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Harmony: Mechanical vs Interpersonal Collaboration (Part 2 of 5)

From Johan Fux, Gradus ad Parnassum 
Jay Erickson has a deep and earthy voice.  Lead singer for Red Rooster, he has a Johnny-Cash-meets-Bruce-Springsteen scrape and soar that summon a down-home, country feel.  But this hearth of a voice belies the edgy invention at the heart of both the band Red Rooster (an Americana/blues/folk meets hip-hop/electronica mashup), and the person (a singer/songwriter, and also founder and COO of a software company).  Red Rooster, like Erickson, is both city and country.  The band’s most recent album shows a barn in the middle of skyscrapers.

Erickson started Red Rooster with friend Nat Zilkha, who played rhythm and lead guitar.  The band has become, however, a collective that performs with as few as one and as many as ten or twelve members at a time.  In rehearsal, this sometimes makes the songwriting process a challenge.  But that mix of voices is part of what has earned the band its encomiums.  

I was the keyboards player for Red Rooster when Erickson brought a new song to rehearsal.  The song was called “Time to Go,” and he had drafted it with Zilkha beforehand.  In the room that day were drums, bass, banjo, two singers, sax, guitar, french horn, and keys, and our backgrounds spanned from classical performance (french horn) to jazz (sax) to bluegrass (banjo) and more.  I had studied classical composition in college and brought some of those sensibilities to the group.

Composing by committee can be tricky, but the results can pay off if the committee can learn to work with itself. We were pretty good at it, but we still encountered cognitive dissonances that caused static. 

We played through the song a few times. It started with a pattern of chords: begin high, resolve down, return high, and resolve down again. Drawn in a line, the chord progression would look like teeth on a saw. The melody ran in the same pattern: high, then low; high, then low. Principles of classical composition, however, suggest that harmony is best when melodic lines move in opposite, contrary motion, so if one melody descends, then a harmony should ascend. This is part of why the melodic ascent in the phrase “Row, row, row your boat” works so well with the descent of “Merrily, merrily, merrily merrily” when sung as a round.

We were growing accustomed to the descending melody of “Time To Go” when I proposed inverting it. It was a suggestion borne from music theory, and I wasn’t sure how it would work, but we gave it a try and upturned the descending melody.  Indeed, the harmony was more sonorous, but the move changed the mood of the song—for the worse. It turned melodic plaints into questions, which didn’t fit the lyrics. It turned a musical sigh into a musical “Huh?” 

Working together is tricky in moments like this. Music is feeling, as is other creative work, like visual arts, writing, and teaching. We invest personally in it. We expose ourselves. And when we make changes to other people’s music or art or teaching, we change, amend, correct, and adjust their feelings: The lead singer is vulnerable when he brings us a song. We are vulnerable when we make suggestions that others will examine, and then accept or reject. I expose myself to criticism by writing this piece.

In this way, the mechanical work of collaboration—the bringing together of different ideas—is only a part of meaningful, collaborative work, and success depends on something else: the subjective, interpersonal element of the work. Part of collaboration is algorithmic; the other part is personal.  Whatever expertise we may have on a matter, we may not have expertise in the interpersonal sensibilities necessary for successful collaboration. And so, effective collaboration requires not only comfort with criticism and change, but also, and more importantly, an environment that recognizes and explores the merits of a half-formed idea before it recognizes the idea’s shortcomings.

We worked and reworked “Time to Go,” dismissing melodies that conflicted with the meaning of the words, and attempting new harmonies against the chord progression.  We tested the limits of classical composition; something does feel right about the harmony of contrary motion, but when singing about the end of a relationship, something also feels right about a melody that spirals down.  The melody changed; we created new arcs and shapes in the music by reshuffling, reshaping, and rethinking the musical phrase.  The nine of us wrangled for fifteen minutes over four notes, but the result remains one of my favorite nooks of both the song and album.   

Collaboration like this isn’t about compromise. While it did take willingness to let go of our own ideas, it took, even more so, willingness to inhabit and explore other ideas. It took openness to unfamiliar perspectives, a willingness to understand their merits, and the collective will to integrate what was valuable into what we already felt invested in. It’s hard and deliberate work.

Next: What does this look like in the classroom?


To visit Red Rooster online, click here.

This is the second in a five part series about collaboration.

These posts appear together as an article in the Winter 2014 issue of Deerfield Magazine.
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