The Art of Collaboration

The Art of Collaboration

As a singer and a writer, writing texts for songs seemed like a natural progression. I’d written a libretto and posted a notice for collaboration (read: not a commission) on the American Music Composer’s site, a monthly web-zine that has a page that offers opportunities for composers. My notice on the libretto has been on the board for more than a year and I get nibbles monthly whenever the new issue of the zine goes up. I’ve had some very interested and interesting people contact me, one false start and a few that were just plain weird. Finally, I got an interesting email from someone in my area, New York, that turned into something.

A young composer, Tarik Ghirardella, who is a student at Manhattan School of Music emailed me about working on a project with him. He had composed four songs from letters of the Civil War for baritone, and at the encouragement of Ned Rorem, was seeking original texts to compose a companion set for soprano. (Hey! I’m a soprano!) He sent me some tapes of his music which, though I’m a shameless musical conservative, I liked. His shifting tonalities and spare lines delineated a genuine emotionalism, which is just the opposite of a lot of hyper-intellectual, minimalist, contemporary music. I quickly became intrigued by his ideas and the possibility of working with him. We agreed to meet at a coffee shop in NYC and we hit it off right away. This wasn’t the case in a few other meetings I’d had which were more like a bad voice lesson.

Composers are a breed that we singers don’t often get to work with because most of the ones we sing are dead already! My experience with the few composers that I’ve met and worked with is that they are some of the most accommodating, talented, giving musicians I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. They aren’t all just looking to get something from you. They’re not demanding that you do it ‘their way’ or the way Mr. Magnifico performed it in the Warsaw premiere rather than as the score is written. Rather they want to give you something, that is, their music. You have the opportunity to not just learn from them but to enhance their understanding of the human voice. Most of them aren’t singers but want to show you and themselves to the best advantage and are willing to make adjustments if asked (nicely). If the fit between the two of you is right, initially, it can lead to great things for both parties.

Tarik and I sat and talked over possibilities and options for texts, shared ideas and brainstormed until we got a concept. He mentioned that he had a soprano who’d had sung something else he’d written and it was with her voice in mind that he would compose. That was fine by me. I didn’t set out to write something I’d perform and I didn’t make it a criteria that he write specifically for me in this instance. I didn’t really know how I would feel, singing my own texts. I was afraid that it would be too revealing and perhaps emotionally unmanageable, but nonetheless, I was definitely excited about working and writing with someone else.

The idea that we came up with was a group of four or five songs based on women’s emotional response to war in the context of their relationships to their men who go to war. That sounds more complicated than it evolved into. What the viewpoint of the lyrics became was this: A wife of a dead confederate soldier, a daughter whose Jewish father is killed in the camps, a mother of Greek classical proportions whose son has been killed in any/all wars and a sister whose brother has returned from WWI, gassed. Not a jolly set, but emotionally dense and full.

As I began working with Tarik, I was hired to do two recitals in two different venues and decided that I wanted to perform the one song that would be ready. We worked together, honing and cutting the text, and he made some adjustments to the writing that weren’t quite suitable for my voice. We didn’t tell each other how to write, but we rubbed against each other creatively and worked hard to make good music. The process alone was very exciting and musically fulfilling.

Here was a new experience of making music. Helping to form something out of the sum of our emotional histories, out of our mutual respect for one another’s talents and education and out of thin air, we were creating something never before said or heard. It was exhilarating work, having someone transform words from my heart into music and then eventually putting them back in my heart and up on stage. It was a full circle of creativity.

Thing is, I had never before really thought about making music this way when I conceived of myself only as a singer. Duh. Now we’re not all writers, but most people reading this are singers, are creative people and can certainly go to the library or the bookstore and find a text that moves you. The whole process of finding a text, making a commission or collaboration isn’t actually all that hard, doesn’t have to be all that expensive and has tremendous advantages. The text, as well as your own taste, will for the most part determine the composer you chose to work with.

Here are some of the questions/benefits you’ll run into in the process.

Do I have to commission it and what will it cost?

As usual, that depends mostly on the composer and the text you choose. If you call up Stephen Paulus, he’ll be expensive and worth it, but most of us can’t afford him so look around locally first. Do you have a friend (watch out here, danger lurks) who composes, or is there someone in a local music club? Inquire at the composition dept. of the local University or College. Composition students often need to get their works performed and will be happy to work with someone.

Depending on the composer, and what you work out, it might not cost you anything. Maybe a composer has something they want performed and you can make a trade off by having them set something for you in return. Perhaps they have a text already that you like but needs to be set in a different way for your voice. Maybe they are someone you know already and all you have to do is ask.

Keep in mind there are two different options here: one is a commission, a piece written specifically for you and your voice, second, a collaborative effort where you work out something together. Composer gets a performance, you get a piece. You shouldn’t have to pay for performance rights for the initial performance, but ask about future performance and recording rights if you think you might want to do the piece again. Also, if you have a specific performance date, make sure that the work will be delivered on time.

If you can’t afford a commission, go with the second option. There are lots of benefits there as well. My work with Tarik has been collaborative because I wrote the texts for him to fit our mutual conception. It just turned out that the songs have been good in my voice and he willingly made some adjustments to them to get a better fit to me.

Some funding options might be: a local organization that can fund a work that will memorialize a special occasion, something germane to that organization, what about a work for voice and choir for a local church celebration, a local music club might be willing to split commission costs, a friend who wants to give an anniversary gift to someone, don’t think just creatively, think enteprenurially!

If you want something tailored for you, a signature piece, that will most likely cost you something, probably less than you think. Don’t be afraid to negotiate a figure, and be specific as to how long you want the work to be, and what text, if you’ve chosen or written one. It should suit you emotionally as well as musically. If you haven’t chosen the text, this leads a lot of doors open, some you may not like. If you choose this route be aware that this can be expansive and enlightening as well as dangerous. This will also pretty much determine the length of the work. Say you don’t have a lot of stamina, or a particularly beautiful lower register but lots of high notes, get the composer to agree to set it in a range and a key that’s comfortable. If you don’t set some parameters, you might get Dover Beach when you wanted An die Musik. Not all composers write for voice, so shop around until you hear or see something that you like.

I can’t find anyone locally I like. Where do I look?

Ok, you’ve found a piece or written a text that you want composed, but you live north of Nowhere and east of Obscure. Go surfing. There are tons of websites for the big important folks and sometimes these biggies have composition students they can recommend. The main website to hit is the American Music Center, This is THE place to connect with a composer, link out to their websites, and list your request for submissions for a commission/collaboration. Or you can email or fax to 212-366-5260 with your composer wanted ad. AMC’s webzine is That would also be a great place to look for a composer, although many listed there are biggies I referred to above.

There’s tons composers, many with sites where you can download a clip of music. Heck! Post a notice on the Classical Singer Forum or in the magazine. Don’t be shy. Ask what the fees would be, if any, and if they have something you can see and hear. If you can’t afford to pay anything, offer to perform something in return. You’re in charge now, not some agent or impresario. You have the opportunity to make a choice and you have loads of options.

What if it’s too musically difficult? Can I learn something new ‘new’?

Who knows? But you’ll learn a lot about yourself and music just by trying. If you’re scared at first, use the score for performance. I once went to a series of three of Dawn Upshaw’s concerts which were consisted of new music that was written for her and she used the score for most of the performance.

What if I hate the finished work?

Before choosing a composer to work with, listen to their work and look at some scores. Does it strike something in you? If so, open up discussions, but be considerate; try to find something in the music that you like. Discuss what the strengths and weaknesses of your voice as well as your musicianship are. Composers want to sound good and want you to sound good. If you still get something you hate or can’t sing, you still have some options. Dump it, renegotiate the fee, ask for re-writes, have someone else re-work it for you. This is where it gets dicey when working with a friend. You may have to choose between friend and the composition. If you are working closely with a composer on a commission, they want to write something you’ll love and something you’ll perform over and over again. If the fit of the work isn’t right, the fit between you and the composer probably wasn’t right to begin with. Don’t sweat the loss; move on to the next thing. It will teach you about honing your skills of communication and how to talk about your own voice, and music, even if you don’t have a memorable piece in the end.

What if it the finished work has zero audience appeal?

Once upon a time, an opera composer wrote a story about a high priced prostitute.......... Don’t judge the baby before it’s born or has a chance to mature. It’s a work of art. It is what it is. It will live or die and this doesn’t reflect on you or even the composer. It’s just art not your ego.

One of the most liberating things about performing something new is the opportunity to make it your own. You’re not out there being judged by how it sounded when Dame X performed it in Carnegie Hall. If you fall over in a dead faint, the audience will think its part of the performance art of the piece.

So the piece comes out and it’s deemed by the critics to be musical trash. Just remember the opera about the tubercular hooker. Maybe re-work the piece again or say to hell with the critics. Music comes in as many shapes and colors, as there are people; one man’s noise is another man’s aria. The opportunity to work with someone, to shape music to your voice, is a whole new adventure.

Some of the practical benefits you might reap from the experience are:

Composers generally exist in an entirely different musical world than singers do. They know other people, perform in other venues, have other networks altogether. Lots of people who wouldn’t otherwise hear you might come to hear the work, thus enlarging your audience (read: mailing list). There might be a possibility to record the work. Through the composer, you might get to do it in a venue that you otherwise didn’t have access to. Other composers might come to hear the performance and be interested in hiring you to perform their work. You can list a world premiere on your resume. You can use World Premiere on your PR and maybe get a review from the local music critic. Most likely, you’ll record the performance of the piece and you can use it to send to new music festivals. (Hey! A whole new venue/genre of work.)

Most importantly, there are LOTS of composers out there, certainly with varying qualities of music, that want, and sometimes will pay you, for having their music performed or recorded. For the price of a few lessons, you might learn a lot more than you ever thought. Go where no singer has gone before; it’s an exhilarating ride! And tell us what that side of the universe looks like!

This was printed in Classical Singer Magazine