Friday, March 16, 2012

Team Work

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

If I didn’t already know this, the past couple of projects have certainly reinforced the idea that composers must learn to be collaborators. In a past blog post, I reflected on my work on the soundtrack for a film and how my music needed to be subservient to not only the finished and (mostly) edited movie but to the director’s tastes, preferences and vision for the story. Now I find myself once again in a position where the music I compose is not the sole focus of a project. However, instead of fitting music to a more or less finished work, I now have the opportunity to co-create from the ground up, a piece for not only music but dance as well.

(L-R): Tara Lee, yours truly & Jennifer Mitchell at the
Atlanta Ballet studios.
A month ago, I had only had a few meetings with the choreographer of the Atlanta Ballet project, the wonderfully talented dancer and actress Tara Lee. These first few meetings were more or less “getting-to-know-you” affairs; choreographer and composer getting a feel for one another and ascertaining whether the necessary creative chemistry needed to collaborate on a new ballet piece was present.

Thankfully, things went well and we found ourselves quickly discussing details about the piece. As of mid-February, not a single note had been written but a lot of the important legwork had been accomplished: musicians had been secured, contracts all worked out and the basic structure of the piece had been developed.

So where do we stand now, a month into the process?

Armed with basic ideas about the piece, I entered into the familiar and lonely phase of the work: the creation of music. At a certain point all talk and planning became useless. Unless there was some actual music written, there would be nothing to choreograph. I have been able over the past several weeks, to compose roughly half of the music needed for the piece. However, the process of composing has been quite different than most of my past projects.

Having completed two major sections of the ballet, I sent off computer generated realizations of the music to Tara for her reaction. This was already non-standard practice for me. Normally, I prefer to compose by pencil on manuscript paper; completing an entire work before the notation process. However, the best way for Tara to get a handle on how I was thinking musically was to pause after each section, notate the music using computer software then create the aforementioned computer generated realizations.

After sending off the first audio file, I waited nervously for some – any – response. There had been a lot of talk, but now there was an actual product. I found myself very nervous – more so than usual – while waiting for a reaction. I was most relieved when Tara texted me with word that she liked my efforts. Breathing a sigh of relief, I continued on and created another section and sent a similar audio file. I thought this was going to be the way it was going to work: me sending music and Tara either green-lighting my efforts or needing to go back to the drawing board.

I was a bit unprepared for what came next. I got a call from Tara while shopping at Trader Joe’s one Saturday. She had been listening to the files and wondered if I could make changes. For one thing, the music wasn’t very “dancer-friendly.” With my penchant for odd meters and asymmetrical phrasing, I suppose I should have seen that one coming. What I wasn’t prepared for was the keen insight Tara had on the music and how a simple re-ordering of the sections – bringing some musical ideas out and eliminating others – greatly strengthened the piece. I don’t know that I would have thought to alter the music in the ways Tara suggested. Having complied with her requests, however, I can’t imagine the music going any other way now.

The instrumentation for this work is a bit unconventional, employing among other musicians, a D.J. spinning tracks live with a mixed chamber ensemble. Recently, I was finally able to get our D.J., Jennifer Mitchell, (a former student and wonderful composer in her own right) and Tara in the same room discussing the grooves that would be used in the piece. I am quickly discovering that this is not just a two-person collaboration between Tara and myself. This is a team effort incorporating the sizeable talents of Jen as well. In my score, I indicate the ideas for grooves (dubstep, drum&bass, etc.) but it is Jen who reads my score, hears my pitches and finds the exactly correct vinyl to spin. It’s uncanny how she has selected tracks that fit what I wrote like a glove. This is not karaoke composition. Rather, Jen is helping to form this piece as much as any of us.

I now have a much clearer vision of the piece and have set to work composing the rest of the music. The flurry of text messages, emails, phone calls and file sharing via DropBox is intensifying. I am exhilarated by this team effort and the truly collaborative nature of our work together. Tara, Jen and myself are all bringing our respective artistic visions to the table and in a wonderfully warm and creative exchange are creating a unified work. Soon the creative energies of the other musicians, stage designers and, of course, the dancers will be added to the collaborative mix. I’m sure the destination will be quite grand, but I have already gained much by the journey so far!