IASPM 2014: ¿Dónde está: The Creative Role of Alfreda Benge in the Music of Robert Wyatt

¿Dónde está: The Creative Role of Alfred Benge in the Music of Robert Wyatt

Robert and Alfie (the knife is due to the fact that she was chopping onions shortly before the photo was taken, and the image became one of his main publicity shots for the album)

Marcus O’Dair

ABSTRACT: To many journalists, ‘Alfie’ is simply the woman who picks them up from the station when they come to interview her husband—or, at most, the woman who inspired Sea Song. My paper will aim to document Benge’s multi-faceted role, which may be far more active than mere muse. I will examine her role in the studio (drawing on interviews with Wyatt and Benge themselves, as well as with several other musicians and the engineer Jamie Johnson). This paper will discuss Benge’s pivotal role in securing deals (with Virgin, Rough Trade, Hannibal/Ryko and Domino) as Wyatt’s de facto business manager, and her contribution to the visual presentation of his work (she has designed the cover of every album since 1974’s Rock Bottom). Her creative contribution is evident in the work itself; since 1991’s Dondestan, Benge has written lyrics for a number of the songs that appear under her husband’s name. What is the power dynamic that governs their relationship, both professional and personal? Is the critics’ relative neglect of Benge’s contribution due to sexism, or are there other issues at play? To what extent should her album cover be seen as part of Wyatt’s—or Wyatt and Benge’s—artistic output (Machin, 2010)? Finally, what is the relationship between writing, singing and authorship, particularly in relation to the cover versions Wyatt himself records, and the increasing number of other artists who, in turn, cover his songs (Solis, 2010)?

Understanding Collaborative Songwriting

“You Won’t See Me” – In Search Of An Epistemology Of Collaborative Songwriting

This research paper was published in the Journal on the Art of Record Production issue #8 – proceedings of the 8th Art of Record Production conference, Université Laval, Quebec (2013).  Full version

Université Laval, Quebec

This paper proposes an observational methodology by which we may gain deeper understanding of the creative processes used by collaborative songwriters. Almost every aspect of popular music production and consumption has been discussed and analysed in scholarly work, but the creation of the song itself has rarely been subject to scrutiny. This is perhaps due to the fact that very little of the songwriting process can reliably be inferred by listening to an audio track or reading a score. Therefore, two methods are proposed in combination – interview-based and participatory auto-ethnographic observation. In both cases the songwriters themselves generate the qualitative data. The aim is to construct a framework that researchers may use to provide answers to the question “how shall we know the mind of the songwriter?” The methods proposed here have been tested with more than 20 professional songwriters between 2009 and 2013, and a selection of these observed co-writes will be published as case studies in 2014.


Download full text (pdf)

“You Won’t See Me” – in search of an epistemology of collaborative songwriting (abstract)

Here’s a forthcoming paper I’ll be presenting at the ARP conference this year in Québec. I’ll publish the full paper here later in the year. Here’s a paper I presented at the 2010 ARP conference (perhaps less glamorously, but no less interestingly, in Leeds).


2013 ARP Conference
The 8th Art of Record Production Conference
July 12th – 14th 2013
Université Laval, Québec

“You Won’t See Me” – in search of an epistemology of collaborative songwriting
Joe Bennett, Bath Spa University

Collaborative songwriting is an effective music industry creative working model, and a significant number of hits have been written by teams[1]. However, little is known about the operational specifics of the creative processes undertaken by successful songwriters, and academic research into songwriting creativity is constrained by a number of methodological challenges. This paper aims to analyse and compare the observation methodologies available to researchers, and to evaluate the reliability of the available evidence bases. Analysis of a finished creative work such as an audio recording may tell us little about the way it was created, so the search for usable evidence should perhaps start with the songwriters themselves. John Sloboda[2] identifies four methods by which we may gain understanding of a composer’s creative process – examination of manuscript; ‘general and retrospective’ interviews with composers; ‘live’ observation of composers; and observation of improvisatory performance. The first and last of these are discounted, respectively, because of the lack of iterative music notation generated by most songwriters, and also due to the non-real-time nature of songwriting, particularly in a technology rich environment such as a studio. This leaves interviews or real-time observation, but these two methods’ integrities, and even their status as primary sources, may be questionable. Interview subjects, for a variety of personal or economic reasons, may not be incentivised to provide reliable information to researchers about the reality of their creative processes. Real-time observation of a collaborative songwriting session partly solves this problem, but generates massive amounts of qualitative data, which must be reduced, necessarily destructively, to a manageable size before it can be a meaningful and usable research evidence base.
When these data have been evaluated and analysed, the researcher is left with an overarching philosophical question, common to much creativity research, and addressed by Csikszentmihalyi[3] and Boden[4] – does a case study only become meaningful after the work is proven to be societally ‘successful’? The paper will discuss approaches to this problem and possible strategies for triangulating evidence bases, toward an informed understanding of the collaborative songwriting process.

[1] T. F Pettijohn II and S. F Ahmed, “Songwriting Loafing or Creative Collaboration?: A Comparison of Individual and Team Written Billboard Hits in the USA,” Journal of Articles in Support of the Null Hypothesis 7, no. 1 (2010): 2.
[2] John Sloboda, The Musical Mind : the Cognitive Psychology of Music (Oxford [Oxfordshire]  ;New York: Clarendon Press ;;Oxford University Press, 1985).
[3] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “Society, Culture, and Person: a Systems View of Creativity,” in The Nature of Creativity : Contemporary Psychological Perspectives, ed. Robert Sternberg (Cambridge ;;New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 325–339.
[4] Sloboda, The Musical Mind : the Cognitive Psychology of Music.

Collaborative songwriting paper – in Spanish

AbnerFor this post I have to thank the very marvellous Abner Perez. He has kindly volunteered to translate my recent academic paper (from the Art of Record Production conference) on collaborative songwriting into Spanish.

Download Spanish Translation (pdf)

Composición en colaboración – la ontología de la creatividad negociada en la práctica de producción de música poppular

Download English version (pdf)

Collaborative songwriting – the ontology of negotiated creativity in popular music studio practice

Here’s the abstract in Spanish.

Collaborative Songwriting – academic paper

This is an academic paper on the subject of collaborative songwriting in the studio. It was presented at the 6th Art of Record Production conference in Dec 2010 and appears in the Journal of the Art of Record Production Conference Proceedings – ISSN 1754-9892. Please feel free to download/cite it as you think fit. The correct citation is;

Bennett, J., 2011. Collaborative songwriting – the ontology of negotiated creativity in popular music studio practice. In Journal of the Art of Record Production 2010. Leeds, UK: Art of Record Production.

In keeping with my view that academics should make their research as freely available as possible, you can download the whole paper here.

BENNETT_J_ARP2010 (pdf)