Collaboration. It’s something we all do. In fact I can’t think of a single project I’ve been involved in which doesn’t include collaboration in some form, and many that succeed or fail based on the quality of the collaboration. Wether it’s the musicians you play with on a regular basis, or a one-off project with an artist/sculptor/poet etc. Collaboration is the common denominator – the interaction with other creatives (…and the audience, but that’s another article…).
With that being said, it’s a quality that seems to have fallen into the category of something that is just learned ‘on the job’. Something that you ‘just get better at’.
Now, as an educator, that is frustrating at best and infuriating at worst. Looking back on my PhD, which focussed on working and writing for improvisers, it’s another chapter which didn’t get written but should have. When working with an improvising musician there is an interface, a meeting point between the two involved. As I charted my successes and failures in negotiating this meeting point, I was lucky to have a role model in the form of Peter Wiegold to compare myself against. How did he get the band sounding so good so quickly with so little material, and how did he manage to inject his sound so strongly each time? At the time I saw him do this on a weekly basis and, in the same manner as an apprentice to one of the old painting masters of old, occasionally I’d get a chance with the brush. Even if it was just to fill in a corner or flower or two.
A colleague of mine, Andrew Melvin, actually wrote a moment by moment account of Peter working with a group of musicians. Just to see where the magic happened. But you can’t note down charisma, and that strength of personality and sound world play a strong part. Once I realised this it led me to study leadership in more depth, in particular Miles Davis, and experiment with different strategies. At this point I was leading an experimental group of improvisers and had also taken over Peter’s student ensemble, and the opportunity to try stuff out in low pressure situations was plentiful and invaluable.
A few years down the line and I was watching Peter work as I played with him in his professional ensemble, as well writing for and playing with various other contemporary music ensembles. I encountered musicians and composers from a huge variety of backgrounds and tradtions – Moari Shamen, classical, jazz, Arabic, Korean (see this article on Hyelim Kim), Persian, Indian, young firebrands through to established masters, student composers still at their conservatoire and ‘pillars of the musical establishment’. I realised that working with everyone didn’t require a different set of rules for each one (although of course they all had theirs according to their traditions), but more a skill set that allowed you to work with everyone – flexible but centred, open yet focussed; and a musical voice which could converse with everyone without being overbearing. One of the best lessons I received on one’s musical voice was playing with saxophonist Evan Parker. In my opinion the best free jazz musician alive, and easily one of the best improvisers full stop. At a point in the concert I was taking a solo over a space-filled modal vamp in D minor (the saddest of all keys…). As I continued, I heard whispers and ghostly echoes of my phrases float back to me. It wasn’t till I listened back to the recording that I realised it was coming from Even – a truly free voice, able to adapt and always play for the music, not the dogma.
Being asked to give a talk to The Rattle Collective forced me to confront the idea of codification and really consider if these concepts were teachable. I put together a presentation on a 4-step plan for working with collaborators, from the how and why through to determining the moment or collaboration itself. This first put the idea in my head that not only was it possible to teach collaboration, but at least some of it could be codified and put into practice for a variety of different purposes for creatives of all persuasions. Along with some practice and good guidance, it is perfectly possible to teach this and, in fact, should be front and centre of music education.
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