Alan Edward Williams

Composer/ cyfansoddwr

What is collaborative composition?

1 Comment

Since being awarded a professorship recently at Salford University, I’ve been thinking about what the title should be. It’s quite a public statement to make, since you’re making about an area of research. In a way, it ought to be easy – I’m a composer, so I ought to be a professor of composition. But we already have Prof. Peter Graham for that, and in contemporary music, we have Prof. Steve Davismoon. After alot of thought I’ve come up with what I think is the answer – I am going to suggest to the university that I should be called Professor of Collaborative Composition.


Now, all music is collaborative, and all composition is collaborative in the 19th century sense of the composer in contradistinction to the performer. We need performers to interpret our music, and the relationships we build up with performers are collaborative ones. In some forms, the collaboration goes further – in our opera Stefan and Lotte in Paradise I collaborated with performers, but also with funders, my librettist, the marketing people, lighting experts, video artists, camera people, director, camera director, production and technical staff, and the university’s own academic structures – and that for a fairly short opera of an hour long. Oh, and the outside partners, such as Brazil’s Casa Stefan Zweig, and our own Brazilian partners, UNIRIO of Rio de Janeiro.


But even that is how any composer would have to work, and would have done (more or less) in Handel’s time. In Stefan and Lotte I took the step of actually working collaboratively with another composer, Marcos Lucas. The work is at least as much his as mine, and we shared musical material as well as discreet scenes. We aren’t aware of such collaborations ever taking place between two living acoustic composers – in fact, if anyone knows of any similar arrangements, I’d be very interested to hear of them.


In that sense I’ve been working collaboratively for some time now – this is the fifth piece I’ve written with Philip Goulding as librettist, but I’ve also worked collaboratively with composers on electroacoustic pieces – with Steve Kilpatrick on a piece called M101 a few years back, and this year on a piece for fixed medium electro-acoustic sounds and cimbalom, with live manipulation of sounds by Brendan Williams.


But I want to define collaborative composition in an even broader sense: collaborative composition means working with an outside partner to use music to dramatise, or inform an audience of a particular body of knowledge specific to those partners. This was the model for my (our) 2009 piece Wonder: a Scientific Oratorio. In this piece our partners were Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics, who provided the 7 themes about how the universe was formed  – we tried to keep our libretto very close to the scientific view of how the universe was formed.


There’s a place, of course, for ‘pure’ exploration of sound, for pieces which are experimental in the sense of bin speculative, where composers don;t consider the audience, which may not actually exist for the music. I don’t really do that – I’m too interesting in talking, in communicating, in using music as a bridge between communities whose discourses may be felt to be mutually unintelligible.

One thought on “What is collaborative composition?

  1. I realize this is an old post, but I’m hoping perhaps you’ll read this comment–I’m interested in exploring collaborative composition as a concept and am wondering if there are any articles or some literature that talks more about collaborative composition. Any ideas?

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