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15 May 2014

Inside composer-performer collaboration

Zubin Kanga Image: Zubin Kanga  

Pianist Zubin Kanga discusses his recent doctoral research examining the process of collaboration between composers and performers.

Collaboration with composers takes up a large part of my work and life. The first email I receive each morning is, more often than not, from a composer, and most weeks I have at least one workshop on a current collaboration and meet at least one new composer keen on a future collaboration. Most of my solo, chamber and concerto programs over the past eight years have included collaborations with living composers and I'm currently engaged in collaborations with over thirty composers, creating works for many projects in the near future.

Collaboration first became central to my musical identity during my school days (when I was more interested in composing than performing) and developed through my undergraduate years at the University of Sydney, my postgraduate study at the Royal Academy of Music in London and my professional career as a pianist. It's not just the thrill of making history when you walk on stage to premiere a new piece, it is the challenge of innovating new approaches to an old and oft-explored instrument; of honing a work to suit or challenge one's technique; and of the pleasure of engaging creatively with some of the most talented, creative and innovative musicians in the world to work at the cutting edge of the art form.

My own experience of collaboration never seemed to fit the myth of the composer as sole creator - the lone genius who hands sacred texts to the performer who merely executes his wishes. In fact, I often find that the creative input of performers is as important as composers to the creative process, but that the boundaries between these two roles often dissolve and are reformed: in some cases, powerplay and conflicts over creative territory dominate the process, while in others an intimacy develops which allows the roles to remain ambiguous.

Recent research has challenged these myths, showing the complexity of Johannes Brahms's collaboration with Joseph Joachim, Françoise Poulenc's with Pierre Bernac, Benjamin Britten's with Peter Pears and John Cage's with David Tudor. There have also been similar studies exploring collaborative relationships in many other fields, such as between Picasso and Braque, between Einstein and Bohr, between Marie and Pierre Curie and among members of the Second City improvisational comedy group in Chicago, that have all helped to shed light on how creative collaboration works. But it is the even more recent research field of ethnographic research on composer-performer collaboration (using all the latest documentary technology) that has really shown the true complexity of authorship and ambiguity of roles in the creation of new music. It is into this field, that I launched my doctoral research.

Over the past five years of my PhD at the Royal Academy of Music, London, I documented 48 collaborations, 42 of which I was involved in as the performer, and 30 of which featured the creation of a new work. 10 of these case studies were written up in detail for my PhD thesis, Inside the Collaborative Process: Realising New Works for Solo Piano. Although not the first auto-ethnographic study of composer-performer collaboration, this is the first study centred around the creation and realisation of solo piano works. It is also the first time so many cases with the same performer have been lined up and compared, revealing new trends, confirming some myths and discrediting others.

In each chapter, I tackled a different catalyst that shaped the collaboration process, affecting the manner of communication, the type of relationship and the type (and quality) of music that came out the other end.

Interventions by Alex Pozniak, performed by Zubin Kanga (piano) and Antoine Francoise (page turner).
Recorded at Kings Place, London, 13 February 2012.

My first main chapter looked at how large differences in age and career development would affect the process. In my past work with senior (and often very famous) composers I found it very difficult to have any creative input, with the relationship sometimes resembling a teacher-student relationship. I included two detailed case studies on collaborations with leading British composers, George Benjamin and Michael Finnissy and contrasted these with two cases with emerging Australian composers, Marcus Whale and Philip Jameson. Although there were moments where an age-disparity in these relationships was exploited, I found that in general these differences in seniority didn't dominate the relationship as much as the individual personalities of the composers: Finnissy and Whale generally encouraged more freedom in my interpretive approach, while Benjamin and Jameson were more controlling, with a clear sense of how I should approach their work. Neither approach was necessarily better - Finnissy's and Benjamin's collaborative methods both got the best out of my playing, and their particular methods and language were developed precisely to work symbiotically with their respective musical styles over many years of experience.

The second chapter examined what happens when the composer allows the performer into their composition workshop so that a large proportion of the composition is written collaboratively. I used one major case study, Interventions (2010) by Alex Pozniak, an Australian composer I've worked with since we were schoolboys. The work has a surprising theatrical element in it - the pageturner (originally performed by Pozniak) starts interacting and interrupting my playing until he eventually pushes me off the piano, becoming the main soloist. A musical duel between the two performers ensues, with humorous (and slightly disturbing) results.

...out of obscurity by Elliott Gyger (Soundcloud).

The work was composed over a month of intense workshop sessions in a University of Sydney practice room, with joint improvisation of much of the musical and theatrical material. As the work was composed so quickly, much of it was memorised with the score functioning as an aide memoire using minimal instructions and primitive graphic notation. Although our memory served us well for the premiere, it was rather more foggy when we performed the work 18 months later, and we had to go back to videos of the premiere and workshops to fill in the gaps in the score. However, even when Pozniak wrote out a fully notated score, I found there were still some theatrical details that were too subtle and unusual to write down. I concluded that this knowledge created in workshops - what I call a 'work-specific performance practice' -would always be required, no matter how much detail was provided in the score.

Virtuosity and the creation of virtuoso works was the subject of the third chapter, including works composed for me by British composer David Gorton, and Australian composers Elliott Gyger and Anthony Moles. Although all three works were very different (with Gyger and Gorton exploring new techniques inside the piano and Moles using a more conventional, Lisztian approach to the instrument) the virtuosic aim steered all three collaborations towards certain types of exchanges. In all these cases, testing of thresholds dominated the collaboration, with the limits of possibility constantly being challenged and negotiated. As the performance approached, risk management became another dominant feature, with negotiations of tempi required to make the works playable. All the works pushed the boundaries of what is possible on the piano, and Gyger's ...out of obscurity (2011) sets a new benchmark for density and complexity of extended techniques, unmatched in any repertoire I have encountered.

Long-term collaboration and the effect of successive collaborations on a composer-performer relationship was explored in the fourth chapter. I focused on my long collaborative relationship with Australian composer Daniel Rojas, who has worked with me on three solo piano works, two piano concerti and a major work for soprano and piano. I found that there were many benefits to having a long, fruitful relationship: I gained an understanding of his style and of the styles that influence his music (in particular, indigenous Peruvian music, tango and salsa). In turn, he understood my pianistic capabilities and trusted my judgement on his works-in-progress. Our most recent collaboration, his solo work Entre Bajos y Alturas (2011) was the culmination of the partnership to this point, with a range of Latin American dance styles interacting with a prepared piano. There were also disadvantages to our long-term relationship, with a breakdown of professional conduct on both sides when under stress. However, these conflicts were soon acknowledged and resolved, using language and methods similar to those found in marriage counselling sessions.

The final chapter focused on the catalytic effects of graphic notation. I examined the creation of David Young's Not Music Yet, composed as a watercolour painting with strict instructions on how to read it, but no instructions on what musical materials to use. The tension between the ambiguity of the score (with its dripping/mixing/cracking paint) and the precision he wanted out of the interpretation was carefully calculated to induce a spontaneity of performance that might have been difficult to achieve if he had handed me a very dense and complicated score. Despite his policy of giving the performer autonomy, he intervened at certain crucial points to adjust aspects of my interpretation so that it could then resemble 'a David Young piece'. A bizarre consequence of this was that our roles became completely redefined, with Young controlling many of the performative and theatrical aspects, while I made many of the fundamental compositional decisions.

Besides these findings about particular catalysts, there were several general conclusions that could be drawn when looking across the entire collection of 48 cases documented.

All the case studies support the idea that the conventional model of musical creativity, with the composer as a sole author of musical works, is a myth. The creation of music is distributed socially, temporally and among many different cultural objects. The roles of composer and performer are often dissolved, which makes the concept of creative ownership highly problematic.

The cases also confirmed that there is no 'right' way to collaborate - different musical styles and combinations of personalities require different approaches. However, I did find that the more innovative works (in particular, those that used new techniques and sounds from the piano) were correlated with the most integratively collaborative relationships, where close dialogue and creative exchanges were found throughout the composition process.

My research allowed a closer look at how performance practice becomes highly problematic in new and recent works. New approaches to instrumental techniques, to notation, to interaction, to other media and to musical expression require new knowledge to be created and shared in workshops. As many of these details cannot be notated, they become a 'work-specific performance practice" that only the original creators are privy to.

This creates problems for the long-term life of the piece, and there are already many works from the last 50 years where vital information has been irrecoverably lost. This leads to the seemingly absurd situation where we know more about the performance practice of works written in the late 18th-century than about some works written in recent decades. A possible solution is the detailed documentation of the workshop process for the benefit of future performers and researchers, but the situation also demands that more attention be paid to senior new music performers who receive relatively little scholarly attention in comparison to senior composers, yet carry with them an invaluable body of knowledge.

In addition to these general conclusions, I found a wealth of tools that could be useful for future performers and composers, which included:

  • A mutual knowledge of musical repertoire and wider culture allowed collaborators to make references that aided explanations.
  • The early communication of priorities allowed both parties to make more efficient use of the workshop.
  • Communication-through-playing was particularly important, and one of many tools that aren't available when communicating via email.
  • Play and humour was useful in resolving, and preventing, unproductive conflicts and also allowing a space where new ideas could flourish.
  • Deliberate omission of details in a score - what I call "low-resolution notation" - was a useful way of transferring control over the final performance to the performer while still allowing the composer to stay in control of certain key aspects.
  • Perhaps most importantly, a spirit of community allowed a useful cross-pollination of new ideas and techniques among the composers of many different countries.

Parallel to these collaborative tools, the research uncovered new musical tools for composers and performers in the form of new techniques and approaches to the piano. The scores and the recordings are research outputs in their own right that chart new territory for the instrument, expanding its soundworld and pushing the limits of virtuosity.

There are off course many avenues for my further research in this field. I still have hours of great footage that didn't make it into the thesis documenting dozens of collaborations with composers such as Steve Reich, Helmut Lachenmann, Thomas Adès, Beat Furrer, Liza Lim, Ross Edwards, Nigel Butterley, Rosalind Page, Jane Stanley, Andrew Harrison, Drew Crawford and Nicholas Vines. In addition, my ongoing collaborations (including works by Julian Day, Cat Hope, Daniel Blinkhorn and Kate Moore all nearing completion) will provide me with new and varied approaches to collaboration and music making to explore, including the use of electronics and the dynamics of collaborations with chamber groups. A planned book will use this wealth of new material to explore how a large network of collaborators interacts with each other and with educational institutions, funding bodies and performing arts companies.

If creativity is an inherently social act, then understanding the types of creative ecologies that best foster collaborative relationships will have benefits not just for the music sector, but for the other arts, the sciences and for all industries that depend on creativity. Unravelling the mysteries of musical collaboration will thus provide insights, models and strategies for all these other fields to follow.

Further links

Zubin Kanga - homepage

London-based Australian pianist, Zubin Kanga, has performed at the BBC Proms, Aldeburgh, ISCM, Borealis and London Southbank Festivals as well as appearing as soloist with the London Sinfonietta and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. A member of Ensemble Offspring, he has commissioned over 50 new works and collaborates with many of the world’s leading composers.


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