Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Collaboration vs Competition at the Southbank Centre

Last night I attended a talk at the Southbank Centre's Purcell Room on the importance of creative collaboration. The Southbank's Head of Literature and Spoken Word James Runcie introduced a succession of speakers from a range of disciplines, starting with pianist Joanna MacGregor (right) and Saxophonist Andy Sheppard, who punctuated the discussion with jazz performances from a forthcoming album. Runcie's other guests, surgeon Roger Kneebone and entrepreneur and author Margaret Heffernan gave short talks about their experience of the benefits of collaboration over competition in their areas.

As musicians - especially as singers - there is a perception that at any one time we are either collaborating or competing. Music-making is a necessarily collaborative state and even more so in the improvised performances that MacGregor and Sheppard offered. Their music evolved through responsive dialogue, clear for us to see and hear. Singers often work in ensembles or as soloists in companies of various sizes (even the smallest opera company will have a minimum of half a dozen musicians).

Yet the idea of a 'career' to a singer suggests competing for positions, which means auditioning for an increasingly diminishing pool of roles. Skills are less commutable than in business (or, I speculate, even in medicine); with this perspective the idea of reversing the talk of competition seems futile.Well, that's the really pessimistic view! Before we return to the specificity of singing work, it's worth repeating some of the good points made by the speakers. Roger Kneebone illustrated his talk with a picture (Concourse 2) by Barbara Hepworth, one a series known as The Hospital Drawings, in which it's barely possible to identify the patient for the focus and flow of the medics at their task.

The width of focus is one point that the Professor returned to later in his talk, describing how listening to his colleagues whilst retaining his visual focus on the patient was a vital skill. In such a way a mutual effort to achieve a singular goal was achieved - and such an observation suggests the complementary skill of the musician, listening to colleagues whilst executing one's own part.

Additionally, Prof Kneebone wanted to make the point that his interdisciplinary collaborations - he has worked with a dance troupe, for example - offer the opportunity to re-examine one's own work through a different perspective. Collaboration doesn't necessarily mean incorporating an alien discipline.

Margaret Heffernan spoke about her experience both setting up businesses and helping others to improve theirs. Her message (the subject of a new book, The Bigger Prize) was clear - that the relentlessly fostered culture of competition within companies is counter-productive.

We had a report of an experiment, which operates as a direct analogy, in which a group of average chickens were kept in one coop and specially selected high-end chickens were kept in another; the elite coop descended into chickicide, whilst the average coop just got on with the day to day task of egg-making.

I went into all this with my guard up. It is one thing to engage in courteous and worthy hat-tipping at the work of those who excel in their alternative field but something else to actively incorporate it.

Indeed, many of us support our colleagues by attending recitals or productions but we are less likely to adopt the techniques, mannerisms or ideas we see, wholesale. Additionally, being open to the input - or at least influence - of someone else (openness being something that Joanna MacGregor singled out as being important) requires great confidence in what we already do ourselves. Technique, such a personal thing, is so bound to career that this seems a bit invasive.

I appear sceptical. However, I think the ideas that were being shared at this talk are very useful for the singer who is looking for alternatives to the traditional employment model. Indeed for the singer trying to generate work they are progressive.

The ideas of this presentation can help guide us from traditional career routes or models of work. There is a well-established culture in London at the moment for small scale opera productions, much of it for new, specially commissioned work, using different accompanying instrumentation. Indeed, in this most collaborative of all art forms, the traditional supporting design and aesthetic has expanded to include new technology and to make new demands on the performers. Innovation in collaboration is a necessity of modern lyric drama.

In addition the manner in which such productions come to happen at all (i.e. off-stage) is also changing. Fundraising and marketing benefits from the ease and ubiquity of the social media both for exchanging ideas and for raising awareness. The quality of recorded media means that audiences need not even be in the same room. These are the possibilities that an entrepreneurial-minded performer might do well to consider and embrace, even if the model has little to do with the performing arts on the face of it.

Finally, Joanna MacGregor had a good point to finish with. She suggested that creative collaborations work best to a deadline, that at some point the 'work in progress' becomes the work in object, in fact. Collaborative work is, naturally, a balancing act. It seems contrary to the possibility of collaboration to go into such a partnership knowing all the answers, all the possibilities. Yet to go in without any sense of direction or purpose can have the opposite effect. Collaboration is then a way of achieving a wandering imagination or ambition rather than a substitute for these important sparks of the creative process.