DISCLAIMER: I don’t intend for this post to be a rant or a complaint, but a collection of observations with an invitation to discuss. I am exceedingly thankful for every commission I have ever received, and they have inspired me to compose many more works than I ever would have written without them. I have no plans to decline future commissions, nor do I wish to disparage anyone who makes a living from commissions. This is merely a first attempt at searching for alternatives to a complicated, powerful, and imperfect system. If you have ideas for how we might improve it together, please share them in comments below! Let’s make a better choral world together. And now, on to the main event…
I’ve just finished writing a commission for my friend Patrick Callaghan at San Jacinto College in Houston, and I can hardly wait to hear the premiere in April. The piece is entitled The Field (Ubi Caritas), and it’s a combination of excerpts from Leviticus, the Ubi Caritas chant (including snippets of the melody), and The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran. I’ve used overlapping ostinatos to mimic the distractions of life and set-up a moment of clarity and focus as we reflect on loving one another and being truly present. Patrick allowed for up to four instruments plus piano in the commission, and working with these additional colors offers a special privilege that composers rarely experience.
Pros vs. Cons
At the same time, I’ve been thinking about the commission process a lot. Obviously, every composer loves commissions, right? Who would want to…
collaborate with fantastic conductors and singers across the country
create new music for a particular time, place, and ensemble
bring to life exciting ideas, hopes, and dreams that others entrust to you
know that someone believes in you enough to place their ensemble’s success in your hands
guarantee a performance from conductors and ensembles who are passionate about making new sounds
And of course, no one is going to turn down financial support. :-)
However, if I’m being honest—and being honest is what a journal is for—commissions are sometimes like democracy: the worst system, except for all the others. While I can’t speak for every composer, I know I can speak for some (who will remain anonymous), because we regularly discuss our anxieties privately. We aren’t looking for pity, but from what I’ve heard, I think it’s worth airing out some of the common anxieties we experience when embarking on a new commission:
Deadlines: What if the piece just isn’t ready at the time it needs to be ready? Everyone gets writer’s block eventually, right?
Aesthetics: What if they don’t like it? Perhaps even worse, what if I don’t like it? What if no one understands it? What if it’s a piece that needs a few performances before people can really “get” it, but I know it will probably only be heard once? This is especially problematic if you’re trying (or want to try) something new, innovative, or different from what you’ve written in the past.
Difficulty: What if the choir isn’t able to perform it well in the rehearsal time allotted? What if they’re bored?
Obligation: The commissioner feels obligated to perform the work, even if they (or you) don’t like it. They might even feel obligated to say that they like it when they don’t. Can every new work really be a winner? Even Mozart wrote a few dreadful works. What happens when you accidentally drop one of those on someone’s music stand?
I also recognize that every composer is different, and we all work best under a peculiar circumstances. Most of my pieces that have won awards and several of my pieces I personally prefer (No, I won’t give you a list-don’t ask) weren’t written for commissions. I wrote them simply because I felt inspired to create. In fact, I’m not the kind of person who will crank out a new cantata every week (thanks for setting that standard, Johann Sebastian). Though others obviously can do so, I literally don’t have that many ideas in my head at any one moment, and even if I did, where would I find the time to write them all down? Two or three pieces in a year is a solid output for me—any more than that and they may all start to sound the same.
So what are our options? I think I already covered that with “except for all the others”. :-) Then again, perhaps this conversation will inspire new possibilities. Here are a few of the ideas I’m mulling over, but none strikes me as an end-all, be-all solution.
My leading concept is a sponsored premiere where I would write pieces on my own schedule, and when they’re ready, present them to conductors who could then claim the premiere rights if they so choose. We could call it a “commission” if that’s beneficial, while ensuring that the conductor gets a piece they really like. It also guarantees that I have produced a piece I’m completely confident in without the pressure of deadlines. The downsides are that it requires me to be consistent in writing (deadlines are sometimes helpful for keeping me on task) and it requires me to keep pieces under wraps (I’m terrible at keeping secrets for a long time). There’s also the danger that I might start to feel like a salesman while trying to find the right conductor or that the conductor might feel pressured to accept the piece because it’s been on the shelf too long.
We could also go back to the old patronage system. Composers would no longer have to shop things around or worry about financial matters—if only they could find someone willing to have a “composer in residence” on their staff, no strings attached. I’m not holding my breath on this one, though. How many individuals with that level of wealth are looking for a composer? Might someone propose a modern twist on this concept?
Perhaps something like Patreon can help, but it doesn’t seem to be geared toward the classical world. Also, the composer would have to put more time into marketing and reporting on his/her work, which reduces the time available for actually writing. And it still doesn’t guarantee performances or a premiere.
A day job is an option for relative financial security, but this relegates composition to one’s already limited free time. It also means that performances and/or premieres are far from guaranteed. As a side note, the fact that I have a day job gives me a lot of artistic freedom. I doubt that many full-time composers would dare express some of the worries I’m sharing here, and truthfully, I’ve almost talked myself out of posting this more than once. I think that speaks to the problems inherent in the current system.
What grand, innovative idea am I missing? Maybe there isn’t a better system, but given that the current one is imperfect, what harm is there in brainstorming possibilities? New music is worth supporting, and I’m hopeful that there is a way to help composers create without stressing everyone out. Please share your thoughts below…