Advice from Strangers: A Path to Collaboration

I asked 30 technologists and new music practitioners how they work together with others. Here is their advice.

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BFC Admin

Collaboration illustration

Illustration by Anouk Moulliet

Advice from Strangers explores shared challenges in the industries of new music and technology. This column is fifth in the series.

A rising tide lifts all boats, some say.

There is general consensus in both the contemporary classical music scene and in tech that collaboration is a positive thing, that it is natural and beneficial, and that the possibilities for collaboration are endless. Yet alongside that enthusiasm is a strong expression of “I can’t collaborate.”

We face internal challenges (mostly in music): “It can be difficult to let go of something you really want to do yourself.” “I’m a control freak. That makes collaboration difficult.” “I have yet to find a collaborator whose artistic sensibilities align with mine as closely as I’d like.” “My arts community is isolated and competitive, instead of open and collaborative.”

We face external challenges (mostly in tech): “Conservative managers can limit collaboration with the public.” “Everything at work is secret and walled-off, for good reason.” “At work, we operate on a need-to-know basis.” “People can steal your ideas.”

Both industries rely on collaboration. Can new music artists find ways to get around personal roadblocks to enjoy working together? Can technologists participate in—and foster—a collaborative environment, even in a climate of stealth?

Friends, collaborators, readers: we can, and we do. I asked 30 technologists and new music practitioners how they work together with others. Here is their advice.


Start with people you trust

Some collaborations begin with an idea. Others begin with people. The best involve people you can trust.

“It can be difficult to let go of something you really want to do yourself,” says soprano Hillary LaBonte. “If you have an idea for a collaboration, approach people you already know and trust. My best collaborations have been with artists I trust implicitly.”

“I have been very fortunate to collaborate with the people with whom I do collaborate,” says composer Daniel Felsenfeld. “I also like most of them as people, value their friendships, try never to ‘pass the buck’ in our collaboration, and try not to take criticism of my ideas as a referendum on me as a person or composer.”

Classical violist Heather Bentley recently composed and produced an opera based on the story of the goddess Ishtar. She chose performers whom she trusted with her vision, and whom she trusted to take it further in their own way. She was able to let others have their way with the opera, she says, because she picked them for that very reason.

“I chose them because I wanted to hear what they would come up with,” she says, “and thinking about those people inspired me to come up with the idea of what I wanted them to do.”

If you’re not interested in your collaborators’ contributions, it might be time to rethink working as a team.

Articulate a clear vision

When a collaboration takes a wrong turn, it could be that the vision is flawed or that the team is flawed. But also worth exploring is the possibility that both are fine, and that it’s the articulation of the vision that is flawed.

“Ask yourself, ‘Have I really gotten to something that can be clearly articulated outside my own head?’” says Jacob Smith, partner at A Brave New, a Seattle-based marketing agency. “If you’re going to try to exert control in a collaboration, you have to have enough of it worked out that you can actually explain it to somebody, and if they can’t understand, it might be that you haven’t gotten yourself far enough down the road.”

In tech, product managers often define the priority, functionality, and design of a new feature or product, and it is their responsibility to convey this information to a team of engineers. When done effectively, this results in a timely delivery of a useful, working product. And when product specifications are ambiguous or omit key information, the implementation can become a nightmare.

The same applies to musical collaborations. A clear vision sets expectations for all involved: Is the goal improvisation or strict adherence to a specific piece? Are we starting from scratch, or supporting an idea already in progress?

“My idea for the opera addressed the rift between how it is to be collaborating on chamber music, and how it is to be improvising with other people,” says Bentley, who is experienced in both. “I wanted to know: is it possible to take great improvisation energy, and put it into a long form that has a dramatic arc to it, where everybody in the ensemble would be on board with where we’re going, what we’re illustrating?”

Bentley’s exquisite articulation of her vision—defined structure with improvisation within it—made that possible, and the opera was born.

Skate toward the same goal

“It’s essential to get all the players in an organization skating toward the same goal, regardless of whether that’s a technology implementation or a strategic imperative,” says Jesse Proudman, founder and CTO of Blue Box, a Seattle-based start-up that provides private cloud hosting.

“Inside Blue Box, we’re big believers in small agile engineering teams—but small agile teams cannot be successful without close collaboration amongst everyone in product and engineering, and amongst engineering’s ‘customers’ inside of the organization.”

To get everyone on the same page, he says, over-communication is key. Start with more than seems necessary, then dial it back based on feedback. Also important is face-to-face interaction, not just with teammates but cross-functionally.

Establish clear roles and responsibilities

“Collaboration is about respect, pure and simple,” says Felsenfeld. “But it is also about knowing who has what to do, and who is going to have a kind of final say. I once was told by a famous composer that whenever he gets into a collaboration he figures out who can fire who in the scenario, which makes for at least a clear route.”

“It must be clear who is doing what,” says composer Steve Peters, who directs the Nonsequitur/Wayward Music Series. “Everyone needs to be able to do what they are best at without stepping on each other’s toes, and be prepared to relinquish some control. Power struggles are a sure way to undermine any collaboration. Define everyone’s role and then let them do it; if they ask for help or advice, offer it without steamrolling them.”

Bosco Kante is a hip-hop producer-turned-startup founder. A Grammy winner with a background in mechanical engineering, he’s currently working with a small team to create the ElectroSpit—a mobile version of the talk box that pairs with digital devices—and produce music with it.

“Early in my career, I teamed up with a few other producers. We worked together for a few years, but ultimately we broke up because we couldn’t agree on who owned what. Now, with Electrospit, I’m working with Pete Miser, another producer. He’s a longtime friend and is very experienced, so I believe we can figure that out pretty easily.”

All members of a collaborating team must have a clear understanding of the members’ roles and responsibilities, as well as who has the final say, in order to carry out the vision.

Relinquish control

“We all get great ideas from time to time, but the best ones are fleshed out with multiple minds,” says LaBonte. Great things can happen when you let go of the reins.

Bentley runs a small chamber group with a friend. “She’s an idea factory, and I’m an idea factory, so we throw all these ideas against the wall and see what sticks,” she says. “We don’t feel bad about the ones that don’t stick. When you’re collaborating, I think you need to be able to be ok with the stuff other people don’t want to do, or the ideas they don’t like. That’s a skill.”

Lack of control over circumstances or resources can even be the catalyst for a great creative collaboration.

“I started really collaborating when I was in college,” says composer Steve Layton. “We didn’t have a whole lot of instrumentalists, but we had dancers! So I did a lot of things with dancers. It’s fun—you don’t know what’s gonna happen to you, you just do it.”

Peters agrees. “Having outside parameters imposed on me is an interesting challenge.”

“I’ve often chosen collaboration over working alone, and although it tends to go in a totally different way than expected, I don’t feel like I regret those choices,” says mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen.


Money changes things

“We have to address the 800lb gorilla, which is money,” says Bentley. “Essentially, what we’re doing—the opera, these collaborations, my chamber music series—there’s no money at stake. You make zero money, and sometimes you pay. I love it, and it’s great, but I’d say that the stealth culture exists in tech because it’s possible there’s a lot of money on the line.”

Last month, Bentley and Layton released an album of collaborative works that they made available for free download. Bentley created and recorded improvisations on viola and piano; Layton received the tracks via the internet and mashed, remixed, and processed them.

“Our collaboration is different from those funded with Kickstarter,” says Bentley. “When you do a campaign like that, you’ve got so much invested in the final product because of many factors, and that is going to affect the kind of music that goes onto that album.”

“Sometimes you’re just writing with no specific goal, and I think those are the times it’s easier to collaborate. There’s no expectations other than let’s get together and make something cool and figure out what to do with it later. It’s a great time, being in total creative mode,” says Kante.

It’s especially easy when there’s no money at stake, either because there’s none on the table, or because it’s abundant.

“I’ve watched Kanye West over the years in many kinds of studio environments,” Kante says. “Collaboration for him is a very open process. Once we did a song with violinist Miri Ben-Ari, a couple of comedy sketches, all kinds of percussionists, John Legend singing, Kanye—and I was playing the talk box. It had all these different elements. Part of his creative process is asking, ‘How many great, interesting people can I bring into this room to work on this song and participate in it?’—with almost no regard for the rights issues at that stage of the creative process. We didn’t figure out any of the rights issues until the work was done.”

He pauses. “Looking at that, I should say…‘I’m doing everything wrong’… I should throw everything out the window and just think about how I can make the best record. It’s easy to say, though. If you put a record out and know you’re going to make $50 million, you can afford to figure it out afterwards like that. But if you might make $50,000, it changes things.”

Kante is inspired by the idea of creating a framework for attribution and compensation to set expectations and ease negotiations with collaborators.

“I could probably increase my success by saying, ‘I do want to collaborate, and this is how it would look.’ I’d be free of the fear, once I’d built a framework for collaboration. That’s what needs to happen. I need to engineer the collaborative process to take out the uncertainty and the risk, and then I could just concentrate on the art. I haven’t done that yet. But it’s possible!”

Openness vs. secrecy in tech

“No matter how big and anonymous, tech does feel like a big sprawling community, and sharing feels natural,” says John Reale, director of solutions architecture at a healthcare startup. “And it feels most natural to share frameworks and tools, the things that help build products. But the products themselves? Well, we’ve gotta preserve some reason for people to pay us.”

Startups struggle with this daily. In tech, there’s a very present tension between being open about new ideas and projects—which can lead to groundbreaking collaborations and speedier technological progress—and the secrecy that plays a major role in getting a product to market before the competition (and keeping it there).

Still, there are ways to collaborate in tech that skirt the issue of proprietary information.

“We’ve based our product on a major open source project: OpenStack,” says Proudman of Blue Box. “We contribute to and participate in the development of the open source software itself, and we differentiate ourselves from the competition on raw execution driven via ruthless automation and the way we’ve chosen to bring our OpenStack to market as a service.”

In other words, the code may be public, but Blue Box’s secret sauce is in what they are capable of doing with the code, and how they execute it.

“I lean very much towards open development,” says Michael Snoyman, director of engineering at software development company FP Complete. “When I began working on my largest personal project, there was another framework that was being developed in secret (also to be later released as open source). Had they developed in the open, I likely wouldn’t have even started my project. Instead, I made it open-source, ended up getting a much larger contributor base, and it is now the dominant framework in that space. The downside to being so open is that people can steal your ideas.”

He adds a silver lining: “That forces you to stay on your toes and continue to improve and innovate faster than others.”

The conservatory challenge

“Classical music is a highly competitive field,” says Bentley. “Everybody in a top program is a top student aiming for the top, so you don’t get a lot of ‘Hey, let’s check out what it would be like to think about this piece a different way, and by the way what is the sound of a fuzzy caterpillar?’—you don’t have any conversations like that at all.”

Layton agrees: “It’s not like everybody says, ‘Hey, let’s you and me get together and we’ll just make something here, and I’ll write some stuff, and you guys too, viola and flute and whatever, let’s just play.’

“But you wish you could, somehow,” he adds wistfully. “Is there a way we could encourage that with extra-curriculars, to balance the rest, give students a more well-rounded experience, so they could get introduced to it at least? Because a lot of people never get that, and we end up with this situation where you hand performers a score, they play it, and that’s what they do—nothing else.”

Layton has been running an improv message board, Sound-In, for five years. Musicians post links to their short musical creations, and he turns these into a playlist. With people contributing from California, New Jersey, France, Tokyo, and all at different times, Layton wondered what it would sound like if they mixed some of these tracks together, as if the musicians were playing together.

“Incredibly enough, without much tweaking, we can make it sound an awful lot like these guys are in the same room, playing, that they’re all listening to each other. There can be incredibly weird kinds of music – each track is wildly different – but somehow when you stick them together, it becomes a coherent piece. It’s an interesting sort of collaboration. I’m doing the mixing, but everyone’s just showing up on their own, and waiting to see what happens.”

Does your gut still whisper at you to work alone? Perhaps what you really need is an employee, not a collaborator. It can be difficult to let go of something you really want to do yourself.

If you do crave a collaborative experience, and can’t give up the reins to your own project, consider joining someone else’s. Get involved in an online improv collaboration. Contribute to an open-source project. Call up a few good friends and get in a room with them and start something from scratch.

“Whatever idea you come up with or collaborate on, the most important thing is that it generates other ideas, for other collaborations or other pieces,” says Layton. “Each piece leads to another part of a puzzle or another unfolding aspect of whatever this musical life is. That’s the fun part. You don’t know where it’s going, you’re just seeing what can happen. You’re never going to know until you do it. And then you find out.”

Next: when resources are low.