Sixth World Symposium on Choral Music: Composers’ Forums

Sage Advice for Emerging Composers

AUDIENCE QUESTION: I would like to ask a question from perhaps another place on the wheel and that is, from this stage in your development as a composer, what do you suggest as ideal components for developing? And maybe that will be a bridge to the question about the future. What would you suggest a composer get in their ears? If you notice a singer in your choir who seems to have that gift, how would you suggest developing that gift?

LIBBY LARSEN: That is a great place to be on this wheel. I have begun to make it possible for young people to take their first steps. I think confidence in yourself as a mentor, as a guide, but not as an instructor in how to do it, is very important. To provide an opportunity for someone whom you think has a spark that is appropriate for that level, number 1. I see many young composers crash and burn because they were given too many opportunities too soon, and then that was followed up by another big opportunity that was too big, too soon. I have seen some bright lights be snuffed out because of that. Too much, too soon and the craze takes over and the rush to commission that composer. I think that appropriate opportunities for the composer’s talent is a good way to start, but then also a mentorship relationship, which is always hardest I think with the newest composers; meaning, that so many young composers will put everything but the kitchen sink into a piece, and a way of working with that composer to guide them into choosing the best idea in the piece. Developing a process of checking in on the piece, and dealing with the uncertainty of a developing talent. Most of us are very uncertain when we begin to compose; you can feel your brain growing. You really can. And to have a person giving you an appropriate opportunity, mine was an anthem, just an anthem was my first opportunity, and was very carefully mentored all the way along the line, without that person telling you what to write. I chose my own texts. We had conversations about how I might set that text, but no prescription about how to do it. We had conversations about range, but that person didn’t say, “My sopranos wobble on the G.” So no practical limitations set on the piece. You have to let the imagination soar, within the appropriate opportunity.

LINDA HOESCHLER: How old were you when that happened?

LIBBY LARSEN: That first anthem? I think I was 20.

MOSES HOGAN: I agree with everything that you say and I guess maybe I should just add—I will put in proper perspective what a commission does for me. It serves as encouragement first of all. That is the bottom line. It serves as encouragement. It is important recognition. I don’t care who you are. If you had the resources of Beethoven to write, it probably would have meant something to you. When we have this opportunity, it’s because you have recognized something that we have chosen to do in our creative life. And I have found that when these compositions are presented or we have the opportunity to perform them, that they touch somebody, some person on a different level. And so, when these compositions are feeding naturally the inspiration of others, once you give us the opportunity, we’re inspired. We are inspired by the music we heard of the person who has been documented—Beethoven, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, all the composers. We didn’t receive the commission, but we all know about their various commissions that actually document those works. But they did something—lit something within us. So for those of you who are thinking about encouraging or commissioning composers, know first of all that they serve as encouragement. Then it is a normal pattern. If their work is good, and if you think that the person that you asked to do the commission is a worthy person because of the time spent in his/her genre, then that is important. And then it is inevitable that he or she will serve as great motivation for some other young person.

LIBBY LARSEN: I would also like to add that it puts food on the table. Food on the table is very important. It is really important. Worry is a problem to the creative process. I can see when you ask this question that you believe in the creative process, and I think this encouragement and inspiration is so encouraging for composers to get a commission, and equally encouraging to a composer at whatever level to know that the person who commissions them believes in the creative process. There are some times when a commission will come along with doubt from the commissioner. Doubt as to whether the piece will succeed. Doubt as to whether their friends will like it. When doubt comes along in the creative process as part of the commission, fear that the piece will fail, and you feel that right up front, then it puts worry into the creative process, and that is something to be avoided at all costs, at whatever level the composer is. You just have to believe that whatever comes out is going to be the best thing in the world and everybody will accept it.

MOSES HOGAN: And in addition, having the opportunity to receive a commission is very important. What also serves as encouragement is the publisher. You have to publish your work to make it accessible to people. I am very fortunate to work with Hal Leonard, and I think when I first started, I had Alliance. But now for those compositions that inspire me, my publishers are people that you serve, and that further help the commissioning process.