Letter to a young composer: Collaborate!
I have been thinking about whether or not to write to you; it struck me, this morning, that not to write to you was just lazy. So here goes.
My life’s work has been about collaboration; I have been very lucky, and was extremely lucky very early on, that some of the great composers of my youth ‘opened the workshop door’ for me. I was educated by them, and by my teachers (such as Louis Krasner, who premiered the Berg and Schoenberg concerti) that the relationship between performer and composer was a ‘two way street’. Working in this manner, also given me a window on the creative/collaborative processes of earlier composers. So my ‘credo’, if you like, is that all great art is essentially collaborative.
What flows from that is a dissatisfaction with the abstracted composer/performer relationship. There is no point in my life (and I talk and discuss with composers every day of the year) that a composer hands me a score, listens to the result and then critiques the outcome, relative to the written notes as a fixed object.
The American composer Gloria Coates offers a powerful example of one type of listening. In 20 years of working with her, I haver rarely seen her with a score in rehearsal. She sits and really listens. often with her head in her hands. Then she will say: Does it work? What do you think? What can we try? And then the experimentation will begin. The collaboration prior to the new work, is in the abstract: long conversations over coffee, by letter, about many things-the ideas around the music; and about life itself.
Or there’s the private workshop. Working with Henze in my late teens, we came up with a our version-in the basement of his house in London, with the scores, pencils, erasers, working on the fabric of the material. When I was 19, he asked me about one piece: What melody should go here? I sang it, and he said: Write it in? All of this backroom work, meant that the collaboration onstage was more performer-ish, and less precise ‘It must be much less beautiful, so that it can be much more beautiful?’
With Poul Ruders (I am just giving a few options); he asked me about with violin writing. I showed him the complex contrapuntal solo music that David Matthews writes for me. He scratched his chin and said: I could do that? And then began sending me short contrapuntal etudes, which I edited and we corresponded, entirely on paper, until a crazy piece emerged.The Etudes remain ‘sub rosa’, silent, stones on the road of the progress.
Right now, I am finishing a new set of solo pieces with the composer Evis Sammoutis for the Bergen Festival. We usually meet in Cyprus, but now he’s living in Atlanta. So each night new material arrives. I learn it then we Skype, note by note. so that the resulting piece, which is all his, is refined, forged in the aethereal collaboration. This was a model which Widmann and I initiated in the mid-90s (he was living in New York), and the collaboration was done late at night with a phone and fax machine.
So what I am saying is that you must take advantage of the creative spirit of the musicians that you have in front of you, that they are there to co-operate with you, to be your sounding board; when both sides make themselves smile, get passionate, even angry or sad, it’s because something is happening, something is shared. Ask yourself if you would lose anything by opening the workshop door; if the answer is no, then open it wide, and see what your musicians, us, can offer you.
I am very happy to offer you my services, to ‘bounce’ ideas, techniques and more. I just felt that it would be wrong of me to not suggest that there is a lot of fun to be had, great creative spaces available to you; I would hope that you would want to take the opportunity.
With respect and collaboration….