Thursday, July 26, 2007


Composing is mostly a solo act and most composers (out of the film business) lack the ego-checks required to collaborate on a score. The most famous co-compositions are probably those pieces left unfinished by one composer and finished by another (Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler, Ives, Berg, Cage) and the younger colleagues who have prepared completed versions are often subject to heavy criticism.

There have been a few composers over the centuries -- from Lully to Scelsi -- who have had the means to employ assistants in readying their scores. In some cases, this is unproblematic, with the assistants merely doing the fill-in work in an well-established style, in Lully's case supplying the internal voices (in that beautiful five-part, viola-dominated ensemble texture) to his melody and bass line, but in the case of Scelsi, at least one of the hired-hands protested after Scelsi's passing that he was really the composer, although the scores penned under Scelsi's direction, based on transcriptions of Scelsi's recorded improvisations, and quite closely edited and vetted by Scelsi, sound all the world like something by Scelsi and nothing in the world like the assistant's own music. In other words, the labor might have been shared, but the imagination was Scelsi's own.

But co-composition less contentious, indeed jolly, form of co-composition is possible, as well. Cage and Harrison collaborated on the percussion quartet Double Music, agreeing to an ensemble, a number of measure, a metre and a tempo, and then each independently writing two voices, with the two sets of parts later superimposed onto one score (it should be noted that Harrison chose to compose his parts in a version of Cage's "square root" form). The party pieces of Cage, Harrison, Cowell and Thomson followed a surrealist graphic genre, the exquisite corpse, in which one artist draws something, then folds the page, leaving only a few dangling line segments which the next arts continues, blind to the previous image, when he or she then folds over and hands off to the next participant. In these Party Pieces, each composer would write one measure, and a note or two in the next, fold the page and hand it on. Both Cage and Harrison would later go on to further co-compositions -- Cage and Lejaren Hiller (who had himself co-composed the computer-assisted Illiac Suite with Leonard Isaacson) made HPSCHD and Harrison collaborated with Richard Dee on a Concerto for Violin with American Gamelan.

I've managed put my own misanthropy aside a few times to collaborate on musical exquisite corpses -- first, many years ago, with Steed Cowart and Jonathan Segel, and later, as part of an "avant garden party" concert by the Santa Cruz New Music Works in honor of Harrison's 80th. The corpses, mostly for an open-score instrumental trio, co-composed with Cowart and Segel were collected under the title The Original Sour Mash, a name which describes both the whimsical atmosphere and the budget potable that accompanied their composition. The later garden variety corpses were done by post and fax and email, a virtual composing party stretching over oceans.

I recommend the exquisite corpse as a genre, and as a game for social evenings. It's more fun to collaborate with a group of three or more, and not to keep too strict an row order, so that the pieces don't fall too quickly into a regular back-and-forth rhythm. And these corpses are one occasion in which more rapid and spontaneous composing can be an asset, keeping the spirit light and surprising.


Samuel Vriezen said...

That reminds me! I had a very nice collaboration one day with four other composers in which we all wrote pieces using only one pitch in a pentatonic scale. Also, we all brought our own ensemble, for a bizarre orchestra of flute, bass-clarinet, contrabassoon, violin, off-stage violin, bass guitar, electric guitar, four acoustic guitars, piano, three singers, one untrained singer, speaking voice and video - with each of the five pieces simply being performed at the same time. Which gave a wonderful total sound. Since it's extremely unlikely ever to be performed again, perhaps I should put the recording online now...

Caleb Deupree said...

Outside of notated compositions, the practice is very common among electronic composers, where sound files are traded back and forth, sometimes for years before a composition is complete. Carl Stone and Otomo Yoshihide released a whole album like this, but I'm sure there are many many examples. A recent variation is by the improv group MIMEO, whose most recent release called for each of the eleven members of the group to put five minutes of music somewhere on a 60-minute CDR, with the final result assembled by overlaying the various tracks. MIMEO's model was painter Cy Twombly's practice of drawing blindfolded, but it's an interesting form of collaborative composition.

Charles Shere said...

Some years ago the Cabrillo Festival performed a number of Exquisite Corpses composed by Lou Harrison, Virgil Thomson, John Cage, and memory doesn't serve, all orchestrated for a small instrumental ensemble by Robert Hughes. I would love to hear them again; they were wonderful. Perhaps Other Minds has the tape.

On a slightly related subject, what about the music of Frederick Delius, written with the aid of an amanuensis, Eric Fenby? How did that actually work?

Daniel Wolf said...


Fenby's work is often described as "transcription" and Fendby's book (Delius as I knew him Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-28768-5) seems to confirm that, but it would be interesting to read a description from an informed third party.

(As long as we're talking Delius, I can recommend Don Gillespie's musicological detective story, The Search for Thomas Ward, Teacher of Frederick Delius, an important missing chapter in American music history)

Daniel Wolf said...


Please do put the recording online!