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Music and Collaboration #1: Do Not Fear Mistakes

Music and Collaboration #1: Do Not Fear Mistakes

John Colaruotolo's picture
John Colaruotolo
February 10th, 2012

This is the first post in our Music and Collaboration series.

There is a man with a trumpet. He plays a tune. He likes how it sounds. He wants to make the tune better, so he finds some friends, and they play the same tune all together. It sounds different, but it also sounds good when they play together as opposed to just the man with the trumpet. They play the tune again, this time in a different way. They play it a third time, in yet a new way. This time they decide it doesn’t sound as good. Maybe they made a few “mistakes.” But that’s ok - they learn from that, remembering what worked and didn’t work, and try again. The fourth time is the best version so far…. and so on…

This is how musicians work things out. Collaboration and iteration. Sometimes it’s right the first time, sometimes it takes 20 hours of rehearsal, listening, studying and iterating. Being an ensemble player implies that there is collaboration involved. The musicians in an ensemble are each playing their own instrument, and contributing individually. However, they are also listening and responding to each other’s actions. The result is 1+1=apple. That is, Miles Davis + Ron Carter (bass) + Tony Williams (drums) + others = only something that you can create through the collaboration of those guys. Hear it for yourself: a live 1964 recording of amazing musical collaboration. These principles of collaboration in music are true not just for jazzers, but for performers and composers of all styles of music. And looking beyond the world of music, it’s remarkable how similar this process is to working collaboratively in other fields.

You could say Miles Davis was a creator and instigator of some very successful jazz collaborations. And those successes varied a great deal, because he played for so many decades, with so many different players. Each new group of musicians that joined him for a record or a tour produced a different set of circumstances, which produced an entirely unique collaborative effort. Just compare recordings of the early Miles Davis Quintet (“Four” from “Workin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet”) with later recordings of the second Quintet, such as “E.S.P.” E.S.P is collaboration on top of collaboration, because that was the first album of his quintets consisting entirely of material composed by the performers on the album. You can hear that it’s Miles’ individual voice in all of those recordings, but the collaborative effort of each band is what makes each recording unique. While Miles often led the efforts of each of his projects, it was ultimately up to his band to make the sound.

There’s a quote from Miles Davis that gets worded in a variety of ways. No matter the words, it’s the essence that is meaningful: “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.” You can debate this thought, and wonder how it applies to an airplane pilot, or a surgeon, but you’d be missing the point. When you step back and look at the big picture of any particular voyage (of a song, game, project, career, your life), a mistake is simply a disguise for an opportunity to collaborate again in a different manner.

For further reading, hear it from the man himself - Miles: The Autobiography 

In the next “Collaboration and Music” post, we’ll look at Terry Riley, an American experimental composer who was working at the same time Miles was collaborating (1950s and 60s), but in an entirely different musical scene.

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