Commissioning Music and Stuff

A "pile" of notes from Electric Blue Pantsuit for violin and electronics.

A “pile” of notes from electric blue pantsuit for violin and electronics.

A performer friend and I were recently daydreaming about new possibilities for music commissioning—of chamber music, in particular. She gets frustrated with the long waits involved in seeking grant support for commissioning fees; planning as much as two or three years in advance for something that may or may not actually come through. While I know quite a few composers who have organized consortia of instrumentalists who all chip in money to fund a commission, I always feel slightly uncomfortable about the idea of asking performers to pay for a new piece, when it seems like they should be receiving a fee (and a good fee, to boot) to perform a new work (or any work, for that matter).

My performer friend talked about how great it would be if commissioning music were more a part of everyday life. For instance, if a person commissioned a chamber work as a birthday gift to a partner, or if a community group commissioned a piece as part of an event. While this certainly does happen, it’s not nearly as frequent an occurrence as commissioning a work of visual art, which is fairly commonplace in some circles. What if it became perfectly normal for the tax accountants of wealthy people to say, “You need to rack up a few more beefy expenses this year. How about commissioning some music? Here’s a list of organizations that can help you do that. Go for it!” Or, as my colleague Molly Sheridan has suggested, given that most people of any social stratum have no idea how to go about commissioning a piece of music (the actual piece as opposed to a recording) or other work of art, what about something along the lines of Etsy.com for composers and musicians?

Like I said, daydreaming. In a way, I understand why these scenarios are not realities. People like stuff. Stuff that can be touched, held, hung on a wall, enjoyed by passers by. I like stuff, too. Although in my world music very much counts as “stuff,” the reality is that music is constructed of air and imagination. As physical as it may seem, music can never be touched. However, a physical recording can be touched, as can a score. When Joanne Hubbard Cossa retired from the American Music Center, as a gift she received a box full of notes and score snippets from many of the composers who had been supported by AMC over the years. That was an amazing gift; beautiful, personal, and so interesting. Not exactly music, but the stuff of music.

I wonder if commissioning music would become a more widely accepted activity if, in addition to the music, there was a bit of stuff involved? An autographed score might come with a commission as a matter of course, possibly with a recording at some point, but what if the composer also included some of her or his own earlier scribblings and notes? I realize that in-process twiddlings can be very personal and many composers don’t care to share them, but that material is also something that people outside the process really like; it helps them understand a little bit of how the music comes together. One of the reasons I try to document a bit of the composing process through photos of my music “piles” is because it can provide a little something physical to associate with all of that air. People seem to genuinely enjoy it, and it also serves to gently coax listening in to the actual music.

The biggest question is, of course, how to reach the people who would partake in the commissioning process. Are there any tax accountants out there reading? It’s time to start planting seeds… lots of seeds.

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9 thoughts on “Commissioning Music and Stuff

  1. Owen Davis

    I actually partnered with a visual artist this past year who is going to make the “cover art” for all of my scores. This is a small attempt to begin what you are speaking about. He and I even spoke about compiling drafts and sketches into a little book that can be sold with the score and recording. This is something that I would buy from other composers, so I thought I might be onto something.

    Nobody steal this idea please! :)

    Reply
  2. Anna R

    I’m actually considering commissioning a piece of music for my wedding. What better way to dodge Pachelbel’s Canon than a piece written for you and your partner? Though, I’m hardly the first to do this. Considering I’m always advocating for new music, it only seems right to put my money where my mouth is. I’m slightly more knowledgeable about the commissioning process than the average Joe, but Molly is right that there’s a lot about the commissioning process that isn’t known or standardized–even when you’re part of the classical music community (clearly, I’m not a composer). For example, I know how to contact a composer for a commission, but how much is a reasonable price? And how long should I expect the piece to take to be completed (taking into consideration any of the challenges that may be unique to my piece)? And then there’s an even bigger question, though a much more personal one: Who should I commission? For a new music geek, that’s a loaded question! In any case, I love the idea of commissioning becoming a much more ubiquitous activity and not just something professional musicians and arts organizations do. Personally, I think a commissioned piece of music is one of the best gift ideas ever.

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  3. Marc Ostrow

    I don’t know if the tax accountants are reading but this lawyer/composer has been working on a new site to help composers with many aspects of promoting their works, including getting new commissions. We hope to launch very soon. Meanwhile, in terms of how to go about it, Meet The Composer has an excellent guide to the commissioning process, which is available on the NewMusic USA site at https://www.newmusicusa.org/about/resources/ and I actually wrote a 2-part blog piece about the commissioning process awhile ago that was originally published by BMI. http://ostrowesq.com/composing-for-orchestras-and-other-ensembles-part-ii-doing-the-deal/. Most composers (or their publisher) would likely give a prospective commissioner a ballpark quote, which if too high, could be lowered by seeking a shorter piece and/or one for smaller forces.

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  4. Kevin Ernste

    So discard “commission” and think “artist reciprocity.”

    For the last decade, when asked to write a piece by a group/individual whose playing I like I’ve simply asked “would you give me 10 performances?”. No money, no grants, no waiting. And by the way, young composers, add up your BMI/ASCAP performance royalties on those 10 performances and you’ll find you’ve already surpassed the original grant funding, anyway.

    The benefit to the ensemble is a “free” piece without all of the grant-making nonsense. And the composer gets a group dedicated to playing and replaying her/his music and, therefore, a solid performance…and, in my experience, a high likelihood of more performances and inclusion on future recordings, etc.

    The catch is 1) the composer has to write a really, really good piece, something representative of their best work and worthy of those 10 shows and 2) the ensemble has to perform the hell out of the piece to get maximum benefit for themselves and, in turn, for the piece. The better the music–piece and performance–the more everyone benefits.

    But isn’t this what we all strive to do anyway? Wouldn’t it be great, then, if by being amazing in each of our roles, we could also be each others’ best advocate?

    Artist reciprocity.

    Reply
  5. Mark Winges

    People are definitely interested in the “stuff” of composing. For a recent premiere, I scanned and enlarged an original score page from my piece, then mounted it next to a corresponding enlarged page of the final (computerized) version. It was placed on a music stand, prominently displayed near the table where the ensemble sold CDs & “stuff”. Lots of people crowded around it at intermission (I had also mentioned it during my pre-piece verbiage).

    Leads directly to a commission? Maybe not. But indirectly, by raising awareness? Who knows?

    Reply
  6. David MacDonald

    Last week on SoundNotion, we talked to Steven Snowden. He creates single-use, private blog sites for projects that he’s working on. He posts ideas, the commissioners can comment on them and share their own ideas. He gave us access to the site of a current project he’s working on with a consortium that includes a whole bunch of percussionists. It was fascinating to go back and read all the early ideas about the piece and the questions (and answers!) about technique.

    This still doesn’t quite solve the “stuff conundrum,” but it’s at least slightly more tangible than a piece of music. Perhaps more importantly, it’s persistant. However, because it’s on the Internet, maybe that makes it less special? I also think of the special handmade collectors’ things (literal, physical stuff) that author Cory Doctorow and singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton make to sell to their fans. Both Doctorow and Coulton release their creations for free under Creative Commons licenses, so they make money by selling these extra special things to the people that care the most about them.

    Reply
  7. Pingback: NewMusicBox » Commissioning Music and Stuff | Kerwin Young

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