By D. Geoffrey Bell
Today’s post is part 2 of a two-part post. Part 1 was published on Tuesday, March 15.
SUCCESSFUL COMMISSIONING EXPERIENCES
To broaden and deepen my understanding beyond my own personal experiences, I asked a selection of fellow composers and conductors to give me their thoughts about the key elements to successful commissioning.
Dr. Matthew Emery (Composer)
“Any commission of a new work of art is in itself successful; I encourage you to commission a composer, poet, collaborative artist, program cover art designer, etc., at every opportunity you can. Commissioning new creations supports the artistic community, engages with new artists (and audiences), and can also help give voice, awareness, and contribute to meaningful steps toward supporting others in artistic practices, experiences, and histories which differ from our own. Commissions offer the composer and commissioner a path to communicate and engage in/with something; that ‘something’ can be anything. I have had commissions that begin as wanting a new work that will function as a concert opener, closer, highlight an Alto soloist…works that set texts by newly settled members of the city, texts created in response to other pieces of artworks, and texts written in response to tragedy. ‘Successful’ commissions work to move beyond one immediate idea and build to something which transcends a single moment, one that will continue to reverberate long after the premiere.”
Dr. Tracy Wong (Composer; Assistant Professor of Choral Studies, University of Western Ontario)
“- clear communication of realistic expectations from both sides
– focus on how the music would serve the singers (this might mean usability, appropriateness, accessibility, and also tie into the above point about realistic expectations)
– identify what/how the music advocates for various communities (who does this benefit, how does this go beyond performative advocacy, how is the music impactful beyond the commission period)”
Jackie Hawley (Founding Artistic Director: Cantiamo Choirs of Ottawa)
“When I was a young conductor, it never occurred to me that I could ask a composer to write for my choir! When I learned more about it and considered it, I felt very intimidated to contact a composer because I was inexperienced and didn’t really know what to do.
Cantiamo Choirs of Ottawa is 19 years old this season and we have premiered one (or more) piece(s) every year of our existence. Even during this dreadful pandemic, we managed to maintain our budget line for commissions. Last year we participated in the Sonic Timelapse project and were thrilled to be able to support such a fantastic Canadian composition initiative! Commissioning has always been an exciting and positive experience for us.
The key component to a successful commission is clear communication.
It is valuable (and fun!) to have an honest, detailed conversation between the conductor and composer about all elements of the commission:
– who will be singing the piece? (level of experience, voicing, age – children/adults)
– what is the purpose of the piece? (anniversary, special dedication)
– what is the text? Will the conductor suggest a text(s) or ask the composer to find a text? Who is responsible for permission if the text is not public domain?
– what is the meaning/mood of the text? Do the conductor and composer interpret the text the same way?
– how many voice parts? What will the accompaniment be, if there is one?
– how long will the piece be?
– what is the cost and what will it include – e.g. printed copies or pdf, midi tracks, type of score (full for conductor, piano/choral for choristers)
– how does the composer expect to be paid – e.g. two installments,
– what is the timeline/due date? (be sure to leave time for edits)
– what is the exclusivity period/date of premier?
– what about recordings?
Paul Aitkin (Composer)
“First, it’s important to understand your timeline. Commissioning a new piece of choral music is initiating the creation of a new work of art. For most composers, the process takes time to complete. For me, it sometimes takes months of sorting through hundreds of potential poems before making the final decision about text. After that, I will spend weeks (or sometimes months) generating melodic and harmonic ideas from the poetry itself. Then it will again take weeks or months to write those ideas down into an engraved format for the musical forces to use at the premiere. I recommend that the commissioner plan at least 9-12 months in advance of the anticipated premiere date in order to adequately provide enough time for the composer to sculpt their ideas into a finished work.
Second, begin with adequate funding. One of the most challenging, early, conversations composers must have with commissioners is the entire topic of “the fee.” It is important to realize that by reaching out to a composer, you are initiating the creation of a new work of art and, in some cases, this work is their livelihood. Most professional composers of choral music nowadays have fees that are a few thousand dollars for a standard a cappella or SATB & piano work (think of it as around $1000 per minute of music). Longer works and works requiring a larger complement of instruments will obviously incur larger fees. Your organization should also plan to host the composer for the premiere – so don’t forget to include this into your overall budget. The important thing is not to panic about the price tag because there are options.
- Write a grant: Here in Canada, we are fortunate to have access to the Canada Council for the Arts. Take a little time to plan ahead as funds are frequently available to those groups and organizations that have a plan in place.
Visit https://canadacouncil.ca/funding/grants for more information.
- Consider a Consortium: One of my favourite past projects was with a commissioning consortium in the States whose objective was to commission one new piece per year. Each participating choir paid $500 toward the fee and each wound up sponsoring a new choral/orchestral work that they likely could have not afforded on their own.
- Ask your donors: most of us in the choral arts have a donor (or a list of donors) to their programs who would consider being financially involved in a commission.
- Involve your singers: I encourage directors to create a series of teachable moments over the course of a school year to fully involve singers in the process. When a choir of fifty singers realizes that if each of them were to fundraise $70, they could underwrite the commission themselves.
And last, engage and interact with your composer. Every composer is different, but I truly enjoy engaging with students and singers while I’m in the process of creation. Writing is a lonely sport and having opportunities to attend classes or interact in a zoom call provides me with a lot of inspiration about the choir for whom I’m writing. Further, these interactions allow students and singers to become excited about the project as well as make them feel like they are part of the process. As mentioned above, your organization should plan to host the composer at the premiere so that your singers and audience have the opportunity to meet and interact with the composer. Personally, I love doing Q&A sessions with the singers in the final rehearsals before the premiere – because the more they understand the piece and the process, the better the performance will be. Similarly, you can present something similar for the audience just before the premiere because if they know what to listen for, they are more deeply engaged.
It is also critical to have a contract in place with all of the elements decided upon in writing. If I were to sum it up briefly, the key to a successful commission is clear communication and a detailed contract. This will help to avoid any misunderstandings and assumptions.”
Carol Beynon (Founding & Co-Artistic Director of Amabile Boys & Men’s Choirs)
“When deciding on a new commission, the key component is clear discussion with the prospective composer to develop a safe and trusting relationship.
Before commissioning, we consider the following:
- The performance event for which we are commissioning as well as the rationale for commissioning a new work, such as commemorative (e.g., Remembrance Day), celebration such as choral anniversary, sacred or secular, or general.
- The length of the piece
- Accompaniment – from piano to solo instrument, small ensemble or orchestra – or acapella
- Required text or open text
- The level of the choir – e.g., children, youth treble; youth TTBB, adult men’s choir, or adult symphonic choir.
- Funding available to commission, such as a special donation for a commemorative commission, grant funds, etc.
- List of composers who we feel write according to the criteria established above, usually giving preference to support Canadian composers, local and alumni musicians, and/or new composers who could use ‘a leg up’
We then develop a prioritized composer list and:
- Invite the potential composer to consider writing a piece for x choir, provide the background and level of the ensemble, and discuss payment
- Upon approval, we establish a timeline for completion and then set up a meeting with the composer to discuss various aspects including examination of various texts, optimal range/tessitura of voicing in the ensemble, style, length, accompaniment (which instruments) or acapella. We try to cover as many details as possible in order to set expectations going forward yet allowing composer creativity.
- Once the text is decided on, the composer goes to work and communicates openly with the choir conductor – e.g., first draft, feedback from commissioner – and then finally a completed score. In this age of technology, the composer usually includes the pdf of the score as well as either an electronic mp3 or one they play in and record.
- The composer continues to work alongside the conductor as the new work approaches its world premiere performance, and the composer advises the conductor on various aspects of performance style.
The process of creating is intensely personal and the onus is on both parties to work together so that the composer can create and share their vision with the commissioning person so they can feel/hear/see the composer’s vision throughout the process and take the work to fruition.
In summary, the key component to a successful commission is setting up a relationship in which the commissioner has a clear understanding of the piece required and conveys that to the composer so that both parties – the commissioning conductor and the composer – can have open, ongoing and above-all, safe/trusted dialogue from inception to 1st performance.”
Sarah Quartel (Composer)
“Find the balance between direction and freedom – I do very well when a commissioner clearly communicates the desired specifications of a piece (voicing, length, difficulty level, concert theme) yet gives me the freedom to follow my instincts when writing for their ensemble.
Help the composer get to know you and your choir – When I prepare to write a commission, I study recordings, videos, organization mission statements, social media messaging, anything I can find to help me better understand the ensemble. I want to ensure that what I create is not only a great technical match but also an excellent fit for the spirit and character of the choir.”
Morna Edmundson (Artistic Director and Co-founder of Elektra Women’s Choir)
“We are very fortunate in the choral community to have inspired and engaged composers in our midst – they are truly part of our ecosystem. I’ve heard that the instrumental world is a bit jealous of the ease with which we include contemporary music on our programs, and how excited our audiences are to hear new works and meet their composers, With Elektra, I’ve commissioned over 100 original works and arrangements, and it is always exhilarating. If you are new to the process, I recommend talking with several colleagues who have commissioned, to get their perspectives and advice.
I believe the key component to a successful commission is clarity of intent. What kind of piece am I hoping to bring into being? Do I already have a text I want set? What should the voicing, duration, and instrumentation be? What is the occasion for which it’s being written? Has the composer heard recordings of my choir and do they understand what level of musical challenge will provide excitement without being impossible for this ensemble? Can I provide repertoire lists of what else my choir sings? Am I comfortable that the composer I am approaching can write the kind of piece my singers will want to and be able to learn? If you have solid answers for all of those, approaching the composer will always be a welcome conversation. A long timeline is an advantage, as some composers will have a stack of commissions ahead of yours. On the other hand, an emerging composer may be able to drop everything and pour their heart and soul into your piece. Look to the recommended rates on the Canadian League of Composers website, knowing that in-demand composers may ask for higher fees.
I would advise conductors to be sure to offer an open door for feedback if the composer wants it. You know your ensemble better than they do. If they do not have a large catalogue of choral works already, the process of writing for your choir may be a welcome learning experience for them, and it’s as important to them that it succeed as it is to you. Although I very infrequently see a draft of a work being written for my choir, a respectful, ongoing dialogue between the two of you is a true joy. Finally, I suggest setting the deadline at least a week earlier than you really want the piece in your hands. And tell the composer up front that you are going to want to have some back and forth with them in that week about any notational issues you may find. I have never had a composer say “no” to this. During that week, your critical role is as an advocate for all concerned: (1) for the composer so they look good in front of your ensemble by providing a clear score, (2) for the singers who need to make music from this score. Are they able to see which line to sing? Are the rhythms spaced clearly and consistently? Is the text underlay complete? What questions could you avoid in rehearsal with a few tweaks to the layout? and (3) for yourself as the person asking your choir to trust you in this process of the unknown. If you are not sure how to teach the piece because the composer’s intentions are not clear, or you are frustrated in rehearsal with something that doesn’t work that you might have been able to change, or uncomfortable putting your singers out on a limb with something that is too difficult for them, nobody will win. And it will erode the choir’s enthusiasm for embarking on another commission. All of those suggestions sound so negative! Let me put it in another light: when your singers have in their hands a piece they love and can rehearse and sing with joy and skill, and the piece is just right for the occasion and the audience responds enthusiastically, there is nothing like singing a work that was written just for you!”
Erick Lichte (Artistic Director – Chor Leoni)
“A successful commission starts with real belief in the composer’s perspective, vision and talent. It should include belief in the composer as a person as well an artist. The composer needs to be a voice and a person you desire to amplify.
The conductor needs to be a midwife and facilitator for the project. Ultimately the conductor knows his or her ensemble and audience. The conductor must help bring together the vision of the composer, the desires of the audience and the passions and talents of the singers.
It is the conductor’s job to find the right composer for the right project. Not every composer will be the best fit for a given project. A commission should stretch everyone involved a bit, but it should not feel like anyone is compromising themselves or shoehorning themselves in the piece. A good commission should have all of the dialog and give and take of a healthy relationship.
Everyone needs to be on the same page about the abilities of the artists. A good commission should always seem just a bit more difficult to the audience than it actually is for the performers, not the other way around. It is the conductor’s responsibility to teach the composer about the ins and outs of what is a good sing for your choir. The composer needs to be willing to learn.
A good commission needs real understanding of the collaborative nature of creating a new piece of music. A commission should feel like a workshop. The first draft of a composition is just that, a first draft. Everyone- the conductor, singers and composer need to commit to understanding the particular vision of a piece and then everyone must work together to flexibly experiment with the piece to make it communicate in the best ways possible. There is no need to commission a work if the composer doesn’t want to collaborate and edit to make a piece fit the ensemble. There is also no need for a composer to work with a choir that doesn’t want to put in the work of discovery in a new piece. The joy of new music comes from this work. This sort of work is exciting and builds beautiful relationships.
Last, a good commission needs to show its work to its audience. The composer and commissioner need to both be champions of the piece and be willing to tell the story of the work’s creation. The audience needs to feel a part of the process, since they, as the listeners, complete the project.”
Jeffrey Bernstein (Founding Artistic & Executive Director – Pasadena Chorale)
“It’s best if the choir and composer share some inherent artistic alignment. Ideally the composer should be interested in writing the sort of music the commissioning choir will sing well, and the choir should be interested in singing the sort of music the composer tends to write. This alignment implies mutual knowledge and understanding. The choir director should take time to become familiar with composer’s work, and the composer should be well acquainted with the choir’s sound. If the work of the other party is genuinely appealing and of interest, the collaboration will likely be fruitful. Another essential ingredient in successful commissioning is the set of shared agreements between the choir and the composer. These understandings must be realistic, clear and mutually agreed upon, and they range in scope across many aspects of the project including: the deadlines for composing and revising the score, the length and difficulty of the piece, the assignment of rights for performance and recording, and of course the amount and schedule of payments.”
Although approaches and experiences vary, most of the composers and conductors interviewed share a few key ideas to creating a successful commissioning experience:
- DETAILS: Set clearly defined goals; what do you want the finished product to look like and sound like? What are the steps from start to finish?
- CHOOSE YOUR COMPOSER: Who writes the kind of music you want to commission? Think about composers you already know; also devote some time to listen to works by others who you may not know, but who may be good candidates.
- TIMELINE: Plan ahead; set up a generous time frame with specific “check-in” points to allow the project to develop completely and on schedule.
- BUDGET: Set up a clear budget plan to cover all foreseeable expenses.
- CHOOSE A COMMISSIONING METHOD: there are many possibilities!
- CONSIDER “TAKING IT TO THE NEXT LEVEL”: How can you elevate the experience for all participants?
Your commissioning project can be as simple or complex as you choose to make it. If this is your first foray into commissioning, it is worth starting at the simple end of the scale, allowing your choir to “get their feet wet.” As you commission more works, anything is possible!
“A (Somewhat) Brief Guide to Commissioning New Music” by Dominick DiOrio, published in the November 2018 edition of Choral Journal
“How to Commission” article by Laura Hawley, published on her website:
D. Geoffrey Bell is a composer of choral and instrumental music. Learn more about his work at www.dgeoffreybell.com