Sixth World Symposium on Choral Music: Composers’ Forums

Sage Advice for Emerging Commissioners

LINDA HOESCHLER: I would just like to tell a little story about my own commissioning to get you thinking about how to become a commissioner. My husband and I did not start out thinking we were going to commission a lot of music. We wanted to celebrate an anniversary and there were a number of musicians around town, and we had been singing with the Bach Society, and we thought it would be fun to have a piece written for the four instruments that our children played. We had 2 children. It was amazing how many of our friends thought that our kids would play all four instruments in the piece. They are talented, but not that talented! And we asked Steve Paulus to write the piece. So I called Steve and I said, “Gee, I would like something for a 15th anniversary.” And he said, he got married this summer, so he talked about some texts that would suggest summer love songs, and then he said, “How long?” And I said, “Well, how much to you charge?” And he told me, and I said, “Well, it’s for fifteen years, so how about fifteen minutes?” But during the process of the commissioning, Steve involved us. He talked about the text. “How would you like this ordered? Piece on the piano? Do you like this?” And he made us feel like such a part of the process, that we became so enthusiastic about commissioning, that we wanted to continue this. What we found, though, was after a number of years, a lot of our friends would say, “Gee it’s great that you commission works.” We would commission chamber works mostly because that was what we could afford. Some choral works, a few small orchestral pieces. And we would tell people what fun it was, but nobody would ever do it. And so we started a commissioning club, which all of you, of course, might think about. We have four other couples. It has been going for about a dozen years now. We each throw in a sum of money every year, and then we listen to tapes, and we talk about what music we think needs to be written. And we select composers—and those of you with a chorus mentioned it is much easier because you have the performers, and you might think about getting some individuals around you to commission. But don’t ask them just to write the check, because that makes a one-time commissioner. Involve them in the process. Ask them to rehearsals. Have them meet the composers. We now, as a result of the commissioning club, have people go on their own commissioning pieces, and we have new members come in. And I think that’s what we all want to accomplish. But if we try to keep control of it, totally—like, I want this composer, I want this music, and not cue in the commissioner—I don’t think you’ll necessarily get a repeat customer. And I think having a commissioning club, has actually made us better commissioners too because we have more ideas floating around. So I just urge that for all of you. Any of you commissioners like to share your heart-felt stories?

AUDIENCE COMMENT: I have been fortunate enough to sing a piece for the first time with Moses—Choral Arts Ensemble, Portland, Oregon. My question is, and I think we may have some commissioners in the room here. Both of you speak to the issue that you have a text that you are dying to set, or a tune that you’re dying to arrange—you have just been waiting for your own lifestyle or whatever is just right at the moment and if that is the case, let us know. I think we have got some commissioners for you!

LINDA HOESCHLER: Great! Sign here with this contract I have in my purse, you’ll get a discounted rate!

MOSES HOGAN: Actually I have over seventy published arrangements now, and that is not near enough as some of my colleagues at Hal Leonard. Generally, I have done research and have a collected text of spirituals, and when someone will ask me about a text, what I choose, or will say something that they have in mind. You have got five hundred other spirituals to choose from. So you are not really out of material. And, you know, it is not a set pattern for me. I don’t know. I am just encouraging or motivating maybe by the intention for the person who tells me the story about what they are trying to do. And I am going to speak to Mr. Rivers about a special project that he has a couple of years ago from now. I will begin to get my motivation about the text. It may not be something that I already have to do, but when he tells me in more detail, I will become excited just by listening to what he has to say. And then we will work through what his program is and I will give him a couple of ideas. But I must meet the needs of the commissioner, not “I’m going to do what I want to do, and I hope you like it!” It must be a collaborative effort. So there is nothing pressing. But I get the motivation from the person who is offering me the invitation.

LIBBY LARSEN: Like you, I have a whole wall of poetry and I have many texts that I would like to set. But of course, you are talking about collaboration and with each person whom I work with a similar kind of dialogue takes place. I will suggest texts that I have, my top ten texts that I hope some day to be able to set. But will always try to suggest a couple of texts and then hear the texts that might be already on the table to look at, and we talk about it to try to understand what words that the choir would feel good about singing. This is very important.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: You pretty well answered what I was going to ask. I was wanting to know, how does that dialogue get started? Often, as a conductor, I too love poetry. I read a lot of poetry. So often for a particular situation or whatever, I am inspired by certain things, and I would like to consider having those things be set, but I am just wondering how the dialogue goes back and forth. And I will give one instance. I love Rilke‘s poetry. And I conducted a choir for a while called the Orpheus Choir of Toronto. And I said to Imant Raminsh, “I would really like this particular translation of Rilke’s poetry, and can you do something for me?” He said yes, and then he got into it, and as he got into it we started talking, and he goes, “Man, this thing is so wordy. Where do I go with this?” And so that became an interesting dialogue. And in the end, I got a fifteen-minute piece out of it, but I just wonder…

MOSES HOGAN: It is a collaborative process. Even something as simple as a verse, “This little light of mine,” which was a commission by the St. Olaf Choir and Anton Armstrong. I wrote that for their Christmas Special last year. And in that process I called Anton about three different times because there are 3 or 4 different versions of it. And I said, “Well Anton. What would you like me to do here? Is it appropriate to use this text here?” And he said, “Well, no. Let’s use this text.” So it was all based on collaborative effort, and that makes a very successful relationship. They are going to perform that on Saturday, and I am looking forward to hearing it.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: My question is composing without commissions versus composing for commissions. Do you ever just have the opportunity to just write because of what you want to write, whether it is vocal or instrumental, and maybe write more from the soul, not because somebody is asking you or telling you?

LIBBY LARSEN: I always write what I want to write. It is just that the commissioner thinks that they are asking me to. I really love this process that we are talking about. I love to work with people who love the creative process. And I chafe at prescription—I have found over the years—that my commissioner says, “I want this, this, this, this, and this.” I go Norwegian on him. What that means is that you just go like this…And you don’t talk for months. But you are asking a very delicate question, and that is that music that is for the person writing the music, making the arrangement, you really need to be passionate about what it is that you are writing, and the delicate balance is to be able to bring your passion to the project, and at the same time, meet the needs of the project. Hence, my flip answer that I always write what I want to write. It is a question of finding that point of passion in order to produce the piece that you need to produce as an artist, but the piece that you also need to produce as a professional. Does that make sense to you? And then some commissioners think that you can say, “I need a piece 3 minutes long, and this is going to be the title, and this is going to be the text, and I want the range to be x-y-z.” And while those can be great guidelines, it is the manner in which it is presented that can either light the passion or put the fire out.

MOSES HOGAN: More than half of the seventy arrangements that I have done were written before I ever heard of a publisher or a person to commission. I wrote the arrangements for my choir because we needed something to sing, and I was too afraid to ask them for money! It was a delight. I’ll tell you a funny story. He’s here and we joke a lot. I had all of these arrangements for choir since I had had my choir since 1980. Gene Brooks heard my choir, and he says, “Moses, how about coming and singing for American Choral Directors Association?” He says, “Where have you been? I’ve never heard of you?” And I said, “Well I never heard of you neither!” So he explained it to me. I took him up on his offer. And he said, “Well, we have a regional, you’ve got to come to regional. And if it goes well there, you may be able to go to nationals.” And I said, “Well, Okay.” So I decided to perform several of my arrangements at this regional, and we were very well received. And a gentleman by the name of André Thomas came up and said, “Oh, that arrangement of the ‘Elijah, Rock’ is outstanding. I am going to do something in Texas. I need 6,000 copies.” I said, “That’s the unpublished version. I can’t do that.” And so they said, “Well, we’ll find you a publisher.” And a lady by the name of Virginia Collier, made a connection, and Hal Leonard published my first ‘Elijah, Rock’ and it sold about 8,000 copies. And she said, “Well, do you have anything else?” By that time, we had been invited to perform in Washington in 1995. She said, “Well, do you have anything else?” And I said, “I have plenty of stuff!” I had been writing for my choir because I was convicted by the text. I had wonderful inspiration of singers, and then that was my entrée into publishing. You know, and then I found that people pay for commissioned work! And I say, “That’s cool!” So that was my motivation. And then there are things that I write just because I love what I do. So you’re right. There’s a motivation, and it is not so much just about dollar signs associated with a commission. I do believe that a commission serves simply as recognition, and I know that I am thankful for those people who have assisted in my writing.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: This may be a little crass. But, the organization that you might be working for decides to do some commissioning. How do you subsequently determine what it is going to cost? Common sense tells you a longer piece will cost more than a shorter piece. And if you are doing something for orchestra, that is going to cost more than an SA piece. How do you get into the specifics—do you charge by the hour? By the project?

LINDA HOESCHLER: Every composer is different, and there are guidelines that composers will publish that generally hold true for establishing this. My husband and I tend to work personally with some very established composers, but we have tried some emerging composers, people who have not yet been discovered who really need an opportunity, and we often do ask them to come up with an idea and venue, but we have an idea. We ask them what they would like. Sometimes it is too little, and we say, “We’re not comfortable with that.” And the Forum will be happy to guide you. The American Composers Forum, the organization is separate from the commissions, which is a private thing. But we do a lot of commissioning at the Forum. We run commissioning programs, and we are happy to work with any of you, help you find a composer, particularly composers in your area. If you are a first-time commissioner, it might be an easier way to start, where you can be face-to-face with a composer. They will help you find a person and talk to you about what they might charge. But most composers have an idea. A beginning composer will sometimes charge $250 or $500 a minute. A more advanced composer will be $1500 to $2500. Depending whether it requires orchestra. If you are doing choir with an orchestra, that is a much more expensive piece. But it just depends. For some composers, there is no negotiation; with some composers there is. We try at the Forum to protect the composer to make sure they are not giving away their work for free or for too little, because it is the way that they make a living. And to give you an idea, there are probably only about twenty composers in the United States writing classical music who are able to live off their commissions. Most composers have to teach, or do something else. So it is not even a living wage for many composers here.

AUDIENCE QUESTION: I hope you don’t mind a nuts and bolts, simplistic question about the creative process? Because some of us in this room are emerging composers, or looking forward to the next commission or the first commission perhaps… I wonder how you order your lives? Is there a daily discipline?

LIBBY LARSEN: I can’t wait to hear how Moses answers this…. We all have a totally different way of approaching it. I try to have a very tiny domestic life. I know that sounds fun, but I have a child, and I have a household and a husband. So, and you’re smiling… That means a certain kind of order that I like to maintain if I can. What I try to do is I try to write every single day. If I am lucky that happens. But I do set aside time every day to write. There are weeks and weeks when that time is interrupted, but I keep in my mind that this time is my time to think, write, do something concerning composition. And then I try to order things around that, if I can. That’s what I do.

MOSES HOGAN: That’s a beautiful story. In my heart I am organized! You know life is ever-changing. You ask yourself a couple of questions about the creative process. You say to yourself, “Well, why do I compose?” That’s the first question. Many times I will live or think about a piece for months. It depends on how quickly the commission is, or how quickly the response to it. But there is nothing about music that there is ever absent from anything that I do—as I am listening to people on the street, or I am in the supermarket listening to the MuzakTM in the background; I’m analyzing it. And so it is always present with me. What makes you a composer? What it is that makes you want to document what it is that you’re documenting. You know, a person is a result of his/her own musical experiences. And so you have various influences that will make us who we are. And so once you get in touch with that initially, there is never a problem—When it is time to compose, the music will come to you. I believe that this is the process, and whether I do it every day for 15 minutes, or if I don’t actually sit down for another 2 weeks or until late at night. Sometimes I walk along the street and I just feel the rhythms, or I just hear this idea—not necessarily dashing it down, but sometimes I just need it to stay with me, and I know that when I get to the piano or when that time is appropriate for me to finish that composition it will come out. So there is no regular schedule. Music is always present with every thought, and even if I haven’t had a minute on a composition, and we are talking about something two years down the road, I’ll start on it really the minute we start talking about it. When it comes out a year from then, but I believe it has taken all of that time to come to fruition.

LINDA HOESCHLER: I will ask Libby and Moses to make some final comments, and then I am sure they will be able to stay a few minutes afterwards to answer personal questions. I would like to say that we have two extraordinary composers here who are articulate. They are both very successful. But having worked with hundreds of composers in my work and in my private life of commissioning, the composers are generally very easy to work with. In fact, I don’t think I have ever worked with a difficult composer. They are articulate. They are, I think, easy to work with because they can explain what they are doing. They are used to having some parameters, and I encourage you all to try to work with a composer. It is one of the great joys I think you will have in your life to experience something new. This is not about getting married. This is about a new piece of work. I was thinking of one commissioner whom I sent to work with Libby who I think was difficult to work with, and Libby handled it quite well. But because there was a fear… Not all parties succeed. But the joy in creation and, I think, understanding what the artist is thinking about, and then the artist doesn’t exist without you who literally give voice to the artist’s work, this is also a great joy, working with each other. We heard in the beginning about what Moses did to work with the choir from Michigan, and Libby with the Japanese choir. How they worked on the piece together, and how you get others to understand what is going on, and that is the great joy of a commission. Not just doing standard repertoire. And I think if you can involve private commissioners in this and get them to experience that joy, so that you are truly creating a historic occasion, not just a program of pieces that everybody has heard on recordings over and over again. We have gotten so much into music wallpaper here. I really urge you to take that chance. As I said, you don’t have to hear this piece every day for the rest of your life, but I think the process is often as enjoyable as the final product, because it is so much fun for those of us who are not that creative have that experience. I urge you to do it. Now, I would like to ask Libby and Moses the one or two things you would like us to know as we wrap up.

MOSES HOGAN: This is a marriage. On behalf of your partner, I thank you. This means a lot. For those of you who have studied music history, I want to thank you for embracing some of things that I have tried to put forward as it relates to the preservation of the spiritual. For those of you who studied music history, you will know that in the old days, most composers had to be dead for at least 150 years before there was any interest in their music. So as a living composer, I am excited for the opportunity to have my works performed, and I thank you for accepting me, for encouraging me in my work. Thank you Linda and Libby for sharing this wonderful time.

LIBBY LARSEN: I feel the same way. The opportunity to speak through our voices in a fresh way, because we are all alive, and in the same room with each other—the opportunity for me to work with you and you to work with me, for you to work with composers, any composer, any opportunity to speak afresh some of the deep, intergenerational messages that music carries with itself. Music is generous, and it will let us do whatever we want to it. When we give the opportunity to put fresh breath into the depth of what music always carries with it, that is really a fine way to live. And so I also thank you for the opportunity, and also to tell you that all composers are very good looking, and we are a lot of fun to be around!