Composer John Supko and critic Jeffrey Edelstein discuss collaboration.
John Supko, composer: Yes, but…how were the traces of these collaborators—the seams, as it were—obscured and for so long?
Jeffrey Edelstein, critic: Was it because the result had one name? Shakespeare, when there were actors and other writers; the King James Bible, when there were committees and individual scholars; Homer, when there was an oral tradition. But Shakespeare is cooperation led by a forceful and inspired individual; the King James Bible seems a true collaboration. The idea of collaboration has become trendy, popular and encouraged, and confused with cooperation. Composers struggle to work with other artists—making work that captivates with novel juxtapositions rather than art unbroken between two people. Do you think your creative process on s_traits was collaboration, a summation of two minds, or would you honestly describe it more as cooperation?
Supko: Collaboration is such a personal process, this business of adding and subtracting parts of oneself in response to those of another. I don’t see any way to talk about it that doesn’t draw from my own experience.
Edelstein: I understand. The nature of collaboration is elusive. I was touched by the experience of seeing Einstein on the Beach and I have tried to think about how it was created. But who did what in crafting that remarkably unified work? The contributions of Robert Wilson, Philip Glass, and Lucinda Childs seem unmistakable, and yet no element of the production stands entirely on its own.
Supko: Exchanging ideas with a collaborator sometimes causes me to conceal my individuality. I modulate my voice, I say things differently, I say different things. I’m in dialog, but I’m also speaking in tandem.
Edelstein: Yes, but…surely artistic collaboration is not a simple matter of artists working together toward a singular aim. Merce Cunningham and John Cage demonstrated that it might be something more mysterious—as I said earlier, an art unbroken between two people.
Supko: I only know what I do when I collaborate. When I was working with Bill Seaman on s_traits, I actively used his ideas to propel my own into uncharted waters. The disparity in our approaches helped me to discover new ways of working. But I don’t just think of my collaborators as instruments; I compose in a way that leaves space for them to work. I try to anticipate—even if I know I may be wrong—how a collaborator’s material will engage mine, and write in a way that invites completion.
Edelstein: For me the result of s_traits—two composers writing one piece of music—feels tessellated and cohesive; a mosaic created by two craftsmen cognizant of the overall pattern as much as of their own expressive needs. Is this the result of, as you say, leaving space for your collaborator?
Supko: Yes, but…it’s not simply a question of leaving space. There’s also the extent to which Bill and I intentionally adopted each other’s working methods and stylistic tendencies. This mutual emulation was intentional and explicit. We learned new ways of working from each other.
Edelstein: Does it matter if you and Bill work together early or late in the process?
Supko: I prefer to begin as early in the composition process as possible. The more I can get to know, say, Bill’s way of doing things in the preliminary stages of a project, the more able I feel to respond and adapt to it. I’m searching for complementarity: I recognize deficiencies in my own work and collaboration is one way I try to address them.
Edelstein: How does collaboration work in practical terms?
Supko: Bill and I like to begin with a conversation. We compare our thoughts and goals for the project; then we go away and work individually for a period of time. Before too long we share our respective parts and consider how they might fit together to make a whole. This process of blending each other’s work can be long and difficult. It can also take many forms, from the deconstruction of musical material in order to rebuild it as a hybrid, to the decision of a final track order, as was the case with s_traits.
Edelstein: But haven’t you also involved the computer in your collaboration—in effect a third collaborator? Is there something about the reduction of your sense of self that’s essential to the process? Or is the anxiety of completion—of knowing if a work is finished—somehow diminished?
Supko: I do think of myself as collaborating with the computer, with the software I designed to suggest ideas that would never occur to me otherwise. I suppose my feelings about collaborating with the computer are similar to my feelings about collaborating with another human artist.
Edelstein: Are you saying that collaboration is a kind of liberation from the self?
Supko: Yes, but…