Collaborative Creative Thought and Practice in Music

Margaret S. Barrett, editor
Books, Musicology
Farnham, England: Ashgate Publishing, 2015. 326pp. Also in ebook PDF, ebook ePUB.
ISBN: 978-1-4724-1584-4 (hbk)
Reviewed by , September 1st, 2015

Issues to do with both collaborative activity and creativity are of real interest and concern at this point in time. Not because either of these things are in any way new aspects of human activity, but because changes in social structures and mediating technologies seem to be altering both the mechanisms by which we collaborate and possibly the nature of our conceptions of collaboration. [1] In terms of creativity, there are even more fraught questions, and some of these operate at the political level as authoritarian, ‘neo-liberal’ governments in many countries strive to exert ever more control over both the domain of creativity as expressed in artistic production, and in education.

Margaret Barrett

Margaret Barrett

At first glance, then, this lengthy book of short essays seems timely and valuable. On closer examination, sadly, we find that it falls short on tackling the key questions about collaborative creativity in our time. The volume editor, Margaret Barrett, is fond of the word ‘trouble’, which she uses as a key notion in her introduction (‘Collaborative Creativity and Creative Collaboration: Troubling the Creative Imaginary’). Although she doesn’t say as much, Barrett presumably seeks to invoke historic use of this word ‘trouble’ by critical theorists such as Judith Butler to suggest the critique of paradigms and the questioning of assumptions. Yet one of the most surprising features of the book, taken as a whole, is the extent to which it is serenely un-troubled, with only very few exceptions serving to highlight the fact. There is a decisive lack of questioning, and a great deal of the research presented is unmotivated by any hint of investigative question or hypothesis with the result that, either by accident or intent, the conclusions are tautological and paradigm affirming.

Even in the introduction, we find the book’s editor struggling somewhat to wrestle the big issues around collaboration, creativity, thinking and practice—let alone music—into coherence. In some ways, this is a key problem: the book is both too broad in scope (or at least not strongly enough conceived for such a broad scope) and also too limited. The chapters spin off into even more fragmented areas of investigation (composition, performance, musicology, education, and more) and yet little is presented that could be said to advance our understandings of any of these areas, let alone raise useful questions about them.[2] Sprawling over 18 chapters, the book feels much more like a bunch of conference papers than a coherent scholarly volume—a sensation that is amplified by the very slender nature of most of the individual chapters in both content, materials, scope and size.[3] It is also worth noting that 11 of the 26 authors are associated with the University of Queensland. One wonders why more of the leading international scholars in this field of music research were not contributors, as a counterbalance to this appearance of parochialism.

Barrett does raise one interesting point in her introduction, when she notes that some writers (e.g. the sociologist Richard Sennett) prefer to use the term cooperation instead of collaboration, due to the negative connotations implied by such things as collaboration with the enemy, collaboration as treacherous behaviour, and so forth. This should have opened up a fruitful dimension of the book, referencing the long traditions of sociological investigation of conflict to problematise the darker side of creative interactions. Instead, the authors have largely chosen to view collaborative work through rose-tinted glasses, only very rarely and then tangentially allowing glimpses of other possibilities. This is all the more astonishing when one thinks that almost any musician or academic that you question about experiences with collaboration will have horror stories to tell, many of which have been life-changing in impact.

The chapters of the book are also curiously uniform in other ways (again, supporting the sense of an implicit paradigm, a background ideology). They are for the most part genre-pieces in the self-referential style of too much contemporary research, auto-ethnographic to varying degrees and largely based upon data drawn from the authors’ own experience, documented with varying degrees of rigour. I’m in favour of acknowledging personal perspective and subjective experience in research writing and indeed I respect first-person academic writing (perhaps in contrast to Barrett, who makes use of an imperious third-person), but there are dangers here. Too much self-referentialism leads easily to circular, tautological argument and it is monumentally challenging to be rigorously critical or questioning when one is dealing with one’s own blind-spots in relation to one’s own work. Creative arts academics, I suspect, have been too often sold the idea that writing about their own work is an easy option for a quick research output when in fact it is, like any other form of research, extremely difficult to do well. (And, as with any form of research, if it is not difficult it is unlikely to result in any useful or interesting findings.)

This self-referentialism carries over beyond materials and analytical limitations to aspects of academic practice. Several authors in the book (Margaret Barrett, Raymond MacDonald, and Samuel Leong most notably) cite their own other publications to an amusing degree, but by this gaming of citation statistics they also weaken their own arguments. Too much self-citation takes on the appearance of a scholarly house of cards, and also looks a bit lazy—giving the impression that one hasn’t bothered to read all the other literature out there. More deeply, it also aligns with the paradigm-affirmation problem: if you’ve said all this before, then what is this new article really contributing?

Vera John-Steiner

Vera John-Steiner

Notions and practices of collaboration and creativity are surely worthy of fresh theorising, indeed one might suggest that some collaboratively creative theorising would be interesting. Along with the general tendency to avoid hypotheses or questions, however, we note in this book a parallel tendency to avoid original theorising. Further, we find that the theoretical discussions are not only limited to the recitation of second hand theories (the ‘theoretical framework’ sections of the chapters too often read like undergraduate literature reviews), but the theories cited are often quite old (that is to say, not drawn from current thinking) and also remarkably limited in diversity of view. Indeed, so many of the chapters presented depend very heavily or even entirely on a few aspects of the work of Vera John-Steiner (see her book Creative Collaboration, published in 2000) that this present volume amounts almost to a homage, a festschrift. As a result, the theoretical underpinning of most individual chapters and the book as a whole is flimsy to say the least, and in many respects seriously problematic.

Barrett begins the volume with a chapter in which she (with a few collaborators) discusses the composition, rehearsal and performance of a work that she commissioned for her own university (‘The Scattering of Light: Shared Insights into the Collaborative and Cooperative Processes that Underpin the Development and Performance of a Commissioned Work’). Despite a large part of the chapter being taken up with ‘theoretical framework’, ‘context’, and ‘methodological approach’, there seems to be no actual theory put forward here. Perhaps the closest Barrett comes to formulating a hypothesis is ‘[…] we suggest that in the composition and rehearsal of a new work for chamber ensemble, creative collaboration occurs on a number of levels […] and takes a range of forms’ (p. 20), which is hardly a radical notion. As reported here, the project apparently proceeded to completion without significant tension, disagreement or ‘trouble’, and as a result little is drawn out in the way of original conclusions. In a subsequent chapter (‘Learning to Collaborate in Code: Negotiating the Score in a Symphony Orchestra Composers’ School’), with co-author Karlin Love, Barrett found that ‘[…] composers’ scores were the focus and locus of discussion and teaching-learning interactions’ (p. 55), which I suspect most of us could have guessed—and one might reasonably expect that an ARC-funded research project might have been a little more ambitious, if not daring.

Elliott Gyger

Elliott Gyger

Interestingly, those chapters written by active and respected practitioners (composers or performers) are the ones where we catch glimpses of tension and trouble, the areas that might give rise to interesting questions and problems to be solved. While most of these are only superficially explored, there is an honesty in these practitioner-led research papers, and an understanding based on very extensive, higher-level experience. The composer Elliott Gyger (‘No Stone Unturned: Mapping Composer-Performer Collaboration’), for example, discusses a series of rehearsals for a particular project and notes in conclusion that some of the aspects that were most problematic (the timing of certain stages of the project, and some specific time constraints) were also collaboratively productive—to such an extent that the ensemble in question have been able to use this creatively and constructively in the planning of subsequent projects. This might not be an earth-shaking finding but it is evidence of a practical, transformative outcome of collaboration, and one about which further theorising might be undertaken. Even more potent, is Robert Davidson’s chapter (‘Collaborating Across Musical Style Boundaries’) in which he bravely problematises the discussion by noting a particular situation in which he himself was seen to be the main obstacle to effective collaboration. This enables Davidson to note in conclusion that not all collaboration is effective, and that it might be possible to develop strategies to minimise problems and maximise ‘benefits’. Again, the paper ends with what could form the beginning of a theoretical proposition and generate useful research, so while it falls short in some respects it is certainly a step in a good direction.

Robert Davidson

Robert Davidson

In a similar vein, Liam Viney and Anna Grindberg (who work together as a piano duo), are able to acknowledge some of the difficulties as well as the successes of their long-term collaboration—even noting in passing a project that they consider to have failed (perhaps the only time in the book that something like this surfaces explicitly). Most important, however, is their observation (based upon many years of active experience and informed reflection) that ‘collaborative themes can be embedded within the structure of a composition and have implications for musical interpretation and programming’. Here again we find an assertion that in this context is of only passing significance, but does suggest an opportunity for the development of a useful hypothesis that links the social and psychological aspects of collaboration to the very substance of a musical work. This is a research avenue that has the possibility of making a contribution to the ongoing, over-arching project shared by musicology and music analysis: how to link our apprehension of music itself (whatever that may be) with our understanding of the broader contexts of human activity (whatever they may be).

Duo-pianists Anna Grinberg and Liam Viney

Duo-pianists Anna Grinberg and Liam Viney

This brings up the issue of music—and here it must be observed that this book falls into that sad category of music-related research that doesn’t, for the most part, talk about music at all. In a practical sense, this is a shame in so far as if musically literate experts shy away from direct engagement with the substance of music, no-one else is going to do it (I’m borrowing a turn of phrase from Larry Sitsky here, unapologetically).[4]  Theoretically, this avoidance of musical substance seems to reflect some attempt to revive the tired old stance of New Musicology of the 1980s and 1990s, which argued against formal music analysis on the grounds that music can only be understood in terms of the ‘web of culture’ within which it is embedded. [5]  New Musicology ran out steam by the late 1990s for several reasons, one of which was that it eventually had to be admitted that the old discipline of musicology never had a real problem with recognising the importance of the social—and indeed the discipline itself was founded in the late-19th century context of the development of other social sciences, such as anthropology, sociology and psychology. The fact is that most of the chapters of this present book would be greatly improved, and the analysis deepened, with more rigorous discussion of the actual music in question.

Samantha Owens, for example, who otherwise writes engagingly and gracefully (albeit with a referencing framework that needs refinement), limits her discussion of the various collaborators on 17th century German court entertainments largely to information drawn from either secondary sources or the title-pages of librettos for court theatre (‘An Historical Perspective on Creative Collaboration: The Composition of Theatrical Dance Music at the Early Modern German Court’). Given that the primary source materials are not new to musicologists (Curt Sachs was writing about them over a century ago) and that the collaborative nature of these entertainments is self-evident, even the interested reader is left wondering exactly what original argument Owens is trying to make. I have no doubt that there is interesting work to be done in questioning the nature of these collaborations, and looking for the ways in which the music itself reflects this (not all, but some librettos were published with music)—but that would be another article, for which this chapter might serve as a preface.

Simon Perry’s ‘Rimsky-Korsakov and Mussorgsky: A Posthumous Collaboration’ is the only chapter that contains music examples as the basis for discussion—in this instance, of some complex issues around ‘collaborations’ between dead composers and those who take on the task of completing or revising their unfinished works. Perry proposes that his case-study of Rimsky-Korsakov’s revision and completion of Mussorgsky’s works represents a particular kind of ‘master-master’ collaboration across generations, which seems reasonable in so far as it goes  but it is not clear what further question he seeks to draw from this. His discussion, in the absence of sustained argument, draws heavily from familiar English-language secondary literature (especially Richard Taruskin) and while he does cite some manuscript sources, these have already been published, so one is left feeling doubtful about which precise aspects of Perry’s chapter represent original thought. It feels like the beginnings of a potentially interesting research article, but one that doesn’t come into focus here.

Graça Mota

Graça Mota

The strongest chapter in the book is ‘Thorns and Joys in Creative Collaboration: A project with Music Education and Visual Arts Students’ by the Portuguese scholar and teacher Graça Mota. Her chapter effectively illustrates both deep problems and exciting possibilities in cross-media collaborations from an education perspective. Mota’s work, perhaps uniquely among all the contributors to this book, is explicitly (rather than implicitly) positioned, ideologically, politically, and critically. In reviewing education curriculum subsequent to the Bologna Declaration, for example, she ‘was particularly interested in disrupting ethnocentric perspectives through the promotion of respect for the plurality of cultural indentities’ (p. 222). Her case-studies (interdisciplinary art projects designed as part of teacher training) are interesting—and while the theoretical frame is weak (simply reiterating John-Steiner yet again) she is nonetheless able to make some interesting conclusions on the basis of both participant-observation and interviews, and to put forward some challenging polemics concerning ‘our role as teachers in promoting dialogue while trying to nullify preconceptions’. Among the key problems faced by students in collaborative work, she identifies ‘different perspectives, together with their low capacity to tolerate, and negotiate […]’ (p. 232), which might well raise further significant questions and invite some creative theorising.

Buried in ‘Literacy Through Music: A Multidisciplinary and Multilayered Creative Collaboration’, Jo Saunders, Julian Knight, Angela Hobsbaum, Evangelos Himonides and Graham Welch have some interesting data which indicates that collaborative musical interventions with school children have a significant impact upon the reading skills of children, but much less impact (if any) on writing and none on oral and aural language. This research has been published previously and, to be fair, such matters are not the main concern of this particular chapter, but this does seem a remarkable research finding and one that deserves more than a passing mention in the context of this book.

Jane Davidson

Jane Davidson

None of the chapters of this book succeed (or, one might say, even attempt) to put forward original theoretical propositions. This is an unfortunate failure, but equally concerning is the way in which ill-chosen second-hand theories are used. Jane Davidson, for example, invokes Activity Theory in the introduction to her chapter, ‘Creative Collaboration in Generating an Affective Contemporary Production of a Seventeenth-century Opera’, but doesn’t mention it at all in the main body of the analysis. It reappears, surprisingly, in the conclusion, where we are abruptly informed that ‘[the] activity system model has enabled us to observe […]’—well, observe what exactly? Since the model has not been used at all in the analytical discussion, any conclusions are fatally compromised. Adding to the sense that Activity Theory was tacked-on as a slightly random after-thought is the curious nature of the particular model that Davidson uses, which is drawn from the work of the important theorist Yrjö Engeström (in turn building upon the earlier work of Soviet-era Russian psychologists)—but she refers to his work as published in 1987, without mention of the fact that this model has been subsequently revised and expanded by Engeström himself to include more sophisticated accounting for multiple domains of activity and, more importantly, the outcomes that can only arise from the interactions of multiple domains. One imagines that these later models would be ideal for analysing, as Davidson is here, the rehearsal process of an opera—and their exclusion certainly demands explanation.

Judith Butler herself has had some fighting words to say in recent times about the misapplication of second-hand theories in the analysis of performing arts as compared to the creative formulation of relevant new ones,[6] but even in terms of the discussions of existing literature, the authors here are for the most part confining themselves to very limited viewpoints with regard to music, collaboration, and creativity. There is almost no engagement with sociology—even the most obvious point of reference for the creative arts, Pierre Bourdieu, gets only a passing mention, and that in the final chapter. There is no engagement with performance studies, a field with a strong theoretical heritage reaching back to the mid-1960s—much of which runs counter to the complacent notions presented in this book (for example, Richard Schechner demolished the idea that collaborative improvisation is in any sense ‘free’ 40 years ago which, even if one disagrees, surely warrants a mention). Almost none of the extensive literature in musicology dealing with collaborative creativity is even cited, let alone debated. More worryingly, there is almost no engagement with the fields of psychology or neuroscience—which is frankly bizarre, given that the book is part of a series, ‘SEMPRE Studies in The Psychology of Music’ (one chapter is authored by a psychologist, Raymond MacDonald, although his contribution here is not specifically situated in that field).

In the final analysis, it is tempting to examine this book itself as a case-study of creative collaboration. In which case, we might ask some of the questions that the authors failed to ask about their own work. Most importantly: what are the framing devices (including structural ideologies and paradigms) that form the parameters within which the collaborations are enacted, and what are the further implications of these limiting or enabling frames for understanding how the book relates to the wider world? Keith Sawyer, given the unenviable task of contributing the final, summarising chapter of the book, has bravely attempted to wallpaper over some of the more problematic aspects, but in so doing he has, perhaps inadvertently, thrown a spotlight upon the paradigms that are implicit in the work of these various writers, making them alarmingly explicit. Firstly, he sets up a dangerous and unhelpful dichotomy between social sciences on the one hand and humanities on the other. Social science research, he says is ‘empirical’, and (supposedly) unlike the humanities, deals with ‘observable empirical phenomena’ (p. 271). This, I imagine would come as a surprise to scholars in all humanities disciplines, and is particularly provocative given that peer-review in any of the mainstream humanities tends to be brutal and rigorous to an extent that would shock even most ‘hard’ scientists. [7]

Keith Sawyer

Keith Sawyer

Exactly like the New Musicologists of old, Sawyer is setting up the humanities disciplines (and musicology in particular) as what Charles Rosen described 15 years ago, in a diatribe against New Musicology, as a ‘straw man’. Sawyer even invokes some of the same old specific straw men: the highly contestable idea that musicology has previously focused on individual creators rather than community, and that it concerns itself with works rather than contexts. The reality is that the mapping of social context onto the apprehension of music (and vice versa) has a long and distinguished intellectual heritage that goes back through years of research into mediated and distributed creative systems, through the revisionist and inclusive musicology of the late 20th century, through the work of ethnomusicologists in the mid-20th century (a field now largely re-absorbed into the mainstream of musicology), through the critical thinkers of the Frankfurt School, through the early origins of the university discipline of musicology (in the German-speaking world, one of the 19th century ‘wissenschaft’ disciplines), through the revolutionary musical, political and social theorists of the 18th and 19th centuries (one thinks of Herder, Rousseau, Rameau…) and so on all the way back to the Ancient Greek theorists who were greatly ‘troubled’ about detailed specifics of music and its relation to society.

Similarly, the remainder of Sawyer’s summarising chapter serves to emphasise that there is very little new thinking presented in this book. Any contribution it makes to the broader field of music research is wafer-thin and even then contestable. But the really worrying things come right at the end, on the final pages, where Sawyer (to his credit) feels that it is necessary to acknowledge the fact that this book, despite its broadly comprehensive-sounding title, squeezes itself through a very restricted ideological frame: ‘all of the chapters focus on so called ‘classical music’, sometimes referred to as European art music’ (p. 284). Now this is not strictly true (several chapters touch lightly on aspects of jazz or improvisation, for example), but it is certainly broadly the case. Decisively excluded from view, then, are such things as pop and rock music, and the more experimental forms of improvisation and performance work based in interactive technologies. Pop music, as Sawyer notes, is a musical field in which ‘a complex ecosystem of songwriters, producers and singers engages in collaborative practices […]’ (p. 285). Likewise, in rock bands, ‘songs are typically composed collaboratively […]’. The fact that this book has closed itself off from these very relevant areas of investigation (and the extensive scholarly literatures established in those areas) is more than a serious flaw; it raises questions about ideology and implies some kind of implicitly exclusive, political stance. Finally, Sawyer observes that ‘this book contains no studies of indigenous musical forms in non-Western cultures’ (p. 285). Now, again, this is not strictly true, since the book does contain one chapter which deals (admittedly only obliquely and superficially) with Cantonese opera—but this slender example only serves to highlight the underlying problem.

So, in the final analysis we have a book that asks few questions, puts forward no new theories, proposes hardly any hypotheses (and even those rare few are strangely cautious and overly myopic), and presents remarkably little significant research data. It is overwhelmingly self-referential, but from this risky and potentially interesting merger of subject and object few challenges seem to arise. In other words, one might suspect that the authors have tried to make the book a small target for critique, but as a consequence it has become worryingly irrelevant. By not asking questions, by not creating ‘trouble’, the book is quite evidently conservative in stance and necessarily paradigm-affirming. Further, we have seen that the book very strongly reproduces a set of tightly limited cultural values almost to the point of imperialism and, while the lack of interest in pop and rock music is extraordinary, the exclusion of non-Western perspectives is unforgivable.

Traditionally, especially in the small and desperately fragile world of Australian musicology, silence is the response made when one’s colleagues produce a piece of work that falls short of expectation. Every now and then, however, it is necessary for someone to point out the curious nature of the emperor’s new clothes. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then perhaps engaged critique is the sincerest form of respect—and I do hope that this review will be read in the spirit of collegiality and friendship with which it is intended. My concern is that the work published in this book serves the very important purpose of drawing our attention to some systemic problems and weaknesses in the way much music research is currently being done—both in Australia and around the world.

For me, reading this book from cover to cover,[8]  I felt a rather similar emotional reaction to that we felt when watching Australia lose (devastatingly) the fourth ashes cricket test recently. How can a team of terrific, talented people get it so wrong? There is clearly some larger, systemic problem in the background that needs examination. The various authors represented in this book are all intelligent, educated scholars, and many of them are leading practitioners in the field of music. We are all sympathetic to the plight of the modern academic, and the impossible demands that universities and governments make in terms of ‘quantity over quality’ research outputs—but really, it’s time for the scholars at the coalface of intellectual activity to start rebelling against these external impositions and the political stances and structures they reify. Real research is always difficult, complex, and painstakingly slow. There is no quick fix. Many of the chapters published in this book represent the starting points, the sketched beginnings, of valuable research, and I do hope that the authors will be empowered to take (seize, or claw back, if necessary) the time to pursue these projects further, energised by dynamic questions, amplified with new and exciting data, and tackling head-on the vital theoretical problems.



1. A great deal of research has been done in such areas over recent decades. One might think of recent researches into things like game theory, and online interactive technologies, or the discussions of collaboration and creativity situated within musicology, such as Georgina Born’s important essay, ‘On Musical Mediation: Ontology, Technology, and Creativity’ in Twentieth-Century Music. 2/1 (March 2005), 7-36.

2. Not all research questions are created equal. As the physicist Wolfgang Pauli used to say, “Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig, es ist nicht einmal falsch!”. Further, if the answer is self-evident or the issue is a trivial one, then maybe one needn’t bother.

3.An 18 chapter manuscript, someone should have pointed out, is probably not a viable scholarly book. It is either two books (at least) or one book that needs a massive edit of extraneous material.


5. As Gary Tomlinson suggested in 1984, echoing Clifford Geertz

6. See her very significant response to the scandal surrounding Philip Auslander’s failed book Theory for Performance Studies (Routledge, 2007 but withdrawn by the publisher): Richard Schechner, Timothy K. Beal, William E. Deal, Talia Rodgers, Claire L’Enfant, Judith Butler et. al., ‘Scholars Comment: If the Commodity Could Speak…’ in Concerning Theory for Performance Studies. The Drama Review .Vol. 53, No. 1 (Spring 2009) 7-46.

7. The acknowledgements page at the front of this book begins by saying, somewhat defensively, ‘Each chapter in this volume was reviewed independently by three expert reviewers’. Frankly, those reviewers have some questions to answer themselves.

8. For the record, I did actually read this book in its entirety: not only all the chapters but also the footnotes and bibliographies I have also looked up many of the references cited by the authors in order to better understand the points they make. So, to be fair, this makes me something of an unusual reader and I imagine that few people will approach this book in such a manner. It is, after all, an anthology, and as such more suited to dipping into.

One thought on “Collaborative Creative Thought and Practice in Music”

  1. Robert Davidson says:

    As one of the authors, I thank you for reading the work fully and taking the effort to respond in depth.

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