Good musical collaboration is a trait that most composers find helpful on a regular basis when working with performers and conductors. The ability to be able to navigate through the minefield of various personalities can not only protect oneself politically but also actually strengthen the bond between composer and performers and ultimately result in a stronger composition and performance. When it comes to full-blown artistic collaboration with someone who is not a musician, however, life can get very interesting very quickly. With quite a lot of various and sundry collaborative experiences notched in my belt, I’ll admit that “How has working with collaborators affected your musical creativity?” seemed to be a “gimme” type of question to ask my interviewees, allowing for a wide array of directions with which the composer could take the discussion. I was in for a bit of a surprise.
There were a handful of composers who had extensive experience creating new works with collaborators. Because of the nature of the art forms that composers can collaborate with, the experience is not the same across the board. Working with a choreographer puts the composer’s work very early in the overall timeline of the project, while a narrative filmmaker may not be able to add music until the very last. Whichever the collaborative art, all of these endeavors somehow force composers to step out of their comfort zones, adjust their own process, and deal with the specter of relegating some of the creative power over their music to someone else. While this situation can ultimately create a work of art that any one person would not have been able to invent, it can also be extremely disconcerting for composers who are used to exercising complete control on their music.
It turns out, however, that a large portion of the composers with whom I’ve had the luck to sit down with so far have had relatively little experience working with collaborators (choreographers, poets, filmmakers, theatrical directors, etc.) and a couple were just recently dipping their toes into the collaboration pool (if you can call writing operas for major companies around the country “dipping a toe”). For the ones who had not yet collaborated in such a way, I don’t remember anyone saying it was because a desire not to collaborate, but rather they simply had not had the opportunity. And practically everyone said that they wanted to collaborate more. Ballet, film scores, theatre incidental music, opera—all of these have a siren call that many composers ultimately follow.
Have you had good or bad experiences collaborating? How was your music different?