Commissioning, Part 2

So let's recap: 

1. Performers are terrified
2. Composers are scary

That should be enough, right? If not, check out Commissioning, Part 1 to catch up. Today's topic: None of us really has the slightest idea what we're doing.

Ah, but there's a catch. I think that commissioning and playing new music is acquired knowledge. I think each person has a new music "gateway drug" that gets them excited about playing music being written today, rather than 200 years ago. For me, that piece was Joan Tower's Tres lent. The piece is written in a very traditional style, but was written recently. For a while, I thought that new music was anything after Brahms. As far as I was concerned, the Hindemith Solo Sonata, op 25, no. 3 - written in 1922 - counted as new. Newsflash: If a piece was born before my grandparents were born, it's not new. 

I suggest that all performers find their own gateway drug. Last night I gave the following list to another cellist, in hopes that this progression would serve as a wonderful path to new music for her (To be fair, this isn't all "new," but it might be all that it takes to get her into some newer music. It's all about the gateway drugs, people):

  • Joan Tower - Tres lent
  • Donald Martino - Suite of Variations on Medieval Melodies
  • Arvo Part - Fratres
  • Roger Sessions - Six Pieces
  • Henri Dutilleux - Trois Strophes
  • Elliott Carter - Figments

So why don't we know what we're doing? It's because we're terrified and scary people. Performers just don't know how to commission because they've never been taught how to do it or even encouraged to give it a try (not to mention they wouldn't know where to start once they received the piece). Composers might want to collaborate with a performer on a piece, but composers are just so scary that all the performers run away screaming. Maybe that's all hyperbole. But honestly, I think it boils down to that. From the early college days, performers aren't aware of the steps needed to begin the commissioning process (that is, making friends with a composer), and composers sometimes wall themselves off in their musical castles, not being terribly approachable.

How to fix this? Easy: let's all be friends. And when when we finish that step, let's think about these things:

How to Commission?

If you - the performer - know a composer, ask them to write a piece for you! If you - the composer - know a performer, ask to write a piece for them! It's really that easy. But there are some other things to think about:

  1. Length (short 2 minute opener? or a major 45 minute work?)
  2. Instrumentation (is it just for you? or for a larger ensemble?)
  3. Deadlines (when is the score needed? make sure to account for practice time!)
  4. Recording rights? Performance rights? (does the performer have performance exclusivity? recording exclusivity? or is the piece allowed to date other people?)
  5. $$$?! (everyone - or no one - should be getting paid)

Once you've figured all these things out, put it in a contract. Sign it. BOOM! You're official.

When I asked for some input for this blog, I received some awesome advice. Check these out:

@meerenai @CBCarey On behalf of composers. At premieres, sometimes we notice we're the only musician in the room with Take Home Pay $0.00.

— David Rakowski (@ziodavino) August 29, 2013


What to do after the commission?

This is the easy part: have the work played all over the place. As a performer, you should want to commission the piece both to be part of the premiere (and maybe get your name on the score!) but also because you believe in the composer and his/her music. That composer will pour his/her heart and soul into your commission, and you should give it all you've got, too. Some wise words from Marcos Balter that should always be followed:


For composers, write a work that you believe in, something that you think is viable in the long term. Performers - ideally, hopefully, God-willing - will work hard to bring your piece to life. Help them find performances. If you're in different cities/towns, arrange performances in those two places. Find other ways to get your music out there. If there's no exclusivity, shop it around to other performers. (aside: I really enjoy receiving scores from composers who happen upon my website. There's always room in my rep for new works. I imagine it's the same with many of my colleagues. When I receive a nice introductory email with an attached score, that score will probably get played…)

Commissioning shouldn't be a daunting task. My first real commission was a nifty work by Joseph M. Colombo back in 2009. Titled Sweet, Joe wrote an awesome piece for solo cello that I've played a few times since then (and recorded…check out the Fifth Floor Collective). I've commissioned Joe on one other occasion since 2009, and probably will again, and in the meantime have brought dozens of new works by many composers into the world. The point is, Joe's piece was my commissioning gateway drug. After that piece - all that work, all that complaining about how hard it was, all that practice, and all these performances - I couldn't stop asking for more.

When I was an undergrad, I took an orchestration class and a composition class as electives. They were both great courses and I learned quite a bit, but my professor (the same for both classes) recently reminded me of one snarky thing I asked him. To paraphrase, I asked, "Why are we learning about all these new composers when we should be listening to the old masters?!" What a closed-minded jerk I was... 

Old music is great, but it's not everything. Keep looking forward, keep trying new things. Beethoven dedicated his String Quartet, op. 74 and his Duo for Viola and Cello ("with two eyeglasses obligato") to Nikolaus Zmeskall von Domanovecz, who often hosted chamber music parties at his home. How could Zmeskall have known that Beethoven would eventually become the historical BEETHOVEN that we so revere today? The simple answer is, he couldn't. Zmeskall liked Beethoven's music and they became friends. Do the same. Commission the next Beethoven to write you a piece. It's so important to be part of that process!

As always, i'd love to hear what you think. Head over to FACEBOOK or the TWITTERS to let me know that I'm an idiot or that I'm awesome!