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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Co-opetition

...is an interesting word.

It's long been a manta of hi-tech enterprise and a risky business strategy that enables cooperative competition between forces that would otherwise be rivals. In practice, companies that might ordinarily compete in one space, opt to join forces in another area to combat (or even conquer) a mutual threat.

As a classic example, long-time rivals Microsoft and Novell have partnered to morph Open Source implementations the Linux operating system into a commercial for-profit enterprise platform that will go a long way to secure their respective corporate business models and strategic objectives. As far back as the early 1990s, Novell's CEO Ray Noorda was a champion of the co-opetition concept. Noorda was instrumental in making deals and decisions that embodied this business philosophy, and as history has shown, not all of his deals and alliances succeeded.

"Your enemy's enemy is your friend" as a concept is a universal strategy as old as time. It's been around longer than Harvard Business School. Yesterday I began to wonder how the co-opetition paradigm might be a modified variation on this idea and relate to new music and the work of composers: "Your enemy's enemy is your mutual enemy."

Concert and recording promoters, music critics, and musicologists love to create labels and invent controversy to sell books, newspapers, and tickets. They look for differences, and fuel the fire of public opinion as if art was a form of warfare, but without the bloodshed. I've seen scholarly articles with provocative titles such as "Fighting with Words: American Composers' Commentary on their Work." That evokes the image of the American composer as "Rambo."

While it true that an adversarial form of discourse about music can and does exist in our culture, the fact is that composers often consciously or unconsciously employ the co-opetition paradigm. They are creatures of survival and all too aware that their entire species is gravely endangered. While some individuals strive for alpha-composer status, the collective good of the troupe outweighs the harm invoked by internal squabbles or petty competition for limited and diminishing resources. At least publicly, in the name of diversity composers tend to tolerate each other's work and support ideas other than their own.

Here is a striking example of composer co-opetition...


In the early 1970s a concert promoter programmed works by John Cage (photo left) and Charles Wuorinen (photo right). These composers have very different approaches to music and are heavily invested in their musical systems. In some way - at least in the 70s - these two composers embodied musical aesthetics that were symbolically representative of two big "isms" that were diametrically opposed: Serialism and Aleatory. To maximally contrast, highlight, and enhance the schism of theoretical approaches, the promoter scheduled a panel discussion before the concert between the two "opposing" composers.

The event had all of the trappings of a heavyweight prize fight for the world title. A critic from the New York Times was on hand to record the inevitable fireworks. The audience waited with baited breath in anticipation of the verbal battle that had been expected to ensue. After all, how could two strong-willed composers passionate about their work not lunge at each other like gladiators with swords fighting gallantly in support of their individual musical Crusade? American composers are mavericks... right?

The panel discussion turned out to be a spectacular dud. Cage and Wuorinen skillfully resisted the wholesale branding, characterization, and simplistic stereotyping posed by the discussion moderator (a prominent newspaper music reviewer). To the disappointment of the audience, the composers were not even slightly antagonistic toward one another. In fact, John and Charles acted rather friendly toward one another. Truth be it known, the two men probably have much in common. In fact, as the "odd couple" they gained control of the dialogue and firmly wrestled the topic away from the disappointed moderator.

At a meta-level, the public spectacle was a memorable example of composer co-opetition. These two talented composers strategically decided to support each other's ideas and work, although in reality they hold strongly opposing beliefs.

What's the take away here? Let me propose some helpful rules of engagement...


1) Never trust what a promoter, music critic, or musicologist says or writes about music. They distort reality and lie for notoriety and/or financial profit.

2) Never trust what a composer says or writes about their own music. They distort reality and lie in the interest of self-preservation (and more rarely notoriety and/or financial profit).

3) Never trust what a composer says or writes about another composers' music. They are probably engaging in co-opetition.


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