Josh Spear

A brief proposition for orienting collaborative acts, embodiment and technique



Flow, group flow, score, notation, agency, technique, shared knowledge.


Within this brief piece, I will share some of my ideas about collaboration and how I have both come to them and implemented them through my recent work.


One thing that I have learnt is to work with the strengths of others when creating something new. Engaging people to do what they are good at, though obvious, is key to achieving Flow.


As Sawyer writes about Group Flow and Group genius, familiarity with each other is fundamental[1]. This means that there ought to be a shared language or knowledge between collaborators, that each understands the rules of the game in which they are partaking. This amounts to the creation of boundaries which typically fall back to the paradigm of composer and music. Perhaps familiarity also encompasses knowing each other and how best to play together such that all involved have a good experience; such that everyone flows.


However, if I think about my own experience, I realise that it took many years to find out exactly what I was naturally attuned to, what I had affinity for. I only created works for myself for an entire year in 2016. Here I was able to discover that I enjoyed creating movement, learning lipsyncs, and making video. Slowly, and with the nurturing support of my group Bastard Assignments, I was able to create work for and with others again.


With them I have learnt and continue to learn many lessons. Just because someone wants to work collaboratively, does not mean that they are going to be good at tasks such as improvisation and movement for which they are often ill-equipped. This results, more often than not, in a bad experience; I have had them myself. Whilst we can only learn by trying and improving, for many a bad experience could be enough to put someone off working in this way all together. If nothing else, I hope that the rest of this piece of writing shows that a collaborative approach to working in experimental music can in fact create interesting and exciting work.


In March 2020, Alwynne Pritchard put out a call on social media for composers to submit short pieces for her to perform and record[2]. Because we would not be directly interacting, I realised that this would pull me to create some kind of score and then to acknowledge that, for several years, I had not been using scores for my work at all. For me, the score created a power structure that I was uninterested in. The seemingly playful exercise of coming up with a piece for Alwynne to record in her red water closet was appealing to me.


The piece I made is perhaps described as assembly instructions for a piece. If we understand collaboration as meaning to work jointly, then the compositional work that I ask Alwynne to do, the finding, the sorting and the performing, makes her a collaborator in this regard. It is just that our activities were offset; we were working diachronically. For Georgina Born, our creativity and activity was relayed[3]. Because we did not discuss any details of the score, indeed I handed Alwynne a completed text, Alwynne and I actually remain in the composer and performer paradigm where the composer composes and the performer performs at the level of interpreter. Whilst I claim that Alwynne worked within parameters to source her own material, it was I who set the parameters.


The score here was most effective for communicating what I wanted her to do due to the state of isolation we found ourselves in. All this is not to say that performers who do not create the material of musical works are not working, it is simply that in this example I have explicitly invited Alwynne to come up with what she will actually be singing. I call this technique ‘framing’. It offers a set of limitations that demarcate a space in which the performer can offer up material and ultimately be creative. Because of this, the sounds that she finds and practices are sounds that are hers and work best for her.


It should be said that the key reason for my dismissal of the score is that over the last few years my primary outlet and workspace has been my group Bastard Assignments – Tim Cape, Edward Henderson, Caitlin Rowley, and myself – whom I have got to know well. We each create work as composer-performers, that is work for ourselves to perform in as well as using the rest of the group as performers and devisers. When we are working together, we are in the same room and have enjoyed longer development times in the last few years. As is usual, any kind of starting point, idea or notation that is brought to the group is almost immediately torn up so putting any effort into creating a score seems wasted. My piece “FEED” that I made in spring 2019 with the group is a demonstration of the points above about Flow and framing[4]. I asked the group to help me actually make an entire scene of the piece, the section where we hold freeze-frames and the light moves across us in turn. This was highly successful because the goal was clear and it stretched us as a group just the right amount. It is another example of ‘framing’ where I have used the group to devise material. I say the goal was clear insofar as the duration was set as was the idea of creating tableaux in passing frames of light. The details and order of the shapes, numbering over eighty, was of course unknown at the outset.


It stretched us the right amount by being a creative challenge whilst being straightforward physically; it was just a collection of still images and well within our abilities. We were each making our own parts and it happened very quickly. Importantly, we could also offer each other immediate feedback. The combination of these things resulted in an ease of memorisation – the piece has to be performed from memory – and often what my colleagues came up with for themselves simply looked better. But what does looking better mean? I think here it means that the movement looks like it originates from that body and appears naturalised.


As part of our Lockdown Jams project in 2020 where we continued to meet and experiment online over Zoom, I created “Anime Deep Cuts”. From two video scores assembled from anime .GIFs, we imitate what we are seeing to camera. The impossibility of the task owing to the fantastical nature of the images demand that we divide our bodies and space up in imaginative ways. Here, within this frame, my colleagues are tasked with creative problemsolving and they produce compelling results[5]. They are elevated to co-creators.


Though I do not demand that everyone should compose collaboratively, and indeed many do compose collaboratively without calling it as much, I hope that a compelling case can be made for its exploration. Through sharing these pieces and observations it is clear that working with others is less about technique but rather understanding who they are and what has led them to this point. This is a rather more holistic approach to composition than how we were taught at university, one that engenders optimism and possibility in the times ahead. I hope to reframe collaborative working as less of something to be feared but more as a compositional tool.



[1] Sawyer, K. (2015). Group Flow and Group Genius. The NAMTA Journal, 40(3) 29-52

[2] Alwynne’s recording is viewable here:


[3] Born, G. (2005). On Musical Mediation: Ontology, Technology and Creativity. Twentieth-

Century Music, vol. 2, (7-36)

[4] The performance from Aldeburgh Festival in June 2019 can be viewed here:

[5] The performance took place on April 23rd 2020 and can be viewed here:

Date Published

July 2021