Tuning into each other: intimate collaboration in music-making

Anita Datta
July 27, 2014

“Well, that nearly fell apart, didn’t it?”

I blinked at the exasperated Director of Music after my first service  as Organist in a new Chapel, and still to this day I’m not quite sure  exactly what he was on about. It was the start of a frustrating year  musically and personally. The crux of the problem was that I simply  couldn’t work out for the life of me what it was he wanted me to do. I  had no idea what it meant when he swung his arm around in that way, or  when exactly in his hand gesture he meant for me to come off, or go  onto, the final chord. He meanwhile had a perfectly well developed idea  of what all these gestures, facial expressions, and verbal directions  meant. The problem was as fundamental as a language barrier, and the  jarring sense of generalised dislocation I experienced, from conductor  and choir, and even from the music itself, will stick with me for a long  time. We spent hours of our spare time, that first year, just getting  used to each other, with him standing there beating whilst I played the  same thing over and over again. It was dull, but it paid off. After  three years of playing for him, I eventually reached the point where I  barely needed to look at him anymore. I pretty much know what he is  doing, and even if we haven’t done a piece before I can make a good  enough guess that I can be responsive, to do my job, to support the  choir. It’s the same with the singers too. At the start, new choir  members often struggle to follow the direction they’re given, but after a  little time getting “sung in” with the others something shifts and  suddenly the choir is producing fantastic performances every single  time. When everybody reaches that point, that’s when things start to get  really special.

This is not just a story of individual technical development. It is  about the development of a special kind of awareness, about a level of  synchronisation that is both conscious and subconscious. It involves  learning to breathe together, or to stagger it when necessary. Good  choir members intuitively respond to each others’ needs, strengths and  weaknesses; they enhance and accompany each other and feed off each  others’ energies and emotions. Often, even choral singers’ heartbeats synchronise.  Choirs, in this way, make it wonderfully apparent that most great and  beautiful music cannot be made by disconnected individuals alone. Twelve  excellent vocalists singing together for the first time do not make an  equally excellent choir. Something else is required.

In a way, a musician never really performs alone[1].   Think about the instrument: these apparently inanimate contraptions of  wood, metal, screws, bolts and strings have, as any musician will tell  you, their own unique quirks and habits, particular talents or failings,  and can be well or badly made. They are often loved like children, and  musicians have a relationship with the instruments they play and learn  on. There is a magical quality to the synergic,  supra-individual/material motions by which musicians and their  instruments enliven one another and express their emotions, ideas and  characters through the capacities and potentialities of one another.  This trembling, ever-fresh mutual enhancement of capabilities expands  further when you factor in an accompanist, perhaps, or advance into  chamber music. These arrangements, where a musician and their instrument  tunes into others, meshing and subordinating their own capacities and  ideas to the creative will and desires of others, are truly humbling  instances of human intimacy.

Scholars and philosophers have long struggled to define music, to  explain either its nature or what makes it so capable of affecting human  beings. Intangible, beyond the human and yet so full of humanity,  “Music expresses that which cannot be said but upon which it is  impossible to be silent” (Victor Hugo). It is an expression of emotions,  ideas, and energies, which works by eliciting reactions in the  listener. It is, of course, always transformed in transmission as it  weaves into personal histories, preferences and the level of investment  of the listener, from one hearing to another. This connection can  operate at a level of esoteric intellectualism or at the base level of  the mimicry and manipulation of heartbeats by rhythm and simple  percussion. The visceral and the emotive are inescapable in music, and  in music making. After all, what does a conductor do if she or he does  not elicit and invoke particular energies in performers, coax or order  these out of them through movements and gestures – manipulations – of  their own physical body?

This kind of collaboration is deeply inter-subjective. It is rarely  certain, in the end, who makes or does what, and performances are  notoriously unpredictable. Music making is synergic and intuitive,  requiring constant engagement between people, written notes, ideas,  architecture[2]  and instruments. We cannot make music without others but nor can we  make it with just anybody. It is no accident that the same musicians  often collaborate with each other again and again, soloists going back  to the same accompanist, or to give a contemporary example, film  directors returning to the same composers. More fascinatingly, this does  not always necessarily seem to be because the two have an excellent  personal relationship either[3].  Collaboration and intimate relationships between musicians is something  of a mystery, but it is one that we have long since latched onto.

At my final concert with this particular choir in Berlin I  experienced a high that I had never dreamed was possible before. After  three years I had developed a personal affinity and affection with those  standing, singing around me, and a particular kind of kinship with the  girls in my section. I loved what we were as a unit, and it was  poignant for all of us that this particular combination of musical  individuals would never be brought together in the same way again. The  pieces were beautiful, many of them were special to me, and singing in  the front line I came to the point where even I could not separate out  my own voice from the voices of those standing either side of me. Full  of something much greater than myself, something that was not mine, or  anybody’s, but that I was tied to and belonged to, I wasn’t thinking  about anything. I was just there – but I don’t know where ‘there’ was. I  will admit, for the first time in my life, there was a tear in my eye  during the encore. It was undoubtedly one of the most special  experiences of my life, not least because I could never have done it or  even dreamed it on my own. At the culmination of three years of  personal, emotional and technical investment from all of us, we produced  something truly breath-taking. It would not have been the same if you  had changed a single one of us. All else considered, it is hardly  surprising that so many people of such varied musical backgrounds derive  so much pleasure from the apparently simple experience of singing with  others. The concept may appear quite plain, but the rewards can be truly  spectacular.


[1]  An Exception May Be The Solo Unaccompanied Voice, But This Kind Of  Scoring Is Actually Quite Rare, And Often Takes On A Special  Significance Of Its Own Even Within Its Contextual Musical Tradition

[2] The Acoustic, Aesthetic And Somatic Qualities Of A Building Can Have A Great Effect On Music Performed Within That Space

[3]  A Historic Collaboration Between The Composer Wagner And The Conductor  Hans Von Bülow Was Rendered Turbulent By Wagner’s Scandalous Affair With  Von Bülow’s Wife, Cosima, Which Produced Two Children. Although Von  Bülow Did Not Speak To Either Wagner Or Cosima Again After Cosima Had  Divorced Him To Marry Wagner, Von Bülow Continued To Conduct Wagner’s  Works To Great Effect Until The End Of His Career.

All by
Anita Datta