Composer Seeks Ensemble, contemporarily inclined, for long hikes, walks on the beach, making beautiful music together…
The big question before us: How should you present your work to ensembles?
After the music is written, the scores and parts are copied, and the copyright is registered, the single most important issue left for the composer is how to get that music out to the world beyond the studio door. It is here that our job transforms from creator to expert marketer and sales agent, not to mention entrepreneur and business owner. In order to be successful at this second stage, it’s key to spend some time considering how to best present a new work to musicians who will potentially perform it.
I am fortunate to have created a life both as a composer and a performer, so I hope both perspectives can lend us some clarity in this conversation. It turns out that the questions and answers often apply in both directions, but I’ll address them mainly from the position of an emerging composer.
Probably the first thing that occurs to us as composers is to gather a bunch of scores together and send them out post haste to as many ensembles as possible, canvassing our industry with a direct-mail-like campaign. Sometimes the right matches are out there just waiting to be contacted, but I’d say, on its own, that’s a pretty farfetched idea. It might be better to refine the search, just as if you were considering asking someone out on a date—a friend of a friend is more likely to risk the time getting to know you than a stranger you pass on the street. Many performances of new work take place through deals forged as a result of word-of-mouth and recommendations from friend to friend, composer to colleague, along networks that have been developed over many years. These relationships are absolutely appropriate and have been cultivated with care, good soil, and plenty of water. When you look around at the people with whom you currently work, be they other composers or writers, business types or performers, these are the ones with whom you will create these same connections over the next many years.
That said, it’s not a secret society. New members are welcome. If you wish to integrate yourself into these particular pre-existing networks, then it’s time to seed the ground in the following manner, and consider some questions that will take us further in the long run:
To begin with, develop a list of ensembles that have a demonstrated interest in music similar to yours. Although we would love to believe that our music is completely unique, the fact is that people use their own references to group our music into ‘styles’ that make sense to them. Consider what style best describes your music. Zero in on just who might want to play and/or hear your music. What ensembles or presenting organizations are already excited by music in that style?
Now once you think you know where your music might fit well and with whom, it’s time to really investigate. Listen to the ensemble’s past recordings and check out their ads in magazines like Chamber Music America or the Musical America directory. Get an exact sense of what they’ve been programming and imagine where your composition might fit. Look closely at their photograph and overall presentation. Visit their website and find out where they played last season. Are you a match? Too many people approach an ensemble with music that is antithetical to the group’s sound or mission, in which case everyone wastes their time, so actually visualizing where you and your music belong counts for a lot in this process. Next, do you know performers in the group? People close to it? The more contact you have with the group in question, the better chance you have to get your music played.
But wait, THAT’S NOT THE POINT! I know it sometimes seems like the point, but it’s not, trust me. At least for this humble participant in the arts, the point of what we do is cultivating and building relationships. Between Composer and Performer, between Performer and Presenter, between Presenter and Audience, and all the possible permutations thereof. These relationships are the way by which we create fertile environments for furthering and experiencing art-based music. The most successful composers are the most aware and involved composers, interested not only in how their music gets performed, but how it reinforces the performers, the series on which it is programmed, the greater scene, new music in general. They align themselves with the entire infrastructure of their business. Extend your vision past the obvious to make connections that will grow through time, a ” ’til death do you part” kinda thing. What happens when a relationship is developed between a composer and a performer is music and performance that is organic and full of the spirit of that relationship. It is infectious to an audience when they watch and listen to organic development. They may not be able to explain it, but they notice it. In fact, that’s what they buy tickets to see. Case in point, take a look at how much you watch the food network. Hmmmm…
That said, here are some nuts and bolts on presenting your work to an ensemble once you’ve decided it looks like a win-win relationship situation for the both of you.
1. Ask an ensemble exactly what materials they would like in order to experience your music. A score, CD, or both? Ensembles are usually pretty specific about what they need to suss out a composer or piece. Most often groups would like to hear the music, so send that recording. I think one of the most important uses of money for us is documentation of our work. Whenever you have a premiere, be sure it is recorded and recorded well—professionally if possible. If the piece has not had a premiere, ask the ensemble if a high-quality MIDI realization would be acceptable. With our band, Ethel, we need to hear an audio file, even if it’s a MIDI realization. Sometimes I even have a composer send me their Sibelius or Finale files via email and I’ll play it directly from the computer. Given our touring schedule, sitting down to actually read everything that is sent to us in a timely manner is a luxury we currently don’t have. In order to do so, we have to actually schedule a day to do it. A listening session, however, can take place in a van or airplane moving from gig to gig.
At this point I can’t help mentioning how indispensable the Internet is as a tool for circulation. If you’re not already familiar, learn how to post MP3’s on your own website or on an independent server. It makes distribution of work samples faster and easier both for you and for those researching your work, and it shows you to be professional and well equipped for business dealings.
2. Contact the leader of the band (if and only if you actually know who he/she is, otherwise you start the conversation out in quicksand, barking up someone’s wrong tree). Sometimes there are no leaders and the first thing you get is a frown if you’ve made an incorrect assumption. Also, “cold-calling” or contacting with no reference and no prior knowledge or meeting should be avoided. It is easier for everyone when you go in with a recommendation or introduction from someone already close to the band, and when you know what hierarchy exists with regard to creative and artistic decision-making.
Don’t know anyone who can make that first introduction? This need not close doors for you. One of the things you can do to support yourself, your learning, and your composition, is to attend the concerts of people and ensembles you are interested in. Becoming part of a community by support and participation is a contribution of the highest order, and it is the single most important action you can take. When you’ve succeeded in establishing a relationship based upon nothing but human conversation, then the answers to the questions above start getting easier and you can hand a band exactly what they need to get to know you. In fact, with the relationship as the goal rather than the securing of a particular performance for your piece, the conversation can even turn to who might best perform and enjoy your tune, even if this particular ensemble is not the right match.
3. Regarding how to handle the relationship without pestering and becoming a nudge: After contact has been made and materials sent, I find that it’s always good to set up a framework to manage future expectations. For example, you might say, “How about I give you a call in a couple of weeks, would that work for you? Or would a longer timeframe be better?” Be specific so that everyone knows what to expect and feels less in limbo. Now, if the group is vague and says, “We’ll have to get back to you…probably can’t address this for a month or two,” you might respond by saying, “Fine, I’ll wait to hear from you at the end of February.” At the end of the two months, if you haven’t heard from them, send out the dogs with a private investigator if you can afford it.
Just kidding. Don’t turn into the ‘composer/stalker’. Instead, just continue to develop the relationship outside of the conversation about your own work. Continue to go to concerts and hang out. Perhaps let another month go by and send one more email to give more options, like, “After the last conversation we had about ‘blah’, I remembered that we were going to be in touch around this time. I wanted to make sure I hadn’t dropped the ball on that. Let’s talk soon. If your decisions have become more firm or if you still have some questions, I’m happy to hear either way, and would love to ‘complete’ the conversation in one way or the other.” Whatever the choice people make, continue to support and cultivate the relationships you have created!
4. If (I should say when) you get a performance, your work is not over—this is a relationship and you are only through the first few dates! Offer to give pre-concert talks, attend receptions, give away the store to establish a presence with the presenter and with the group. Support your piece. If finances are an issue, get to know the granting programs that support appearances and build a little nest egg from your bartending gig—don’t laugh! I did it when I was starting out—for a plane ticket to that particular out-of-town performance where it will be important to meet that “essential composer” colleague or presenter. It used to be that there was this heard-not-seen composer stereotype that everyone subscribed to and it was sort of understood. We no longer live in an ivory tower. These days the individuals are appreciated more than their function, so it’s important to portray oneself as a part of the team, to actually be there and to be great.
Of course, at the same time, it’s important not to be overbearing. So, for instance… Send your parts, send the score, then follow up with the conductor, librarian, or someone from the ensemble and let them know that you’d be interested and available for a phone conversation just to make sure that everything is in place. If this goes ignored, well, you did your part. Wouldn’t want to belabor it.
5. About one month after a performance, request a phone meeting with whoever you feel closest to in the performing and presenting organizations and propose a brainstorming session on how to use the performance and the piece to raise visibility for both parties. Perhaps you both can post links to each other’s websites on your own sites or even a streaming audio version of the performance. Perhaps a residency or a commission might be discussed for a few years down the line? And if it feels appropriate, and as the last question, you can ask if there are other ensembles or series where the piece might also be appropriately placed.
Once you have had a successful performance and you’ve started all kinds of relationships with everyone in the performing and presenting organization, it’s important to simply keep in touch. Long ago I started an e-mail newsletter that could be easily opted out of by those it was sent to. Every couple of months I send out a note with updates concerning performances and activities. This simply serves to keep relationships current.
I hope that these ideas are helpful. I realize I am one of many composers who are qualified to provide ideas and guidance as the result of personal and professional experience, so seek out your colleagues and teachers for additional advice. Above all, however, use these nuts and bolts to create for yourself an image and spirit of “composer as team member.” Become an integrated part of the music scene rather than thinking of yourself as an outsider who has to fight to get your music played. As a composer myself and a co-founder of a band who plays exclusively new music, I can easily say that without the composers who write the music I play, I don’t have a gig. If we develop our own inherent suspicion that we’re all connected and that everything we do impacts others, perhaps we will gain more and more access to a greater population of listeners with our music, thus offering our passionate, enlivening and healing art more extensively to the world.
Todd Reynolds, violinist/composer/conductor/lecturer, is a fixture on New York’s downtown scene. A longtime member of Bang On A Can and The Steve Reich Ensemble, and a co-founder of the string quartet known as Ethel, his career has focused on the commissioning, recording and performing of works by American and international composers, including the likes of Michael Gordon, Steve Reich, David Lang, John King, Julia Wolfe, Evan Ziporyn, Giovanni Sollima, Wu Tong, Phil Kline, and Randall Wolff. His ‘Nuove Uova’ and Still Life with Microphone projects, featuring Evan Ziporyn, Theo Bleckmann and David Cossin were most recently featured at Joe’s Pub and The Whitney Museum at Altria, and his electronic performance is featured on Phil Kline’s Zippo Songs, a cantaloupe music release which won Best of 2004 from Gramophone, Time Out New York, and the New York Times.