The Mutual Benefit Balance

I’m honored and excited to embark on a series of articles for NewMusicBox. For this first entry, I thought a lot about how I might be useful to its community of readers.  While contemplating topics, I returned over and over again to reflect upon satisfying artistic relationships I’ve had:  What made them work?  Are there general principles that can be applied to the process of collaboration? When and how does a professional relationship transcend the purely transactional? 

Many of my collaborations have been as a performer working with composers.  And it’s there that I’ll begin. 

rock balance

The best professional relationships, especially those based on communality and egalitarianism, have a natural equilibrium of mutual benefit.  I can say quite sincerely that my happiest collaborations have been at times where all of the parties involved not only understand those benefits, but also actually celebrate them.

What do I mean by “mutual benefit”?  Simply that each party in the relationship believes that the collaboration is producing something worthwhile to their own mission and body of work.  It does not require that the parties all be of the same stature or experience or that they accrue the same benefits, but only that all people involved feel that the benefits will be useful and desirable for them.

An early example from So Percussion’s career comes to mind:  when we were still graduate students at Yale, we approached David Lang about writing a percussion quartet for us.  We were young, inexperienced no-names.  Jason started cold-emailing every address he thought might find its way to David:  david@bangonacan.org, dlang@bangonacan.com etc.

We had a small amount of money—which we thought was a lot—thanks to a scholarship that had been awarded to one of the group members.  Other than that, we could offer very little:  David was a well-established composer with plenty of commissions and a flourishing arts organization.  The benefits to us of working with him were patently obvious:  new repertoire from a recognized name, possible concert and recording opportunities, and a higher profile for our group.

Luckily, we were brave and possibly naïve enough to believe that there might be something in it for him as well. (I consistently find that young students don’t possess the confidence to see what they might have to offer a more established artist in a working relationship.)

When we approached David, he told us,  “You only have enough money for me to write either a very short piece, or a very long one.”

In this case, David perceived—correctly—that we were talented and hungry, but also that we had nothing better to do than toil away for months in the basement if a well-known composer wrote us an epic piece.  The benefit we could offer him was the time and energy we were willing to invest in a unique and ambitious project.  Although the money we had would come nowhere close to compensating him for a “very long” piece in the financial sense, he believed we were positioned to help him meet artistic goals that mattered to him.

The work that he wrote was the so-called laws of nature, which requires the players to fabricate most of the instruments themselves out of wooden slats and metal pipes, rustle up precisely tuned flower pots at the hardware store, make tons of personal interpretive decisions, and then grind away for months rehearsing the layered counterpoint he wrote.

Because co-producing a successful piece with him meant so much to us, he felt empowered to make strenuous demands, which we were thrilled to accommodate.

What about finding the balance when both the composer and performer(s) are “young,” “emerging,” “early career,” or however you’d define it?  I’d like to be clear about one thing: first and foremost, what every artist needs is to be paid.  Art and music are incredibly time-consuming, and if we care about good work, artists need to have time to make it without going broke.

But…that’s not always an option, especially when we’re just getting started. In addition to—or in the absence of—money, what do artists need in a collaboration that others can offer them?

Young composers need committed, frequent performances!  Actually, all composers need this. Many of our first commissions for So Percussion were solicited from school friends, sealed with a handshake and a commitment to play their music numerous times. Some of those works, like Dennis DeSantis’s Shifty and Suzanne Farrin’s vibraphone duos, have since made their way into the larger percussion repertoire.

Achieving convincing performances of new work is rare and difficult for composers who are just starting out.  Often, they suffer a deficit compared to established composers not only because they haven’t built a reputation, but also because the well-known composers have access to high quality performances of their music.  For that reason, I believe the benefit of performers offering good performances of new works is completely different than promising “exposure,” that toxic word that gets thrown around to trick artists out of being compensated for their work.

For a composer, especially in the academic world, having a good recording and documentation of multiple performances of their work paves the way for future awards and commissions, entry to graduate programs, and many other things.  Of course, it also makes them better composers!  We as performers often forget how much time composers spend working without their primary medium, trying their best to imagine the music, synthesize it on midi, or bang it out on the piano.

These partnerships with composers are how So Percussion got started. We were furiously ambitious to make a career as a chamber group, but there was an incredibly small extant repertoire to draw from.  Making deals with our friends to generate new repertoire and seeking out other composers was what we needed to do to survive! We didn’t have Beethoven to fall back on, so we leapt headfirst.  There were few acknowledged old masterpieces to plop down after intermission in our concerts, while timidly squeezing a new work into the first half like a piece of “limp lettuce” (as the ever-colorful Joan Tower once described it to me).  We had to play new pieces as if they were old.  Which is to say, as if we needed them to be good in order for our work to matter.

The incredible thing is that sending composers the message that their work was essential to our existence drew stunning, visionary results out of many of them.  Whether there was commission money involved or not—there has been, as often as possible—our mutual benefit equilibrium was optimum.  We needed repertoire as badly as they needed others to be committed to their work.

What can composers do to proactively seek that optimum balance?  This is where the concept of usefulness may come into play.  I’m a huge fan of utopian dreaming in art, so I would never advise anybody to compromise their vision just to get their music played.  But if you’re able to achieve that vision and adhere to your values while also considering the needs and interests of the performers you work with and their role in bringing your ideas to life, it’s going to balance the mutual benefit scales in a way that turbo-charges their commitment to your music.  Simply conceiving the work in a Sibelius-addled vacuum and insisting it go the way you’ve imagined in your head leaves the performer in the extremely unsatisfying role of assembly line worker, with no room for their own ideas or insights in the process.

The process of creating new work together has many nuances to it.  My posts in the weeks ahead will delve into these details, illustrating the best approaches and techniques that I’ve come across.  Seeking equality and mutual benefit does not, for instance, mean that I believe everybody should have equal say in every artistic decision (unless that’s explicit).

Finally, I feel excited and compelled to write about this not because I believe I’ve discovered something on my own, but actually in order to articulate my perspective on a trend that has been sweeping across the new music world for quite a while.  The other artists who have influenced my thinking are too numerous to count, but I’ll do my best to acknowledge them along the way.

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Adam Sliwinski

Adam Sliwinski

Adam Sliwinski is a longtime member of the percussion quartet So Percussion. He has had the opportunity to work closely with many of today’s leading composers, including Steve Reich, Steve Mackey, David Lang, Terry Riley, and many others. In addition to his work with So, Sliwinski has premiered a number of works for solo percussion, and in recent years has added conducting and piano performance to his activities. He has premiered more than 20 works as a conductor with the International Contemporary Ensemble at Harvard, Columbia, and NYU, as well as Vijay Iyer’s Radhe Radhe in 2013, and Keeril Maken’s Afterglow on Mode Records. In 2013-2014, Sliwinski is premiering and recording Dan Trueman’s Nostalgic Synchronic etudes for digital prepared piano, a set of pieces that warp the possibilities of the keyboard through cutting edge technology.

Sliwinski is co-director of percussion studies at the Bard College Conservatory of Music, and runs the So Percussion Summer Institute with his colleagues on the campus of Princeton University every summer.

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