Ewan Mackay

How Do I Build Collaborative Partnerships as a Composer?

How to Build Collaborative Partnerships as Composer (Image)
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Making friends was a much simpler process when we were all younger. 

‘My name is X. I like X’

‘My X is … I like X too!’

It was never that hard to find commonality with people we didn’t really know when we were younger. As you grow up we put ourselves in little life boxes. We no longer like the same things we used too, and even our old friends move on, and we find more. It’s actually a similar premise with creative and collaborative relationships. This blog focuses on how to build these relationships as a composer. It might seem daunting if you don’t know how – I know it did for me when I began building creative partnerships. The essence of building creative partnerships is to create work that performers or other creative people enjoy and want to make more of. This focus is at the centre of what I do as a creative artist and it is the focus of this article. If I could give 5 top tips for building collaborative relationships what would they be? 

1) Create strong work

2) Connect with performers, composers and creatives and organisations

3) Collaborate more than once

4) Diversify your content

5) Put yourself out there


Create Strong Work:

Creating strong work should be a basic term to understand, but I feel it can be miss understood. Another way to look at it is the idea of quality over quantity. With every piece of creative work I create, I try to create the best piece of work in whatever I’m working on at the time. I’m either a quick, or slow writer. I mentioned this in my article ‘Where does my Music Come From?’, it all comes down to how the creativity is flowing on a particular day. Regardless of how quickly I write a new piece or create my other content, I am always focused on the quality of the work. In an interview, Eric Whitacre described his composition process as similar to finding a golden brick to build upon. When I heard this, I realised it was my mindset all along. Finding that golden brick in a piece can be a difficult process. You write, erase, and repeat until you find it. Is it a concept, an inspiration, a motif, a chord? It varies with each piece but once you find that element which helps to drive a piece forward all the other bricks fit together to create something greater than the sum of its parts. None of us are Beethoven or Mozart, therefore we have to play to our compositional strengths. For me, that strength is building a piece out of a small amount of musical material into something bigger, while also playing with the idea of light and dark within my work. Finding your strength will help form your compositional direction. If you are content in your work, that’s the only opinion that should really matter to you. 


Connect with Performers and Artistic Organisations:

There are a number of ways you can connect with composers and other creatives. In my case, I went to the University of the Highlands and Islands, which was heavily based around Scottish Traditional music. On the BA course, there were only three classical based students Jess Turner (Mezzo-Soprano), Jillian Hunter (Flute) and myself as a composer. That makeup of students from a diverse musical melting pot made for an interesting collaborative experience across genres. A university environment makes it easier to collaborate and build collaborative relationships, but what if you are not part of a further learning institution?

Applying for calls for scores and creative opportunities is a great way to build your creative contacts. Take for example my creative work with Drake Music, for which I created Something for Nothing. This collaboration came from a call for creative projects. My collaboration with the Red Note Ensemble came about after I was accepted for a commissioning opportunity from The Sound Festival, for whom I composed Over the Far Horizon. I also attended a Sound Festival composer’s event where I met my colleague and fellow composer Ben Lunn. More creative conversations with Ben followed. This eventually lead to the inclusion of my Solo Viola piece Monologue – performed by Jessica Beeston of the Hebrides Ensemble.

In creating and nurturing collaborative opportunities, you are able to leverage the work you have created to further your relationship and also your compositional work. By connecting with performers directly, you are seen to be proactive as a composer. In my experience performers are always keen to build new partnerships and play new music. All we as composers have to do is continue to work hard, be enthusiastic and ask nicely.


Collaborate More than Once:

This point leads on from my previous one. As you build a collaborative relationship with a player or other creative, it is important to continue to nurture it. Collaborating more than once with a performer is a great way to do this, and it will also give you opportunities to build new relationships with other performers in the same sphere. I have used this a number of times with frequent collaborators in the past. 

When I composed Soliloquy for Jillian Hunter for her honours recital in 2018, the piece was such a success, we collaborated again on The Dreaming Tree for my MA presentation in 2020. Similarly, I continued to build on my collaborative relationship with Sergio Vega Dominguez, who played the Oboe in my Sound Festival commission, Over the Far Horizon. I worked with Sergio again when I composed Reflection O the Hills – a commission from the Doric Board. My collaboration with Ben Lunn and Jessica Beetston has lead to a new collaboration with Jessica, Pianist Andy Johnston and fellow colleague and composer Rylan Gleeve. This project is in its early stages, but without a doubt, it comes from me reaching out to ask Jessica if she would like me to write something for Viola and Piano. Making musical friends is so important for an up and coming composer. Writing music for players in a real-life situation, to begin with, can seem daunting, but it becomes easier the more you do it. You become more confident working in rehearsals and talking about your music and how you want your music to be portrayed by your player(s) with every rehearsal, workshop and performance. This work will undoubtedly lead to more experience and work. 


Diversify Your Content: 

Let’s face it, the majority of us composers aren’t lucky enough to have a constant stream of commissions and collaborations coming in. I spoke of the concept of working as a composer in two forms. I) Pursuing composition as a career – this is extremely difficult, though not impossible. II) Working on your musical activities as a passion project, and working to build and develop it into something more fruitful than just a hobby. The latter is the approach I have taken with my own practice. What do we do when we aren’t working on our music should always drive us forward to eventually creating new music. 

Diversifying our content is one surefire way of doing this. As with most of the ideas I put forward through my articles, nothing is a magic fix. Things take time and nothing happens overnight;

1) Posting on your social media platforms 

2) Creating content around your music or other creative work 

3) Starting a blog or podcast 

4) Interacting with your supporters and musical friends.

5) Engaging with composers and performers on Facebook groups

6) Devising and executing a marketing strategy

These are some of the ways I remain active in the musical silence when I’m not actively writing. I strongly believe that what makes a stronger composer and creative artist is what they do when they are not creating their art. Anyone can be good at their art, but not everyone has the knowledge of skills to fill the void of the artistic silence. The COVID crisis has proved this time and time again. I haven’t viewed these difficulties as the end of the Arts as we know them, but rather the new beginning where we can improve on ourselves and those elements of our Artistic environment which never worked well, to begin with. We live in a time where the distribution of content is easy and mostly free. We have enormous access and ability to billions of like-minded people around the world. There is no excuse to think differently about how we operate as an artist. This mindset leads me to my final point. 


Putting Yourself Out There:

Essentially, that’s it. Put yourself out there. However, it is a little more complex than that. If you continue to work on creating strong work, you will inevitably draw a small group of supporters who respond to your work. You will then have the opportunity to work with new artists and build on your creative relationships and your creative practice. If you haven’t already I would begin by creating a Facebook Page, and a YouTube Channel to share your creative work. I would also suggest sharing your thoughts through a blog, and of course, engage with your supporters. Using the power of social media to reach out to your existing supporters and to bring in new ones will help you to build the engagement around your work. 

There is little sense in creating work to sit unheard, unseen or unread. Get it out there and begin to build your confidence in sharing your work and engaging with those who want to support you. It’s never too early to begin, and grow as you go. 

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