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