The Trauma of Musical Collaboration

It is always amazing that when you get down to any artistic project, in earnest; all sorts of unexpected emotional conflicts come to the surface.  I don’t know why this should be, but it can give you sleepless nights of tossing and turning, while the things that have been holding you back are brought to the fore by your unconscious and you wrestle with them.  It’s exhausting, but also cathartic.

I write this in a semi stupor at 6:30AM on a Sunday morning, having had such a night.  Now that I am working on my album with serious application and intent, the things that had me stuck for so long are being revealed to me and I am being forced to face and resolve each one, as it comes up.  My unconscious won’t let me gloss over them.  It’s not an entirely happy experience, though it does feel like progress.

For me, some of what has had me stuck has been about what my music should sound like.  What that brings to top of mind are the various musical collaborations I’ve had, particularly when I was a young person.  The conflicts are all about who was setting the musical direction of the band and what was gained and lost, from the point of view of musical aesthetics, at each twist and turn.  In replaying all those moments where, to quote Roger Waters, “the band you’re in starts playing different tunes”, I came to understand the moments where I was content with the musical direction and when I was alarmed by it.  Sometimes, the change in musical direction felt inclusive and was consonant with the music I wanted to make and at other times it was distinctly at odds and I felt rejected or left behind and discarded.  When you consider that, in most of the collaborations, I felt somebody else was the band leader, you begin to understand why these moments of musical differences have stuck with me and made me feel stuck now.

It’s at one and the same time a hard and an easy question: what should my music sound like?  It’s hard because it’s laden with all those moments of musical indirection, where you didn’t like the music that your collaborators were asking you to make, but your sense of loyalty, or the need to impress them to gain their approval, or your fear that the band would come to an end, leaving you alone, meant that you were playing it anyway.  On the other hand, it’s easy because, all your life, there were songs and albums that resonated with you, which pointed the way to the sounds you want to make and why.

The rudderless feeling comes from all those moments where musical collaborations ended and you found yourself having to define your own musical direction, without reference to anybody else.  It’s nice and safe to be in a band that is making the sort of music you want to make, but where others are contributing interesting ideas, or even setting the musical direction for you.  Leaving that environment for the uncertainty of not knowing what to do, where every new musical idea is your own, is an early trauma that scars your musical output, seemingly for life.

The earliest music that I loved had novelty.  The sounds were new and fresh.  The song structure was important, but the music was immersive.  I could get lost in it.  I could daydream while I listened to it.  The songs had melodies and harmonies and they soothed, but the songs were about something.  In every case, the music I loved most was arresting.  It grabbed your attention.  Another feature of my favourite music was that it had light and shade and well-defined moments of musical drama and climax.  It was not all at one emotional level.  If I was going to surrender myself to the immersive, daydreaming, musical journey, then it was going to have to engage me emotionally.

Another feature was the visceral, physical rhythm of the pieces.  They made me want to move my body.  They let me dance and involved my entire being, not just my mind and emotions.  My body was surrendered as well.  I love drums, played well (I get that from my dad).  There were also moments of sheer power and emotional release, where the sound of the music made you want to punch the air with your fist, if you know what I mean.  Power chords and heavily distorted, high gain guitar sounds play to that feeling, as do several record production techniques and some synth lead sounds and rapidly arpeggiated synth sequences.

My collaborative traumas stemmed from times when our collectively made music departed from these ideals.  Sometimes we made very formless, unstructured music, which while immersive and improvisational, had no respect for song structure.  That made me uncomfortable and unhappy.  I wanted some song structure.  Sometimes it was instrumental, without melody or harmony.  At other times, it became highly technical and veered toward traditional jazz, which while musically interesting, was not emotionally engaging for me and left me feeling untrained and unable to contribute.  I didn’t have anybody teaching me the rudiments of composition, jazz chord theory or musical theory.  I was lost at sea.

At other times, we were playing covers.  I liked the idea of sounding like other bands and borrowing from their tricks and techniques, but I always hated sounding exactly like other bands.  I never wanted to be a performing, human juke box, reproducing other people’s music with slavish accuracy.  I preferred to borrow and then modify, so that what I played was undoubtedly influenced by those other artists, but with something of my own in the rendition.  It’s why, I suppose, I could never quite bring myself to play the solos I was supposed to play exactly like the original artist.  I couldn’t be bothered to learn them to that depth.  There was no point.

My musical collaborators were not as into song writing, as a field of study, as I was.  They didn’t care as much as I did about new musical timbres and textures.  Synthesisers and guitar effects usually left them cold, whereas to me, they were the door to sounds previously unheard.  They were the secret to coming up with arresting music.  Yes, the arrangements and the construction of the music mattered in that respect too, but I lacked the training needed to pull those arresting musical tricks off.  I’ve spent a while trying to get that knowledge.  It has been a blocker, for me.

I never found a singer that I could work with effectively, so wound up having to sing my own songs, but with an untrained voice.  I came from a family of excellent singers, but my own instrument took quite a bit of taming and still does.  I came to realise, later in life, that while I inherited some of the characteristics of my ancestor’s voices, they were peculiar and hard to control aspects.  I still struggle with getting the sound I want to hear out of my voice, but I’m at a point now where I think I can work with it, in my music.  The music technology for vocal editing helps.

The good things that I came up with, during my musical collaborations, were a penchant for improvisation, knowledge of guitar and synth sounds that I think confers taste to those sounds and an ability to produce highly colourful arrangements, laden with all sorts of surprising instruments, timbres and textures.  I also know how to engineer and produce sounds.  My dexterity, particularly on guitar, is not bad and so workable.  I can put a good rhythm track down using drum machines and I can get other sorts of sonic elements into the mix, borrowed from sound design.

The traumas were all about those feelings of loss of control, of being left behind, of having inadequate grasp of music theory, of having to follow a musical direction that I didn’t like, of feeling like others were in charge of how the band sounded, or of deferring to people who had what I thought was superior musical knowledge, of being forced to reproduce other people’s music exactly or be found wanting and of feeling that I might be encroaching beyond my permitted limits, if I were to assert my own musical aesthetics.  There were moments of feeling lost, without a clue about how to make the next sound.  There were also moments of feeling too embarrassed to sing and not enough in control of my vocal instrument.  There were complicated chord sequences I couldn’t play (and still don’t fully understand).  I have feelings of mystification at hearing sounds and harmonies and not knowing how to construct them for myself, yet dearly wanting to.  I struggle with the rejection of musical sounds and ideas that I thought were good, but which didn’t interest my collaborators at all.

For me, being in a band was supportive, nurturing, experimental, comfortable, brotherly and fun, but also lonely, threatening, disheartening, disappointing, frustrating, confidence destroying, stressful, alarming and sad.  Making music solo was daunting, frightening, disorienting, uncertain and rejected, but also consonant, pleasing, emotionally fulfilling and made me feel top of the world.  These contrasting and conflicting feelings are what make the process of creating my current album such a mess, from the point of view of my head space.

I think for me the way forward is to embrace the happier moments and to discount the less happy.  I need to trust in the moments where the sounds I was hearing were right to me; both the music of other people and my own.  I can clearly see the musical elements I love most and know how to make most of them in my own way.  The hard part now, is technical.  It is a challenge to capture those elements and blend them into a cohesive whole of my own.  I want my music to be immersive and contoured, but making it so is different to wanting it to be so.

In any case, separating all those long-ago feelings of musical conflict and uncertainty, from the current album creation process is a very important thing to do.  I can see, through my restless nights that I have been stuck, emotionally, because those feelings have never been fully acknowledged or resolved.  I think I can face them now.  I think I can move forward.

The other piece of clarity that has dawned on me is that I really do know what my music needs to sound like.  The only obstacle I face is in making sure it does.  That’s a technical, rather than aesthetic, challenge.  I’ll know it when I hear it.

Whether anybody else will like or respond to my brand of musical aesthetic remains to be seen.  My collaborators of old probably won’t be tremendously engaged by it.  However, a lot of the music that influenced me was very popular, as opposed to appealing to a tiny minority, so there is a chance that what I make will have wide appeal too.  That matters to me, because my music will carry a message, hopefully effectively.  If it does that and also appeals widely, then it will have fulfilled its purpose.

This music making lark is asking things of me that I never anticipated.  Wish me luck.  It’s harder, emotionally, than I thought.

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About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: https://michaeltopic.wordpress.com/. There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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