‘Inside the Collaborative Process’: Spotlight on Practice-led Research

London-based Australian pianist, Zubin Kanga has performed at the BBC Proms, Aldeburgh, Occupy the Pianos (UK), ISCM World New Music Days (Australia) and Borealis (Norway) Festivals as well as appearing as soloist with the London Sinfonietta and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. He has commissioned more than 50 new solo works, and collaborated with many of the world’s leading composers including Thomas Adès, Michael Finnissy, George Benjamin, Steve Reich, Beat Furrer and Liza Lim. He is a member of Ensemble Offspring, one of Australia’s leading contemporary music ensembles, and has also performed with Halcyon, Synergy Percussion, Ensemble Plus-Minus, Endymion Ensemble and the Kreutzer Quartet, as well as performing piano duos with Rolf Hind and Thomas Adès.

Zubin graduated from the University of Sydney with first class honours and the University Medal before studying for a Masters and PhD at the Royal Academy of Music, London, graduating with numerous prizes for performance and research. In September 2014, he will take up a position as post-doctoral researcher in the GEMME research project hosted by the University of Nice and IRCAM. Find out more details of his forthcoming performances here, or follow him on twitter: @ZubinKanga.

As part of our ongoing Spotlight on Practice-led Research series, Zubin gives an account of his PhD research: an auto-ethnographic examination of his collaborative work with a wide variety of composers.


Collaborating with composers has been part of my musical life since my school days and collaborative work now dominates my career as a pianist. While working with composers of many styles and career stages – from students through to leading composers such as Thomas Adès, Michael Finnissy, George Benjamin, Beat Furrer and Steve Reich – I became fascinated by the complexity of the relationships and the many factors that affect the process.

It was thus an obvious decision for me to focus my doctoral research around my collaborative practice with composers. Although there has been a considerable amount of research on creative collaboration in theatre, visual arts, literature, dance, science and business, the study of creative collaboration in music using ethnographic approaches has only become a major field of its own in the last decade. A number of significant articles and theses have been written in the last few years, but it remains, in many ways, still an emerging field with no consensus as to the best approaches to documenting, analysing and writing about collaboration. However, some of the best work I have read has been written by performers engaging in auto-ethnographic research on their collaborations with composers, and it is this approach to research that I adopted. Having done my Masters at the Royal Academy of Music, I knew it would be an excellent base for doctoral study in this field as it would allow me access to a large group of excellent performers and composers to collaborate with and document, access to a large number of senior composers who regularly visit the institution as well as having an ideal supervisor in Prof. Neil Heyde, an acclaimed performer and collaborator as cellist with the Kreutzer Quartet as well as key researcher in the field of collaborative creativity.

Over the five years of my PhD at the Royal Academy of Music, London, I documented 48 collaborations, 42 of which I was involved in as the performer, and 30 of which featured the creation of a new work. 10 of these case studies (including collaborations with British composers, Michael Finnissy, George Benjamin and David Gorton) were written up in detail for my PhD thesis, “Inside the Collaborative Process: Realising New Works for Solo Piano”. Although not the first auto-ethnographic study of composer-performer collaboration, this is the first study centred around the creation and realisation of solo piano works. It is also the first time so many cases with the same performer have been lined up and compared, revealing new trends, confirming some myths and discrediting others.

One weakness of previous research into composer-performer collaboration has been the predominance of standalone case-studies: even though many of these are incredibly enlightening, there is a limit to the type of conclusions that can be made from standalone cases. For this reason, I grouped my cases into larger subjects: catalysts that could be observed to alter the collaborative process in many diverse composer-performer pairings. In each chapter, I tackled a different catalyst that affected the manner of communication, the type of relationship and the type (and quality) of music that came out the other end. These were: differences in authority; an invitation into the composer’s workshop; the goal of virtuosity; the effect of long-term collaboration; and the use of graphic notation. The research outputs consisted of a 500 page thesis with 40 accompanying video excerpts, a portfolio of scores created in collaboration with composers, as well as three CDs and one DVD of recordings of the new works. The performances and written thesis have a symbiotic relationship: the performances demonstrate the product of the process that was observed in the thesis. But the performances and scores also act as research outputs in their own right, demonstrating original and innovative approaches to composing for the piano as well as expanding the limits and scope of virtuoso performance of new works on the piano.

My methodological approach to documenting and presenting this research evolved out of my experience in the first two years of the PhD. I had originally conceived a much larger-scale research project, in which many different types of collaborations with many combinations of composers, performers and ensembles would be documented. However, I soon found it impossible to document many collaborations with many different performers comprehensively, and also found that a wide-ranging study of this type (involving many different types of instrumentalists and ensemble sizes) was a task that would require a large team of researchers. It became apparent that auto-ethnographic documentation of my own collaborations allowed the most thorough coverage of all collaborative activities and also allowed me to play the constant that would allow the many variables of the relationships to be explored with more precision and nuance.

One challenge with auto-ethnography of this type is that there is a potential conflict of interest. The researcher is one of their own research subjects, meaning that any ‘objective’ perspective on the relationship is impossible. However, conventional ethnographic practices suffer the same problem as the observer is almost never a neutral non-participant in the relationship they observe. The main tool to overcome this conundrum is video and audio recording technology. Although (contrary to the old adage) cameras can lie, this type of documentation facilitates a critical distance from the lived experience of the collaboration. The exact events and language of the workshop can be verified, without resorting to unreliable memories, and the use of coding techniques allows a significant amount of data on the type and timing of interactions to be harvested from each workshop. The practicalities of filming one’s own workshops make it difficult to maintain perfect framing, lighting as well as close up detail as a ‘set and forget’ approach is required. However, this does have the advantage of making the participants less aware of being filmed than if a whole camera/lighting crew are in the room. In most cases, the camera is forgotten and ignored and it is only after the event that a composer will remember they are being filmed and request that a particularly sensitive or personal conversation be edited out of any final version or transcription.

There are also distinct advantages to auto-ethnography. As an insider to the process, I am privy to all exchanges (however minor) rather than just the main workshops. As the performer, I understand all the technical challenges and solutions, which can be particularly difficult to observe, especially on the piano when so many components are at play at any one time. Finally, as the co-collaborator and interpreter, I can articulate my own motivations, desires and decision-making processes. By also allowing all the composers to comment on their role in the collaboration process, and on my written analysis of it, varying (and sometimes contradictory) interpretations of the events of a workshop can be presented in parallel.

In presenting each of the ten case studies, I adopted a narrative approach that was woven around the research questions of each chapter. The approach was influenced by auto-ethnographers, such as Judith Okely, but also the style of investigative journalists as well as psychoanalysts such as Sigmund Freud. Freud’s case studies are rich with material, engrossing for the reader and complex in their observations of the mind such that even though many of his theories are now discredited, the cases remain sources of ongoing study for modern psychologists. In my case, a narrative approach proved the most coherent method to present a complex case study, and the presence of primary source material and analysis alongside the narrative allowed the research questions to be explored rigorously in a text that is (hopefully) enjoyable to read. Furthermore, the grouping of the cases cut across the narrative aspects, facilitating a broader view of collaborative practices while still maintaining the richness of individual cases.

Another advantage of presenting a large amount of data (in the form of video excerpts, transcriptions of conversations, scans of marked-up scores and audio recordings) alongside analyses and commentary, by both myself and the composers, is that the reader does not need to rely on the interpretation of events I present. They have enough material to disagree with me, and to form their own opinion.

Presenting and exploring the literature and contextual material for the case studies presented a particular challenge. In the emerging field of research into composer-performer collaboration, the small core of texts forming the basis of the research is supplemented by a deep well of assumptions, tradition and folk knowledge from the long history of practice of collaborations. This received knowledge, a web of ‘mythologies’, pervades the work of both practitioners and researchers in the field. Thus, in place of a conventional literature survey, I placed these mythologies before and between the case study chapters, addressing the practice, and statements about practice, of composers, performers and musicologists as well as addressing the literature relevant to each topic. The structure also allowed me to look at examples from other fields that were relevant to the cases: from the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges, to the films of Orson Welles (and film theory surrounding them), to the problems caused by cycles of technological obsolescence at NASA, to the competing definitions of ‘efficiency’ used by engineers, economists, governments and, of course, musicians. My mythologies included: The Work, The Piano, Virtuosity, Notation, The Teacher, Resistance, Efficiency, Remembering, and Forgetting, among others. It was obviously not possible to explore all these in detail in a single thesis, but the most recent questions surrounding each topic were put into play so that they could be explored in depth and tested through the case studies.

Despite my satisfaction with the thesis as it stands, there are some methodological aspects I would change in my future research. Firstly, I would take advantage of the powerful transcription and coding software tailored specifically to the requirements of ethnographers, such as NVivo. Although I managed to code all my transcriptions without the software, it would have allowed a greater variety of statistical tools to be applied to the data as well as probably saving a lot of time. I would also consider exploring even more radical approaches to presenting this type of research such as showing multiple interpretations of events simultaneously or exploring the presentation of research as an online network of data, allowing it to be traversed in a non-linear manner.

There are many avenues for further research that I am planning. I still have many hours of great footage that did not make it into the thesis, documenting dozens of collaborations with composers such as Steve Reich, Helmut Lachenmann, Thomas Adès, Beat Furrer, Liza Lim and Ross Edwards. In addition, my ongoing collaborations (including upcoming works by Patrick Nunn, Neil Luck, Adam de la Cour, Morgan Hayes, Param Vir, Julian Day, Cat Hope, Daniel Blinkhorn and Kate Moore) will provide me with new and varied approaches to collaboration and music making to observe and explore, including the use of electronics and the dynamics of collaborations with chamber groups. A planned book will use this wealth of new material to explore how a large network of collaborators interacts with each other and with educational institutions, funding bodies and performing arts companies.

This is an incredibly exciting new field to work in, and I hope my doctoral work contributes, in its own modest way, to our understanding of collaboration and the ways in which we study it. If, as much recent research suggests, creativity is an inherently distributed (and social) act, composer-performer collaboration has much to contribute not just to our understanding of music, but to our understanding of all artistic and creative industries. This area of research still has many potential approaches and types of cases yet to explore so there are many ways that future postgraduate students can make significant contributions with their own practice-led research.

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