Creativity and Collaborations

21 September, 2010

This is a guest post from second-time contributor Zia Hassan. I have known Zia as a friend for years – we went to college together and throughout time, he has always been an inspiration in his creativity. As a musician, Zia is always bringing more light into the world and he has a lot to share. If you are interested in collaborative projects, I encourage you to take a look at the project he completed for his 25th birthday this year – Collision. The Collision project and performance benefited Haiti Relief. Proceeds from the soundtrack will go to Words, Beats, and Life. Proceeds from the book will go to Hollaback DC.

What started as a normal gig turned into the biggest collaboration experiment of my life. The ground rules were simple: anyone could contribute as much or as little as they wanted, no solo acts, any type of art, aim for slightly unusual collaborations, and deliver on March 6th. We ended up with creations like a 5-minute musical, a video about kids who want to give gifts to the world, an opera singer backed by spacey electric guitar, and an overseas live performance over the internet, a song placed against a backdrop of backyard noises, all created by mouth, etc. This package is a result of the studio sessions that followed the performance, as well as the material that couldn’t be “performed,” such as photography, poetry, and fiction. It’s a recording and a digital book, and it truly represents a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts .

My parents knew each other for one week before they were married. Their families had seven days to interact and decide if they were compatible. They barely spent any time alone. My mother couldn’t even recall what her new name would be when her brothers asked her. And despite all of this, they willingly committed to a lifelong relationship, managed to raise two bright* children, and collaborated to create a life in which they each owned equal share. Just like 10th grade biology class and the shared goal of getting an “A”, they had to work together to achieve their joint vision.

Early this year, I put together a show called Collision in which I organized a bunch of small groups to experiment with unexpected collaborations. An opera singer with an ambient guitarist. A teacher and a techno artist. A folk singer and an animal call expert. A photographer with a haiku poet. The goal was to create beautiful art, say something interesting, step outside of comfort zones, and do this all without any sort of rules in regards to final product. I thought back to my parents and my bio partner. How did these unexpected collaborations become a success?

Here are some guidelines to consider when engaging in a collaborative project:

1) Agree on the end vision. When we collaborate, we agree on a goal and we do whatever we can to get there, no matter what. We try to implement that shared vision as efficiently as possible. However, it’s impossible to do this if you don’t discuss what you want to achieve. You might have to tweak your own vision to compromise with the collaborator, which leads me to my next point…

2) Let it flow. Don’t try to control your collaboration sessions. For Collision, I wanted to do a 5-minute musical, and my original vision was for it to be serious and thought-provoking. The team I was working with was much more interested in the comedy behind the idea we were working on, so we went in that direction. I could have easily set boundaries, but boundaries can often kill inspiration. We finished the entire project in just two sessions. If I had asked them to stick to a more serious plot, we might have been there much longer.

3) Finding the right partner(s) means looking for hidden connections. Sometimes, it’s difficult for two people to see how compatible they are, artistically. Similarly, it’s sometimes difficult for two friends to see how poor of a match they are. In the case of my parents, my grandmother knew my father well enough to find him a good potential mate. In Collision, I created unusual teams of collaborators, but I noticed connections between the collaborators. An opera singer loves space; the space between notes is just as important as the notes themselves.

That’s why I figured an ambient guitar accompanist would make sense, but it doesn’t sound conventional on the first glance. A teacher has the challenge of making a sometimes monotonous curriculum interesting and exciting, all while injecting a sense of urgency into the lessons. An electronic musician might feel the same urgency and desire to turn 5 minutes of instrumental and repetitive music into something engaging. So, as strange as the idea was, the pieces fit.

4) Once you’ve found the right partner, trust each other’s respective strengths. I enjoy mixing and recording music, and I often don’t give up control of that, even in most collaborative situations. But when it came time to work on a dance tune (a genre I have no experience in), I turned the reigns over to someone who had that type of experience. And not only did I turn over the responsibility, I promised myself that I wouldn’t interfere with his decisions and style. There’s no way a collaboration can be wildly successful if one person in the team is too dominant.

5) Collaboration is learning to make small pieces fit. I won’t ever write songs with my writing partner Andrew Kurland the way that I will by myself. I don’t hand him a song that’s very Zia and ask him to try to inject his personality into it. At the same time, you can’t share a mind while creating. The best thing to do, in my opinion, is come up with a piece of something and hand it to your collaborator, and then talk about it. For Andy and I, this could be a 5 second melody line that he comes up with, and I might reveal what image appears in my mind when I hear the melody, and this might lead to a song title or the first lyric.


It made no sense that a folky singer-songwriter and an opera singer would try to form a duo, but there it was. With no expectations, two friends from North Potomac, MD spent the entire summer of 2007 in Zia’s bedroom-studio writing songs and making strange, far away sounds. Zia had spent his musical life as a folk singer-songwriter but had always loved experimental music; Andrew was a classically trained singer with a love for sonic aesthetic. The result was their 2007 debut, “Love is Waiting,” an album of experimental pop songs centered around the idea of trusting the universe. This recording is the much anticipated follow-up, Scenes, which is about the aftermath of a breakup. The download is $4 and contains all 5 songs, 25 mins of bonus music, a short story written by Zia, and a gorgeous digital booklet featuring photography by Amy Flashenberg. If you tweet/FB/email about it, email your post to and you’ll get a free download of the whole package.

6) Keep the enthusiasm high. It’s hard enough to get motivated to do a solo work, let alone a group piece. It only takes one person who is highly critical and closed minded to ruin the vibe and ruin something that might have been great. Know when to dismiss yourself, or when to ask someone to leave. Everyone doubts themselves when they’re working on art, but it’s worse when you feel like you’re being criticized unfairly and it can lead to a lack of idea-sharing. And a lack of idea-sharing means a weaker final draft.

After that, it’s all about doing what you do best: creating.

Zia is a songwriter, music producer, and tech geek. Hear his music, read his blog, and follow him on Twitter @ziasami. As mentioned above, Zia Hassan has not one, but two collaborative creative projects out this fall, SCENES, with Andrew Kurland released on September 14th, which can be downloaded for $4, and Zia Hassan presents Collision (pre-order). Now, as a special to all those who pre-order, before October 5th, when the Collision album actually goes on sale, you will be getting the album for a $5 pre-sale price and receive an advance track, as well. If you wait until the album goes on sale on October 5th, the price bumps up to $8, so definitely don’t wait!

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