Tuning Into Each Other: Intimate Collaboration in Music-Making


“Well, that nearly fell apart, didn’t it?”

I blinked at the exasperated Director of Music after my first service as Organist in a new Chapel, and still to this day I’m not quite sure exactly what he was on about. It was the start of a frustrating year musically and personally. The crux of the problem was that I simply couldn’t work out for the life of me what it was he wanted me to do. I had no idea what it meant when he swung his arm around in that way, or when exactly in his hand gesture he meant for me to come off, or go onto, the final chord. He meanwhile had a perfectly well developed idea of what all these gestures, facial expressions, and verbal directions meant. The problem was as fundamental as a language barrier, and the jarring sense of generalised dislocation I experienced, from conductor and choir, and even from the music itself, will stick with me for a long time. We spent hours of our spare time, that first year, just getting used to each other, with him standing there beating whilst I played the same thing over and over again. It was dull, but it paid off. After three years of playing for him, I eventually reached the point where I barely needed to look at him anymore. I pretty much know what he is doing, and even if we haven’t done a piece before I can make a good enough guess that I can be responsive, to do my job, to support the choir. It’s the same with the singers too. At the start, new choir members often struggle to follow the direction they’re given, but after a little time getting “sung in” with the others something shifts and suddenly the choir is producing fantastic performances every single time. When everybody reaches that point, that’s when things start to get really special.

This is not just a story of individual technical development. It is about the development of a special kind of awareness, about a level of synchronisation that is both conscious and subconscious. It involves learning to breathe together, or to stagger it when necessary. Good choir members intuitively respond to each others’ needs, strengths and weaknesses; they enhance and accompany each other and feed off each others’ energies and emotions. Often, even choral singers’ heartbeats synchronise. Choirs, in this way, make it wonderfully apparent that most great and beautiful music cannot be made by disconnected individuals alone. Twelve excellent vocalists singing together for the first time do not make an equally excellent choir. Something else is required.

In a way, a musician never really performs alone[1].  Think about the instrument: these apparently inanimate contraptions of wood, metal, screws, bolts and strings have, as any musician will tell you, their own unique quirks and habits, particular talents or failings, and can be well or badly made. They are often loved like children, and musicians have a relationship with the instruments they play and learn on. There is a magical quality to the synergic, supra-individual/material motions by which musicians and their instruments enliven one another and express their emotions, ideas and characters through the capacities and potentialities of one another. This trembling, ever-fresh mutual enhancement of capabilities expands further when you factor in an accompanist, perhaps, or advance into chamber music. These arrangements, where a musician and their instrument tunes into others, meshing and subordinating their own capacities and ideas to the creative will and desires of others, are truly humbling instances of human intimacy.

Scholars and philosophers have long struggled to define music, to explain either its nature or what makes it so capable of affecting human beings. Intangible, beyond the human and yet so full of humanity, “Music expresses that which cannot be said but upon which it is impossible to be silent” (Victor Hugo). It is an expression of emotions, ideas, and energies, which works by eliciting reactions in the listener. It is, of course, always transformed in transmission as it weaves into personal histories, preferences and the level of investment of the listener, from one hearing to another. This connection can operate at a level of esoteric intellectualism or at the base level of the mimicry and manipulation of heartbeats by rhythm and simple percussion. The visceral and the emotive are inescapable in music, and in music making. After all, what does a conductor do if she or he does not elicit and invoke particular energies in performers, coax or order these out of them through movements and gestures – manipulations – of their own physical body?

This kind of collaboration is deeply inter-subjective. It is rarely certain, in the end, who makes or does what, and performances are notoriously unpredictable. Music making is synergic and intuitive, requiring constant engagement between people, written notes, ideas, architecture[2] and instruments. We cannot make music without others but nor can we make it with just anybody. It is no accident that the same musicians often collaborate with each other again and again, soloists going back to the same accompanist, or to give a contemporary example, film directors returning to the same composers. More fascinatingly, this does not always necessarily seem to be because the two have an excellent personal relationship either[3]. Collaboration and intimate relationships between musicians is something of a mystery, but it is one that we have long since latched onto.

At my final concert with this particular choir in Berlin I experienced a high that I had never dreamed was possible before. After three years I had developed a personal affinity and affection with those standing, singing around me, and a particular kind of kinship with the girls in my section. I loved what we were as a unit, and it was poignant for all of us that this particular combination of musical individuals would never be brought together in the same way again. The pieces were beautiful, many of them were special to me, and singing in the front line I came to the point where even I could not separate out my own voice from the voices of those standing either side of me. Full of something much greater than myself, something that was not mine, or anybody’s, but that I was tied to and belonged to, I wasn’t thinking about anything. I was just there – but I don’t know where ‘there’ was. I will admit, for the first time in my life, there was a tear in my eye during the encore. It was undoubtedly one of the most special experiences of my life, not least because I could never have done it or even dreamed it on my own. At the culmination of three years of personal, emotional and technical investment from all of us, we produced something truly breath-taking. It would not have been the same if you had changed a single one of us. All else considered, it is hardly surprising that so many people of such varied musical backgrounds derive so much pleasure from the apparently simple experience of singing with others. The concept may appear quite plain, but the rewards can be truly spectacular.

[1] An exception may be the solo unaccompanied voice, but this kind of scoring is actually quite rare, and often takes on a special significance of its own even within its contextual musical tradition

[2] the acoustic, aesthetic and somatic qualities of a building can have a great effect on music performed within that space

[3] A historic collaboration between the composer Wagner and the conductor Hans von Bülow was rendered turbulent by Wagner’s scandalous affair with von Bülow’s wife, Cosima, which produced two children. Although von Bülow did not speak to either Wagner or Cosima again after Cosima had divorced him to marry Wagner, von Bülow continued to conduct Wagner’s works to great effect until the end of his career.



Anita Datta is an Organist and Musician who graduated in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge. Now pursuing a Masters of Research at SOAS, her interests include feminism, gender and sexuality, violence, intimacy and ethnomusicology.



The column: Sound world

Sound is all around us, and together with music and its related forms has immense potential to move and engage people, to communicate, to insinuate, and to affect. Sound World explores some of the technical, historical, emotional and philosophical dimensions of ‘music’ both familiar and strange.

Anita Datta is an Organist and Musician who graduated in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge. She has also completed a Masters of Research at SOAS and her interests include feminism, gender and sexuality, violence, intimacy and ethnomusicology.

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