Name: Sally Decker
Occupation: Composer, performer, writer
Nationality: American
Recent Release: Sally Decker & Briana Marela's Small Tremble In Slow Motion is out via Surface World.

[Read our Briana Marela interview]

If you enjoyed this interview with Sally Decker and would like to find out more about her work, visit her official homepage. She is also on Instagram. For an even deeper dive, we recommend our 15 Questions interview with Sally Decker in which she expands on a wide range of topics.

For many artists, a solitary phase of creative development precedes collaborative work. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your first collaborations?

I’ve found that solo work is really valuable when there is a need to clarify what I am trying to say. There’s also a kind of confidence that builds with making solo work. You get to witness what you can create all on your own, and it’s helpful to observe the way your voice takes up space when it’s only you in the mix.

Finding my way to collaborations came at a moment when I realized I was more interested in the conversations and dynamics that could occur when in relationship with someone else. But I think the periods prior working on my own was helpful in building a foundation for understanding myself well enough to then be able to approach aligned creative relationship.

Can you talk about one particular collaboration that was important for you? Why did it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?

This spring of 2022 me and my friend Brendan Glasson had the opportunity to compose a piece for the Auerglass Organ, a 2-player pump organ designed by Tauba Auerbach and Cameron Mesirow.

It’s a very unique instrument in that it cannot be played alone: one player pumps the bellows to supply the wind to the other player’s notes, and vice versa. Each player has a keyboard with alternating notes, which together make a full scale. The instrument is pretty disorienting to play – I didn’t realize how used to a typical full-scale keyboard I was! It’s also very unfamiliar to need someone else for the notes you are playing to even sound; it makes it feel like you’re approaching a totally new, unrecognizable instrument.

In this case, the collaboration felt like it was between me and Brendan and the organ itself (and thus also the concepts imbued into the organ by Tauba and Cameron). The organ required such a specific way of working that was totally different from any way that Brendan and I had found of collaborating before, and because of this we were able to access new and different parts of ourselves and the other through the process.

This was really beautiful, and further opened my mind to thinking about how systems and tools can act as a dynamic element within a collaborative space, and also how such a specific structure can liberate a dynamic between people and demand growth and adaptation in the ways you relate.

What are some of the things you learned from your collaborations over the years?

I’ve learned to let go. It’s not that the stakes are lower, they are just different. Or maybe it’s just easier to be at peace with what happens when you are sharing control.

A lot of my own solo work is about working with systems that demand a sharing or complicating of control. In a sense, collaboration is the most unstable system there is, much more than the electronic feedback I use. The focus of solo work on what you are saying, what you are expressing, is a very valuable place to me, but I also tend to put a heavy amount of pressure on myself and get really perfectionistic. In collaborations some of this intensity dissipates, and I can release gripping so tightly.

When there’s more of a need to cooperate and focus on the shared space between collaborators, maybe there is some relaxation of the ego’s drive.

There are many potential models for collaboration, from live performances and jamming via producing in the same room together up to file sharing. Which of these do you prefer – and why?  

I often gravitate toward meeting up to produce in the same room. Sometimes this means “jamming” but I guess jamming with a certain structure often feels better. Like, asking a question or posing a way we could try something, and then trying it. I’ve enjoyed file sharing and more call and response types of collaborating too – it’s really different because it leaves more space to be with something someone has made, and then the response or addition can be more patient and thought out.

But I think because my process is very improvisatory in the way I make sounds – there’s a quickness and a “live”-ness in the way the sounds even happen – this makes me lean more toward desiring to intermingle with someone else in this type of process and see what happens in the moment. There is magic in the immediacy of interaction.

What tend to be the best collaborations in your opinion – those with artists you have a lot in common with or those where you have more differences? What happens when another musician take you outside of your comfort zone?

I’m still learning about this, but my experiences with working with artists that have really different skillsets or work in different ways has been valuable. I think this is a really enlivening thing that can happen in collaboration: you have a window into a way of working that feels totally unnatural and foreign to you, and then potentially understand how you may want to integrate that way or, at the very least, it just opens your mind to a different of way of approaching process.

Of course sometimes these differing ways don’t complement your natural ways of working. But even when that’s the case I think it’s still valuable to get access to these differences.

Do you need to have a good relationship with your collaborator? Or can there be a benefit to working with someone you may not get along with on a personal level?

For me this answer is absolutely yes. Expressing creatively is so vulnerable for me; I need to get along at the very least with my collaborators.

It feels best when I feel a type of closeness with them, because then I can access that kind of deeper vulnerability that feels so central to how I make music.

In a live situation, decisions between creatives often work without words. How does this process work – and how does it change your performance compared to a solo performance?

I absolutely love this type of interchange, and it’s why I’m drawn to improvising. It’s a conversation, but with a different kind of language that often feels more expansive and intuitive than words.

When I’m performing solo that interchange still happens but it’s with myself. This is why I’m drawn to systems that pull out and require different parts of myself to be present. From there it feels like a conversation between different parts of myself. Between people, that exchange includes so many more possibilities because you are working with people with different personalities and experiences and sensitivities. There are all these access points into other people’s worlds, as well as the new access you get to yourself within that sphere of exchange.

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you as part of a collaboration? In which way is it different between your solo work and collaborations?

When collaborating this “ideal state” has the additional factor of an ideal state together. This is something I feel really sensitive to. The space in between me and the other person or people needs to feel open and safe. I need to trust the other person enough to allow their energy into the space I reside in when I’m fluidly in a process.

My sensitivity to this space changes depending on what part of the process we’re in, of course. Especially during the moments where form is coming into focus, issues unravel and get tended to, opinions are freely spoken and discussed together ... for this type of vulnerable work I need to feel like the space everyone is making together as a group is secure.