Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Give & Take

This month’s blog post is the first in a series of thoughts on my collaborative work with the Atlanta Ballet.

Creativity is a very mysterious business. One moment there is nothing. The next, there is an idea. At first, it may be no more than a passing thought; an undefined form not yet clearly visible. And yet, something is suddenly there. I would like to think that as a composer, I have a wellspring of such ideas always simmering somewhere in the subconscious simply awaiting my command to rise up and become music. However, this is most often not how it works. The creative process for me is mostly an act of collaboration.

As I look over my catalog of works, I am hard pressed to find compositions that have not been written with some type of collaborator. Usually, I work with musicians. When a performer or conductor commissions a piece of music, I try to work closely with them; striving to balance my artistic and aesthetic desires with their creative ideas. It is the same when I find myself working with poets, scholars, visual artists and film directors on projects. I find it exhilarating to engage in the “give and take” of collaboration. Often, the result is the creation of a piece that I never would have thought up on my own.

Yours truly with dancer/choreographer/actress Tara Lee
All of this comes to mind as I embark on a new piece: a commission by the Atlanta Ballet. This commission marks the first time I’ve worked with dancers and, by necessity, a new type of collaborative process. The concept is relatively simple: build a musical composition from the ground up along side a choreographer who will be setting the music as it is created. And yet, there is nothing simple about it. How to begin? What is the ballet going to be about? Will it tell a story? What kind of music fits the expectations of the choreographer and the organization in general? What is the scope of the piece in terms of length, number of dancers and instrumentation? What is the overall budget for the production and how does that affect the size of the instrumentation? I’ve decided to try and share the answers to some of these questions by chronicling this project from its inception to completion within the modest confines of this blog.

In late 2011, I began an email dialogue with John McFall, the Artistic Director of the Atlanta Ballet. He spoke of the ballet’s upcoming May production entitled “New Choreographic Voices;” an evening of world premieres and arranged a meeting between myself and one of the choreographers for the production, Tara Lee. I was nervous about this initial meeting. Would Tara and I get along? What did she have in mind for her portion of the production? Fortunately, the meeting went well. I was immediately put at ease as we casually talked about music and dance and I felt that we had very similar tastes.

This first meeting was extremely important because it settled the issue of chemistry between the collaborators. With genuine artistic chemistry, the collaborative process becomes a joy. For my part, I knew as our conversation progressed that I would be able to have fun working with Tara; that I was in sync with her artistic sensibilities and increasingly felt that we would work well together. In many ways, once genuine collaboration is possible, the rest is simply details.

Yet, these details are substantive! After our first meeting, Tara checked out my website and other online sites (such as Reverb Nation and SoundCloud) where my music is available to stream. At our second meeting, she had some definite ideas about instrumentation based on some of the music she heard. Our collaboration had begun in earnest. Over the next few weeks, we met a few more times and exchanged text messages and emails. In the meantime, John McFall felt that things had progressed to a point where a formal commission for the May show could now be made. Still, more preliminary work needed to be done.

During our conversations (now primarily taking place at a coffee shop), Tara and I discussed subject matter for the piece, overall length and instrumentation. I was very interested in her initial idea – a notion of continuum; of time and changes within time. For her part, Tara seemed to be influenced by some of my works. She was drawn to pieces like “Citizens of Nowhere,” that featured the saxophone and “passing vanities” that featured a DJ along with live performers. Based on our conversations and Tara’s research into my catalog, we settled on a decidedly non-traditional quartet of musicians consisting of alto sax (doubling on soprano sax), cello, percussion and DJ.

Once we had decided on musicians, and importantly, John gave me word that the budget would support four live performers for the run of this production, I volunteered to secure the musicians. My immediate concern was the DJ. I turned to composer, performer and DJ, Jennifer Mitchell with whom I had collaborated with in the past. In writing the work, “passing vanities” for clarinet, violin and DJ (a commission from the professional Atlanta-based new music ensemble Sonic Generator), I had worked closely with Jen. It was she who really inspired my choices in recorded materials and score notation for a DJ. We had a meeting to discuss how we might collaborate and produce materials useful to Tara as she choreographed the production. 

After more text messages and emails Tara and I met again last week. This time, I was armed with a formal proposal; a written outline of many of the ideas we had freely discussed earlier as well as a plan for providing materials for her to use for choreographing the work. The piece was becoming more real now that there was something actually written down. After looking over the proposal and making her suggestions, we left with a fairly concrete plan. We knew the subject matter, overall length and basic structure of the work and had settled on the instrumentation along with an ensemble of at least five (perhaps six) dancers.

My task now will be to compose and provide computer-generated versions of the written music along with suggestions for grooves to Jen. She will then provide me with her selected recordings. I’ll mix my computer-generated score with Jen’s recordings for a good approximation of how the finished music will sound. Tara will then have a good model to use for the choreography. As I complete sections of the music, I also plan on attending some of the dance rehearsals once the choreography has been created. It is my hope that the dancing will inspire my composition of subsequent sections of the piece. The notion is that as the music feeds the choreography, the choreography will in turn feed the music so that the piece is truly built in a collaborative manner.

At one point, many weeks ago, there was nothing. Just an email. Now, there is an idea. However, it is more than just a passing thought or an undefined form – there is structure; there is a vision; and most importantly, there are relationships. There is a relationship with John, who initiated the project and ultimately gave it the green light. There is a relationship with Tara; a shared vision of music and dance. There is a relationship with Jen; a talented composer and musician who has already contributed wonderful ideas to this process. There are relationships with the other musicians, most of whom I have worked with in the past. Soon there will be more relationships: dancers, set designers, lighting designers, costumers and the input of many others.

It is humbling to think of all this as I sit scribbling my little notes on manuscript paper. In my next posting, I’ll report on how well we are following all our plans and how the piece is progressing. I hope you stick around for the journey and join us, if you are able, in Atlanta in May for the premiere!