David Stock, a Pittsburgh-based composer and professor at Duquesne University, had some music he just couldn’t get out of his head. It was a concerto for solo percussionist that he knew very well—three movements with no break between the second and third, virtuosic writing, and even improvisatory sections. In fact, it was his own concerto, not yet written, and he would need a commission in order to make the piece more than just a persistent idea. In order to “drum up interest” in his Percussion Concerto, he says, he had begun a letter-writing campaign to over 100 ensembles. He then applied for Meet The Composer’s Commissioning Music/USA award, which helps fund ensembles’ commissioning fees for new American works. Although it took several years worth of effort, Stock is one of the 2007 recipients of the award, and he even has the largest commissioning group of any of the awardees. A consortium of seven ensembles, led by the South West Michigan Symphony Orchestra, will use the support to help Stock get the Percussion Concerto out of his head, onto the written page, and into the concert hall.
Stock is not alone. On June 11, Meet The Composer announced awards totaling $202,700 to 17 composers and 24 organizations. Through financial and organizational support, the program will facilitate the creation and distribution of the new works, which range from choral music to big band jazz, written by both well-established and up-and-coming composers. The 2007 awardees are:
Composer – Lead Commissioner
Dan Becker – Ives String Quartet
Kelvyn Bell – The Harlem School of Arts
James Emery – Sound Directions, Inc.
David First – Flux Quartet
Annie Gosfield – Lisa Moore
Jennifer Higdon – Concerto 4-Three
Keeril Makan – California EAR Unit
Lansing McLoskey – Composers in Red Sneakers
Dafnis Prieto – The Jazz Bakery Performance Space
David Stock – South West Michigan Symphony Orchestra
Melinda Wagner – The Left Coast Chamber Ensemble
Howard Wiley – Intersection for the Arts
Christian Wolff – Calithumpian Consort
Charles Wuorinen – Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
Yehudi Wyner – The Cantata Singers
Zhou Long – PRISM Saxophone Quartet
Ricardo Zohn-Muldoon – Society for New Music
(For more detailed information on each project, including sample sound clips from the awardees, visit Meet The Composer’s website)
Since their inception in 1988, Meet The Composer’s commissioning programs have led to the creation and performances of over 1,300 new works, including Joan Tower’s Concerto for Orchestra, Steve Reich’s Eight Lines, Meredith Monk’s Volcano Songs, and John Harbison’s Flashes and Illuminations.
Commissioning Music/USA reflects the organization’s hope that “composers… become an integral part of the cultural life and creative output of their communities, and that their music find broad, new audiences and benefit communities across the country,” as stated in MTC’s official announcement of the 2007 recipients. In fact, MTC’s dedication to promulgating new music has led to the creation of several programs besides Commissioning Music/USA, such as the JP Morgan Chase Regrant Program for Small Ensembles, Metlife Creative Connections, and Music Alive, annually involving more than 300 composers from disparate backgrounds writing in a wide range of styles. This year’s recipients continue that commitment to musical eclecticism. President Heather A. Hitchens says, “We are excited that this year’s Commissioning Music/USA projects will bring audiences around the country in contact with new music in such a variety of forms. These composers have tremendous gifts to share with music-lovers and new audiences alike.”
The first round of competition is based solely on recordings of the composers’ previous work, putting the focus squarely on how the pieces sound, rather than any inaudible compositional processes. After being ranked, the top quarter or so of the applications go to the second round, where the written applications are reviewed, and approximately 10-15 percent of the applications are awarded funding.
What does the award cover? The monetary award—up to $15,000, or twice as much for a consortium of ensembles—goes to the ensemble, which must then send it to the composer for the commission. Once the commission is fulfilled, a minimum of four performances are guaranteed in an effort to break the all-too-familiar new music tradition of world premiere doubling as last performance. MTC even states that “higher numbers of planned performances will make an application more competitive.” This commitment to performance distinguishes Commissioning Music/USA from other awards; it takes a pragmatic approach to what must be done in order to not only create new music, but also to help it enter the general repertoire.
For this reason, 2007 recipient composer Dan Becker calls the organization “a terrifically diverse and talented group, operating at a very high level.” He also won the award in 2002 for his piece, REVOLUTION, commissioned by Kathleen Supové, and therefore has experienced the effects of receiving the grant firsthand. As much as the program has helped in the performance and dissemination of his music, however, Becker has one comment to make about the monetary distribution of the award: “All of the money goes to the composer, and none to the ensemble. As great as this is for me, I wish the [performers] were able to share in some of the bounty.” The application is explicit along these lines, stating that it does not support production, design, or administrative costs. This raises the question of whether any compensation should go directly to ensembles already making the financially risky decision to program new music, as opposed to well-known standards.
However, David Hoose, musical director of the Cantata Singers, claims that “no musical organization considers its activities lucrative, whether it’s presenting new music or not.” With the help of Commissioning Music/USA, the Cantata Singers have commissioned Yehudi Wyner to write a 30-minute work for chorus and orchestra. The ensemble doesn’t seem to be worried about how the money is dealt—on the contrary, they are delighted to have commissioned a major new work from a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer. “The scope of this commission, as well as our ability to present it in as strong a way as possible, is dependent on enormous support from generous individuals and foundations such as Meet The Composer. It’s entirely possible that, without such support, this—and many other projects—would lie fallow as mere fantasies,” says Hoose.
While some composers may scoff at the idea of ensembles fantasizing about commissioning a new work from them, they should remember that there are groups who take an attitude like that of the Cantata Singers towards not just playing, but championing, new music: “Lucrative in dollars? Never. Invaluable? Always.”