It’s one of those things that doesn’t occur to you until it does: For a bunch of musicians, my musician friends and I don’t often make music together. Maybe it’s a symptom of the academic specialization I noted last week; when we think of collaboration, it’s typically in a cross-disciplinary context. But a few opportunities for collaboration among composers (rather than between composers and choreographers or sculptors or whatever) in my circle are beginning to coalesce, and it’s a development that I find very exciting.
At first blush, though, collaborating with other composers seems like a recipe for dissatisfaction: Even if the end result is something that everyone involved can be proud of—which is by no means guaranteed!—the institutions that promote and reward music-making are set up with the expectation that an integral work of music will be the product of a singular creative will and, accordingly, have a single author. Whether or not one buys into the very notion of a “singular creative will” (I don’t), the assumption that a piece has one (1) composer and depends on some number of performers for its interpretation and execution is deeply embedded and unlikely to be pried out soon. That’s not to say there aren’t precedents; the remix, the creative transcription, the paraphrase, and the exquisite corpse come immediately to mind. But none of these models ordinarily bring two or more composers together at the same time to work on a piece. That’s a strategy that the “new music system,” such as it is, doesn’t accommodate well.
Nevertheless, I suspect that collaborative composition might indeed produce compelling, authentic results if only because of its analogy to what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello identify in The New Spirit of Capitalism as the dominant mode of work in this era: the project. At a time when labor (at least in the West) is done mostly through flexible, fluid constellations of workers who must reckon with the encroachment of business obligations on their leisure time and content themselves with little long-term security, workers who are essentially rented by their employers rather than dealt with as commensurate entities, we might get at something more honest about culture and society by approaching the production of concert music in that way rather than in the manner of solitary cobblers in wattle-and-daub cottages. And it might also be fun.