Butterfly Lovers Collaboration

"Butterfly Lovers" reflection Pt 2: The collaboration process

Screenshot 2022-06-03 at 16.09.36
Final checklist, including stage layout thoughts

A final word, then, about the collaboration process itself. I‘ve said this previously: despite this project being one I approached with some considerable reservation, it's turned into the most enjoyable, most rewarding thing I've done on the entire course. Given how relatively little time we've all had together in person to work on the show, we did ourselves proud.

There were, of course, considerable barriers to overcome. I think it's not unfair to say that my fellow students' spoken English level meant that we had to get into a rhythm when communicating in real-time. Translation apps are all very impressive, but they don't make for spontaneous conversation. I was mindful about speaking as clearly and straightforwardly as possible but I have to say that the others were punctilious about doing 80% of their conversation in English for my benefit. My impression is that their conversational English genuinely improved over the last few weeks.

Then there were the cultural differences. There are two issues here: the different nationalities, of course, but even more pertinently, age and experience. I don't mean this arrogantly, but I've literally got over twice as much life behind me as they have, and consequently, a lot more cultural and musical references on which to. I can't just suggest, say, "let's do a kind of Ella Fitzgerald-meets-surf guitar type thing"[1] and know that they'd instantly "get it". Instead, I resorted to sending a lot of YouTube and Spotify links over our WhatsApp group, with only qualified success, (see below).

Talking of WhatsApp, both this and Zoom were key to overcoming our final collaboration barrier: the fact that I'm not based on campus. Over the course of the collaboration, I tried to get over to Guildford at least once a week, but it was tricky and not helped by the fact that at different times Yi, Jeongyi, and I all managed to get ill (only Chaoran seems indestructible!) But the distance issue did mean that a lot of the collaboration was necessarily what Joe Bennett refers to as "asynchronous"[2].

This is at the heart of what could have been more successful about the project. As Tom has pointed out in one of his comments, we agreed on the shape of the show arguably a little too quickly. The project then settled into a certain pattern: we would take ideas away from our in-person (or online) meetings and work on them discretely, bringing the results back to the next session. This was highly productive, and meant we got a lot done in a relatively short period of time[3]. And I have to say that the others were immensely responsive. Honestly, I could put a message on WhatsApp asking for, say, a few arpeggios and scalar melodies in Am and they were there by the next time I opened the app!

However, this led to a certain lack of spontaneity, and we did very little real-time collaboration. Our in-person sessions had more of the characteristics of a rehearsal than, say, a jam session. Yes, we made some adjustments to arrangements and so on, but never really took ideas in new directions. The other collaboration group clearly benefitted from being more improvisatory both in their preparation and final performance. In contrast, we didn’t tap into the potential Rose and MacDonald hint at when they observe that “improvising musicians have a shared intuitive understanding of the benefits of not allowing the music/playing to become overly analysed before it has taken place”[4].

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Trying to look useful while Chaoran and Jeongyi perform

I mentioned Bennett’s models of songwriting collaboration models earlier. I think that of the models he maps out, ours mostly resembled the “Svengali” model, which as I write makes me slightly cringe. On more than one occasion I was described as the group’s leader, and while that’s a mantle I didn’t take on willingly, I think it was somewhat inevitable, given my remarks above about experience. It’s possible that in fact, I could have taken this model somewhat further, and used my unasked-for “leadership” to really push the others further into Lev Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development”.

Honestly, I did try! Having said above how immediately responsive everyone was over WhatApp, my messages that received the least response were links to YouTube clips and Spotify playlists that suggested other ways of both presenting musical theatre and approaching songs[5]. It was the ensuing silence in response to these prompts that suggested to me that I could only push so far, but I think I lost my nerve to some degree. Nonetheless, I think that, given the various barriers and constraints I’ve discussed, we did to a considerable degree achieve Moran and John-Steiner’s “intricate blending of skills, temperaments, effort and sometimes personalities to realise a shared vision of something new and useful”.[6]

I want to finish with a note about the others, with whom I’ve enjoyed working immensely. Yes, as I said above, I think they could have moved a little bit further outside their comfort zone, but everyone did so to some extent. I think I'm right in saying that Yi had never sung pop before, and did so assuredly. I was especially impressed that she wrote the closing piece of music, a Chinese folk pastiche; she was uncertain about doing it, yet it worked extremely well[7]. Given that musical theatre is Jeongyi's bag, arguably she was the most at home. Nonetheless, she dealt with my attempts to undermine the form with alacrity, and her story-telling (both in the writing and delivery) really made the performance cohere. The person who impressed me the most was Chaoran. I don't think I'm being unfair in saying that she started the project with the least confidence in her spoken English, and is clearly somewhat shy. However, she really came into her own on this project. She was incredibly responsive to suggestions and became gradually more confident in making her own. Most importantly, her skills as an accompanist (not to mention her sight-reading) improved dramatically.

We’ve already discussed recording the performance properly over the summer and I hope that we do: I really look forward to working with them all again.


[1] Although that sounds great!

[2] J Bennett: “Constraint, Collaboration and Creativity in Popular Songwriting Teams” (2012, Routledge)

[3] Interestingly, in a recent fascinating interview, psychologist Daniel Kahneman and organisational strategist Olivier Sibony discuss how Covid-enforced virtual working actually vastly accelerated the completion of their recent book “Noise” precisely because it limited the kind of digressive/discursive activity that arose in their previous face-to-face collaboration: https://www.spectator.co.uk/podcast/daniel-kahneman-and-olivier-sibony-noise

[4] S Rose & R MacDonald: “Improvisation as Real-time composition” (Routlede, 2012)

[5] For instance, this re-creation of David Toop’s “Crooning on Venus”:

[6] S Moran, and V John-Steiner: “How Collaboration in Creative Work Impacts Identity and Motivation”. (Free Association Books, 2004)

[7] And I confess that, yes, this was a much better way for her to move into her ZPD than performing a piano duet with Chaoran!

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