Playing With Others Pt. I

At this year’s Chamber Music America ( conference, we at 5HE were privileged to present a panel titled “Playing Well With Others: Cross-Media Collaborations in the Arts.” Joining us for the discussion were Charlton Lee, violist for the Del Sol Quartet (, and David Skidmore from Third Coast Percussion (

The theme of this year’s CMA conference was “Big Ideas for Presenting Small Ensembles.” In his keynote address, Leon Botstein, conductor and President of Bard College, issued a call to arms of sorts, demanding that we as musicians protect classical music from the “elitists” by presenting music as a living, breathing organism, not a museum piece. It was fitting, then that we were able to take the opportunity to talk about cross-media work – the idea of using the collaborative spirit of chamber music to create partnerships with artists of other disciplines. While not a new concept by any means, this is one of many ways that musicians and artists of all types have been working to break the traditional concert mold.

The panel was an opportunity for each of our organizations to share recent collaborative projects, including StringWreck (a fully choreographed collaboration between Del Sol, Janice Garrett and dancers), Bitsmoke (a video score by Casey Farina performed by Third Coast), and Black Violet (a concert trilogy produced by 5HE and graphic novelist Ezra Claytan Daniels).

After introducing ourselves through our work, it was time to think about some big questions, namely, “WHY?” Because we all know the intrinsic power of classical music, why bother adding other elements? Members of the panel discussed how pairing music with art, narrative, and movement made them think about their work in new ways during the rehearsal process, and helped audience members to get inside their creative process as musicians more organically than through written or spoken program notes. It is one thing to say, before playing a piece, that a section makes you think of a pair of cats scrambling over cobblestones, and quite another to project that image as the music happens.

Another frequently asked question relates to the role of music to the other art form in these partnerships. We tend to think of music as an accompaniment or soundtrack when viewed in conjunction with a film or dance performance, so doesn’t pairing music with other types of art make it secondary? The answer lies in the process. If both artists bring equal expertise and freedom to the table, you end up with a product that is artistically sound from both sides, with an open dialogue that allows each to be influenced by the other.

So, organizationally, what’s the benefit? First, there is tremendous potential for cross-pollinating audiences with new folks who may never have had a reason to come to a classical music event in the past. There are also funding sources that may be available to you for the first time as a result of doing multi-disciplinary work, and you may experience, as we did, much greater media attention from having produced a project that is a bit off the beaten path. Done right, these partnerships have the potential to bring both collaborators to a new level.

The final philosophical point had to do with quality. All of the panelists agreed that these types of projects simply don’t work unless the music and art itself is of the highest possible caliber. As David put it, you can’t take sub-standard playing and put a light show behind it expecting the product to improve; it’s just sub-standard playing with a light show.

We will get into more specifics in future posts, but these large-scale questions set a framework for the more process-related topics we explored later in the panel discussion.     Collaboration is central to our mission at 5HE, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.


Melissa is the flutist and Executive Director of Fifth House Ensemble. For more information, please visit Like what you read here? For more music entrepreneurship tidbits, visit, brought to you by members of 5HE.

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