The late Jerry Garcia, while recuperating in the hospital from a nasty car wreck that killed one of his friends, debated the merits of working alone artistically, as compared with working in a group. His conclusion was that working in a group is the way to go, and that when people interact with each other, things often happen that surpass what an individual can do alone. Garcia's career makes a strong case for his argument.
In large part, I agree with his assessment. But I differ with him in that I don't think working in a group goes beyond where an individual can go; it simply goes different places. I feel that working alone as an artist has been unfairly criticized by many people as self-indulgent and lacking the balance in perspective that comes from having outside input. Indeed, much of the world's greatest art has been produced by one person working alone. Working alone allows for deep, considered exploration of an interior world and maintains a purity of vision.
When I work alone, especially in the studio, it is often a meditative process that feels like sculpting, as I shape one detail at a time, working toward a big picture that only I can envision. The pace can be extremely slow, and that's generally fine with me. Working alone, I have the freedom to wander, unrestricted, in any direction. I can pursue a specific idea, meander all about the musical countryside, mix the two approaches, and even try both at once — if I can figure out how to do it.
Some artists, like Frank Zappa, choose to record alone because they don't want to compromise, accede to anyone else's wishes, or deal with other people's personalities. As misanthropic as that might sound, it is completely understandable to anyone who has endured the expected, yet remarkably stupid, band squabbles.
Lest you think that all I want to do is sit alone in a windowless room with a bunch of computers, please understand that I love collaboration and playing in bands, and I think that all of the criticisms about an artist working alone are valid; it is very easy to putter around and not complete anything when working alone, and it is equally easy to overedit until all the life is drained from a piece. You might accept something that isn't all that good because you want to think that it's good. I agree that all those dangers are present.
I don't agree, however, with the assertions that one can always go to a better place in collaboration, and that working solo rarely produces excellent, fully realized, and balanced work. Some creative pursuits, such as portrait painting and sound design, don't lend themselves as readily to collaboration as music does. There are always those artists that find ways to work with others on such things, but in many ways, those types of works often come out better when created by one person.
There comes a time when I want to take what I've created out of my little world and see how people respond to it. If I'm creating single-handedly, though, I rarely share anything that is unfinished. While I am creating it, it is only mine. When it is complete, it becomes the world's.
Does that seem self-indulgent? Perhaps, but so is a hot fudge sundae. I work by myself on a much more regular basis than I eat hot fudge sundaes, yet I gain no more weight than when working in collaboration. On the other hand, eating hot fudge sundaes has never resulted in my tearing out my hair.
The point here is that determining when a work is complete or, more practically, when it has reached an acceptable degree of completion, is not subject to pressure from others or influenced by their agendas. Sometimes the input of others can bring useful alternative viewpoints; other times it can result in decisions that may be regretted in the long run.
I am not here to bury the idea of working by oneself, but to praise it. I don't, however, praise it over and above collaboration. Perhaps I'll write in favor of collaboration in another column.
Larry the Ois accustomed to spending hours alone in windowless rooms, during which time he fondles a small gold ring and mutters "My Precious!" a lot.