I found it astonishing to read yesterday that David Crosby has found out how important it is to collaborate. I had always assumed that he was one of the most hedonistic, self-centred, self-absorbed and egocentric person on the planet and then I find that he realises that he can learn from other people. Maybe, I need to look a little closer to home…
A couple of years ago I was asked to deliver a lesson to a Year 10 class along with someone else, who I’d never met before. A Powerpoint was prepared for us and it was very good. We had a quick chat on the phone a couple of days beforehand and had decided who was going to speak to each slide. I’m sure most people would have been quite comfortable with the actions of my colleague but I wasn’t. Every time I spoke, he felt a need to add something which finally culminated in one memorable phrase. As I finished speaking, he stood up and started with “I think what Mick is trying to say…” I didn’t say anything but made a vow never to be in a classroom with him again. I felt that he didn’t respect me.
At the weekend, I was delivering more material and this time it was via Zoom. Again, I was doing this with someone else and again, we had agreed when each of us was going to speak. This time, as I was in the middle of a sentence, I was interrupted by my co-presenter who spoke over me and spent five minutes talking, before getting to the point that I was about to make. Again, I felt disrespected.
It’s very likely that someone with a less inflated ego than me would have felt quite comfortable with these interruptions but 40 years of tyrannical rule in classrooms has turned me into the sort of person who doesn’t like being interrupted. It’s actually been a fundamental part of my role to object to being talked over. I’ve watched enough terrible lessons where the pupils talk at the same time as the teacher to know that such situations are not productive. The strange thing about teaching is that once that classroom door closes, it’s just you and 30+ children in a room and your job, as a teacher, is to inhabit every corner of that room and permeate it with the force of your personality. “That teacher can’t keep control” is a justifiable criticism but whether that means that a good teacher should take umbrage at someone else speaking in life outside the classroom is open to question. I guess that’s why teachers sometimes have a reputation for being egocentric. I wonder if David Crosby would have made a good teacher?
In 1976, along with two other fellow students at Worcester College, I delivered a careers lesson at The Chase School in Malvern. I can’t remember who the other two were but we were all equally underprepared and had no real idea what we were doing. This was before any of us had undertaken any meaningful placement in a school. All I can remember is that we stood in different corners of the room, speaking meaningless sentences at random as a Fourth Year (Year 10) class swivelled their heads to look at us as if they were at Wimbledon. I can clearly remember running out of the school, giggling with the other two at how pathetic we had been. In this case there was mutual disrespect which was strangely comforting (and, obviously, memorable).
In my defence, I’m normally perfectly happy to work with other people and, like David Crosby, I can see the benefits. I have delivered lessons with other people and carried out Zoom online training with other people and, apart from the examples I’ve mentioned, it’s been great. I actually quite like asking my co-presenters if there’s anything I’ve forgotten to say or if there’s anything they wish to add. It’s just when someone is disrespectful to me in front of an audience, I feel humiliated.
I wonder what happened when David Crosby received lyrics from Donald Fagan for “Rodriguez For A Night” and started setting them to music. I wonder whether he wanted to tweak anything. When Jackson Browne got the lyrics to “Human Touch” from Leslie Mendelson and Steve McEwan, he changed the second line. I wonder how the other two felt about this. Consider the occasion when Paul McCartney interrupted George Harrison’s guitar playing during the rehearsal of “Two Of Us”, and told him how to play. That wasn’t collaboration in the sense that David Crosby or Jackson Browne would understand. That’s one person disrespecting another and saying “do it my way”.
This reminds me of sharing teaching resources. When I was teaching, I used to share my teaching resources with my colleagues and some of them would reciprocate. I always felt, though, that using other people’s ideas was never as effective as using my own. Not that mine were better, but mine were more suited to my style of teaching and other people’s were more suited to their style. I never felt that I had a satisfactory lesson when I copied someone else’s ideas – I always needed to tweak it and make it more personalised. This may be arrogance or it may be the essence of collaboration. I’m not saying that I never learned from anyone else – quite the opposite – but true collaboration requires mutual respect.
Here’s another example. On 25th February 1964, Paul McCartney played a new song he had composed called “And I Love Her”. George Martin suggested that the song needed a middle eight and John Lennon and Paul McCartney worked together for 30 minutes to produce the section which starts “A love like ours…” After a few further run throughs, George Harrison suggested the fantastic four note guitar riff that runs through the recording. The mutual respect between all four of these geniuses led to a collaboration that produced a remarkable song.
True collaboration requires mutual respect and an understanding that your ideas may get modified. Tweaking somebody else’s ideas is a fundamental aspect of productive collaboration. (In my opinion, Andy).
The “Red Hot Organisation” is an international organisation which is dedicated to fighting AIDS. In 2009, they released their 20th music compilation called “Dark Was The Night” with songs by Nick Drake, The National, Bob Dylan and 28 other artists. Aaron Dessner, the lead singer with The National, contacted Justin Vernon via MySpace. The two had never met. At the time, Justin Vernon had just released Bon Iver’s first album, “For Emma, Forever Ago”. Aaron Dessner sent an instrumental idea and asked if Justin Vernon would like to use it to work it into a song which he did. The song was called “Big Red Machine” which is also the nickname for The Cincinnati Reds, the baseball team from Aaron Dessner’s home town in Ohio.
In 2016, Justin Vernon, Aaron Dessner and his twin brother, Bryce, founded an artistic collective named “PEOPLE” which aims to “establish an independent and nurturing space in which to make work (generally around music) that is collaborative, spontaneous and expressive in nature.” To further promote this initiative, they organised a festival in Berlin in 2016 at which an initial version of Big Red Machine played a set. They played at a number of similar events in 2017, mainly improvising new songs which they worked up for the album, “Big Med Machine”, which was released in 2018.
The album is a collaboration between 16 different musicians who are
- Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) – vocals, guitar, synthesizer
- Aaron Dessner (The National) – drum machine, synthesizer, guitar, piano, mellotron
- Brad Cook (producer for Hiss Golden Messenger, William Tyler, Waxahatchee, The Mountain Goats etc) – bass
- J. T. Bates (Face Candy) – drums
- Bryce Dessner (The National ) – guitar, orchestration
- Bryan Devendorf (The National ) – drum machine
- Phoebe Bridgers (solo artist) – vocals on “Lyla”
- Kate Stables (This Is The Kit) – vocals on “Hymnostic”, “People Lullaby” and “I Won’t Run from It”
- Richard Reed Parry (Arcade Fire) – vocals on “Gratitude”, “Hymnostic” and “I Won’t Run from It”
- Lisa Hannigan (solo artist) – vocals on “Deep Green”, “Lyla”, “Hymnostic”, “People Lullaby”, “I Won’t Run from It” and “Melt”
- Andrew Broder (Fog) – vocals on “Lyla”
- Camilla Staveley-Taylor (The Staves) – vocals on “Lyla” and “Forest Green”
- Emily Staveley-Taylor (The Staves) – vocals on “Lyla”, “Hymnostic”, “People Lullaby”, “I Won’t Run from It” and “Melt”
- Jessica Staveley-Taylor (The Staves) – vocals on “Lyla”, “Hymnostic”, “People Lullaby”, “I Won’t Run from It” and “Melt”
- Zoe Randell (Luluc) – vocals on “People Lullaby”, “I Won’t Run from It” and “Melt”
- Steve Hassett (Luluc) – vocals on “People Lullaby”, “I Won’t Run from It” and “Melt”
“Gratitude” features Justin Vernon pulling off the remarkable trick that he has of singing emotionally through a vocoder. Neil Young famously used a vocoder on his “Trans” album to represent how he communicated with his son who had cerebral palsy. He deliberately eliminated all emotion from his voice. Justin Vernon achieved the opposite effect and the vocoder enhances the emotional impact of his voice. When Big Red Machine performed the song on the Stephen Colbert show, Lisa Hannigan joined them on vocals. The music is simultaneously experimental, exciting and immediately accessible.
Justin Vernon’s voice comes in many formats. A deep baritone, or a raw falsetto and he occasionally enhances both of these with a vocoder. “People Lullaby” showcases the latter with a chorus which includes all three Staves, Lisa Hannigan and Kate Stables. A nine note piano sequence is the backdrop for all sorts of manic drumming, synthesiser and electric guitar which compete for attention. A live performance at the 37d03d Festival in Brooklyn, showcases the ultimate collaboration. Or is it a dominating autocracy?
(The artistic collective that Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner formed is called PEOPLE. “37d03d” is “people”, upside down)
“OMDB” has been described as “trip-hop” and this is not a term I understood until I consulted Wikipedia. It is “a fusion of hip hop and electronica until neither genre is recognizable“. I’m not really a fan of hip hop or electronica but I am a fan of the way Big Red Machine combine to make this sound. In fact, a fusion of two genres in order to produce a new genre sounds like a collaboration to me. “OMDB” features a combination of Justin Vernon’s baritone voice, his falsetto voice and a vocoder enhanced hybrid. It’s dreamy and blissed out at the start until he starts screaming “over my dead body“. Like the rest of this unique album, it’s remarkable.
Big Red Machine have their second album released on August 27th and this time there are even more people that they collaborate with. I can’t wait.