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Composers in collaboration

by Merja Hottinen

Collaborative composing is not common among Finnish composers of art music, and the approach raises several critical questions. Is it even possible to share musical creation and innovation with another person? Does group work inevitably lead to bland or incoherent compromises, or can it produce art of a high quality? Is the incentive for engaging in this that it is trendy or that commissioners want it that way, or do composers have other reasons for co-authoring works? Despite the numerous reservations, some composers have found collaboration to be an enriching aspect of writing music.

Collaboration is one of the keywords of contemporary society. Many areas of culture and authorship are embracing the collective approach, such as non-fiction and visual art. Collaborative composing initiatives have been put forward in Finland occasionally over the past decades, beginning with the ’happenings’ of the 1960s and the collective works of the 1980s, and more recent examples such as Massahumu [Mass buzz] produced by the Ears open! society for the 60th birthday of Esa-Pekka Salonen or the works written by composers of that society in teams of two for the Musica nova Helsinki festival in 2019.

Having said that, we must note that the phenomenon is not very widespread at all among Finnish composers. Art music remains largely an individual pursuit, with the music being exposed to an audience and to wider debate only when the score is finished and can be shared, first with performers and then with listeners. Collaboration is far more common at junctures between branches of the arts, or with or between performing musicians.

For all the buzz that it is generating, collaborative composing is a relatively new phenomenon. One symptom of this is that it is not yet definitively clear what the term actually means. ‘Collaborative composing’ has been used to refer to any number of communal projects, crowdsourcing, composer collectives, cooperation between composer and musician, well-established music-writing partnerships, or other kinds of contributing or co-authoring.

There is a similar plurality in the reasons why such works are being created, both in art music as in other branches of the arts. Hanna Kuusela, who has studied collaboration in literature, has found that in literature the motivation may have to do with breaking out of isolation, renouncing individualism or riding the trend (read more about her work here). For some, the motivation may simply have to do with achieving a better end result or involving multiple voices.

Ahvenjarvi Lappalainen Photo Satu Renko Netti
Sanna Ahvenjärvi and Tapio Lappalainen
Photo: Satu Renko

Sanna Ahvenjärvi and Tapio Lappalainen have both created separate careers as composers, but they have also created four works together to date. The most recent, Water, is a piece with a climate change theme; it was scheduled to be premiered at the Tampere Biennale in April 2020, but the festival unfortunately was cancelled because of the coronavirus epidemic. (Read more about the Tampere Biennale festival here.)

Based in northern Finland, Ahvenjärvi and Lappalainen are a couple with children and initially ended up writing music together just to simplify the division of household duties in the face of a looming deadline and to allow both of them equal opportunities to spend time both with their work and with their family. The experience was a positive one and prompted them to continue; they report that writing music together has done a lot of good, not least by bringing a social dimension to an otherwise rather lonely pursuit.

In research literature, collaborative composing has been categorised in multiple ways. There are different ways of sharing responsibilities and different hierarchies of authors. Composer Alan Taylor, in his study (2016), distinguished between consultative, co-operative and collaborative working. In a genuine collaboration, composers have an equal share in the actual writing of the music and in the decisions concerning the work being written.

With Ahvenjärvi and Lappalainen, it is very much a case of the latter. They work on sections of a composition in true dialogue, and the end result displays the hallmarks of them both. “One of us may have an idea and write it down, and the other can take it from there. There are two sets of ideas overlapping, because we both bring our own style and our own ideas into the mix,” they say. 

“There have been many times where I’ve thought, wow, I wouldn’t have come up with that,” says Sanna Ahvenjärvi. As an example, Tapio Lappalainen’s background in music technology led to the introduction in Water of a hydrophone frozen into a block of ice, giving off a sound when a percussionist hits or scrapes the ice in concert. More generally, a second pair of eyes is useful for seeing the big picture when one of the duo has been closely working on a particular section – e.g. providing insights in moving material around or in trimming unnecessary additions.

Heina Esitys Hiljaisuus Riikka Talvitie C Jouni Ihalainen Heina Tyoryhma C Jouni Ihalainen
Left: From the performance of the video work Heinä by Riikka Talvitie (in the picture) and Pipsa Lonka at the Silence festival in 2018. Right: The Heinä team: Pipsa Lonka, Tuuli Lindeberg, Riikka Talvitie and Lauri Sallinen.
Photos: Jouni Ihalainen

Dialogue changes a composer

For composer Riikka Talvitie, the motivation for entering collaborative projects was to open up the work of a composer and the aesthetics of contemporary music to wider discussion. She is completing a doctorate at the Sibelius Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki focusing on broadening the work of a composer from the perspectives of shared authorship and communality. Talvitie has just begun a composition project with composer Lauri Supponen and musicologist Juha Torvinen, and their work, which is to have a Baltic Sea theme, will be performed at Meidän Festivaali [Our Festival] in Järvenpää in 2021.

For Talvitie, this is the first project in which she is sharing composing duties with another professional composer, but it is by no means her first collaborative project. She has worked in various contexts with material contributed by audiences, communities or the young musicians who were to perform the piece, and she has also collaborated with artists in other fields. A case in point is the video work Heinä [Grass], on which she worked with dramaturge Pipsa Lonka, literally side by side, making decisions together and exploring where the work was going; in genuine collaboration, in other words, to use Taylor’s term.

“It’s been baby steps, but I’ve been trying to introduce an element of dialogue to my composing,” says Talvitie. Her experiences have been of great importance to her composer identity. “I’ve found that dialogue changes me irrevocably. I can no longer claim the exclusive right to decide.” 

On the other hand, with genuine collaboration comes new power. “Multimedia works operate in the interfaces between artforms, and I’ve learned that I can have an opinion and a say in content issues beyond my sphere, so to speak, in a collaborative project. That’s been hard to come to terms with, because composers have traditionally not been consulted on this kind of content,” says Talvitie.

Opening up composing with communication

One difficult aspect of sharing this traditionally lonely occupation is communication, because a composer may find it difficult to verbalise his or her ideas or choices in the midst of the process. Ahvenjärvi, Lappalainen and Talvitie all emphasise the importance of communication and trust in collaborative composing.

Communication does not necessarily have to be verbal. “You can communicate directly with music, non-verbally, by trying out things in parallel or even at the same time,” notes Talvitie.

For Ahvenjärvi and Lappalainen, communication largely works by writing out and processing musical ideas, but it may nevertheless be difficult to understand the other person’s ideas without having a conversation in words. A frequent exchange of ideas ensures that both are on the same page, figuratively speaking, about where the work is going. “Talking about your ideas as early as possible is hugely important,” says Lappalainen. “Sometimes you get so invested in your own material that you feel insulted if someone else takes it and runs with it in another direction. I don’t think I could work with anyone else but Tapio, because with him I can be myself, with all my vulnerabilities and emotional exposure,” adds Ahvenjärvi.

Riikka Talvitie agrees that working with new people is always a risk. “You can never know how the group dynamic will work, what conflicts will emerge – as sometimes happens. If you want to collaborate, you have to be prepared to negotiate and engage in discussion,” says Talvitie. “I’ve gradually begun to enjoy it, actually!”

Ollivirtaperko C Maarit Kytoharju
Olli Virtaperko
Photo: Maarit Kytöharju

One voice or many?

Collaborative experiments have often been criticised for producing either bland compromises or incoherent and conflicting end products. In a column published in the Rondo music magazine in 2019, composer Olli Virtaperko expressed his concern that joint projects might cause composing to lose something of its edgy artistic risk-taking and innovation and to degenerate into a lacklustre exercise that produces “safe, familiar and listener-friendly” music.

Riikka Talvitie does not see this as an inevitable evolution. On the contrary, her experience is that collaboration can import a lot of interesting elements into a work. “Group work can lend a fresh edge and added polish to the end result. Also, each contributor can play to their strengths,” says Talvitie. “I’m sure that many people feel that this would lead to the weakening of large-scale musical structures. But with the world full of ambitious people, it doesn’t have to be that way. Collaboration is not the same as commercialisation.”

A relevant issue brought up by Virtaperko and others is whether the motivation to engage in joint projects comes from the composer himself or herself or whether it is the commissioning party that is keen to climb on the bandwagon of this much-discussed phenomenon. Hanna Kuusela poses the same question: Will trendiness prod people towards collaborative authoring even when that approach produces no meaning or meaningful content, not even for the creator himself or herself, or when for whatever reason it would feel better to work alone?

For Virtaperko at least, an individual character and a personal voice are cornerstones of a composer’s identity. “Artistic freedom with maximum opportunities to express yourself on your own terms is the only real and meaningful motivation for a composer,” writes Virtaperko.

Talvitie, however, points out that the conventional individualist composer may be a restrictive role. She came to engage in communal experiments partly because she did not feel entirely comfortable with the traditional role of a composer. On the other hand, she also feels that a composer’s ‘voice’ could be discussed in more analytical terms than is usually the case. “You might have composition students practice various kinds of musical expression, for example by writing in someone else’s style or ‘voice’.”

There may even be multiple voices within a single work. “You don’t have to have a single unifying logic within a work. Diversity is just as valuable and may even be regarded by the audience as an important element,” says Talvitie. “Nowadays, with electronics and multimedia and so on, there is even less justification for requiring a work to be integrated or traditional in its form and appearance.”

"Processual art has an inherent challenge in that doing things together can easily become more important than the end result. It’s almost like a therapy thing. In collective visual art, for example, scholars have criticised it for removing itself from the sphere of aesthetic discourse."
Johan Tallgren

What matters, the method or the music?

One of the courses announced for the Time of Music festival in Viitasaari in summer 2020 will focus on collaborative composition. The instructors, Sandeep Bhagwati and Catherine Milliken, are members of the trans-traditional Ensemble Extrakte based in Berlin. Its operating principle is to foster communication and inspiration between musical traditions and to create music collectively, without a headline composer.

Bhagwati is a composer known particularly for combining Indian traditional music with Western contemporary practice in innovative ways. The objective of the course is to discover ways of creating music collectively in a group consisting of composers with varied backgrounds, including ways of making music together imported from outside the realm of Western art music.

Composer Johan Tallgren, artistic director of the Time of Music festival, sees potential in collaborative composition as improving the working potential of composers on the one hand and fostering multi-cultural integration on the other. “Many of the people who usually apply for Bhagwati’s courses are composers in mid-career who want to learn new ways of making music,” says Tallgren. “And if the collective approach genuinely produces multicultural interaction, it becomes confrontative in an interesting way, compared with a situation where you only have five white men or five white women together. You get this discussion about traditions, orally transmitted traditions and meanings. Collaborative composition is not a new thing outside Western cultures; it appears in many traditions,” says Tallgren.

“Having said that, it is true that processual art has an inherent challenge in that doing things together can easily become more important than the end result. It’s almost like a therapy thing. In collective visual art, for example, scholars have criticised it for removing itself from the sphere of aesthetic discourse,” notes Tallgren. It is certainly true that in many cases communal projects aim to break free of the autonomy of aesthetics and focus on communal experiences instead.

One key to reconciling the different value systems involved might be a discussion of the nature of composing as advocated by Talvitie and of what the outcomes of collaboration are or should be, and of the strengths and weaknesses of the method itself.

It does not help that communal composition initiatives are often one-off projects that do not have a natural niche in the monolithic-work world of art music. “Projects requiring new ways of working can require a huge effort and are then never repeated,” notes Riikka Talvitie.

Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi
Featured photo by Maarit Kytöharju / Tampere Biennale: Composers Riikka Talvitie (left) and Minna Leinonen (middle) in collaboration with bandoneon player Kristina Kuusisto at Tampere Biennale 2018.