Who’s in Charge Here?

For the members of C4: The Choral Composer/Conductor Collective, the answer is “everyone.” Here’s how this “team of maestros” navigates their various roles in the organization.

Like symphony orchestras, many choruses have typically been shaped by the conductor on the podium. But in recent years, a number of performing arts organizations have been testing a flatter, more democratic model.

One example is New York’s C4: The Choral Composer/Conductor Collective, celebrating its tenth season in 2014-15. Formed in 2005 by a small cadre of veterans of New York City’s choral scene, C4 is directed and operated collectively by its singing members. It functions not only as a presenting ensemble, but also as an ongoing workshop and recital chorus for the emerging composers and conductors who form the core of the group.

C4’s 20-some members take on major leadership responsibilities, serving on one of seven committees overseeing development, publicity, production, repertoire, composition, conducting, and finance. One member, who serves as “facilitator,” makes sure that the various leadership teams are communicating with each other and getting their work done. At each concert, different members take turns stepping into the conductor’s role.

The unique management model has contributed to a flowering of creative output. Performing exclusively works composed within the last 25 years, C4 has featured more than 100 composers and premiered more than 100 new works, a distinction that won the group a 2014 Chorus America/ASCAP award for Adventurous Programming. See complete list of repertoire performed on the C4 website.

In this Chorus America interview, four C4 members—Timothy Brown, Karen Seigel, Fahad Siadat, and Martha Sullivan—offer an inside look at how the collaborative model works.

Chorus America: The collective model is relatively unusual in the choral field. How has the management of C4 evolved over time?

Timothy Brown

Timothy Brown: C4 has always been a collective, but until 2009 it was functioning with two tiers. There was a chamber ensemble that was joined by a larger group of people for pieces that required a larger ensemble. The smaller group was doing most of the running of the organization. It was kind of flying by the seat of our pants—“Oops, we forgot to do x. Who’s going to do it?” The group has since consolidated into just the chamber ensemble with 20 to 24 people. Today all members are involved in some administrative or artistic function, outside of just singing for the group.

Does having more people involved in leadership make things easier?

Brown: Nothing about a collective makes things easier! But our goal is never to fall into having an artistic director make decisions for everybody else. In order to make it somewhat manageable, the group is broken into committees, which can discuss things in more detail and we fan out as needed for voting or for brainstorming from the larger group.

Karen Siegel: It would be easier if one person was in charge, but we wouldn’t have this organic result. And I don’t think we would have as many people excited about it. That really comes from each person’s individual investment.

We are a lot of different personalities, and we have disagreements and have to resolve those. It just takes a lot of time to have all of these discussions. I think we make better decisions in the end, but it’s a big investment of time.

Fahad Siadat: I like to call it beautiful chaos! The model is constantly changing depending on who is in the group and what they have to offer. When I first joined the group the requirements for being on the leadership committee were that you had to chair one committee and participate in two others. But people were getting burned out. So now the person who heads a committee does not have to serve on another committee. They can focus just on that one thing if they wish.

What are the main benefits of operating in this way?

Martha Sullivan: In a traditional chorus, I would have no knowledge of how decisions about repertoire were made or what the implications are. In a collective, I’m much more clued in to the decisions that are being made. One of the prime values of the group is transparency, so there is no secret cabal of people making decisions. Discussions are posted on our Google Group so we can see what’s going on.

Siadat: In each of the committees, the work is spread among the members. So on the fundraising committee, for example, each person may take on writing one grant proposal. Each person becomes an expert on her or his grant. We’ve been able to expand the number of grants that we can apply for. And we have received about half of them, which is even better. We have doubled the organization’s budget because we have been able to get so many people involved in fundraising.

Karen Siegel

Siegel: The roles of composer, conductor, and singer really feed into each other. My experience as a conductor informs what I write, and how I notate. I think, “How will the conductor conduct this? Is it clear? Can it be read?” And then the question “Is it singable?” It is hard to write good choral music without that singing experience.

How is repertoire selected?

Sullivan: As head of the repertoire committee this year, the first thing I did was put up a Google Drive where people could post music suggestions and share information about it, like pdfs. Anyone who wants to be involved can be. There is no hoarding of power or keeping it away from other people.

People advocate for certain pieces. We may come down to one hour and 20 minutes of music and we need an hour. Then we will vote on it. We want everybody’s voice to be heard. Somebody might think of something you hadn’t thought of and all of a sudden it just clarifies the issues or makes the process a lot easier. Sharing knowledge is a beautiful thing.

The conducting role is shared by a number of members of C4. What has that experience been like?

Brown: I must admit that I was feeling much too rusty as a conductor to immediately step up on the podium. I didn’t conduct the first two seasons I was in C4. But once I stepped into that, I have been conducting more than I ever have before and began taking on more challenging pieces. In our conductors’ group we spend the entire session critiquing our conducting, and hopefully taking the feedback well and learning from it. Because of those opportunities, my skills have gotten better and better, and I’m certain I have never been a stronger conductor.

Siegel: I am primarily a composer, but have become a confident conductor through my experience on the podium with C4. We have created a very congenial atmosphere where feedback is welcomed. It is common for someone to go up to a conductor at break and say, “Can I offer a suggestion about this section of the piece?”

How does the process work for composers in the group?

Siadat: Singers take lessons their entire life, but composers don’t do this as often. That is silly. At C4, we have been able to offer mutual mentorship for each other, and it is really great. We offer each other feedback and the pieces get much better because of that. Every time I write a piece, I give it to a different composer to get feedback on, because we are so diverse in our styles.

Brown: As a policy, C4 does not pay in-group composers. It only supplies the opportunity to workshop members’ compositions. We have commissioned compositions by invitation or as part of our composer competition, where winners get a cash prize for the new piece that they write.

As a composer, just the opportunity for such a fine group to perform your works is all that is required for most of us. We trade whatever monetary reward that might come from another opportunity. And we can take those pieces onward, we hope, and find other groups that are willing to take on pretty challenging material.

Fahad, you are serving now as the facilitator of C4. What does that role entail?

Fahad Siadat

Siadat: I don’t actually make any decisions. My role is to make sure that we are “collectivizing” everything—that we are a collective in the way we want to be a collective. So I might discuss with people different forms of collectivity and how they might benefit the group. Then we might experiment with one of those forms and figure out what works and what doesn’t.

I also sit down with the third parties that might want to collaborate with us. I’ll find out what they have in mind, talk about the collective model of C4, and then we’ll come up with a proposal together. Then I present that proposal to the ensemble, and they vote on whether they want to engage in that project or get more information.

What is the impact of working collectively on the members’ commitment and on the artistic product?

Siadat: I think the buy in is much higher among the members of the ensemble. There is very little turn over. Of our 24 members, about 15 have been there for years. Former members have stayed involved by becoming board members or helping us with their professional network or expertise.

Martha Sullivan

Sullivan: At a C4 concert you’ll hear some crazy stuff that you never would have thought of going to hear. Because the program is put together by several people arguing it out, with the tastes of several different people, you get some surprising juxtapositions. You can’t imagine one person having thought of all of those pieces.

Siadat: It is a more relaxed atmosphere at our concerts. Maybe it is because we are constantly switching in and out who is on the podium. People laugh, we get informal without being unprofessional. That’s largely due to our collectivity. Audience members will come up after a concert and say, “You really should be performing this.” We love that. They feel empowered to give us their opinions, because they feel like they are part of the ensemble.

What is the importance of working this way for the larger choral field?

Brown: For me, it is the success we have had choosing the course of the group by a democratic process, rather than having a leader who tells us what to do. Of course, there are wonderful groups everywhere that have an artistic director who makes all the decisions in the artistic area. But by not having a single person in charge of that, you’ll hear a variety of compositional styles at every C4 concert.

I’m not sure I’d put up a huge fight if down the line the group decided to turn over the administration to a staff. But the artistic decision-making and the rotation of conductors at the podium are the two single biggest pluses for me with regard to the collective model.

Siadat: A lot of composer/performers, early in their careers, have a hard time getting their music performed. One of the things we model for folks is that they can self-produce. This is not just applicable to choral groups. I see this in instrumental ensembles, as well. There is an opportunity, along with doing the standard repertoire, to do your original work. Rock bands do it. Why can’t classical groups?

What does the future hold? Any other aspects of collectivity that you want to explore?

Brown: This last year we started an educational outreach. At a weekend residency at Tufts University, we did a reading session of student-composed choral works, followed by a session with the college’s large choir where three of our conductors took turns at the podium, and then a full concert by C4. It is our goal to expand this further. I consider this a direct outgrowth of what the group does well within—mentoring conductors and composers.

We have also been asked by two different organizations to come and talk about the collaborative nature of the group and how others can form groups of a similar nature. That will be an entirely different kind of residency. We are finding more and more people interested in that kind of information seminar.

Siegel: I think we are growing up as an organization. This is the first full year that we have had a board of directors, in addition to our leadership teams. As our budget has gotten bigger, we realized that we needed more oversight, especially financial. So our board has some active singing members of C4 as well as others from the community.

We want to do more true collaborations, like we did recently with the instrumental Fireworks Ensemble, where we performed a substantial work by Fireworks director Brian Coughlin as well as several shorter pieces by C4 members. We really enjoy collaboration, and I see us doing more of it.

Any key words to the wise for others considering the collective model?

Siadat: Allowing people to make mistakes is part of it. It is allowing people to take the reins in a leadership role, and to encourage and help them to be better. To encourage each other to grow as artists is a huge part of what we do. It only works when you create a culture where people are willing to get up there and take a chance and make mistakes.

For its organizational structure, C4 has borrowed from the chamber orchestra Orpheus, also based in New York, which has been operating without a conductor since 1972.

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