An Open Letter to Performers of New Music

Dear Sirs and Mesdames, and kids of all ages (from the newest Brooklyn upstart to the great-grandpappy major ensembles alike):

Look. We composers make loads of mistakes—we’re often prone to dreaminess, given to sloppy page-turns, and obsessed with details of musical structure while largely oblivious to the more practical realities of performing our gnarly-ass music. The best among us welcome frank criticism, which leads us to become the kinds of collaborators who are sensitive to the needs of performing musicians.

I’ve been guilty of some pretty grave errors in my own early dealings with ensembles, but all in all I consider myself fortunate to have had the chance to benefit from the gift of honest feedback. Likewise, I have a particular pet peeve about something that even many fine and well-established ensembles seem to do on occasion: not letting composers know when performances of our music take place.

Here’s why it’s so important for ensembles to make sure they keep living composers apprised of performances of their own works: performances are as much the bread and butter of a composer’s career as the performer who actually brings the new work to life onstage. They are the reason we make notated scores at all, as it’s easy to do without performers entirely with today’s technology, if that suits a composer’s temperament. Performances are the artistic, social, and commercial center of the composer’s world, something that we work tirelessly to secure and endlessly appreciate. So not clueing in living composers to a performance of their work (via the composer’s publisher, manager, or personal website) more or less deprives us of a chance to properly support the performance, while the performing organization at least gets to program a composition it (presumably) deemed worthy of performance.

Composers need to be informed of performances, first and foremost, to adequately report them to ASCAP or BMI. Each year licensed venues pay a flat fee for the use of all BMI- and/or ASCAP-licensed music, and the royalties collected by these organizations are then disbursed to composers on a regular basis. Even for those of us who don’t collect very much, every little bit helps and I know more than a few composers who were personally spurred on to succeed when they received some of their first royalty checks. Not ensuring that composers are paid fairly for their contributions—especially for those of us who are the youngest and least established—would be just the same as the composer walking off with part of the performer’s performance fee, or forcing the ensemble to spend countless hours re-taping confusing page-turns, when that should have been the composer’s responsibility.

Performances are also a social opportunity, especially when a composer is performed by musicians he or she has not met previously. It’s a chance to notify local friends, colleagues, and possibly critics of the event, and a chance for the composer to contribute to filling seats with word-of-mouth and publicity. More than a few times I’ve found out about a performance of my music after the fact, only to think, “Damn, I would have liked to support both the ensemble and my piece with a few invites, a well-placed phone call, or a pre-concert talk, but they didn’t give me a chance!” So performers who neglect to be in touch with living composers about their programming plans are just shooting themselves in the feet.

Composers also know that performances are where impressions (and connections) are made, and where curious supporters will often make a critical decision on whether or not to go forward in approaching composers for new work. Again, this is crucial for our most junior colleagues and I hate to think about how differently my own career might have panned out had I been left out of the loop for some of the initial performances that established my greenhorn reputation.

In my experience, most ensembles and performers of new music are at least aware of these points; it’s just that when push comes to shove, this detail can easily get lost in the shuffle. Informing the composer is both the right thing to do, and it’s also the course of action that maximizes the advantages of performing new music in the first place. I take it you guys didn’t start playing new music just because of the awesome accidental placement and glamorous paychecks, right?

With sincere regards and admiration,

A Composer Who Cares

6 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Performers of New Music

  1. Paul Muller

    Here is a 21st century suggestion that might prove useful…

    QR codes are 2-dimensional printed images that embed information such as phone numbers, website addresses, email addresses, etc. These images can be easily generated using free on-line sites such as Unitag http://www.unitaglive.com/qrcode

    The QR code image can be added to the end of the score, with a note asking the musicians to contact the composer after a performance.

    Now here is the 21st century part. The musician takes a picture of the QR code image with his cell phone, and this automatically generates an email to the composer. Most smart phones have free aps available that will decode the QR image and do this.

    I’ve tried this with my Palm Pre phone and it works, although the image focus and quality are important – it takes a little practice. And if the musician using the score does not actually use the QR image to send the email, it is still a graphical reminder placed at the end of the score.

    Maybe someone is doing this now?

    Reply
  2. Rob Deemer

    Great post, Dan! This is equally important for those poor souls (myself included) who need to keep their tenure dossiers up-to-date…every bit counts.

    Reply
  3. danvisconti

    Paul – I’ve scanned QR codes a few times in the past and they’re great! Makes street parking in Washington, DC a lot easier by letting you scan a QR code on the meter that syncs with a preloaded CC or debit card. Your idea to use this for performance reporting certainly seems promising! I don’t see this being incorporated into the licensing organizations any time soon (they have only in the past 5 year gotten e-filing up and running), however I think it would be great if this became a viable solution for composers to incorporate on there own printed scores.

    Rob – Thanks, and great point regarding tenure dossiers. I ought to have mentioned that since I believe there’s sometimes a misconception that performances are important to freelancers but not to acacedmic composers, and in reality performances are a very important part of a professor’s portfolio, something that belnds with his or her teaching and research.

    Reply
  4. Elaine Fine

    In my experience there seem to be a lot of performing musicians (particularly young ones) who have been taught, somehow, to be afraid of composers. Perhaps they worry that their interpretation of a piece might not be what the composer might have had in mind, or they are so used to dealing with composers who are dead that the idea of contacting a living one is, well, just weird. Perhaps they are worried that they might be doing something wrong by playing a piece in public without paying royalties or reporting their performance to ASCAP or another organization. It is sometimes difficult for musicians, particularly young ones, to make sense of what copyright means and what it allows.

    The main issue here is not the ability to use technology to make the person who wrote the music more accessible. A google search will provide all the contact information anyone would need. It’s a culture that encourages dialogue between performing musicians and composers.

    Reply
  5. Gareth Bond

    I write to all living composers (sometimes going to a survior without knowing) including a program or bulletin and the effects of the music on the listeners and the choral performers. Also, (with post-apologies to the composer) I add any important alterations or changes I have made to the music whether due to the talent base of my particular singers or personal taste. This contact is such an important act which only takes a few extra moments, because the composers have no way to track normal performances of their music efforts. The only tracking devices would be those larger works requiring rented orchestral/choral parts.

    I have heard back from several of the composers who all, without exception, are very grateful for the feedback and the simple “touch” from the very musicians for which they write as a conduit to the public’s ears.

    A QR code would be extremely helpful welcomed by this conductor as an easier means of obtaining contact information of the composer to whom I am reaching out. Many times there is only the ability to write c/o of the publishing company hoping for a “forward” to the composer which takes this effort at least one or two more steps further away to a less personal contact situation. I would like to feel a better and more intimate connection to the person with whom I have already become so musically and emotionally involved.

    My thoughts alone which may have no application to anyone else’s thoughts or actions . . . .

    Reply

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