Nicholas R. Nelson

The growing website of composer and technologist Nicholas R. Nelson

On Collaboration (won't be the last one)

Filmmaker Liam Billingham

Filmmaker Liam Billingham

Filmmaker—and frequent colleague and great friend—Liam Billingham recently posted a very interesting blog post on his very unique approach to collaboration in film, and I wanted to add my 1/50th of a half-step on the same subject.

Liam describes his method: "We’d meet and talk... It was informal, but focused. Every so often, I’d write down some notes," but resulting in the end in a fixed—non-improvised—script, and it got me thinking about how/whether/why such an approach might be used in New Music.

In my experience—I shouldn't have to add that, but you know—the manner of working that Liam describes is quite common in New Music, but only within the context of collaborations between solo instrumentalists, or sometimes small groups, almost never with larger ensembles.

Having recently worked with a pair of large ensembles simultaneously (Ensemble Moto Perpetuo and Auditivvokal Dresden), I was wondering during our rehearsal period how the sense of collaboration could be fostered.  In the NYC New Music environment, with its compressed rehearsal schedules and performers in, it seems, dozens of ensembles at a time, the slow, focused informal approach that Billingham describes seems entirely out of reach.

But another common feature in the NYC New Music environment, is that it is rife with incredible improvisors, both as individuals and as ensembles; and it occurred to me that as composers we could probably make better use of that fact, even in our improvised music.

As Liam suggested, the thing to do is to have a few broad ideas and keep a pen handy.  Though in our case, a field recorder might be better…  Were I able to sit down at the beginning of a collaboration with a large ensemble and simply listen, listen to them improvise, listen to them chat, even listen to them warm up, I think I would come away from that with much stronger ideas about what works for that group.

The structure of the Competition/Call For Scores economy in New Music these days hardly allows for the idea that a piece exists—at least at first—for a specific group, however.  I look for ways to break that impasse.