Author: Danielle Eva Schwob

Structure and Freedom in Collaboration (A.k.a. The Incomplete Non-Idiot’s Guide to Workshopping with Musicians)

A shadow image of two performers, one cellist and one pianist

Early on in my career, I made the mistake of writing a lot of very melodic music for performers who were more predisposed to Berio than to Berlioz. Despite everyone’s optimism and best efforts, these projects were usually stressful and rarely among my most successful.

I used to think, perhaps narcissistically, that it was exclusively the job of the players I was working with to make my music sound good—that I should write whatever my little composer heart saw fit and then leave it to them to figure it out. We are, after all, taught in class that Bach is God and that musicians are the vessels through which the deity speaks. These early projects, however, taught me that in the real world the reverse is often true, and that it’s a huge part of YOUR job, if not literally the entire job, to write something that will make the players you are working with sound great. Ideally if you are successful in doing that, you will make yourself sound far better in the process as well.

There’s a lot that can go right and wrong when collaborating with musicians in pursuit of the above. However, I’ve found for myself that there are a lot of consistent questions to ask and methods to employ along that winding road to hopefully making “Good Art” that can increase one’s chances of staying the course. Ultimately a lot is common sense and falls under a consistent umbrella: you will never be wasting time by really getting to know your players, writing for them specifically, considering the specific parameters of the project, being sure of what you want to do while remaining open to input and creative detours, and experimenting with techniques to make all that happen.

For me the solution to the above, besides planning well early on, has been to workshop music I’m working on extensively with musicians while learning to be a good collaborator—a lifelong undertaking in itself.

[banneradvert]

Before getting there, however, there are a lot of obvious questions to be asked about who I’m writing for, what their aesthetic comfort zone is and how it relates to my own, what the circumstances of the performance/session are, how many rehearsals you get, whether it’s a pick up group or not, as well as the most interesting one: is this a player(s) who wants to be challenged or not? Some musicians will get bored if you’re not writing something that stretches them. Others may feel best about music that’s easy to keep alive in their fingertips. No one wants to put the time in to play something well that they don’t feel “fits them.” For me the most exciting things always happen when you’re working with players you can push a little beyond their comfort zones and who can push you past yours.

Ideally you meet each other part way, with a piece that sounds like you, but is tailored to the performer.

I am a huge believer in workshops if you can do them, because they’re really the best way to get into the weeds with a piece of music and collaborator(s). If you’re writing something good, you can file that away and develop it. If you are writing something stupid, they’re a great chance to pretend that never happened and course correct. Overall they’re invaluable opportunities to try things on your “growing edge” while getting to know the strengths, styles, and limitations of the people you’re working with and figuring out how to mold your writing to their hands. This does not mean sacrificing your voice, so much as playing with how it can be bent and expanded and trying things that you don’t already know how to do, which I’ve found always leads to better and more interesting pieces than I could have written alone with Sibelius. Ideally you meet each other part way, with a piece that sounds like you, but is tailored to the performer.

For workshops to be successful, I’ve found that doing three is best. One with early sketches, one about 1/2 – 2/3 of the way through the composing process, and one when you are almost finished to fine-tune. They are always short (musicians are busy), I record them, and in planning for them, aim to be over prepared but leave space for sounds and ideas that are unexpected to emerge. A balance between order and chaos.

The order side is easy: parts need to be clean, any technical electronic elements must be road-tested, and the writing must be well-developed/written enough that players can feel the bones of what you are trying to say. And you should have some idea of how you want to structure and lead rehearsals, since some material is invariably better approached “cold” than others. I try to start with something easy that I know will work. You should also be as sure as you can that you’re writing idiomatically, since no matter how keen you are to expand the possibilities of the harp, if your harpist is tap dancing all over the place because she needs to be some sort of eight-footed octopus to cover her pedal changes (I know, I know, harps only have 7 pedals), you’re both going to sound like garbage. And not in the cool Shirley Manson way.

Facilitating the unexpected is harder and in itself an endlessly broad subject, but to get there some of the things I try include:

Giving players a few looping musical “cells” from the piece to improvise with, or perhaps leaving some holes or incomplete endings in musical phrases (ones that feel as though they could be jumping off points), then asking them where it “feels” (excuse the flowery language) like it wants to go. Even if they’re not improvisers, musicians obviously have a deeper and more intuitive grasp of their instrument than you do and sometimes just hearing where their hands wander naturally can give you a sense for how to better tailor your writing to their instrument and personal playing style, while still keeping it within your own language.

Coming in with specific techniques that you are interested in exploring that feel as though they could fit the music you are writing, even if they’re not developed, has also proven useful for me. Sometimes I’ll have the earliest sections of a piece formed, and then ideas for some more bombastic moments later on that I don’t yet know how to pull off. Putting some half-realized stabs at them on a page to give the general sense (something like the rough under-painting a painter might do), and then honing the details from there with a great player’s input has proven productive.

I tried all of the above, for one, with violinist Jenny Choi, who—after telling me that it felt like a section of my solo piece for her wanted to open up—gave me a crash course in barriolages before I really knew how to write them well and was a great cheerleader who encouraged me to follow the lines of what I was writing as far as I could take them. I did something similar with a piece for harpist Ashley Jackson, wherein I wanted to try some more folksy, virtuosic, uptempo writing that I wanted to explode off the page. In both cases, I had specific techniques that I wanted to try and vague ideas of where to place them, and through fumbling around in the dark was able to put all the pieces together and find moments for them to really take off. Had it not been for the input of those players, the music I wrote would sound vastly more closed off.

This also takes different forms when working with rock bands—a different, but related story. Players from this world improvise by nature, so balancing space and structure in a musical road map becomes even more important. You have to know exactly where you want to go in the big picture sense, while being open to how you get there with the details. In approaching how to work on my own record, for example, some things I tried included: bringing in a sketch of a melody or lead line and asking players to embellish, demoing a synth sound/part myself to establish a general direction and then having someone else work around or replace that, or literally just building in space for a band to jump on some sort of groove and build out an arrangement collaboratively. David Bottrill, who I co-produced my project with, also had some great tricks, my favorite of which was sitting on the floor and changing guitar pedal settings mid-performance to see if that sparked anything unexpected. It usually did.

Ultimately, it’s all about learning the art of being a great collaborator, checking your ego at the door, remaining open to unexpected ideas, and recognizing that all musical partnerships are opportunities for growth.

In all instances the material you are working from has to be something that feels open-ended rather than resolved, as though it could “lead somewhere.” It’s a hard line to navigate: come in with nothing/too little and players won’t know what to do. Come in with too much, and they won’t have space to try anything and will get bored.

Ultimately—and here’s where we all say ‘kum ba yah’—it’s all about learning the art of being a great collaborator, checking your ego at the door, remaining open to unexpected ideas, and recognizing that all musical partnerships are opportunities for growth—sentiments that were missing from those early, rocky projects of mine. Partnerships between composers and musicians work best when both parties feel stretched and challenged, everyone is receptive to ideas but in control of their voice and what they want to say, no one should be pandering or selling their ideas or talents short, and the end result is something that’s been executed well that everyone feels pride in/ownership of. It’s often messy, and along the way there are conversations about whether you should be writing to please yourself or other people, how exactly you are supposed to get there, and when to push people and when not to, all of which require different answers project by project. The hard part is knowing which is which, what the players you are working with are capable of, and what you are capable of yourself.

Jack of All Trades or Master of Them All? Cross-Genre Creative Gambling

Multiple streams

In the earliest days of my career, I was told to specialize. “Pick a genre,” they said. “Narrow down. You can’t do it all.”

I never did pick.

To date, my favorite thing that has ever been said about me was in an American Composers Forum profile. They wrote that I was “blowing a creative space for [myself] so big you could drive a truck through it,” which felt significant because it was the first time I felt like someone saw this an advantage, not something to be corrected. Back in the Renaissance, artists who were fluent in multiple mediums were admired, yet somewhere along the road that shifted to conversations about “defining your brand.” I spent a long time in college being told that my diverse interests were a result of indecision—a failing on my part, rather than a deliberate creative choice (which is what it always was).

Choosing to work across genres brings with it a unique set of challenges from a career development standpoint, yet it offers a far broader realm of possibilities from a creative one.

Several years down the line, however, I understand why I was warned against it, and feel obligated to any younger composers navigating the shallows of similar aesthetically open-minded waters to report back from further offshore. Choosing to work across genres brings with it a unique set of challenges from a career development standpoint, yet—in my opinion—it offers a far broader realm of possibilities from a creative one.

To get the cautionary side out of the way, everything that my teachers and industry mentors warned me of proved to be true several times over. It’s simply much harder to get multiple careers off the ground, for all of the reasons you might think. You are building two (or more) creative lives simultaneously when it is hard enough to build one. It takes twice the financial investment. Twice the time. The people in the various corners of these industries are different. There are different metrics for success, different methods of financing projects, and different approaches to press strategy.   It’s also hard to convince people early on that your vision is decisive. And there is a perpetual creative whiplash that happens when bouncing between projects. From an artistic perspective, it’s a commitment to becoming multilingual, since pop songs, film scores and concert works are very different art forms and learning to do them all well requires significant investment in honing one’s craft. If you are writing songs, you also have to learn to manipulate words and define your perspective as a writer of text, which is in itself a lifetime’s undertaking.

Yet on the flip side, having a breadth of skill sets makes you vastly more employable (that most lofty of artistic goals). Being able to wear a lot of hats (playing in theater pits, orchestrating, copying, taking on scoring projects and concert commissions, etc.) kept me working consistently early on, and I am certain that what some of my teachers deemed a lack of focus is actually responsible for having kept me afloat during those early years after graduating from college. There’s an important line between being a jack of all trades and an employable, well-rounded musician.

Ultimately, however, the most enticing thing about working in multiple mediums has for me always been the boundless creative possibilities that it offered. With eclecticism comes the opportunity to be in conversation with oneself about genre and to have different kinds of collaborative relationships with those working in these various fields. It also offers potential for borrowing influences in the hope that they will fuse into something unusual.

Within my own work, which I include solely because I am currently navigating these waters and it’s the example that I know most closely, I am starting to see how these diverse influences can cross-pollinate. Previously when asked about working across genres, I would stick to a simple response: namely that I hope my songwriting has a drama to it that hints at my concert background, and that my concert work has a sense of immediacy and a commitment to melody, but that they are very separate. Yet as I continue along the road, I realize that the ties among them are more specific.

On the songwriting front, for example, I recently put out a song called “Time Slips Away” from a new artist project called DELANILA. While unequivocally a rock track, it borrows from the scale of orchestral music (film and concert), while also employing specific techniques and traditions that I learned in conservatory.

Lyrics, form, and arrangement were crafted, for example, with art song “word painting” in mind: the lyric “inconsequential, it slithers like a snake” is accompanied by a synth line that slinks its way upwards like a serpent, while “time slips away” returns at the top of each verse—not quite word painting, but an attempt to evoke boredom and repetition by mirroring lyrical content through form. I also borrowed, as many film composers and songwriters have done, from that classic textbook example of Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima in the outro, which consists of players glissing and staggering their way upwards from the lowest note on their instrument to the highest. And, when I got stuck on a bridge, found my way out of the hole by thinking back to those most basic composerly discussions we have about developing our ideas and “writing economically.” I solved the problem by taking synth and bass lines from the verses and made them swoop and build upon one another to a conclusion. The loose “piece in two halves” form itself is also one that I’ve explored in chamber music.

I also have an early concert piece that I wrote, called Mehr Licht, that finds its way as a sample (a pop technique in itself, though I am hardly the first classical musician to use it) into virtually everything I do. On its own, it sounds like this:

Here it is in part, played backwards as the intro on an old EP:

And on a newer version of the same song:

Here it is again on a different piece from another forthcoming project:

It’s also currently finding its way into a film score. And then here it is again on a piece that I wrote recently for PUBLIQuartet:

Out of the Tunnel is also an example of how my rock background found its way into the DNA of a concert work. Its first movement (see below) is propulsive and energetic, imbued with a rock spirit, while improvisation—so central to being a guitarist—played a role in how I developed the project with the quartet. This included giving them groove-based musical “cells” to play with during workshops, as well as leaving space for Curtis Stewart, one of the ensemble’s violinists, to have a big wailing solo moment. Film scoring influences also crept their way into the accompanying programming.

Ultimately I believe that genre has the potential to become just another tool with its own tricks and traditions that can be deployed as needed along the road to creating art that, one hopes, is unique. Yet beyond that, the question of whether or not to pursue multiple styles of music has for me always tied in to broader discussions of what it means to create art that is progressive, and how exactly anyone is supposed to get there. In my opinion, the most interesting artists are always the ones who bring something slightly foreign to the form in which they are working, widening its palette rather narrowing it. And this fundamental question was always what kept me from following my teachers’ advice. If you don’t study and pursue multiple disciplines and have broad creative interests, how can you ever hope to create something new? I could never wrap my head around how “narrowing down” would answer that question, and so I never did.

Art is most interesting when it is open ended, and to me at this point these various forms and genres don’t feel any different from one another. The techniques vary but the goals of communicating honestly with people are the same, and I think it’s possible for them to all live in the same house. You may not see it yet. But the structure is there.

Do it right or do it right now?

Still from Infoxication

Arguments in favor of quality and procrastination

Several years ago, I shared a bill with a musician who spent the entirety of his 45-minute set improvising with what can only be described as an arsenal of toneless extended techniques interspersed with episodes of heavy breathing. Setting aside my own proclivities for melody and my firm position on the ‘downtown’ side of any remaining stylistic divide, the show was objectively monotonous, self-indulgent, and under-baked—the equivalent of a musician jamming alone in his living room with his eyes closed, except in this case for a paying, open-eyed audience. One that grew increasingly restless.

The catchall advice that we are given as composers and musicians, and to which I can only assume this man had pegged his creative philosophy, is to just “do it right now.” Just get up. Just perform. Just write. Get it done. Throw it down on the page and move on to the next one. Don’t over think. Don’t look back. What matters is that it’s finished. And that you are “staying busy.” In many ways I agree with this advice and think a great deal can be learned by generating in sheer volume, getting up on any stage we can, producing continuously and seeing where the road winds. Improving by rote practice while throwing as many darts as possible and hoping that some hit the bull’s-eye. It’s a legitimate approach. Especially early on.

After a certain point, however, this advice starts feeling too much like a reductive sound-byte for my liking and I think it’s prudent to take a step back, focusing instead on “doing it right” rather than “doing it right now,” and avoiding the inevitable feeling of running in circles that arises when saying yes to every single opportunity that comes along. The evening with that improviser still lingers in my mind because, while I respect the chutzpah it takes to get up and perform a show off the cuff, it is so antithetical to everything that I have been working towards in recent years.

Waiting for perfection to come knocking ensures that you will never act, yet conversely, not striving to get close to it guarantees that you will produce mediocre work.

“Doing it right” likely means different things to different people, but for me it has meant taking on fewer projects so that I can do them better, pursuing larger, long-term undertakings as both a composer/musician and producer, and being deliberate about how what I do choose to do fits in with how I hope to shape the arc of my career. “Doing it right” is trying to do everything to the absolute best of my abilities at all times, pushing everyone I am surrounded by to do the same, and being detail-oriented. The stage, literal or digital, is after all a privilege, and I think you owe your audience the respect of trying to make that show as good as it can possibly be. “Doing it right” is empowering.

In this quest for quality, however, the question of when exactly to pull the trigger and launch big, self-driven projects comes up often, and I think about the “do it right” vs. “right now” duality constantly in relation to my own work. Sitting on material or ideas until they are “perfect” is, after all, a dangerous game. Waiting for perfection to come knocking ensures that you will never act, yet conversely, not striving to get close to it guarantees that you will produce mediocre work. Icarus should get close to the sun, yet never quite touch it. The hard part is in determining how close one should attempt to fly, while balancing both thoughts in one’s head and making smart decisions regarding when it’s time to say “go.”

Sadly I don’t have any revelatory answers to this problem. However for me, the guiding principle is always “what will serve the art best,” the answer to which is not always “doing it right now.” Projects where other entities are setting the deadlines, there are commercial interests and complex timelines involved, or jobs are structured on a “for hire” basis are obviously a different conversation (honor those commitments “right now!”), but for my own self-driven creative projects, the obstacles that come up along the road to making “good art” always wind up orbiting this fundamental question. They arise on the creative side (ex. “this song needs a better guitar sound”), as well as the logistical one (“I only received partial funding for this project” or “the engineer I like is busy”), as well as a murky-waters conflation of the two (“how do I pay for the studio and the good engineer so I can get a better guitar sound”). Case-by-case solutions don’t always reveal themselves immediately, and, in trying to “serve the art best,” sometimes I think it’s a good thing to take one’s time, letting big projects marinate and giving them space to bloom into their optimally realized form.

For me, the guiding principle is always “what will serve the art best.”

One such instance in my own career, which I include not as a universal flag-bearer for “doing art right” so much as an example of patience (and persistence) eventually proving a virtue, was an immersive multimedia performance project called Infoxication that I made with Roya Sachs, Ashley Jackson, and a team of about 40 people. Infoxication took us a few years to realize, went through more creative iterations than I care to count, switched presenters, and lost and regained its funding. It was almost a centerpiece of Google’s Pixel launch. Then it wasn’t. It was going to run for a while. Then not quite so long. We thought people might quit. (Fortunately, they didn’t.) And along the way, we had many conversations about scaling the project down to a small concert that could fall within our immediate reach.

Yet something in our gut told us that our original idea deserved better, and we persevered. Eventually the project wound up at Spring Place in New York City, with generous financial support from their team as well as Google and New Music USA, and collaborators including PUBLIQuartet, Dušan Týnek, Heather Hansen, Inbal Segev, and Bentley Meeker. The end result was something we are all proud of: a sci-fi Sleep No More meets The Office performance ‘installation’ inspired by the information age, replete with dancers on Chromebooks dressed as office drones climbing on the walls, and devastatingly good performances. It. Was. Awesome. Sold out beyond capacity. And one of my favorite things I’ve done. Our team still reminisces about how special it was. Not bad for a little project that almost went into the garbage.

There have, of course, been countless instances along the way in which “doing it right now” was the right decision, wherein projects less belabored in their development quickly coalesced into something special. Another collaboration with Ashley springs to mind, in which I wrote a piece for her in a few weeks, she premiered it, played it again at BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn!, and I insisted she record it for an album right away despite her hesitation. In that instance, I simply knew she could pull it off and that we had the right recording circumstances to do it.

For me, the hard part is always in determining which projects are which, and when the stars are close enough in alignment that it’s best to just jump off the proverbial diving board (not to mention when to mix your metaphors). Personally, the answers I try to seek for myself when steering my own projects are very simple:

  • If the project has real potential and you will regret not taking time to elevate it, wait and “do it right”
  • If the project is close enough that it can be completed now without significant sacrifices in quality, and the imminent opportunity is something that you will regret passing up, “do it right now.”

Ultimately, however, there is no one-size-fits-all guideline, the argument over whether less or more is more and how best to strategize your way to a successful career isn’t one that can be resolved, and there are examples of great creators who adhere to both philosophies. It’s also something that shifts project by project as well as over time. And, as noted, it’s a conversation that only applies to those fortuitous circumstances in which we are calling all the shots.

Overall, I believe that quality, however and whenever it’s possible to attain, will always speak for itself, that there is value in taking one’s time, and that what some might flippantly dismiss as procrastination is often actually meaningful development—though obviously the line between the two requires thoughtful navigation. “Doing it right now” can be equally slippery, since a carpe diem attitude is essential to finishing any project, yet in itself can be an excuse and means of self-sabotage. Simply not trying that hard or not taking the time to do something well can make it easier to feel like you didn’t really fail. Immediate action and constant activity permit that figurative shoulder shrug: “Well, at least I tried.”

In the end, perhaps really, truly “trying” is all we should ever stake our bets on: attacking projects decisively, aiming high, holding ourselves and our collaborators to a lofty standard, and being sure of what we want to say. The “right” vs. “right now” pendulum will swing back and forth indefinitely, and it’s only through developing intuition, self-awareness, familiarity with the people you are working with, and sheer trial and error that anyone can reliably decide when is the “right time” to take action. Maybe all we can say definitively is that “now is the time to do it right.”