What does this word mean? Why do we use it? How is ‘collaborating’ different from simply ‘working with’ somebody? Historically, ‘collaboration’ was a word that had bite. Think of a political collaborator — in that context we understand that there was deep engagement at play and something potentially transgressive about that engagement. Hold that thought in mind… In the past decade or so there has been a fungal blooming of research into collaborative practices in classical music. Most researchers identify a sliding scale of ways in which we work together or ‘co-labour’. The least enmeshed models might be described as ‘participatory’ or ‘interactive’, perhaps including workshops or exploratory sessions, but fundamentally each person fulfils their traditional role. For example, writer writes words; composer composes music; performer performs the piece. That sort of noncollaborative model is tried and tested, and beautifully efficient. By contrast, collaborative models see roles blurred and habits dislodged as the collaborators create a fully enmeshed practice that results in distinctive new work.


Collaboration is inherently risky. When you commit to abandoning traditional roles or working practices, everything becomes uncertain. But how often do we acknowledge this? People seem to waltz into collaborative projects without understanding that they are choosing uncertainty and unpredictability, that they are cultivating the conditions for a project to fail spectacularly! Unfortunately, there are structural issues within our industry that encourage us to idealise or idolise collaboration without considering what the risks are. It tends to be that we dream up the project, we fundraise for it and we sell it before any sort of collaborative relationship has actually been developed. And therein lies the risk. Collaborative projects stand or fall on the quality and equality of the collaborative partnership. Most of the time, when things go wrong it’s because an imbalance creeps into the working partnership.


Buzzwords. You know the ones: innovation, outreach, impact, multi-disciplinarity, inclusivity and, yes, collaboration. I used to think that I was adept at employing this language only when necessary, when writing funding applications. But I’m not so sure now. These words have slunk into our very thinking, appearing indiscriminately in marketing copy, press releases, reviews and even informal conversations between otherwise critically engaged artists. Can we just think about what it means to ‘measure’ music in this way, and how it might be impacting our creativity?

I did a quick bit of research. I went to a big funder’s website and I searched for the number of entries that include the words ‘collaboration’, ‘collaborative’ or ‘collaborate’ in their short description: there was a combined total of 798 results. Next I searched for the word ‘musician’: that yielded 863 results. Well, 798 against 863: this implies that there are almost as many collaborative ventures as there are musicians! Perhaps that’s not a huge surprise, but doesn’t this challenge the idea that collaborating, in and of itself, is innovative?!

Personally, I am bored of the word. It’s everywhere; it no longer means anything. But that number 798 suggests that, even if collaboration is a hackneyed idea, we are still desperate to collaborate! Why? I worry that we are often motivated by dubious things: wanting to excite funders, promoters or marketing departments; worse, I fear we may often choose potential collaborators because we hope our career might advance through that association. As Kae Tempest writes in their book On Connection:

The tendencies of our time are stamped so violently upon us, they emerge in our actions unbidden. When we are fixated on what we can get from an exchange, or how we can benefit, instead of considering what we can offer, we are being exploitative. This fixation can be so intrinsic, we imagine ourselves innocent of it. Unintentional exploitation is exploitation, none the less.

Do we even think about what we are offering? Do we examine honestly why we have approached a particular collaborator? Do we ask what their needs might be?


Juliet Fraser performing Distance at #CheltMusicFest

Juliet Fraser stands on stage performing Distance at Cheltenham Music Festival 2022

I’ve said before that a collaboration, like a marriage, should not be entered into ‘unadvisedly, lightly or wantonly’. A fruitful collaboration also benefits from a degree of maturity. This isn’t necessarily about age, but it is about self-knowledge. If you’re going to be clear about what you can give and where your boundaries are, you need to know yourself, and your craft, pretty well. And let’s speak about craft. This is an unfashionable word but it underpins any interesting creative practice and it’s crucial to a productive collaboration. I’m doubtful that you can offer all that much to a collaborative partner until you have some confidence about your craft, that is to say some tools and a technique that serve your ‘creative compass’.

So I wish that promoters, producers, agents and funders would stop tacitly or actively encouraging emerging-generation artists to collaborate, as if collaboration is a benign form of artist development. It can go horribly wrong. Or, if they’re going to encourage collaboration, they should support young artists properly in finding the right collaborative partners and in creating the safe space in which to take the risks and make the risky work. And note, please, that I say collaborative partners plural — I’ve seen too many young opera composers hitch their wagon to one starry librettist or director too soon, and miss out on a breadth of experimentation at that crucial stage of development.

I now want to share a short personal reflection on collaboration and then offer a manifesto.

I’ve spent nearly 20 years working closely with composers. I’ve commissioned composers during that time, too, but I still wouldn’t describe most of those encounters as collaborative. Things took a new direction in about 2015 when I decided to explore the possibilities of working collaboratively. I’ve written two very long papers about these experiences and I don’t want to cover old ground here — all you need to know is that I’ve put the hours in!

I may be bored of the word, I may be sceptical about many so-called collaborative endeavours, but I am here because I think collaboration can be transformational. I now view my collaborative projects as a form of activism. The politics may be more or less explicit in the final work, but the whole adventure is likely to be motivated by a desire to disrupt. If I am going to invest time, energy and vulnerability in a collaborative project, I want it to effect some sort of change. From my position as a grand old dame of new music, I am thinking now about the platform that I can offer to others. I am trying to ask, “how can I help?” rather than “what can I gain?” Furthermore, I am now prepared for my personal politics — my feminism and my environmentalism, for example — to bleed into the public arena of my music-making. This is extra risky, but it feels necessary. And so, here is my



1. Collaboration should not be predictable.

Things should break. Ideas and practices should crack open and new, unimaginable creatures should crawl forth.

2. Collaboration should not be clean.

Collaboration means contamination. Collaboration means scrabbling around in ‘hot compost piles’ . Get your hands dirty.

3. Collaboration should not be safe.

Why are you doing this if not to change and to be changed? Risks must be taken. You must be ready to be vulnerable, to meet the edges of yourself and then be carried into dangerous new terrain. AND SO…

4. Collaboration requires consent.

You are responsible for your own boundaries. You are responsible for the clear and constructive communication of your needs and desires. And you need to practice what you preach: you are responsible for seeking consent as well as granting or denying it.

5. Collaboration requires trust.

No-one can be expected to share new thoughts or experiment with new methods without trusting that those thoughts and experiments will be held responsibly and compassionately. And building trust takes good communication, respect and… time.

6. Collaboration requires time, and time (usually) costs money.

Hurry any of this relational underpinning and you will stumble. It takes time to create a safe and happy collaborative environment and it takes time then to play in it, to experiment, to fail, to try another way. All this time usually costs money or, if it doesn’t, it depends upon privilege. Just things to think about.

7. Collaboration requires vigilance.

Collaborative creativity doesn’t end when the work is made. If you’ve blurred the roles, if you’ve enmeshed your practices, if you’ve razed old hierarchies to the ground and found new methods of making, you are going to have to fight to have all that unorthodoxy reflected in marketing copy, in press materials, in royalties, copyright and licensing agreements.

8. Collaboration is not compulsory.

It’s not the only model. It’s not a better model. A lot of fantastic work gets made alone or by people working together in an informal, breezy way. In the words of composer John Croft: ...no communication between collaborators approaches the complexity—and potential strangeness—of the hundreds of trillions of synaptic connections inside your own head.

9. Collaboration is not cool.

If you’re on trend, you’re not risking anything.

10.Collaboration is a tool for change.

It should challenge the status quo, whether within you as an artist, within our industry or within our society. How direct, how overt that challenge is and what form it takes is up to you. In her Experiments in Imagining Otherwise, Lola Olufemi writes:

The role of the artist in the revolution is to look around and see what needs doing. Pick up a weapon like everyone else, run.

Collaboration. A word that is so overused and underestimated. I am a language nerd, yes, because I believe that words have power. I wish we could make this word unfashionable again and give it back its teeth so that, when it is used, it has bite.

© Juliet Fraser