I recently started reading a very interesting book entitled “Decomposition – A Music Manifesto” by Andrew Durkin. It examines the mythologies of creative achievements in music composition, and our tendency to deify our highly esteemed composers by placing them on pedestals and assigning them superhuman qualities. Durkin believes that this leads to an inaccurate, short-sighted representation of reality that muffles our own creative capabilities.
One particular idea I would like to expand on is what Durkin calls “The Collaborative Theory of Musical Creativity”. Through his explanation, he unfolds the greatly overlooked fact that, even though a successful artwork holds one man or woman’s name, other people are always involved, as they too collaborate directly or indirectly to create the work, and are almost always excluded. He proceeds to give different examples of how this can happen. For today, I will take his example of Duke Ellington.In 1956, Duke Ellington’s band recorded at Newport what is considered to be one of the most exciting Jazz tracks ever recorded: a live performance of "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue". It lasts a little under 15:00 minutes. The first 4:00 minutes of music are written out for the band, followed by saxophonist Paul Gonsalves' solo which lasts about 6:30 minutes, then next, a rather short piano solo by Ellington, and then finally back to written parts, ending the piece.
A fascinating thing starts to happen a minute into Gonsalves’s solo; the crowd begins to get gradually louder and then louder, to the point where they are practically masking the music entirely for the rest of the improvisation! Apparently, during Gonsalves’s solo, a blonde in a black dress started dancing euphorically, drawing the whole crowd into a state of frenzy. If we listen to how the bass and drums are locked and loaded during the solo, we realize that it is really no wonder why someone would lose control of their bodies; it’s almost impossible not to move.
So what we end up with is a 15 minute monumental Jazz recording under Duke Ellington’s name “…that had very little to do with Ellington”. It should be clarified at this point that neither Durkin nor myself are trying to devaluate Duke, but rather, simply direct attention to a broader picture packed with important musical and sociological insights. Although only one man who took part in this highly successful recording is emphasized, there are other important contributors: the audience (possibly starting with the blonde in the black dress), the rhythm section (bass, drums and piano), the saxophonist, the whole band, the recording engineer, the producer, the concert organizers, and the list goes on and on. This is what is meant by “Collaborative Theory of Musical Creativity”—it is rarely (if ever) about one man or woman.
Having all that in mind, I couldn’t help but recall all the times I overlooked my own role when playing in other people bands, partially because it was under their name. I think we’ve inherited certain ways of doing things without really understanding why we do them (this could be an essay or a book on its own).
Say I'm approached by a pub owner who wants a Jazz band: I'll negotiate with him, call the musicians, choose the repertoire, contact the sound engineer, invite some friends, and then that gives me the privilege (for lack of a better word) to slap my name on the event: Makram A.Hosn Quartet, or something of the sort. In the process, the musicians I contacted could feel less responsible and engaged, consequently giving way to the possibility of their performance coming across as irresponsible and/or uncaring. It isn’t always the case, but it can often be.
One example is when I wrote a woodwind trio for my fellow orchestra players to perform at a chamber music event last November. I noticed that the audience was so focused on me as the composer, and not enough on them as players—something we may often observe in the Classical music world (as well as in theater, which was pointed out to me by my friend Dima Alansari). It is the composer and the conductor who are most praised or blamed, whereas the musicians, not as much. This hierarchy can have a negative impact on the music because it can have a negative effect on the performers’ willingness to care for what they’re doing—and the only thing that guarantees quality, is caring for what we do.If we let ourselves become aware of these social dynamics, we can then see through them and focus on what is real. If you get a call for a gig and are asked to play in someone else’s band, or to record someone’s music in the studio, you must know that you have, and are, an integral part in how the music comes out in the end. Knowing this, wouldn’t you treat the opportunity with care? What’s most important is to not miss the fact the music is a collaborative, communal act that cannot come to fruition through only one man’s efforts (more on this in my Unity essay). The audience plays an essential huge role. This is why I find it very strange when some of my colleagues claim that they don’t care about the audience or talk in a condescending way about them: “They don’t understand, they don’t appreciate...” and so on.
That might be true. The audience might not fully understand, but that is far from the point. I don’t understand how a film is made in detail, but I can still be completely taken by what I see on the screen; perhaps even more than those who know the technicalities. I once met an art restoration specialist in Latvia and asked her to teach me how to analyze a painting because I had no idea how to look at one ‘properly’. She told me it’s better that I don’t learn, because it could actually lessen the impact of my mystical experience of the painting.
I now remember looking at some of the faces in the audience as we, The Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra, performed Shostakovich’s 10th. Despite its difficulty, many were absolutely taken by it, just as we were. This was due to the fact that our conductor was wise enough to know, that it was not just about him, us, the audience, nor Shostakovich; it was about the sum of all the parts.
I'll end with a line that drummer Matthew Wilson once laid on me: "It makes a big difference whether you think, I have to do this, or, I GET to do this". I'm happy I get to do what I do, and I hope you are too.