Why All the Interest in Collaboration?

Since collaboration is such an important part of who I am as a composer, an artist, and as a person generally, Im interested in it as a phenomenon of our culture.

Over the past decade, collaboration has been a topic of increasing interest in classical music and academia in general. I have participated in (been interviewed for) graduate projects in music dealing with the topic, as have friends of mine, and there have been a growing number of university programs in the U.S. that are devoted to studying and exploring collaborative approaches to various artistic disciplines.

Collaboration is nothing new. There are plenty of famous examples going back centuries and more. Some recent examples within music would be Lennon and McCartney, and across disciplines, John Cage and Merce Cunningham. Some ended well and some badly after years of productivity, and some were single projects. Some were hardly what we might call a collaboration, for instance, Edgard Varèse and Le Corbusiers collaboration on the Philips Pavilion for the 1958 Worlds Fair amounted to correspondence describing types of images, duration, general ideas about the audio/visual/architectural piece, and then Corbusiers assistant/protege, Iannis Xénakis, would be the one to design the pavilion and coordinate the project. (Xénakis would publicly dispute Corbusiers taking credit for the project, and then go on to great fame as a composer of electroacoustic music and for employing computers to create all kinds of music)

So collaboration in music and other arts has been going on forever and taken all sorts of forms and arrangements; whats the big deal all of a sudden?

A friend recently shared with me an interview in Wired Magazine with Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson here, where they discuss the myth of the lone genius, why it is that so often so many people have the same idea at the same time. Their answer is that ideas are networks, and they cite Brian Eno’s term scenius, which he coined to describe group genius, the ‘intuition of a whole cultural scene.’ (http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2008/06/scenius_or_comm.php)

If we think of artistic collaboration as a kind of social networking, today’s interest in it is a reflection of our cultural interest in all sorts of networking and collaboration, which has everything to do with the technologies we’re using, developing, complaining about, just generally obsessed with lately. It’s another facet of wondering about networks and their impact on our society: Wikipedia, Facebook, collaborations among artists. I don’t think anyone is claiming to have invented artistic collaboration or to have just noticed that they happen. But for a lot of reasons, going back more than a few years, we seem to be very interested in these things right now.

As a kind of social network, collaboration takes place on a number of different levels. There’s the one on one collaboration that you can have—in person or somehow through correspondence—with another person, working to achieve a common goal. Then there are larger forms of collaboration, which may be organized or just loosely connected, through a shared geography, actual hang-outs, common cultural or social activities, or through the use of global communications networks. Whether or not there’s a shared desired outcome behind the participation, there is a collaboration of ideas that reflect and simultaneously become the tenor of the times. And this becomes part of what defines those cultural artifacts that years/centuries/millennia later we associate with that culture.

When I was a student, and I suspect this was true for many of my peers at the time, I really wanted to be a part of a school of thought. I didn’t want to be told what to compose, but I was reacting to how I was taught about music from the past. I would learn about the composers and the music of this school or that group, and it was clear to me that these were vibrant, engaged communities of different artists and intellectuals. I didn’t realize that I was already a part of such groups, that there already was this collaborative network of thought surrounding me, that I just needed to engage in it. Of course I was also really focused on learning the technical aspects of my craft at the time, too, and sometimes it’s easy to forget that it takes time to create a body of work that one can find a common thread in.

I suppose that at this point, my interest in creating collaborative art is what reflects the times I live in. I didn’t sign up, there wasn’t a coordinator or organizer, but the school of thought I belong to is one that celebrates, explores and cherishes all sorts of collaborative approaches to creativity.

Next week: I’ll be performing at the Third Practice Festival with Pat O’Keefe as Willful Devices. There’ll be a lot happening at this festival that I think will be relevant and I’ll want to write about, so I will be writing on the flight back home Sunday and post on Monday.

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