In this year's June issue of EM, I wrote about the value of working by oneself (see “Final Mix: In Defense of the Lone Arranger”). At the end of the article, I threatened to write another column extolling the virtues of collaboration, guessing that someone would read June's column and conclude that, rather than advocating working alone, I was deriding collaboration.
Before I even saw the issue in print, I received an email from a reader agreeing with my thoughts about working on one's own. In fact, he agreed so vehemently that he ascribed to me more zealous views than I had expressed in the piece, along with yet stronger views of his own. Thus, I am led to a discourse on the magical possibilities presented by collaboration.
With collaboration, the ideas of two or more people (which can be irrelevant or even destructive to solo work) are embraced and, hopefully, nurtured. The driving motivation is that the whole will prove greater than the sum of its parts. This outcome will be achieved only if the collaborators or the musical situation remain flexible, so that the work in progress can be altered by ideas coming from all corners. When the participants are rigid, a collaboration cannot jell — but that is not to say compromise is always needed. Sometimes one collaborator should simply yield.
In a good collaboration, the members push each other to come up with their best ideas and performances by contributing things that the others would not have thought of. That sparks the imagination, so that the collaborators extend each other's ideas further and generate altogether new ideas. In the best cases, this becomes a chain reaction that leads to amazing things. Collaboration is also valuable because it brings more minds (and ears) to bear on development, editing, and polishing. Again, each partner is likely to perceive things that the others do not.
Interestingly, some collaborations are defined by their quantitative balance, while others are defined by qualitative balance. For instance, in a band like They Might Be Giants, both members write, sing, and play instruments. In the Rolling Stones, however, the members generally make very different qualitative contributions: Mick Jagger pushes the band into new directions, Keith Richards anchors the group in rock 'n' roll raunch and musical honesty, Charlie Watts provides the ultimate in supportiveness and drive, and so forth.
There is no question that the downside of collaboration is when perspectives diverge (ironically, however, this is something that can actually serve as a creative spark). Nothing can top the petty, childish ego clashes that anyone who has ever played in a band has experienced. And this is not limited to rock bands; orchestras often have infuriating internal politics. Great collaborators may avoid these issues, but, more often, they persevere through them.
I sometimes think of a band working through a complex arrangement as being like a team of tobogganers, leaning into curves and generally working their bodies together to negotiate a twisting path at high speed. One fine collaboration that I saw in action was a band of friends who called themselves Ogie Yocha. They explained that ogie yocha is a Korean phrase meaning “everyone rowing a boat together.” Their group was quite spiritual and it collaborated exceptionally well. Long after the members went their separate ways, the image of ogie yocha stays with me still.
The joy of a great collaboration is in its surprises. Things happen that are sometimes almost scary in their synchronicity or richness. Artists ranging from Elvis Costello to Itzhak Perlman have engaged in unlikely collaborations in order to explore new and different parts of their artistic selves.
But one of the greatest aspects of working with others often goes unstated, which is that there are more people to share the load. Working alone, everything depends on you. In collaboration, others put in their resources and abilities. From this perspective, more can usually be accomplished by a group than by an individual.
I like variety in many things. At times, I need to work in peaceful solitude, but there will always be occasions that I seek ogie yocha.