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24 April 2019

Co-writing 'Forever Singing Winter into Spring'

2019 Metropolis Festival

Ade Vincent Image: Ade Vincent  
© Jane Hendry

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra's Young Composer in Residence, Ade Vincent, writes about the process behind collaborative work Forever Singing Winter into Spring. The work will be premiered as part of the 2019 Metropolis New Music Festival on 4 May, along with another new work by Mark Holdsworth, commissioned by MSO as part of the Cybec 21st Century Composers program. Also as part of the Metropolis festival, works by Barry Conyngham (a world premiere of a new work entitled One small step) and Graeme Koehne in a concert on 2 May.

Co-writing is essentially a risk vs. reward proposition. Too many chefs can spoil the broth. The process can be compromised by compromise. The undiluted creative vision of a sole auteur has many benefits, not least that it is a simpler process. But a successful collaboration can be just as good - or better - when it works.

The (potential) reward is the creation of a unique voice and style that combines the best of the individual voices. It is the bigger pool of good ideas. It is the earlier detection of unconvincing ideas. It's the tempering of bad creative habits. It's another set of solutions when a creative roadblock is struck. It's having to work within limitations imposed by the other's musical taste. It's the momentum of teamwork and shared excitement at breakthroughs. It's the creative possibilities that flow from the friction of uncertainty when improvising with (or against) others.

Co-writing is something I seek out regularly - the process feels natural. This is largely due to having several long-term collaborative partners, and being accustomed to its pros and cons and how best to navigate them. The process can take many forms; this article reveals what it looked like in my most recent collaboration.

Forever Singing Winter into Spring is the third of three new works I've written for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra as part of their Young Composer in Residence position. It is a song cycle in four movements for solo voice (Lior), orchestra and electronics. The work was co-written with Lior. It builds on a prior collaboration and was accompanied by the ease of an already familiar working relationship. Lior wrote the majority of the lyrics to the piece and I wrote the majority of the music. Some of the vocal melodies were written by Lior in response to stimulus provided by me; those melodies then became the thread around which I wove the orchestral and electronic parts. Some parts were co-created, and some were individually created with the other providing direction.

We used several collaborative approaches for Forever Singing Winter into Spring. The first was incremental co-writing by correspondence, where the piece was worked on by one writer at a time. Multiple ideas were sketched and sent to the other as possibilities, with the most promising chosen. Circumstance or geography (tour schedules etc.) sometimes imposed this approach; at other times it was our preference. Being alone in your own writing space is very different to being in someone else's in their presence.

The second approach was similar to the first, except only one party would actively write, while the other essentially acted as the A&R department: giving feedback, directing the next set of musical or lyrical suggestions, but not actively contributing any content, or only contributing around the edges - icing rather than cake.

The third technique was what I suspect most people imagine co-writing to look like: writing while both were present, improvising or making suggestions in real time. This approach can be hugely rewarding: driven by the spark created by two sets of ideas colliding it can lead you to interesting musical places you may not otherwise go. For many it's also the hardest. It's where you are the most vulnerable. There is often more pressure associated with coming up with ideas in front of an audience (even of only one). Perhaps most confronting is the way in which ideas are presented and appraised without any possibility of refining (or deleting…) them.

Spring (Movement 1) of our new work was born of this process - a collaborative improvisation. It emerged at the end of a session as something of an afterthought - we were editing other material and not planning to write that day. Lior had already made a start on lyrics for the movement; using these he sang an impromptu melody, while I played synthesized vocal harmony chords underneath, pushing and pulling him to musical places he may not otherwise go, him doing the same. We collectively felt our way towards something, gradually refining the idea with several passes, all the while recording the process. Perhaps because the session was impromptu, and progress had already been made elsewhere, we hit on something promising quickly - sometimes the best ideas arrive unlooked for.

Spring from Ade Vincent (preview extract)

We then went to work on it independently: I sifted through the recording and constructed a coherent form around some of the best moments; it went back to Lior to refine the text, back to me for structure, and so on. Listening again to the initial improvisation is interesting. The spark of the movement's core idea is clear, but the polish and progress of the back-and-forth follow-up writing is equally clear in every subsequent iteration - both are crucial. A promising spark without the hours of refining work that follows rarely makes a good piece; likewise, refining an inferior idea only goes so far.

Summer was a straight-forward iterative collaboration. It began life as a drum beat - we wanted percussion to drive this movement, so I wrote five groove options and sent them to Lior. He wrote melodic sketches on the two he liked most, and I chose one of these to pursue. Worth noting is that this was after two complete demos for the movement were discarded (after many more early sketches were pursued and then also discarded) - most people (except perhaps other writers) would be shocked at how much material I throw away.

Autumn was a happy accident - I wrote several musical canvases on which Lior might paint a melody. The idea that won was initially intended for another project, starting life as a possible trip-hop song, but I included it for fun in the batch of ideas I sent to Lior to play with. It immediately jumped out to him, so much so that he improvised an opening melodic gambit on a whim, still thinking it would not fit this piece, more for fun than anything else. When I heard what he'd done I thought it so strong as to demand inclusion here - it shifted the genre of the piece a little but it excited us both more than anything else we'd written to that point. Feeling comfortable enough in a collaboration to make lateral suggestions is crucial - they're often the best.

Autumn from Ade Vincent (preview extract).

Winter was that rare composer's joy of a piece that emerges almost fully formed - I sat down one day in my studio and out came the melody and piano part almost exactly as it remains now, accompanied by stream-of-consciousness lyrics. This was on the back of many days of no progress - those breakthrough moments are usually the product of hours (days…months?) of work without seeming reward. Lior used my nonsense lyrics as a starting point, retaining the sentence structure, the momentum, even the shapes of the vowel sounds, while assembling a coherent meaning and flow. These structural limitations to Lior's lyric writing worked well - the boundaries provide direction and novelty, but there was enough freedom to create without feeling restricted.

The end (usually) justifies the means when creating - good art is good art. A tense collaboration might lead to a great record. But if you want to maintain the relationship, here are some thoughts on how to co-write well.

Start from a place of mutual respect. Speak honestly but with diplomacy. Be fully prepared (and actively seek) to give, and, just as importantly, take feedback well. Don't take negative feedback personally. Celebrate good ideas equally regardless of whose they are. Remember that it's not a competition between writers, it's a competition between ideas - who wrote them should be irrelevant. Be open-minded. Be ready to advocate for ideas, and be equally prepared to let them go. If you don't like something, look first for your co-writer's rationale or intent before vetoing it. Phone calls or face-to-face almost always beats email and texting for creative disagreements.

It can also be useful to establish what happens when creative disagreements arise and push comes to shove (hopefully only figuratively). Does one party ultimately have more authority or will you keep going back to the well until you're both equally happy? The agreement is often unspoken, which is fine, but if in doubt, address it. Whether it's about one element (e.g. lyrics), or about one song or section, or the whole project, neither approach is necessarily better. What is definitively worse is if the unspoken agreement reads differently to each co-writer.

At its best, co-writing is creatively energising, and not just for the project in question - a good collaboration changes your writing in the long term, and can reward you with new skills and ideas that emerge even after returning to writing alone.

AMC resources

Ade Vincent (AMC profile)

Metropolis: Night One 2 May 2019 at 7:30pm, Melbourne Recital Centre - event details in the AMC Calendar

Metropolis: Night Two 4 May 2019 at 7:30pm, Melbourne Recital Centre - event details in the AMC Calendar

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