I have just released two records at the same time. Not great planning I know, but very exciting. How did this happen? Well, both are the fruits of collaborations that ripened simultaneously: One is Piano Interrupted's second album, The Unified Field, with Franz Kirmann, with whom I have been writing music since 2009. And the other is the two-part Fragmented Self EP with Max Cooper, our first musical adventure together.
I invited them both, along with Volker Bertelmann a.k.a. Hauschka, a prolific and enthusiastic collaborator, to help me examine the nature of musical collaborations, and specifically, the challenges of writing new music with another person.
In many ways, having started my career writing music for pictures, almost all my work has been collaborative, whether it was with advertising creatives, film directors, or TV producers. From these experiences, I have learnt to look for a common 'language' between all the people involved. A common 'spoken' language is certainly helpful, but more than that, it is about a means of sharing creativity: sometimes this language already exists, sometimes it must be created from shared experience.
Different people have different interests, religions, upbringings, languages, defects and experiences, and this gives every person a unique set of information. Then it's just a matter of banging heads until you find which pieces of these seas of information fit together to form something useful. (Max Cooper)
Artists from other fields have a different view and a different attitude in terms of what they want to achieve, which is extremely refreshing but also difficult because you have to learn a new language to communicate with each other. I learn from people with differences. (Hauschka)
So what are the specifics of a writing collaboration between musical minds? Is having a common 'musical' language helpful? Perhaps the more pertinent question is whether a common language is even desirable.
When creating an original piece I don't feel there is necessarily the need for a common musical language. It can be abstract, and sometimes it's better if it is. Two people can have a very different understanding of an abstract idea. It might be better to say: It needs to feel cold, than "you should play lots of high notes holding down the sustain pedal", letting the other interpret the concept of "cold." (Franz Kirmann)
Volker draws an analogy with spoken language and culture:
Diversity should be cultivated. It is wonderful that I can communicate with you in English and that it is now a very common world language. The problem is that this development leads to the fact of small villages, for example in the area where I was born, losing their dialect and their specific way of expression and with it, a kind of proudness as well. Better to go to a different place and learn their way of doing things. And so it is, in a musical collaboration. (Hauschka)
When it comes to writing, this idea of 'going to a different place' certainly resonates. I am drawn to musicians whose approach to music is, in some way, alien to me. It maximises the inherent potential but also the inherent pitfalls.
Collaborations between artists of different genres are more likely to yield more original results given the potential for combinations of more disparate ideas. But that doesn't necessarily mean better music on a mass consumption scale, as people on mass love familiarity in music, and such collaborations may yield the opposite. (Max Cooper)
Indeed when it comes to the en-vogue classical/electronic blend in particular, Hauschka has words of warning.
Being a part of a group just because you play modern music on a classical piano and you mix electronic elements with other elements is for me no driving force. The challenge of collaborating in general is to make the music honest and in a way fluent or 'senseful' rather than simply putting styles on top of each other. (Hauschka)
With honesty, integrity and an open mind, the potential is limitless. After all for the solo musician "the most important thing about collaboration is its capacity to fuel creativity." (Max Cooper)
You end up with a result you could have never reached on your own. When you work with someone else, two things happen, first you are allowing a different sensibility to be involved, so that alone bring elements to the project that are totally unexpected to you and that you wouldn't allow in by yourself, and also by sharing the responsibility of a project with someone, you somehow relax a bit more, and your ego is less solicited, therefore you are in a position to be more creative yourself. (Franz Kirmann)
That's the theory at least. But this proverbial banging of heads takes time, patience "and compromise' (Franz Kirmann) in order to get "a kind of density of output and a strong attitude besides the fun" (Hauschka)
And compromise doesn't necessarily come easily.
I think most electronic and solo producers are probably ego-maniac control freaks in this sense. Once you get so used to having total control it's probably the natural result, or maybe it's that ego-maniac control freaks are drawn to being solo music producers. Really I think the control freak label is probably quite true and necessary for music production, whereas the ego-mania bit only sometimes! (Max Cooper)