Creativity and Collaboration

Rainbow Double with Beach Sunset

Creative Commons License photo credit: johnnyalive

So, as mentioned in the last post I spent some time with a number of old friends last week, and several of those I also count among the more creative people I’ve had the privilege of knowing over the years.

Today I’d like to be a bit more specific about this… and take the opportunity to talk about something I haven’t really touched on yet in these pages: collaborative creativity.

In many ways I am a fairly solitary creator much of the time, but as a performing musician I also find myself in collaborative situations quite frequently. Moreover, I have maintained a number of highly fruitful long-term associations with particularly gifted and creative musicians. One of these is my friend Ed Roman.

I visited Ed last week and we spent two days in the studio laying down some tracks for his new album. Although my involvement in the project ended a bit prematurely (due to a dental emergency), it was productive and inspirational and drew my attention to a few aspects of collaboration that seem worth exploring here…

Off the top, I should point out I hold some slightly unorthodox ideas about all of this, particularly when it comes to those ever-present but under-appreciated collaborators, the audience. I think that the interaction between the artist and audience, however that happens, is often more important than what the artist may have intended. The connection is where the energy is.

This means that even solitary artists or performers are collaborating, in an essential and meaningful sense, with their audiences – even if they never meet them or know who they are. I have always felt that the attention and focus of the audience is a crucial factor in bringing intensity and energy to a performance, especially (though by no means exclusively) in the context of my solo piano work.

I don’t know what a writer or a visual artist might think about this – the relationship there is obviously more nebulous and less direct, as it is in my own studio work (or even in the context of the concert recordings). I think, however, the knowledge or intention that the work will eventually reach an audience and (hopefully) make an impact, still informs the equally important relationship between the artist and the work itself.

But my focus here, and what this week was about, was direct collaboration with other artists – creative colleagues, as it were. And as usual, I absolutely do not mean to exclude other forms of creative work here; my own perspective is that of a professional musician, but experience suggests that there will be considerable crossover with other creative spheres.

To cut to the chase, then, what is really at the heart of the unique relationship between creative collaborators (of any kind)? The usual topics for this kind of discussion seem to circle around things like mutual motivation and accountability, which are certainly very practical and useful.

We might add to this the rather ill-defined concept of ‘brainstorming’ – which amounts to something like working each other up into a kind of creative frenzy, where ideas are generated rapidly and en masse with little or no discrimination, to be sifted through at some later moment – which in my experience often never comes.

While these are all worthy factors, I believe there is something deeper to be achieved through collaboration, and in my experience the the key factor is trust. In order to consider this a bit more closely, let’s divide this into two categories: trust of each other, and trust of the process.

Trust me!

In choosing to work with a particular person on a creative level, we are making ourselves vulnerable in several ways, so trust is essential. The deeper the level of trust in that relationship, the more open we can be – meaning, we can take risks we might not take with just anyone. In my experience, this can lead to a heightened sense of energy in the creative collaboration.

However, this is not necessarily to say that we can only achieve a deep level of creative connection with old friends (though I can attest that this can certainly be the case). It is not uncommon for musicians to find a kind of ‘instant connection’ with one another, even when they come from very different backgrounds. I’m sure this can happen in other disciplines as well.

So, what is at stake when we choose to create together, whether there is history or not? What are we trusting one another with?

First, we trust each other with our ideas: you trust that I will understand yours, and nurture and cherish them as I would my own – or at least, listen to them and not laugh at or belittle them or you. And vice versa.

Second, we trust each other to bring something different and valuable, a fresh perspective, or creative energy that takes our work somewhere new and interesting.

Third, we trust each other to bring a generous and open spirit to the process. If you’re a bulldozer and your only interest is in railroading your ideas through without listening to anyone else, you’re likely to find people less than willing to work with you a second time.

To really trust you with this implies and requires that I trust myself in the same sense – I need to trust that I can be open and surrender control when necessary. This is easier said than done for most of us, but I believe it is a tremendously important creative skill.

Trust the process!

As mentioned above, not all artists or creative people will choose to collaborate, and some mediums lend themselves more easily to it than others. Given what we’ve just looked at with regards to trusting each other, it is clear that the process involves some risks and a considerable surrender of control.

Leaving aside the fact that (in my opinion, as always) much of the ‘control’ we feel we have over our creative work is illusory, let’s ask the question again: what risks are we choosing to take when we trust the process of creative collaboration?

First, we trust that the surrender of control and the other tradeoffs will in the end be worthwhile… in other words, we trust that there is value in this process, that the ideas and the work that come through it will have more energy and intensity than we can manifest on our own

Similarly, we accept that we will find things in ourselves that we might not find on our own. Collaboration can be an intense learning experience, and by taking us outside our comfort zone, show us underused or undeveloped skills or talents we might not know about.

By putting ourselves into this vulnerable and often unfamiliar space we may also find things out about ourselves that we might not be able or willing to see when we’re in our familiar environment or workflow. It seems ironic, but collaboration invites self-knowledge.

Finally, we trust that the work will find its way and emerge through this process despite differences of opinion or style, and despite the fact that we might have to let things go in a different direction than we might if we were working on our own. Again, surrender of control… and all that that entails.

I’m happy to report that all of the above went smoothly in my work with my old friend, and the music was fine and groovy. I feel that all the essential elements of trust and surrender were in place, and despite being in pain for much of it I felt I contributed something worthwhile – and was similarly enriched by being part of something beyond my usual boundaries.

When it works, the collaborative process can be deeply rewarding on both an artistic (or whatever) and personal level. I’d love to hear your comments on this – what collaborative/creative experiences have you had? What did they teach you? What surprised you about it? What didn’t?