The Test Of A Good Collaborative Project – A Ramble

Although I’m someone who takes a resolutely solitary attitude towards my own creative works, I ended up thinking about creativity and collaboration recently since I still seem to be going through a phase of listening to more Nightwish than usual at the moment. So, I’ll be using this band as an example for most of the article.

If you know anything about Nightwish, you’ll know that they’ve had three different lead singers (Tarja Turunen, Anette Olzon and, currently, Floor Jansen). Needless to say, there has been a lot of fierce online debate about which singer is “best”. This is further compounded by the fact that each singer has a different singing style. Tarja’s style is bold, serious and operatic. Anette’s style is a bit “lighter”, more cheerful and more energetic. And Floor’s style is somewhere between these two.

In this article, I’ll mostly be focusing on Tarja and Anette’s time with the band. This is mostly because, from what I’ve heard of Floor Jansen’s stuff, she seems to be something of a rare exception to some of the general rules that I’ll be talking about in this article. And since this is meant to be an illustrative article about collaborative projects, rather than a piece of music journalism, I thought it best to focus on the band’s history.

Anyway, during a moment of nostalgia for the two versions of Nightwish that I grew up with, I decided to take a look on Youtube for some of Tarja and Anette’s solo stuff. The thing that really surprised me was that neither singer’s “new” songs really had the same impact on me that Nightwish’s music does. It was then that I realised that I wasn’t specifically a fan of any one lead singer, I was a fan of Nightwish.

Because, regardless of the singer, the whole band is what makes their music so good. Whether it’s lyrics by Tuomas Holopainen and/or Marco Hietala or the rest of the band’s distinctive instrumental style, the band only really seems to “work” as a whole. This holistic thing can be seen by how the musical style of the band changed whenever the lead singer changed. For example, earlier Nightwish albums like “Once” or “Century Child” had a bold, ethereal, fantastical sound to them that went really well with Tarja’s singing style.

Yet, once Anette’s tenure with the band had really hit it’s stride (after the ok, but not brilliant, “Dark Passion Play” album), the band’s style became somewhat different. Many songs on their “Imaginaerium” album have a slightly faster, darker and more cinematic sound to them which jumps around in an impishly fascinating way and really complements Anette’s vocals.

Likewise, the “slow” songs on both “Dark Passion Play” and “Imaginaerium” sound very different to the kind of slow songs that worked well when Tarja was lead singer. Yet, all of these songs are still very recognisably “Nightwish” songs.

They’re still recognisably “Nightwish” songs for the simple reason that the band adapted to the change in lead singer. They didn’t try to be exactly the same band as they were before, but they took all of the elements that made their music so distinctive and adjusted them to be a better fit with their new lead singer. Likewise, the change in lead singer also spurred the band to look for a few new musical inspirations too.

So, why have I spent several paragraphs talking about one band? Well, it’s because good collaborative projects can’t easily be separated into their individual parts. Often, they end up being greater than the sum of their parts. They’re a merging of several different imaginations and sets of talents during one particular moment in time.

To use another Nightwish-related example, when Anette was new to the band, there were relatively few songs written for her (eg: just the songs on “Dark Passion Play” and a couple of other songs), so she ended up singing a fair number of older songs that were originally written with Tarja’s voice in mind. Since Anette’s voice is extremely different, this led to a lot of criticism of both her and the band at the time. Yet, when she sang songs that were written specifically for her, it was nearly impossible to imagine Tarja ever singing the same songs.

Leaving aside Floor Jansen’s uncanny ability to sing both Tarja and Anette’s songs fairly well, a good collaborative project isn’t like a machine. You can’t just switch out one part of it with another and expect it to work in exactly the same way. No, every part of a good collaborative project has to be a good fit with the rest of it. Each element of a good collaborative project should be difficult or impossible to replace with something else, without other major changes.

So, yes, the test of a good collaborative project is often whether it works as a whole. Or, more accurately, whether it becomes less good if one part of it is changed without the rest of it also changing too.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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