The mystery of collaboration.

I recently heard an album of two talented performers which drove home to me—yet again—the power of collaborative creativity. It wasn't a rock & roll partnership I was hearing (which is what I usually prattle about) but more of an impressionistic aural blend of two classically-trained musicians in full improvisational glory.

But whatever the idiom, the outcome was a confirmation that surrendering one's ego to a collaborative project can be a win to the third power. (This has applications to the business world, of course, where individuals of every stripe need to put their heads together to create new products, services, marketing strategies, business models, etcetera—a theme I will return to in the future.)

The album I'm referring to is 'The Return of Desire: Improvisations', performed by Eve Kodiak on piano and David Darling on cello.

Eve is a respected kinesiologist, cranial-sacral therapist, and author as well as a classical pianist and composer. David is a cellist and composer (once nominated for a Grammy) who has performed or recorded with the Paul Winter Consort, Bobby McFerrin, Spyro Gyra, and the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. Eve and David together weave their instrumental magic on this suite of original pieces.

I'm endlessly fascinated by collaborative undertakings that achieve exponentially greater success than individual efforts—especially in the case of two-person songwriting partnerships.

Lennon-McCartney is the classic (and my favorite) example. Despite the artistic and commercial success that John Lennon and Paul McCartney each achieved after the Beatles break-up in 1970 (Paul with exquisite songs like 'Maybe I'm Amazed', John with classics like 'Imagine'), their audaciously creative work together ('In My Life', 'Eleanor Rigby', 'A Day in the Life') dwarfs those individual achievements.

I would even argue that the best songs that John and Paul each wrote by himself during their partnership (for example 'Yesterday', 'Here, There and Everywhere', 'Strawberry Fields') surpassed all their post-Beatles songwriting achievements quality-wise, despite whatever wisdom and maturity each gained with age.

Why is that? John Lennon and Paul McCartney certainly retained their motivation to write great material, and even to outdo each other as songwriters. If anything I would have expected the quality of their solo writing to increase in value, given how much John and Paul were competing with each other in the 1970s.

Incredibly, these earlier solo compositions imply collaboration even when there was no overt exchange of musical or lyrical ideas between John and Paul. (After the first few years John and Paul increasingly wrote separately. They would sometimes finish each other's songs—such as 'Michelle' or 'We Can Work It Out'—but in the later years they didn't even do that.)

Perhaps when they were writing alone, but still working as a partnership, each was trying to satisfy the artistic criteria of the other. For instance when Paul was writing a tune by himself, he had in mind what would or wouldn't pass muster with John, so he continued to set the bar high. And he might have imagined the input that the John would have provided.

If that's the case, in a truly successful collaborative partnership the other partner doesn't even need to be present to affect the outcome. That's a mystery worth exploring.

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  1. You're selling McCartney a wee short in your analysis. He wrote some really great stuff when he played with Wings -- and when he collaborated with other songwriters like Stevie Wonder. Lennon was only alive for 10 years after the Beatles split, so there's a limited timeline there. But no question that J & P wrote great stuff in the sixties, alone or side by side.

  2. Beatlejunkie, I forgot about "Ebony & Ivory" which Paul wrote with Stevie. And now that I think about it, "Veronica" - which he wrote with Elvis Costello - is one of his finest. BUT... "Yesterday" - which Paul wrote by himself in the height of Beatlemania - has been recorded by over 3000 artists. And "Here, There and Everywhere" - which Paul wrote alone at John's house - was picked by one collection of top songwriters as THE greatest pop song of the 20th century! So Paul was truly in the zone between 1965 and 1968 while writing primarily BY HIMSELF as a member of the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team. That's a mind-blower, as we used to say. And I'm not even including "Hey Jude" because John gave Paul a little bit of feedback when Paul was composing that one.

    Though I love many of Paul's songs apres Beatles, I still don't think the best of 'em can quite match the lofty heights of those earlier classics. And that's no knock on him. But it's a bit of a mystery to many of us.

  3. I think a number of factors come into play. Earlier in your career, you're probably bursting with ideas, energy and drive. You probably want to prove yourself (whoever it might be to). You want to make a mark, disrupt the old order and establish yourself.

    As you get older, it's just harder to find new things to say. You might want to avoid repeating yourself or falling into the trap of delivering only what your audience wanted. Or maybe you just take the line of least resistance, or you've genuinely run out of / short of, things to say.

    What's interesting about Macca is how much of his best work has been with a collaborator. Not just Lennon, Wonder, Costello but think of Wings where the under-rated Dennie Laine was there to back him up. (Not to mention his wife, of course.)

    David Bowie's best work was with Mick Ronson (and look what the pair did for Lou Reed) and/or Tony Visconti.

    And what of Brian Eno? This guy has made a speciality of collaborating and it's kept him fresh, inventive, interesting, challenging and entertaining. To the extent that bands hire now him as their collaborator because he's one of the few people with the perspective, open-mindedness and vision to keep moving forward. (Even if you've no idea where forward really is.)

  4. Good points about collaboration, Mark JF.

    The reason I expected even more from Lennon and McCartney post Beatles was that each was SO upset at how he was treated by the other (or by the band as a whole) that I assumed they would each write their best stuff in the years that followed. Kinda like "I'll show him." But that didn't happen, in my humble opinion.

    I need to get myself better educated on Brian Eno. Which of his songs would you recommend for me as a primer?

  5. John: how to pick just one Enosong that reflects a lifetime of re-invention? But I'll point you at "Here He Comes" from the LP 'Before And After Science.' Magical and an absolute must-have song for any collection. Well worth 79p from iTunes and it'll be less in US$, too.

    For ambient pieces, 'Ambient 1' is a good start but I love the 'Appollo' cd (for a film about the Appollo moon missions) - it's terrific. If a piece called 'Neroli' is available as a cheap download (£1.49 over here), it's good value.

  6. Thank you, John. Beautiful piece. When respect, humility and the pursuit of excellence is the hallmark of collaborations and partnerships, there is always the presence of the other.

    Our ideas are never really ours alone anyway--are they? We are forever influenced by others, even when we don't recognize it. This is the importance of like-minded efforts and pursuits. My mother used to tell us to be careful who we hung out with because over time we would become like them. We would adapt habits like the other.

    Collaborations and partnerships acknowledge the importance of the other. There is an equal deference to the other's skill and in the process something outstanding is achieved. Where there is respect, humility and the pursuit of excellence there is beauty and WOW! works on the stage or at the office.

  7. Thanks for the suggestions, Mark JF. I spent 45 minutes on iTunes trying to download that song (it was available but I couldn't purchase it) but hopefully they'll get back to me with what the problem is. Strange that iTunes should be screwing up.

    Thanks, Judith. "Our ideas are never really ours alone anyway--are they?" Interesting question, from a number of angles. Dylan once said that when he was writing his most acclaimed songs in the early to mid 60s he felt he was just an antenna and the songs were already out there (or something to that effect).

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