Starting and Running a Composers’ Collective

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“If You Don’t Like the News, Go Out and Make Some of Your Own”

The above catchphrase was coined by San Francisco’s own Zen journalist, Wes “Scoop” Nisker, and pretty well sums up the activist impulse that I’m sure many have felt when starting a composers’ collective, whatever its nature. When I founded the Common Sense Composers’ Collective in 1993 I didn’t know at the time that the eight of us—John Halle, Ed Harsh, Melissa Hui, Marc Mellits, Belinda Reynolds, Randy Woolf, Carolyn Yarnell, and myself—would stay together beyond our first project. However, our collaboration with a ten-piece ensemble resulted in a pair of deliriously joyful premiere concerts in June of 1994, and so we decided to solidify our organization and move forward with other projects. The main modus operandi of our group is to find a new performing ensemble every year, one that likes the idea of working with a group of eight composers. Through a collaborative, workshop-oriented approach, we tailor-make a set of new works for each year’s ensemble. The culminating shows, usually 70-plus minutes of new music, are always as much of a victory party as they are a music concert.

While I would never want to make any special claims to wisdom in regard to operating a composers’ collective, I’m delighted to share some of the lessons we’ve learned since 1993.

TEN RECOMMENDATIONS FOR ASPIRING COMPOSERS’ COLLECTIVES

1. Do Your Homework

It’s not a bad idea to get some context; to survey the lay of the land. In my own case back in 1993, it meant focusing my grad school thesis on “Composer Led Organizations of the 20th Century”. At the very same time that we were organizing our first Common Sense project, I was steeped in research, digging through the collections at Yale University’s Oral History, American Music project and Lincoln Center’s Performing Arts Library. The bulk of my own investigations focused on two major organizations: The International Composer’s Guild, founded by Edgard Varèse in the early 1920s (the first of its kind); and Bang on a Can. In addition to those “bookends” of the 20th century, I briefly researched many other organizations, including the League of Composers, the New Music Society, the American Composers Forum (then the Minnesota Composers Forum), The American Composers Alliance, and the American Music Center. Not only was it instructive to learn the vital statistics of so many different groups, but I experienced a special glee when coming across accounts of that “moment” when one or more individuals changed their position from one of passive reaction to dynamic action. All in all, it was a tremendously useful endeavor.

These days, of course, with the web and so many new composers’ collectives sprouting up, information is just a few keystrokes, an e-mail, or a telephone call away. Don’t be shy. Contact other groups and ask lots of questions. People generally love to give advice.

2. Have a Sense of Mission

Very early on in the life of your group, you’ll need to go through the process of creating a Mission Statement. But I’ve used the above heading very deliberately, because more important than a sexy mission statement is to actually have a sense of mission behind it!

I confess that I sometimes see the creation of a Mission Statement as more of a marketing exercise than a true reflection of a group’s real passions, philosophies, and reasons for being. So hopefully before you create that verbiage designed to be attractive to funders and foundations, you’ve truly clarified for yourself just why you’ve joined together with some of your colleagues to pursue work as a Collective.

In our own case, there were several motivating factors that went into our formation. First of all, we had strong notions about the nature and power of group work. Also very important was our interest in experimenting with the processes by which new compositions enter the world, hence the emphasis on collaboration and workshopping.

But the specific sense of mission will be different for every aspiring collective. It might simply be a belief in the power of numbers, or a desire to work with your friends, or the passion to promote a particular stylistic stream of thought, or, if you are performing composers it may be a desire to create an ensemble in order to play each other’s work. Regardless, the most important thing is that there’s something there to generate the passion and energy you’ll need to draw on for all the work that lies ahead.

3. Be Sure To Be a “Collective”, Not Just a “Collection”

There is one very essential question for any aspiring collective: WHO are the composers in your group, and HOW and WHY did you come together?

I believe that there has to be something that unites your group. In our own case, since we’re a “founder-led” collective, all the members are composers I was a fan of back in 1993 and invited to take part in our pilot project. I’m very consciously using the word “fan” here, because it implies for me an immense attraction to the music that circumvents my rational and critical thought processes. I simply loved their work. I felt we were kindred spirits on some intangible aesthetic level. There’s lots of music that I “respect” tremendously but that I’m not a “fan” of, and vice versa. So the leap of faith was in hoping that the intangible connection that I felt would manifest itself when presenting a group concert of our works. (And I must say that I’ve come to believe that it does.) While it was natural that this approach brought together several of us who share some stylistic similarities, it’s certainly not true of all of us! The important thing that I want to share here is that the “kindred spirit” aspect came first. Issues of style, or whether some of us had higher public profiles than others, etc., were not the driving factors. Every aspiring collective will have its own evolution in terms of membership, but some sort of personal, philosophical, or aesthetic kinship needs to exist at its core.

4. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

This might seem obvious, but in my experience conflicts in any artistic endeavor can ultimately be boiled down to problems in communication. In our case, we must communicate successfully both between ourselves, and also with our annual collaborating partner. This is especially challenging when a project is nearing completion, and all parties converge in one location for a last string of intense rehearsals and the premiere concerts. Whether it’s an issue of artistic interpretation, a question about travel expenses, or a clear understanding of everyone’s tasks and responsibilities, the more you can maximize communication and minimize surprises, the better.


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The Common Sense Composers’ Collective
Photo by Robin Holland

5. Hierarchies Are a Good Thing, Even In a Collective

The word ‘collective’ might conjure up a situation where there’s an equal distribution of tasks and responsibilities, but you’ll probably find out very soon that the reality will be very different. If the group is the brainchild of one particular member, then there’s a good chance that person will be doing much of the heavy lifting. After some naïve and unsuccessful approaches of our own, I became a firm believer in the necessity of hierarchies for any kind of organization. If you’re the founder, while you can hope to inspire your colleagues to support your vision for the group, that vision will likely never be as deep or as fundamental to them as it is to you.

My own challenge as the leader of Common Sense has been to try and find out just what each member’s commitment level is, just what tasks and responsibilities each one is willing to take on in different situations, and, most crucially, to define the bare minimum requirements for all members. This has taken several years to work out, and will always be in process, but I feel we get closer and closer each year to the smoothest possible working situation. Some members of Common Sense will jump on administrative duties with gusto; some others have closer ties to media outlets and are willing to hustle a bit there; and there are others who want to focus as much as possible on the creative aspects of the projects. It is a challenge to try and honor these limits while continually trying to stretch everyone’s comfort range in order to better share the load. This is another area where communication becomes crucial.

6. Seek A Balance Between Group Work and Individual Work

The odds are that your collective will be only one part of each of your members’ musical lives. There’s no conflict with participating in group projects while at the same time cultivating a personal professional life in the music world. Each of us in Common Sense has carved out an individual path that we naturally devote much time to. (I am purposely avoiding the word ‘career’ here, an expression I hate when applied to artists.) But I think I can speak for everyone in the group when I say that the more experience we have in a variety of other professional situations, whether composing or teaching or fundraising, the more we’ve come to value, even treasure, our yearly projects together.

7. Funding the First Couple Years: Pull Out that Christmas Card List

There’s a bit of a Catch-22 built into the funding situation for new arts groups. At least back in the early ’90s, most foundations required a group to have been in existence for at least two years before they were eligible to apply for foundation support. So how do you fund those first couple years of work?

This is where I was advised about what many call the “Christmas Card List”. This comprises immediate and extended family and devoted friends—your “tribe” so to speak—of supporters. These are people who know you and support your goals and might donate some money to help fund those first couple years of work. If you’re lucky enough to find an “angel” to contribute a significant sum for your first projects, fantastic. Otherwise you need to get creative. In our own case, our first project occurred less than one month before fellow Common Sense colleague Belinda Reynolds and I got married. Rather than the traditional registry of desired wedding presents, we asked instead for contributions for our recently produced concerts. It worked, and we never regretted not receiving those toasters or coffee makers. (For those relatives that insisted on buying us something concrete, we also got creative and registered at Sweetwater Sound, acquiring some long-needed audio gear.)

The other part of the strategy is simply to scale your first projects to be as economically efficient as possible, which may mean using smaller ensembles, less expensive venues, etc. It’s also a good time to call in any favors you may have built up over the years. If you’ve generated a reservoir of good will, now’s the time to utilize it. (Or to paraphrase George W. Bush, if you’ve earned any “artistic capital”, now’s the time to spend it.)

8. Gotta Do It: Learn the Business and Legal Basics

One of the first things you’ll need to do once you seriously commit to keeping your collective going is to figure out how you can receive tax-deductible donations from both individuals and foundations. You’ll probably begin the process of becoming your own 501(c)(3) tax-exempt corporation, but that takes time. So what do you do in the short term? The path that many groups take is to find a “fiscal sponsor”. If you take this route, your group finds a larger 501(c)(3) organization willing to sponsor your grant applications, accept individual donations on your behalf, and keep a bank account under your name. They’ll take a cut of all the money you receive, probably somewhere around 10 percent. Depending who you talk to, fiscal sponsorship is either a wonderful and streamlined way for a new group to begin their work under a non-profit umbrella, or it is a suspect and shady gray area of the tax code that is doomed to be eliminated tomorrow. Common Sense used a fiscal sponsor for several years, and without going into a particularly involved war story, we experienced both the best and the worst of this kind of relationship.

To become your own 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization, you’ll need to start an involved process, which can seem very daunting at first. Roughly, the steps will be as follows: you’ll name a board of directors, you’ll write a set of By-Laws and then you’ll apply for your Articles of Incorporation. Once you’ve become incorporated, you’ll go through the IRS process of applying for tax-exempt status. It can be a lot of work that’s very removed from all your creative passions, but it doesn’t have to be a complete chore. One of my fondest memories is sitting in the back yard of comrade John Halle’s New Haven home, along with fellow members Ed Harsh and Belinda Reynolds. We were using a worksheet that was designed to help organizations create their By-Laws, and the long process of talking over each of these issues turned into an intense, engaging, and ultimately enjoyable afternoon. I can’t even imagine having done this without the collaboration of my Common Sense colleagues.

9. Create Limits, But Be Prepared to Be Flexible

I am personally amazed at, for example, the range of activities that the folks at Bang on a Can have developed over the years: the Marathon, the All-Stars ensemble, the SPIT orchestra, a record label, and a summer institute. And I’m sure I am missing something.

It’s important to decide how ambitious you want your collective to be. Live performances? Touring? Recordings? Web sites? Publishing? Festivals? In our own case, the cyclic nature of our yearly collaborations has a nice rhythm built into it. Our goals are actually simple and very clear: we want to continue (and broaden) these collaborations and we’d like to eventually have the results of each one commercially recorded to disc. We do have a website, and we also put the word out about the 60-plus pieces we’ve composed over the years, but our main focus is on each new collaboration and its eventual recording. There was a period when we ventured into the world of producing a new music marathon in the Bay Area entitled OPUS415. The five annual Marathons we produced were exciting, useful, and very successful events, but we came to realize that it took time, money, and energy away from our main mission, which was losing some of our needed attention and focus.

This issue of limits is also very dependent on the direction that the personal lives of your members are taking. For example, the most wonderful thing that has happened to our collective in the last few years is that five out of eight of us have become first-time parents. We are turning into quite the extended family, and with the new additions have come new demands on our time and adjustments to our professional lifestyles.

10. Final Thoughts

While it might seem like a strange way to end this article, I thought I’d share a list of five attributes that—it is suggested—any person or group should consider cultivating in order to achieve success. This is from a book on esoteric Buddhism and I haven’t been able to get them out of my mind since I began writing this article. And since they address many of the issues I’ve discussed above from a somewhat different angle (and because I find them endlessly inspiring and valuable), I thought I’d share them here.

The five attributes to cultivate for success are:

  1. Consecration of motive
  2. Utter fearlessness
  3. The cultivation of the imagination balanced wisely by the reasoning faculty
  4. A capacity to weigh the evidence wisely, and to accept only that which is compatible with the highest instinct and intuition
  5. A willingness to experiment

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Dan Becker
Photo by Alec Duncan

Dan Becker is the Founder and Artistic Director of the Common Sense Composers’ Collective. Since 1993 the collective has collaborated with such ensembles as the Alternate Currents Performance Ensemble, the American Baroque Ensemble, Twisted Tutu, the Meridian Arts Ensemble, Albany Symphony’s Dogs of Desire, the New Millennium Ensemble, and Essential Music. They have released two CDs, the most recent, The Shock of the Old, received a 2003 Chamber Music America/WQXR Record award. Their third CD, with the New Millennium Ensemble, will be released next year. Upcoming collaborations include those with Michelle Schumann of Austin’s Barbwire Music Project, and the ensemble Electra from Amsterdam—a project which will mark their first Trans-Atlantic collaboration. Becker teaches Composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and serves on the American Music Center’s Board of Directors.