Teamwork in songwriting. Co-creation as a method for multilingual songwriting
In this article, songwriter Ronja Maltzahn focuses on examples and experiences of co-creation as a method for multilingual songwriting and musical translation. She distinguishes between a hierarchical and non-hierarchical perspective – here referred to as an eye-to-eye-level. Maltzahn demonstrates how within the hierarchical framework, two roles can be adopted: a visionary or a reflectionist role. Each position and setting is analysed in terms of possibilities, advantages, challenges, and difficulties.
In dit artikel gaat Ronja Maltzahn dieper in op voorbeelden en ervaringen van cocreatie als een methode om tot meertalige songwriting en muzikale vertaling te komen. Ze maakt een onderscheid tussen een hiërarchisch en een niet-hiërarchisch perspectief – wat ze werken op oog-in-ooghoogte noemt. Maltzahn laat zien hoe twee rollen mogelijk zijn binnen het hiërarchische kader: een visionaire of een bezinnende rol. Elke positie en setting wordt geanalyseerd in termen van mogelijkheden, voordelen, uitdagingen en moeilijkheden.
Artistic research in the field of multilingual songwriting
As a multilingual songwriter I write and transwrite1 songs in eight different languages (DE, EN, IT, ESP, FR, RUS, NL, SWE). Based in the field of explorative qualitative artistic research, my master’s project analyses the impact of multilingual songwriting on the writing and performing artist herself as well as on the listener. In the last two years more than a hundred different compositions evolved around this project; they fit in with the genre of World Pop, with roots in Folk/Pop/ Singer-Songwriter music, mostly with a duration of three to five minutes and initially written for piano/guitar and vocals before being arranged into a full-band version (strings, brass, percussion, bass, backing vocals). The typical pop song part structure of A-B-A’-B-C-B-B usually holds between 400-500 words in total. In most of the writing processes, whether it is pure songwriting (starting a song from scratch) or transwriting (musical translation of a song into a new language), which sometimes evolves into rewriting (writing a song with a completely new storyline on top of pre-existing musical material), I do not work alone. Co-creation is one of the most important methods in my profession as a musical creator.
Different forms of co-creation and role hierarchy
This article refers to co-creation in a team of two, or a maximum of three people. My personal experiences have shown that bigger groups make it rather difficult to write together; too many ideas slow down the process of shaping lyrics. What matters most in the communicative relation of two co-creators is positioning the hierarchical roles within the team. In the art of dancing, vocabulary is used to describe the two counterparts as leader and follower, the most popular example being the tango.2 In the case of songwriting, I would rather refer to the visionary and the reflectionist. Within a hierarchically organised team there is a clear distinguished order of having one person offering ideas and guiding input, leading the creative process, feeding it with ideas and decisions; and the counterpart listening, observing, reflecting, and supporting, guided by the visionary. Another possible configuration is a non-hierarchic creative team, where two creators come together on an eye-to-eye-level, feeding the process with ideas and input equally. This is by far the more challenging perspective.
Co-creation with my main music partner: Shifting perspectives and roles
Most of the songs that I have written in my life were created on my own. Since the age of twelve I have used songwriting as a replacement for keeping a diary, a very personal matter that was usually accomplished alone. Three years ago, I got to know my Argentinian music partner Federico Marina and since then we have been have been writing, arranging, producing, and performing almost everything together. Nearly all the songs written and translated (transwritten) in the last two years were a product of co-creation. Usually one of us starts with a creative spark, an initialising idea, and then we formulate, structure, and develop it together. Normally the one who initiates the process, as it turns out, takes on the role of visionary, whilst the other one supports the process as a reflectionist. When it comes to language, the aspect of mother tongue gives a new hierarchical guiding authorisation: When (re-, trans- or purely song-) writing in German my creative guiding input is much greater. The same goes for my partner in Spanish. Another aspect is the authorisation through musical skills: As a bass player my partner often has a bigger part in harmonizing and structuring songs, as a writer and vocalist I usually give more input for melody and lyrics. Most of the times we communicate and write in English, so it regularly evolves to an eye-to-eye-level workflow, each of us giving input for lyrics, melody, harmony, and song structure. I consider this workflow the most challenging perspective for co-creation. As a creator you can naturally get fixed on an idea you have in your mind, then the second creator presents a different idea for melody, lyric, or harmony and somehow you both have to choose one or the other. That can present conflict and easily evolve into what in improvisation theatre is described as a ‘block’: by declining a creative input that is given, the whole creative flow gets lost.3 Although the eye-to-eye level perspective presents a greater challenge and requires a strong bond of trust and/or respect in the team of co-creation, it also contains a high potential to create an output that stretches the known creative ‘comfort zone’ of a songwriter. Since I co-write with Federico and other artists and creators, or native speakers to transwrite a song together, my musical style and variety of songs has expanded drastically. My songs have new colours of sound, structure, and poetry compared to the songs I wrote on my own in the decade before – they tended to sound more similar and did not show such variety.
On tour through Italy I took on the project of daily transwriting one of my songs into Italian. In total, seven songs were translated: three into English, two into German, one into Spanish and one into Russian. In every transwriting session a native (Italian) speaker was present; most of the sessions took place in public spaces such as hostels, bars, cafés, and restaurants, in a colloquial atmosphere. None of the transwriting partners were musicians or lyricists; so creatively my role was the one of the creative leader: the visionary. Still, their native-language skill and their observations and corrections were an essential part of rewriting the songs in Italian.
Criteria for co-creation
Although the eye-to-eye level perspective presents a greater challenge and requires a strong bond of trust and/or respect in the team of co-creation, it also contains a high potential to create an output that stretches the known creative ‘comfort zone’ of a songwriter.
A musical product of co-creation includes all processes that lead to a creative outcome (a song, a translation) with the involvement of different people. A song that is written for somebody or about somebody does not mean it was co-created with this person. Only when a songwriter decides to include another party and directly asks for somebody to co-create with him/her (‘Can you help me translate this song?’ or ‘Do you want to write a song with me?’), a gate for co-creation is opened. The outcome then can have different percentages of participation and ownership. The German Society for Music Rights (GEMA) differentiates between music and lyric ownerships. For example, a song can be lyrically written 50% by person A and 50% by person B, while the musical credits belong fully to one person. Within such a framework every other weighed combination is possible. In the end the team that generates a musical product discusses and decides how much ownership is granted to whom.
The role of the visionary
Features: Judging. Leading. Deciding. Driven. Emotions. Involvement. Detail-oriented. Creative input.
Every creative process needs a driving force, a clear point of focus, a vision. Most songs are based on a written idea that comes from one creator, one visionary. In most songwriting and transwriting processes I take the position of this guiding character. When translating an existing song, I co-work with native speakers to avoid any language misunderstandings or phonetic-linguistic and cultural ‘mistakes’. Exchanging input and ideas on the translation process, the teamwork accelerates the creation process and every line is being confirmed by the two sides.
Example: To transwrite ‘Alle Zeit’ I met an Italian native speaker for a coffee, sat down with Guitalele and a lyric sheet, sang the song to her, and explained what the song is about. A process developed of me suggesting lines of Italian translations, her correcting them and the two of us discussing the meaning and poetic value of the song and how we can transfer them. In this situation my role was the visionary.
The role of the reflectionist
Features: Questioning. Supporting. Reflecting. Reformulating. Connecting. Outer world.
As a visionary you can get lost in your own ideas. You are so involved that it is hard to see the bigger picture, hard to be analytical. Every creative process contains the phase of collecting, envisioning, opening up, and afterwards analysing, criticising, rounding up, and finishing the idea into a product. The task of the reflectionist is to be a supporting mirror to the visionary, mainly by asking questions and constructively providing feedback to the visionary. The reflectionist takes the passive role in the co-creation. In songwriting, the reflectionist essentially prevents the visionary getting lost in his/her own ideas; finally, in transwriting the reflectionist is often the native speaker who assists in the linguistic fine-tuning.
Example: An English speaker might know that ‘wife’ can be translated in German as ‘Weib’, ‘Alte’ or ‘Frau’ without being aware of the cultural subtext that each translation is giving.
The perspective on eye-to-eye level
Features (for both parties): Drive. Involvement. Creative Input. Discussing. Judging. Open. Compromising.
Working eye-to-eye-level in a co-creative process means that the two parties involved work non-hierarchically, without a clear decision-maker or leader. The creative product is not defined by one clear owner but the way of giving input from the two visionaries is democratic, merging their separate visions. It is the most challenging way of working together because the two roles work very closely together and it is easy to step on each other’s toes or to disagree. If person A has a vision for a text or a melody and person B ‘fell in love’ with another idea already, the challenge is to find an agreement. The outcome of eye-to-eye-level work is very fruitful and diverse, a song product being fed by two visionairies’ ideas brings forth a bigger pool of musical and poetical colours.
Example: On a road trip through Argentina two years ago, my music partner and I took up the challenge to write a song every day. On a journey from Buenos Aires to the border of Bolivia we wrote 25 songs in 25 days, fourteen Spanish songs – including my first song ever written in Spanish – and three German songs. During the daily routine of collecting inspiration (encounters, places, philosophical thoughts, emotion) and transforming them into lyrics and harmonies to create a song, we often discussed the exact meaning of an idea and worked together, shaping them into songs as a non-hierarchical team. The ideas and songs were no longer just my own or his, they were the centre of a teamwork process, a result of pure co-creativity. Maybe sometimes I came up with a topic, a phrase, melody, or harmony pattern on the guitar, then we shaped it together, adding parts and structure, making a thought stretch out to a full song. That team spirit and the involvement of two parties was the only way this big project could find such an easy and productive flow, I would say.
Co-creation as a method in creative work and research
Co-creation is not only a modus operandi in order to come to an interesting creative output but co-creative action is also a valuable means to come a step closer to self-reflective questions such as:
- What kind of songwriting type am I?
- What are my strengths in songwriting and transwriting, where and how can I grow in different roles?
- How can I develop new ways of collaboration to transcribe a song into a new language?
- Which factors are important when transwriting?
- How can co-creation help me to cross new creative borders?
- How can I support somebody in a creative process without interfering or leading?
In the past two years the intense practice of co-creative songwriting has broadened my musical horizon immensely. If I compare the amount of songs I wrote on my own between the ages of twelve to twenty-three, I have not only written more songs in the past two years, where my music partner and I focused on our music project together, but the songs that we wrote are also more diverse in musical and poetical colours, dive into different music styles, such as pop, folk, rock, jazz, electronic, or world music that I had barely touched before, and show a higher complexity in rhythm, melody, and harmony. The teamwork inspired and encouraged me to write songs in eight different languages in total. Through the practice of co-creation I got to know my strengths, skills, and weaknesses, my team partner functioning as my mirror. I came to understand my own speed of visualising thoughts, my best productivity time, and state of mind to write songs; I got to know my most used harmonic or melodic tendencies and learned what is typically me in my songs. I also learnt to extend that personal field and bring in new diversity.
The self-reflective autoethnographic research I am working on at the moment includes co-creation as a very important method and factor for my personal development. Working together with different people, native speakers for transwriting, or music colleagues for songwriting, sensitised me to communicative rules, how to carefully deal with someone else’s ideas by giving constructive feedback and input without blocking his/her way, so the writer him/herself can develop, grow, and reflect on her/himself.
Although in the end every songwriter works individually, it is very important to find the right match to work with, based on a primary awareness of his/her own strengths and weaknesses (lyrics, harmonies, structuring). There are collaborative partners who naturally fit into the different roles (reflectionist, visionary) and therefore a well-balanced choice depending on topic and context of the song is crucial. Also for transwriting and in function of absolute linguistic appropriation, it is highly recommendable to find native speakers to be involved in the translation process. Comparing the different forms of co-creative and communicative structures, the hierarchical approach may lead to an output that is close to the musical material that was produced before; a visionary naturally tends to repeat his/her own nature and write lines, melodies, structures, and harmonies that fit his/her style and comfort zone. The eye-to-eye-level co-creation process introduces the idea of somebody else, which means exploration, expansion. From my own songwriting experience I can highly recommend eye-to-eye-level co-writing. Many of my melodic, poetic, harmonic, and structuring skills have developed and expanded a lot by working with others, have helped me reflect on myself in the process with others, widening my view to understand how other people work creatively, and sharpening my skills for teamwork and cooperation. For my autoethnographic4 artistic research, co-creation is an important method that helps me to reflect on my own way of creating, songwriting, trans-, and rewriting.
Whenever I am left alone to finish a creative project, I try to incorporate the different roles by being my own observer, asking myself the right questions, showing solidarity and support, and at the same time being a clearly defined creative leader.
is a German multilingual songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, writing and performing songs in eight different languages. In 2018, she released her debut album and started a master’s degree focused on artistic research at the ArtEZ Pop Academy in Enschede, the Netherlands.
- I call the process of musical translation (see Johan Franzson, 2008) transwriting, it requires active and creative skills to come to a musical and poetic adaptation of a text. Transwriting requires more complex skills than the rather passive transfer skills used for translation. Translating the meaning of a sentence can be accomplished by the use of dictionaries or software. However, in order to assess and weigh the amount of syllables, the rhyme pattern, the melody metrics of the song, the poetic value of words to form, creativity and field expertise are required to arrive at an artistic (musical and poetic) quality translation. ↩
- Davis, Kathy. Dancing Tango: Passionate Encounters in a Globalizing World. NYU Press, 2015. ↩
- Nachmanovitch, Stephen. Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art. Tarcher/Putnam, 2010. ↩
- Ethnography is the study of peoples (ethnos) and their social and cultural practices, values and environments, in the form of writing (-grafein). Autoethnography turns the lens on the researchers them-selves and their own cultural milieu, practices, values, and ideologies. In music, composers have documented and critically interrogated various aspects of the compositional process, rehearsal, performance, reception, promotion, and so on of their work; performers have taken a similar approach to practising, rehearsing, exploring instruments, or instrumental and vocal techniques, collaborating with composers, or dealing with the psychological and social demands of concertising and recording. Holman, Jones; “Autoethnography.” The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, edited by George Ritzer, Blackwell, 2007, pp. 230-232. ↩