You can't get There from Here: a cooperative composers' project

These days the infinitive most often used is to collaborate.  I prefer to cooperate defines laborare as:

1.     be troubled/sick/oppressed, be in distress

2.     produce, take pains

3.     work, labor;

and defines operari as:

1.     devote oneself

2.     labor, toil, work

3.     perform (religious service), attend, serve.

The difference in the spirit of the activity is clear.  Both of course refer to working in some way, but why work?  To be troubled/sick/oppressed and in distress, or to take pains, these extend beyond Latin roots and chime in very well with how the English word denotes pain and force in modern political and philosophical thinking, e.g. Marx’s assertion that all labour is ‘forced labour’.  But I would like for us to cooperate, to co-devote ourselves, to co-attend to something.   Certainly working (or operating) in the arts brings into sharp focus the ultimate failure of market fundamentalism to account for all human activity that may be worth doing.   How many of the greatest artistic achievements would have ever been created if they had to, in the way that the market fundamentalist thinks of it, pay for themselves at the time that they were made?   Yes, we must get paid, somehow; that is how we must secure for ourselves and our dependents the power to live well.  But is that why we’re here?  Surely we’d be getting up to something else if money were the primary object.

So, this is a pep talk, both for those who care to read in the wider arts community, and for the six of us who are cooperating on You can’t get There from Here.  It started in October 2014 at a New Music Scotland “Time Out” composers’ mini residency.  

You can't Get There from Here:  from left to right, Francis Macdonald, Sonia Allori, Colin Broom, Drew Hammond (me), John de Simone, and Oliver Searle

The experience was, well, what you’d expect if you were given a bit of time to sit down in a mutually supportive environment with others in your field and really think hard about what you are doing, and why.  It was an opportunity to gain some perspective, to realign our creative energies, and to secure practical insight into our composer colleagues’ working lives.  

In the months that followed a plan gradually emerged through emails and a few face-to-face meetings for a way that we might cooperate on a composition.   For me the question really was, "how could I possibly abide cooperating with other composers on a project?"  The idea of discussing with others how material will develop, or which direction the form will take, instrumentation, orchestration, harmony, etc., etc., filled me with considerable apprehension.   In composing, for me there are times when the idea of reflection on, or of justification for, a particular moment of invention has very little credibility.  As much as I think of myself as a self-critical composer, I cannot say that in those all-important moments when a decision is made, I have any account for, or any ready description of the thought process.  To put it another way, I would be very hesitant to think it important to discuss what we were doing, because I would feel led through such a discussion to express my belief in the way things should be going.   But those creative moments contain in them nothing of the reasoned content that can call belief (a la Hegel, in Phenomenology of the Spirit, “pure insight” is in the first instance without content), but are particular impulses emerging from a simple commitment to act, and although they are caught up in self-consciousness, they take form as a direct result of the impulse itself, not as reasoned arguments from faithfully applied beliefs.

The solution?  Well, for the most part, we have simply left reasoned argument aside, and are cooperating by doing what we do, which is making creative decisions with musical materials. 

Colin Broom provided this description of the process, for our benefit: 

1. Each of the six composers writes a fragment of music. How substantial, how coherent, how complete or incomplete is not important. Less complete is probably better.

2. Each of these fragments is then passed onto another of the composers. Each composer takes this new fragment and can edit and change it in any and every way, shape or form, as little or as much as desired/required.

3. When each composer feels that s/he has done as much s/he wants or can, the fragments are passed on again to the next composer, until eventually each of the six fragments has passed through the hands of all composers and arrives back at the first (and also final) composer.

4. At this point, the final composer takes full and final control over the piece, and changing as much as s/he wishes, sees the piece through to completion,

5. While doing so, the final composer can consider whether to and if so, how to curate earlier fragments into the overall piece in some way. This is optional, and completely open in terms of how it’s done.

I say we have “mostly” left aside reasoned argument, but the suggestion has been made that we reconvene near the end of the process to discuss how our final editorial actions could steer these potentially disparate pieces of music into a more coherent whole.  This worries me to some extent.   How can we justify such coherence?  Are the old models of any use here, e.g. fast, slow, fast, slower, medium, faster, etc?  And on what authority can anyone suggest how another should approach the final touches on their music?   I think at most I would want this to be a show-and-tell session, so that everyone is fully informed of what’s going on. 

The next time I blog about this, which will be soon, I want to write about why this is a worthwhile thing to do, which includes the way the process interrogates the idea of authorship. I also want to get at why it is just so darn fascinating to see what another composer does with music that you would have otherwise simply called your own.

Make sure to read Colin Broom's blog entries on the project as well.