View From the West: Swing Your Partner Round and Round—Why Not Collaborate?



Dean Suzuki
Photo by Ryan Suzuki

A while back I wrote a column emphasizing the importance of musicians and especially composers being aware of artists in other fields and even being a part of a larger integrated arts community. Knowledge is one thing, and a very good thing it is, but some composers and likely more composers should take the next step and collaborate with their colleagues. And by collaborating, I mean much more than simply accepting a commission for a dance score, installation, or film sound track and writing music according to the demands of the choreographer, artist, or director. Of course not all choreographers, artists or filmmakers will want input from the composer. On the other hand, there are plenty of examples of composers working hand in hand with other artists and the final piece is the result of discussions, brain storming sessions, consultation, and other forms of give and take.

The results, if truly collaborative, will be a work which none of the parties would have created of their own accord. The composer’s contribution will undoubtedly bear imprint of the collaborative effort, taking the composer into an area he or she might not have entered were it not for working with the other artists.

Erik Satie was part of a rich and dynamic cultural milieu that had tremendous breadth and depth, including composers, painters, choreographers, photographers, writers, and other artists, among them neo-Classicists, Dadaists, Cubists, Impressionists, post-Impressionists, and others. Satie collaborated with artists on several works, but none more important than Relâche described as a Dada spectacle. The scenario was created by Dadaist Francis Picabia and the choreography was by Jean Börlin. Within Relâche is a most important collaborative piece: Entr’acte cinématographique, also known as Cinéma, a film by René Clair. With a score by Satie (it was not intended to synch up with the action on screen), the absurdist film includes Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Satie, and Börlin. Satie also worked with Picasso, along with Jean Cocteau in the ballet Parade. With these collaborations in mind, it is difficult to imagine Satie’s work without the influence of Dada and Cubism, though one would hardly describe Sate as either a Dadaist or Cubist composer.

Of course, John Cage organized the ground-breaking inter-media event at Black Mountain College in 1952 which included Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, M. C. Richards, Charles Olson, and David Tudor, the forerunner of the “Happenings,” Fluxconcerts, and Performance Art. It was not until 1958 that Allan Kaprow mounted the first so-called Happening. Shortly thereafter, artists such as Claes Oldenburg, Jim Dine, and others engaged in the staging of Happenings. Cage had a direct hand in the birthing of Fluxus and Performance Art is clearly in the lineage and under the inspiration of Cage’s event at Black Mountain.

Perhaps the contemporary composer who has done the most collaborative work is Philip Glass. His partners have included both commercial and experimental filmmakers, theater artists, sculptors, librettists, poets, even other musicians and composers. His best known collaborative works are probably the ground-breaking opera Einstein on the Beach and the films of the Qatsi trilogy, but especially the first, Koyaanisqatsi, which presented the composer to his largest audience up to that time.

The Qatsi trilogy offered an opportunity for true collaboration in which the various parties involved in the creation of the work were near equal partners. Director Reggio consulted extensively with Glass regarding the shape of the films and their content. Indeed, Glass is credited as “dramaturgical consultant” in the last two films of the trilogy in addition to his credit as composer. In an effort to create a unified vision for the film, it was decided that some of the music would be composed prior to the filming. Additionally, Glass often traveled to the locations where Powwaqatsi was shot, often with Reggio, in order that he might develop a sense of the culture and place. Thus, for the opening sequence of Powwaqqatsi, Glass wrote the music first and the cinematographer listened to the music on a personal stereo as he shot the film. This unusual situation profoundly affected the way that Glass composed for the films and the type of music he came up with. Rather than adapting music to the film, the music helped steer the film. This is a far cry from the traditional role of the film score composer who submits to the demands, needs, and even whims of the director.

The scenario for Einstein on the Beach was decided upon during sessions between the two primary creators: Glass and Robert Wilson. The main character emerged after a series of suggestions offered up by each artist. Early in the process, Wilson suggested Adolf Hitler and Glass countered with Mahatma Gandhi. Each rejected the other’s suggestion. Later, Wilson offered up Charlie Chaplin, then Albert Einstein who was agreed upon as the main character. Later, the two artists eventually agreed upon the various acts and scenes. Glass wanted to include a science fiction component, hence the “Spaceship” scenes. While some aspects of the scenario were created by Wilson alone, it is very clear that Einstein is the product of a joint vision.

The point is not so much that Glass made contributions beyond his role as a composer, rather his non-musical contributions informed what it was that he did as a composer.

Paul Dresher established his career through collaborative works with experimental theater artist George Coates whose non-narrative, non-linear works were the results of teamwork and collaboration. Dresher was not only the composer, but also drafted as an on-stage performer and actor.

Dresher eventually struck out on his own and established himself as a composer of music theater pieces. Not only did his collaborations with Coates open his eyes to the possibilities of the theater, especially experimental, non-linear theater, Dresher continued to work with others to help realize his vision. After leaving Coates, he continued to work with theater artists, including many works with vocalist/writer Rinde Eckert who also worked in Coates’ theater company. Dresher is honest enough to admit that his area of strength is as a composer and not a playwright or theater artist, and has actively sought out collaborators to help realize his vision. His operas Slow Fire, Power Failure, and Awed Behavior all feature librettos by Eckert. Dresher and Eckert worked closely in the development of these operas. Once a topic, subject, or governing idea is established, Dresher continues to participate in the creative process, offering feedback, suggestions and ideas that help form and complete the text. The team of Dresher and Eckert was expanded to include Terry Allen and Jo Harvey Allen in Pioneer. Eckert and the Allens wrote the libretto, Terry Allen created the set design and Jo Harvey Allen performed the lead female role, all in close consultation with the composer. Dresher’s Sound Stage, discussed in a recent column, not only features text by Eckert, but instruments designed by Dresher and instrument builder Daniel Schmidt who has also built instruments for John Cage and John Adams. Additionally, Dresher has worked closely with the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company for many years creating numerous scores for them. None of these works could have been realized without Dresher’s collaborators, yet all are representative of Dresher’s artistic aesthetic, even apart from the music.

Very recently, San Francisco based composer Victoria Jordanova collaborated with Relja Penezic, a visual and video artist, who also happens to be Jordanova’s husband, on Panopticon. The work, based on Jeremy Bentham‘s pioneering work on surveillance techniques, explores the concept, philosophy, and reality of surveillance and Big Brother through music, video, and live interactive video, including video “surveillance” of the audience and the performers. The piece garnered a positive review in the Los Angeles Times which states: “[Panopticon] deliriously blended music by Jordanova (also playing harp and harmonica) with mosaic like video by Rey Penezic . . . [The] video’s sardonic charm, satirically spinning off the post-Orwellian better living through surveillance theme . . . Jordanova’s score kept our interest, with its rueful, aloof rewiring of folk influences.” It is not likely that Jordanova would have realized the work with all of the video technology that the piece requires were it not for Penezic’s skills and artistic vision.

For those not plugged into a larger art scene, another option is to collaborate with other composers. While this may not appeal to many composers, it is not without precedent. John Cage, Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell, and Virgil Thompson played a kind of musical game that resulted in compositions known as the Party Pieces written between 1944 and 1945. In various combinations, the composers would each write one measure of music plus two notes. The manuscript paper was folded such that only the last two notes were revealed and the next composer would use them as a springboard for the next bar and two notes. Better known is Double Music for which Cage and Harrison each wrote two parts for the four performers. After agreeing upon fundamental compositional procedures and the lengths of the various sections, the two composers worked independent of one another. The composers regarded the results as successful. The four parts were layered together and not a note was changed. Harrison states: “By that time I knew perfectly well what John would be doing, or what his worm was likely to be. So I accommodated him. And I think he did the same to me, too, because it came out very well.” [Leta E. Miller and Fredric Lieberman, Lou Harrison: Composing a World [New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 19.]

Philip Glass worked jointly with composer John Moran on the opera, The Juniper Tree along with librettist Arthur Yorinks. The work was created with all three working together in Nova Scotia. Unlike the Cage and Harrison collaborations, Glass and Moran each composed complete scenes independently, though they discussed their music with each other as they composed. Ultimately, Moran used a theme composed by Glass for one of the scenes as the basis for a set of variations to be used in another scene. Other musical collaborators who have worked with Glass include Ravi Shankar, Foday Musa Suso, and Aphex Twin, among others.

Harold Budd embarked on a path leading to numerous collaborations when he began working with Brian Eno. Initially, Eno offered to produce an album. Later, the two collaborated on a recording, The Plateaux of Mirror. While Budd composed all of the keyboard works, he regards the final product as a true and complete collaboration. After composing the music, Budd entered the studio and played. Tapes were then sent to Eno who then applied “studio treatments” which often dramatically transformed the texture and tenor of the work, creating textures, timbres, and atmospheres that were simpatico, yet for Budd, unexpected and eye opening. The results were quite unlike what either Eno or Budd would have arrived at alone. As a result of this collaboration, as well as a second on the album The Pearl, Budd has continued to explore the use of the studio as a compositional tool.

Subsequent collaborators with Budd include Daniel Lentz, Ruben Garcia, and numerous rock and pop musicians including the Cocteau Twins, Bill Nelson (ex-Be Bop Deluxe and Red Noise), Andy Partridge (XTC), Daniel Lanois, and Hector Zazou, among others. While Budd concedes that his musical collaborators must adapt more to his musical language than he to theirs, he also recognizes and takes great satisfaction in the knowledge that these collaborations lead to a music that he would never have created on his own.

Of course there are many other examples of composers collaborating with other artists and composers. That being said, it is a path that many more composers might want to consider following. As has been the case with the composers discussed herein, many may discover that new possibilities, doors, and vistas will open up to them that they would not have encountered or considered were it not for the collaborative work.

Collaborations, whether with artists working in different disciplines or with other composers, may not be suitable, practical, or practicable for many composers. Collaborating with other composers can be especially problematic, as the arts are so very personal and so much ego investment is required that it may be too much to ask that the composers set aside their egos in service of the creation of new work. For others, however, collaboration may prove to be stimulating—eye and door opening, leading to exciting new ideas and possibilities.