As a composer, I’ll always be focused on collaborating with performers, but I also care about broader forms of collaboration – whether interdisciplinary, between multiple composers, or in the form of honoring inspirations and voices from past generations. One reason I love centering collaboration is that this mindset can challenge some unspoken assumptions of western high-art culture.
First, it challenges the belief that inspiration is solitary and unconnected with one’s community. The canon of western art – what we preserve, study, and consider important – has been fundamentally shaped by the concept of the lone genius. But even materially working ‘alone’ is really a broader process.
I felt this especially clearly with She Was Warned, the piece I’m bringing to Habitat:Home. I wrote this piece in spring 2017 (I’m one of the artists bringing existing work to the project), and it was the first piece I was able to write after the 2016 election. I was at an artist colony that spring, along with other artists from various disciplines. Most of us were working to find our voices and our emotional stability again, post-election. So although I did the pen-on-paper work of the piece on my own – at the piano or in the woods – the concept and intention developed in conversation with other artists, as we worked together to understand our new landscape and found some healing in our shared desire to amplify less-heard voices (particularly voices our new leadership sought to dismiss and silence).
She Was Warned is my setting for voice and piano of Mitch McConnell’s now-infamous statement after the U.S. Sentate censured Elizabeth Warren during the February 2017 confirmation hearing for Jeff Sessions: “She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.” Unsurprisingly, “Nevertheless, she persisted” became a rallying cry for progressives, but beyond the unintentional perfection of McConnell’s statement, the moment’s deeper resonance was the words he’d objected to. Warren had already read statements against Sessions by white men such as Ted Kennedy; she was censured when she started reading a 30-year-old letter from Coretta Scott King, describing Sessions’s racist abuse of power in his earlier position.
So the text I use in She Was Warned combines McConnell’s “She was warned” statement and the beginning of King’s letter. Across the five-minute length of the piece, the singer gradually transitions from Warren’s voice to King’s voice. The layers include King’s voice, Warren’s voice as she amplifies King’s voice and draws strength from that amplification (while rejecting McConnell’s silencing), my voice, the singer’s voice, and listeners’ understandings of their own relationships with these voices and with persistence in the face of silencing.
Centering collaboration also challenges the belief that collectively created work is inherently less distinctive and important than work by a single artist.
That position is at the heart of our canon’s Eurocentrism – if a culture’s art is inherently communal, we can’t consider any of that culture’s output to be singular or ‘great’ – we’re elevating solitary inspiration and ignoring cultural inspiration. This also relates to the frequent connection between communal process and functional art – that is, art used in everyday life, as opposed to art intended just for display. Textiles and design and any objects used in daily life are assumed to be less important as art than work that was made to sit untouched on a wall or on a pedestal.
In my own field of composition, acknowledging performers as my collaborators also challenges the sole-creator paradigm in ways I value.
Even an artist who doesn’t require anyone else’s input in order to realize her work (for example, a novelist) is part of a complex web of interactions with the broader culture and with her readers. But for a composer, there are more direct relationships.
I like to say that one of my favorite models of engagement is performers focusing their attention into my music like a parabolic mirror – letting me connect with the audience from within those already-multiplied layers of mutual listening and choosing to be present. I understand that shared focus as an act of love, and I want to return that love by making music that can sustain real attention and engagement. My presence in the compositional process, my collaborators’ presence with one another and with one another’s voices, and the listener’s engagement with the subject matter and its resonance.