By D. Geoffrey Bell
There are many reasons to commission a new composition for your choir. You may already be planning for an upcoming special occasion, anniversary or celebration. You may be thinking about raising your choir’s public profile, taking them to the next level. You may be looking for a new way to motivate and inspire your singers to get the best energy, commitment and sound from your ensemble. All of these are excellent reasons to commission a new piece of music written specifically for your choir.
Budget is an important consideration for most choirs, and may feel like a stumbling block to commissioning new music. A few different approaches are explored here, including budget-friendly options. I have interviewed a number of composers and choir directors to examine a variety of ways to make commissioning easy and affordable.
TRADITIONAL APPROACHES TO COMMISSIONING
Direct Contact with a Composer
Many contemporary composers have their own websites and profiles on social media. A quick Google search will help you determine whether a composer is open to being contacted directly. If the composer has a website, check for information about commissioning. Some composers post their commissioning policies, and provide a link to contact the composer directly. For example, Canadian choral composer Laura Hawley has a clear, detailed document on her website: https://www.laurahawley.ca/contact/how-to-commission/
Composers set their own rates and schedules. Check with your preferred composers first, but consider others whose work you don’t know as well; they might be quite capable of meeting your needs.
Call for Proposals
Some choirs post a Call for Proposals online as they plan for a future special event. This should include all relevant details, including:
- voicing, accompanied/unaccompanied
- desired length, topic or theme
- remuneration for the winning proposal(s)
- key contractual details
The Call for Proposals can be posted in a number of ways:
- by your national choral association, (Choral Canada, ACDA, etc.)
- national composer’s organizations, (Canadian League of Composers, Canadian Music Centre, American Composers Alliance, etc.)
- performing rights organizations, (SOCAN, ASCAP, etc.)
- on your organization’s website and social media
- in Facebook groups that focus on choral music and choral composition (Composers of Choral Music Community, Canadian Choral Composers, etc.)
Composers then have the opportunity to submit their unique proposal to create a choral work tailored to meet your requirements. When the deadline arrives, you have the interesting challenge of reading through the submitted proposals to find the best match.
An excellent example of a Call for Proposals by Unison Choruses can be found at:
Some organizations have an annual or biannual composition competition. Similar to the Call for Proposals, all details are published online, but composers are asked to submit a finished work that meets your requirements. The downside for many composers is that they will spend countless hours writing a piece of music that may not be selected.
Some organizations charge an entry fee, but consider this carefully before making a decision. A small entry fee like $20 will raise a small amount of money to go toward the commission fee, but may exclude bright, talented composers who can’t afford to enter many competitions. The higher the fee, the more exclusion will occur, and the more the competition will look like a fundraiser for the choir. Many organizations choose not to charge an entry fee, making the competition accessible to all.
A model example of a composition competition by Chronos Vocal Ensemble can be found at:
ALTERNATE APPROACHES TO COMMISSIONING
The “tried and true” approaches don’t work for every situation. You may encounter a sudden, unexpected need for new music, perhaps for a memorial service or celebration of life. You may have just started in a new music director role when an administrator casually drops a bombshell; “Oh, by the way, we’ll need an excellent new piece of music for . . .”
Whatever the case, I suggest you make quick contact with a composer whose music works well for your choir.
Co-Commissioning – We Just Don’t Have the Budget!
Some choirs have discovered that they can join forces, working together to commission one new work to be shared between them. This approach has been used successfully by a number of choirs! The “Commission Consortium” created by Choir Alberta is one excellent example: https://www.choiralberta.ca/2022-commission-consortium.html
Premier a Finished, Unpublished Work
This approach is not quite commissioning, but can have a positive end result. Start by making a list of the features you would like to have in the finished piece. Then contact your composer of choice to discuss possibilities. Composers often have finished works that have not yet been published or performed. (Think of all the works that were written for competitions, but didn’t win first place.) Many music publishers today will only consider scores for publication if they are submitted with a good recording! This can be a major stumbling block for composers who don’t have their own choir.
Conductors and composers can often work out a mutually beneficial arrangement: the composer provides an existing, finished work that matches the brief, charging only the current market value for published music rather than a commissioning fee. In exchange, the choir provides a good-quality, polished recording, giving the composer permission to use it to promote the work.
This arrangement benefits the composer by making it possible to submit the recorded work to publishers, allows the work to be heard by other choral directors, and potentially boosts sales of the music. It benefits the choir by providing a new piece of music at a very reasonable price; by providing excellent publicity for the choir when their recording is promoted on the composer’s website and social media; and potentially, on the publisher’s website if the piece is selected to be published. (The name of the choir and musical director should be included with all online postings.) In addition, many composers are happy to add a dedication to the choir that commissions or performs the premier of a work.
PLAN FOR SUCCESS
If your choir has a healthy budget, you may have the funds you need to commission any composer of your choice. If funds are limited, make a list of the key qualities you would like your new piece of music to have. Be reasonable with your expectations. Consider that a 5-minute piece of choral music with one or more instruments may require 50 to 100 hours of work for the composer. What fee would you charge for that amount of your own focused working time specifically for one client?
Special forces can be brought to bear to fund a special project, such as commissioning a new piece of music:
- Find a patron or patrons willing to sponsor the commission. You have some dedicated supporters who attend your concerts. Make a heartfelt sales pitch!
- Start a fund-raising project specifically to fund a new commission.
- Combine forces with one or more other choirs to co-commission a work.
Plan WELL in advance; a year or two ahead will give you time to do everything without being rushed. (Paul Aitkin provides a thorough explanation of this in the interview comments below.)
A carefully planned process and contract will serve you well. Many helpful specifics can be gleaned by building on ideas used by other choirs, then tailoring them to suit your specific needs. Engage in thoughtful initial dialogue with composers to find the best fit for your project. Make a note of questions and ambiguities that occur during discussions, then follow up with answers and decisions in writing. Video chats can be very useful to “get a feel” for each other, to have questions answered quickly, to explore possibilities, and to build on each other’s ideas. Follow up with written summaries of decisions that have been made.
Take It to the Next Level
Having commissioned a special piece of music for your choir, why not elevate the experience, taking it well beyond the premiere performance? Consider these possibilities:
- Hire a photographer or videographer for the premiere, then post the photos or video on your choir’s website and social media (your composer can provide a “synchronization licence” for a small fee to make the online video legal).
- Hire an audio recording engineer to record the performance (your composer can provide a “mechanical licence” for a small fee if you plan to sell or distribute recordings).
- Do a dress rehearsal recording or studio recording for a future album (see above).
- Program more performances for different audiences or events.
- Ask if your composer is interested in posting your recording on their own website and social media, or on their publisher’s website. (This provides free publicity for your choir to a much wider audience.)
- Ask if your composer is open to doing a workshop with your choir, either in person or via video conferencing. This can be a very rewarding experience, giving more depth, substance and meaning to the new work. It’s also a great motivator for choir members, and can be a catalyst for outstanding performances!
- Do you have a good relationship with a publisher of choral music? Ask if the publisher would be willing to consider the commissioned work for publication after the premier performance. (They don’t have to commit to publishing it unseen and unheard, but agree to consider it when it is finished.) The potential of publication adds to the excitement for all participants, and will add another positive element to entice composers to accept your commission.
The second and final part of this post will be published here on Saturday, Mar. 19. D. Geoffrey Bell is a composer of choral and instrumental music. Learn more about his work at www.dgeoffreybell.com