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Commissioning and Performing New Music by Nadia Sirota

A number of year’s later Nadia Sirota’s 2005 ACHT Studio presentation on New Music still distills essential “how-to’s” for this field.

Working with composers and approaching new works

How to go about commissioning a piece of music.

Find Composers

Start with people you know and like.  Friends are always the easiest to approach and most aware of your resources, interests, and playing style.

If you don’t have anyone in mind, go to a lot of concerts. Figure out whose music you like, who has studied with them, who is friends with them, and who has worked with them.  Start talking to these people and figure out whom you would love to work with.

When you approach a composer, some key points are: what you like about their music, why you would love to work with them, and what kind of performance opportunity you have available for the potential new work.  Composers also love working with people whose playing and personality they know, so invite them to concerts, give them recordings and generally be friends.  Collaborations are fun, Yayl

Have something in mind

Once you have approached a composer about a commission, it is important to explain to them what kind of piece you would like from them. Where is it going to be played? What else is on the program? What instrumentation would you like, and how long would you like it be? Also, very importantly, by when do you need it?

Compensation

It is always better to pay something than it is to pay nothing.

1) As students, however, we rarely have access to the kind of general funds or even grants necessary to commission a work on a professional scale. However, with or without money, think of what you can give the composer in exchange for his or her writing you a piece. This is often a performance opportunity, publicity, or a good recording.  It can, however, be an exchange of goods and services (i.e. a website, time in your studio, etc.) Always remember that it is a composer’s job to write music, and writing you a piece of music will take a significant amount of time and energy and should in some way be compensated.

2) When you graduate/ When you get rich/ When you have access to grants/ etc. etc. etc

If you have a budget, assess how far the amount of money will go given a professional environment.  At the highest level, commissions can be up to and way beyond $1,000/minute.  This kind of budget is appropriate for an orchestral commission by a headlining composer.  However, if you can swing it, $5,000 for a 20-minute quartet is a conservative but completely realistic estimate of expenditure. The closer you are to a composer, the less hemay charge you, but as a good rule of thumb, the older they get, the more they tend to rely on their compositions as a significant source of income.  Bottom line: in general, you can get more for less from a younger composer. This brings us all the way back to, commission your friends.

Working with composers

When you and your composer have settled on the fact that she is going to write you an 8-minute piece for amplified viola and tam-tam to be premiered on the fourth of July in the bandstand in the community park in your home town, a whole new world of questions and interaction arises.

It is important at this point to address what kind of criticism is helpful, and what kind isn’t at all.

The composer will probably come to you with questions at a certain point. These will range from: “Can you show me some cool stuff you can do on your viola?” to “Can I write this double stop?” “How high can I write for you?” and, “I mean, how far can you stretch, really?”

Then they will send you the piece and there may still be some issues.

Before you say anything at all, it is a good idea to try and figure out how the composer has assembled the piece.  If you end up making suggestions about note changes, try and figure out why the notes are there first. This will win you points with the composer and save a whole bunch of time.

If a composer makes what you view as a stupid mistake (i.e. writing a low B below the C-string), let him know of the mistake, but don’t immediately assume that this means the composer is an idiot. There’s a lot of stuff to remember about a lot of different instruments.

Always, always, always be respectful of your composer and the time he or she has put into this work. Working with a live composer is great, and the collaboration is totally helpful, but there is the same opportunity of ego-bruising as in chamber music, etc.

If a passage is particularly difficult:  Assess whether or not it is meant to sound hard.  Virtuosic passages are great when they are supposed to sound that way, but it’s a good idea to let the composer know when something that is meant to sound light and easy is really, really hard. Also: sometimes, while certain things may technically be possible, they are very awkward strung in a row. Let yourself admit when things are really hard, explain to the composer why they are hard.

Working Without Composers/Approaching a score

When, as is most often, you do not have the benefit of a real live composer, you have to turn to other sources of information. If a composer is using non-standard notation, make sure to spend some time really looking at the legend and making sure that you understand every symbol before you attack the piece.

Try and be familiar with other works by this composer, and any context the piece might have, aka part of a set of three pieces, employing folk elements, based on the sound of an indigenous instrument, influenced by social or political events, etc.  Ask the composer and the internet for program notes, another seemingly obvious point, and yet many times, particularly in ensemble settings, players don’t read the program notes until they actually see the program.

Figure out the form of the piece. Figure out pacing.

Assess rhythmic issues; slash your part if it’s helpful. Assess note issues.

Approach difficult passages methodically.

If there are notation issues, try to figure out the intent of the passage. Don’t get pedantic about symbols.

If there are extended techniques: spend time practicing the techniques.  Just because it’s symbols doesn’t mean it’s not difficult.

Don’t assume that just because your composer lives in France he will not want to discuss the piece with you.  Spend some time trying to get in touch with him or her.  If you are confused at all about style, form, character, or anything else, the composer will be able to help you.

Finally, approach this music with the same creative ear you approach any other piece. Come up with creative solutions, interesting phrasing, make it yours.


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