which it can be created. It is not practical to sit with a collaborator and to compose with their input. A composer could sit and watch a piece of dance being developed and, as long as the choreographer was open to this, comment on its development and potentially affect its final form. The choreographer is not able to sit with the composer and watch the slow process of notating the music and to have an input. While they could comment on an initial verbal description of how the music might sound, they could not have an input into the process of turning this into notated music.

A physical action, in dance, is a language open to discussion because everyone can envisage making the movements themselves, even if they are not trained in making them. Notated music represents a barrier to collaboration due to the lack of shared understanding of how it works as well as the slowness of the process of writing it. Even musical performers find this a barrier. While they will understand the notation and be able to comment, they are not in a position to participate at the moment of its creation, and also commonly find it difficult to envisage the way in which a composer imagines a piece and works it out.

It may therefore be that composers are limited to forms of hierarchical collaboration. They may be the lead artist, accepting input from others but remaining in charge of the process. Or they may be working with someone else who leads such as a choreographer, and may have the role of creating music to go with the choreography developed. It may be that the nature of the compositional art bars them from more immersive forms of collaboration, where there is a truer sense of sharing of the process of artistic creation.

The aim of my research in this area – for a composition PhD based at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London – is to investigate this limitation to collaboration as a composer, and to seek ways of going beyond it.


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