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Collaborations can be a place to learn something new about your own process.

Starting a Collaboration

Almost every collaboration starts with an email request to the composer. This is the time when details about the project are discussed, which will lead to concrete plans. I always look for answers to fundamental questions:

  • What’s the overall concept?
  • How many dancers does the piece call for?
  • Will I be performing live, or using pre-recorded audio?
  • How long will the piece be?
  • What kind of rehearsal schedule do you anticipate?
  • What is the budget for the piece?
  • Why have you chosen to work with me?

Answers to each of these questions help me decide what is possible and whether the collaboration promises to be a good match.

Overall concept - What is the piece about? What are you trying to accomplish? Some concepts are based on a few words, an idea, or a feeling. Other concepts are process-based and will be revealed through collaborative work. Concepts can also be media- or site-specific. One wonderful part of being a composer for dance is the variety of concepts that I’m asked to engage with.

If you’re soliciting a piece from a composer, my recommendation would be to write a short descriptive paragraph about the concept and plan to dig deeper into it after the collaboration has begun. If there is a name for the piece, go ahead and share it. That can really help with organizing file names from the start of the process.

Timeline - A timeline helps me schedule a project so it fits in with my other work. (Most working composers have five to ten projects running at the same time.) A good timeline covers three things:

  • When work begins.
  • When drafts should be delivered for feedback.
  • When the final music is due.

All collaborators work differently and have unique processes. Some prefer drafts to be delivered before rehearsals begin because the choreographer gets inspired by the music. Other artists like to discuss a few musical ideas and then start working on a piece, allowing for the music to develop throughout the process.

It is rare that I write music for a piece that is completely finished. This sometimes happens with screendance. Mostly, though, this occurs if an issue has come up at the last minute and I am asked to step in weeks (or even days) before a performance.

Rehearsal schedule - Concrete dates help a composer schedule when they can provide drafts to be tried out in the studio. The rehearsal schedule is not always fully fleshed out at the start of a project. Usually, there are a couple of targets that can be shared: the date rehearsals start and performance dates. An alternative is to supply a time interval during which material will be developed.

The number of rehearsals also affects how I plan to deliver drafts. If it is a short collaboration, I’ll always try to get near-final drafts right away. If it is a longer process, spread out over months, I will move more slowly to give the piece time to develop. If music is not requested at the very beginning of a long process, I have found that I can save a lot of the time and budget for a piece by being patient. Of course, it is important that I communicate this with the person I am working with to make sure we are on the same page.

Number of dancers - Knowing the number of dancers in a project helps me imagine how the music will affect the environment during the performance. In my mind’s eye, I can imagine how differently a piece of music will be experienced with one person on stage versus many people on stage. I don’t have rules for composing for solos or duets or big group pieces. Knowing the number of dancers is simply another piece of information I use to build upon.

Ultimately, I am always taking my cues from the choreographer and the descriptions they use. When I know the number of performers, I can take those cues and have a good idea whether the music will support their vision.

Budget - The budget determines what is possible for a project. It’s not the only factor, and is by no means a guiding light (at least for me), but it does shape project planning.

A skill I have developed over the years is to communicate what options are realistic for a project based on the budget. For example, I would not write a piece for a string quartet to be played live with a budget of $300. Instead, I’d inquire about the original impetus of using a string quartet and then endeavor to find a less expensive way of achieving a similar result.

I take responsibility for helping to resolve budgetary issues when a request is made. For me, the budget is not a reflection of respect (or disrespect). It is simply another parameter that makes up a project.

Live music vs. Recorded music - Using live music for a performance requires different planning than using recorded music.

Live music can be costly, but spending money is not what makes the use of live music successful. Communicating a clear plan as early as possible is the key factor. Being strategic about when you want to have musicians and dancers in the same space working together can keep costs down. Give the dates of the performance, tech runs, and rehearsals right away.

Depending on the process for a collaboration, I don’t always need to come to rehearsals at the start. My time is better spent making and rehearsing music with the musicians. I usually like to come to rehearsals closer to the tech week. Schedule time during tech for sound balancing in the space. (One to two hours should do, depending on the complexity of the music.)

Using recorded music can be just as magical as live performance and has unique strengths. Most importantly, it is more cost-effective. Most composers have their own spaces to produce music. This is the main reason I am able to keep costs down for collaborators.

Another important point is that recorded music allows me to use textures, instrumentation, and arrangements that would not be possible with live music. For example, I can use sampling techniques to create complex layers of sound that would be very difficult to replicate with a live ensemble. I can also create all of the music before the choreography has started.

Length - Budget does not determine length. A five-minute piece for five trumpets, harp, drumset, tabla, and string quartet would be more expensive to produce than a forty-five minute piece consisting of a long drone with a few single piano notes.

The length of a piece is a very specific agreement for any collaboration and can be a source of conflict if it changes drastically throughout the process. I can say from experience that it is challenging to navigate a project that starts at ten minutes and develops into one hour. This may be why so many collaborations end up being one-offs instead of the start of long-term relationships.

Most composers will not have a problem accepting more work from an expanding project. But it is vital to communicate clearly from the beginning and to provide additional budgeting for the project if it changes from the initial agreement.

Why do you want to work with me? - I started asking collaborators this question a few years back. The answers have helped me learn about how to approach a project with a new collaborator. Maybe someone has heard a specific piece of mine that has a certain feel to it that they would like to replicate. Maybe somebody has a specific tempo, instrument, or meter that they find inspiring.

Sometimes I discover that someone has approached me, but has never heard any of my music. In those cases, I usually make them a playlist of a range of my music that might work with some of the information they have provided about the project.

Music Practice

Have each student write an email as if they were starting a collaboration. Then read and discuss each other's email. Like so many things in our careers as artists, practicing this will benefit your collaborations for many years to come.

Mike Wall playing music live

Michael Wall

Michael Wall, with a unique musical style influenced by a diverse range of artists like Miles Davis, Tom Waits, Nina Simone, Brad Mehldau, Aphex Twin, Radiohead, and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, has established himself as an innovative figure in music and dance. As a sought-after composer, his creativity sparks new commissions each year from emerging and internationally recognized dance companies, choreographers, filmmakers, musicians, and other collaborative projects.

His accomplishments include his work on the Grammy-nominated album "Spirit Song" by Kenny Barron. He also had the opportunity to orchestrate, perform, record, mix, and master Phillip Glass's "Music for Changing Parts" with the Salt Lake Electronic Ensemble, released under Glass's Orange Mountain Music label.

In the vibrant dance world, Michael has had the joy of collaborating with a myriad of artists and organizations, such as Flockworks, Pilobolus, Shen Wei, Charles Anderson, Molly Heller, The Jose Limon Company, and many more. In addition to his commercial successes, Michael cherishes his role as an educator, guiding the next generation at esteemed institutions like Princeton University, Rutgers University, NYU, Ohio State University, the University of Utah, The American Dance Festival, and the Bates Dance Festival.

Hailing from the Mississippi Delta, Michael's musical journey began when he took up the trumpet at the tender age of 9, earning his keep through various gigs. After a damaged embouchure led him to switch to the piano, Michael honed his skills in jazz piano and composition under the expert guidance of Kenny Barron and Kenny Werner. It was during his time working as an accompanist in ballet classes that he fell in love with the art of composing for dance, learning from Robert "Tigger" Benford, which became the heart of his career.

Michael's work and insights have been featured on the podcast "Art + Music + Technology" by Darwin Grosse and he has had the pleasure of presenting two sessions about improvisation and choreography utilizing Ableton Live Loop 2018 in L.A. A documentary about his journey and his primary dance collaborators, aptly titled “Moving Together” by Maggie M. Bailey, is eagerly anticipated to premiere at Lincoln Center in February 2023. Michael is also excited to take center stage at the Phoenix Synthesizer Festival in January 2023.

Since 1999, Michael's love for music has led him to distribute his work widely, amassing a library of 53 albums with over 550 tracks. He continues to share his love for music and dance by publishing new music for dance educational resources on his website, []( There, he offers simple music licensing solutions and fosters deep creative collaborative processes.

"Collaborating with Michael is seamlessly inspiring and so joyful! We continually turn to his music when we need something with just that extra level of evocative emotion, intriguing punctuation, and storytelling. He delivers gorgeous craft time and time again while also being just such a nice person to work with. The dance world is lucky to have him!"


"Working with Mike over the last 10 years on diverse projects has changed the way I collaborate, understand the relationship between sound and movement, and dream of possibilities. Mike is a central figure in Heartland, a multidisciplinary collective, shaping how art mediums engage and evolve together. He empowers dancers to honor what they know and to use transferable skills to make music of their own. Mike is brilliant and humble, open and transparent, and always seeks growth. I admire and respect Mike on a very deep level and I'm grateful for the resources that he's thoughtfully assembled for educators intersecting dance, sound, and performance."

Molly Heller

"Michael was one of the most memorable collaborators I've ever had the honor to work with. From our initial conversation, I could already tell he is passionate and enthusiastic about doing work that will stand the test of time. Michael's music composition for my piece Momoda (Kiss Kiss) was outstandingly creative, and I continued receiving positive feedback anytime anyone heard the music. He was able to take my vision and realize it completely in the sonic realm; He is a dream to work with. "

Natasha Adorlee

"Working with Michael over the last five years has been such a gift. He has become an essential part of any choreographic process for me, and every time we collaborate, I learn a little bit more about Ableton Live and music in general."

Penny Saunders