Collaboration and creativity at CFMF

This was written for the Calgary Folk Music Festival’s 2015 program guide, so it’s a little all over the place in trying to combine a preview of certain festival artists with some wide-ranging thoughts on the nature of creativity. Still, it does have a few thoughts on collaboration and creativity that seemed worth archiving somewhere online. (Image taken from AUX.tv)

Want an easy way to terrify a professional musician?

Put them on stage with four complete strangers and zero guidance, and tell them to come up with something compelling.

Calgary Folk Music Festival devotees may not realize it, but what happens at the festival’s weekend workshops is not normal. There are very few places outside of Western Canadian folk festivals that will rope artists together for enforced musical collaborations. Even within that limited group, none of them pull in as diverse a collection of musicians as Calgary’s folk festival. The unassuming stages and cute, pun-laden workshop titles hide how subversive it really is, but believe me: This sort of thing simply isn’t done.

The workshops are a beautiful anomaly, a rare chance to watch artists work with musical hues that lie far outside their usual palettes. At past festivals, I’ve seen indie songwriters share a stage with a 1,000-year-old Moroccan sufi band. I’ve spoken to a blues musician who was re-evaluating his entire approach to music after jamming with an unbelievable Ethiopian act. Time and again, artists from genres that should never fit together have found their common ground, and amazed themselves in the process.

Those performances were remarkable in their own rights, but what makes the workshops truly special for audiences—and often truly intimidating for artists—isn’t just the way they demolish the borders between genres1. It’s that they force the creative process out from behind closed doors and into the public eye.

More often than not, when we go to a concert, we aren’t really seeing creativity in action. We’re watching the fruits of creative labour, which is incredible in itself, but isn’t really the same thing. Sure, most concerts will have a few spontaneous moments, both intentional (a guitar solo here, a time-filling vamp there) and accidental (a flubbed note, a false start), but generally speaking, the actual act of creation happened long before the band hits the stage.

In a new collaboration, like the ones on the workshop stages, we’re hearing something different. They often unfold along the same lines: the songwriter will give a quick description to the other artists on stage, a rough sketch of the tune they’re about to play. They’ll launch into it, and the other musicians will start to inch their way in, tentatively at first, poking at the song from different angles and trying to suss out how their sounds fit into the structure.

Once they work their way in, the song itself starts to shift and warp. It’ll stretch out in some places, and condense in others. The rhythm will change its emphasis, subtly but noticeably. New harmonies will change the mood of a passage, taking it into territory the songwriter never considered. Instead of a work of art being re-created in front of you, the song becomes a living, breathing thing—something that’s out of the control of any individual artist, even as they try to steer its creation.

Saying the songs have a life of their own isn’t an exaggeration. A few years back, former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne was asked about his approach to collaboration. This was when he was fresh off of projects with St. Vincent, the Dirty Projectors, Fatboy Slim and TV on the Radio; a period where, as one writer put it, he’d “collaborate with anyone for a bag of Doritos.” His response was that collaborations made something that existed outside the individual artists.

“There’s a creative value in collaborating that, when it works, you get something that neither of you would have done otherwise,” he said. “It seems to create this kind of third person, and the result is that person’s work, this kind of invisible person between the two of you.”

Byrne is hardly the only artist to realize this. Experimental saxophonist Colin Stetson (playing at 2015’s Folk Fest) is a perfect example of an artist who thrives on collaboration. True, his New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges was nominated for the Polaris Music Prize in 2011 for showcasing Stetson as a solitary artist, fleshing out a musical world through techniques like circular breathing and percussive valve work.

The same year that Judges made the Polaris Prize’s shortlist of the 10 best Canadian albums, he also contributed to two other shortlisted albums, by Timber Timbre and Arcade Fire, who went on to win the prize. The next year, he played on Feist’s Metals, which Polaris eventually picked as the best album of 2012, and his most recent project, an album-length collaboration with violinist Sarah Neufeld, was just placed on the Polaris long list2. Saying he’s responsible for those albums’ success is likely overstating the case, but it’s hard not to notice the common denominator.

Kid Koala is another of this year’s collaborative heavy hitters. Musically, he has as distinct an approach as any artist could aspire to. In his hands, turntables are every bit as expressive as more traditional instrumentation, and every bit as personal. There’s no mistaking one of his sets for anything but Kid Koala.

As impressive as his solo work is, though, his real magic touch might just be as a collaborator. Deltron 3030, his project with Dan the Automator and Del the Funkee Homosapien, is an alternative hip hop classic, a concept album set in a cartoonishly dystopian sci-fi future. His contributions to the first Gorillaz album helped frontman Damon Albarn transition from Britpop sensation to pan-global phenom, and his work with hard-rock project The Slew and tongue-in-cheek trip-hoppers Lovage is equally inspired.

But then, hip hop has always been open about its collaborative nature, and not just in the ever-shifting permutations of producers, DJs, rappers and singers that make up any given release. As a genre, it is founded on the idea of appropriating elements from the past and putting them into new contexts, piecing together grooves from unlikely (and often unauthorized) sources. In this view, there’s nothing sacred about recorded music; pillaging a song for its best parts and stitching them into something new isn’t theft, it’s a way for an artist to join in on a conversation that’s been going on for as long as music has existed.

Granted, not everyone agrees that sampling counts as creativity.3 But if hip hop is more explicit about its patchwork nature, there isn’t a genre that doesn’t follow the same basic process. The issue for songwriters isn’t whether their songs are patched together, but what elements they’re allowed to poach. In blues traditions, you’re more than welcome to lift a chord progression, so long as you play it yourself. Folk encourages new arrangements of traditional tunes without any question of whether that “counts” as creative. Strip jazz of its allusions to the popular songbook you’d be cutting out the heart of America’s original art form. Every genre defines originality a little differently. And the more you look at those definitions, the more arbitrary they feel.

It was almost 200 years ago that the poet Percy Shelley wrote that all poems are fragments of “that great poem, which all poets have built up since the beginning of the world.” Two centuries later, the same seems to be true of songwriters. Even if they’re working on their own, the act of songwriting is an act of remembering, responding to and reworking every piece of music that came before.

It’s a beautiful idea—the entirety of the creative process as one giant jam session, extending from humanity’s earliest moments to every teenaged songwriter strumming a guitar in their parents’ basement. What that eternal song sounds like, and what shape it’ll take next, is impossible to say. But if you want a glimpse, the workshop stages, where creativity is in the spotlight as much as any individual artist, might just be the best place to look.

1 Or really, how they show that genres are arbitrary distinctions with far more in common than purists are typically willing to admit. But that’s a whole other discussion.

2 The short list hasn’t been announced at the time of writing this article.

3 Cue Mark Volman of ’60s sunshine poppers The Turtles, who is on the record stating that “anyone who can honestly say sampling is some sort of creativity has never done anything creative.”

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