Archive for the ‘Contemporary Music’ Category

Commissioning Composers

by Jarita Ng

Premiering music gives me the power that I don’t have over other music. I am always under the impression that when I play standard repertoire, 95% of the interpretation is controlled—in addition to notes and bowings, phrasing and general direction are predetermined because there have been many players who have played the pieces, thus some sort of “performance practice” for the specific pieces has been formed. But playing completely new music is an entirely different world. When I prepare and perform new music, I feel like I am a dog off the leash—I get to run as much as I want! However, just as a dog would not want to wander too far to make sure that it can go back to the owner and have dinner that evening, I can do whatever I want as long as it is within the given directions. Imagine the freedom!

Commissioning works is even more fun. Not only can one get the freedom in interpretation, but he or she also has some considerable influence on the formation of the piece. In most of the cases, the pieces would be geared toward the style of playing and preferences of the performers. I, along with some composer friends, believe that commissioning is an essential part in keeping the vitality of music going now. By commissioning music that we, the performers, enjoy playing, we help create the music that may get passed on.

If you have some composer friends, don’t be afraid to ask them to write a piece for you. I have found out that composers are mostly excited and more than willing to write commissions. But before you go ask them, there are a few things that you might want to think about. I sent out a set of questions to some of my composer friends with whom I have collaborated in commissioning and premiering works; six of them responded. They are Jeremy Crosmer, Tommy Dougherty, Michael-Thomas Foumai, Daniel Knaggs, Garret Schumann, and Roger Zare. You can find their information and links to recordings of their works involving viola at the end of the post. Here is the list of questions they received:

  1. What do you want us (performers) to do before we approach you for a commission?
  2. How clearly of an idea for the piece should we have before approaching you?
  3. How far ahead of time should we ask?
  4. What do you expect in return?
  5. Under what circumstance and for what reason would you accept or reject a commission?
  6. How and how much can we take part in the creation process?
  7. Do you like writing for strings? What do you enjoy and what are the challenges?
  8. If you had to write a piece for viola, which could be of any form or style, what would it be like?

What do the composer(s) want us (performers) to do before we approach them for a commission?

Even though the six composers stated that this is of personal preference, they all answered that they would like to have heard our playing and for us to have listened to their music (either live or recordings). It would be a huge plus if we have worked with them before on their other pieces, but not necessarily commissions or premieres.

How clearly of an idea for the piece should we have before approaching them?

Deadline, length, and instrumentation are the three pieces of information they all agreed upon that they would really appreciate to have. Other things like number of movements, characteristics, what else is going to be on the program, etc., are helpful. But some requests, such as an example that Daniel Knaggs gives, “I’d do anything to get a Kenny G. style piece” or Tommy’s example of “I want a piece that sounds like Stravinsky” might not be honored. As Tommy puts it, if asked to write a piece in the style of another composer, “I would feel as if I were writing someone else’s music, perhaps.”

We may have a lot of ideas to impart, but at the same time we should allow room for the composers to create, too, and understand that they may not take all our ideas into account.

How far ahead of time should we ask?

Talk to them as soon as you have a good idea of the deadline, length, and instrumentation! Some composers write fast; some not as fast. But giving a minimum of six months for a ten-minute chamber piece and about a year for an orchestral piece seems to be the average. They would have to figure out how to work your piece into other commissions that are already scheduled. Thus it is never too early to ask.

What do you expect in return?

The composers gave varying answers to this question. However, they all expect a premiere performance and an audio or video recording at the least, and most of them would appreciate some sort of compensation—money, food, beer (I did that a lot), etc.

Recording: I think it is important to make a really good recording of the commission so that the composer (and you) can share them to promote the piece. (To be honest, I still have three that are yet to be recorded. Apologies to Jeremy and Josh.)

Money: It is hard for students to come up with money to commission, I am sure we all understand. Roger suggests organizing a consortium of a number of performers to commission a new work, e.g., five people each pitching in $30 compared to one person paying $150. There are also funds and foundations that offer money to performers to commission composers—Fromm Foundation, Jerome Fund, the American Music Center, etc.

Dedication, continued interest, and promotion are very much appreciated by the composers. I think factors are also a responsibility that comes with commissioning. We want the works to be played by more than just one person or group! And wouldn’t it feel awesome if other people play the piece(s) because of our initiation?

Under what circumstance and for what reason would you accept or reject a commission?

The six composers that I asked are all students or recent graduates. They are really fantastic and are enthusiastic about writing. All of them stated that they would not reject any commission offer unless it does not work with their schedule, i.e., when they have another deadline that is close to the deadline we give them for our commissions, resulting in less than satisfactory music (to their standard). One of the composers added that he might not accept a commission if he does not have interest in writing for a the instrumentation.

How and how much can we take part in the creation process?

It depends on the composer. We might need to talk to him or her about how we can help. A large proportion of the composers that I have worked with (commission or not), especially non-string-instrument-playing composers, want to know what works and what doesn’t. They also appreciate you telling them about your individual strengths (or playing for them to show them) that they can tailor to our abilities (I love it when they realize that we can play more difficult things than they have written *insert evil laughter). One thing to bear in mind though is to “not step on their toes.” Jeremy offered this advice that gave me the light bulb moment: “Remember to separate the role of performer from composer. You are there to showcase the work, and we are there to set the parameters. You can guide our process, and we can guide your process, but in the end we have different talents.”

In contrast, some composers prefer working alone, either because they know how the instruments work, it is their habit, or for other reasons. In general, we need to communicate honestly and as much as possible about the expectation and the progress.

Do you like writing for strings? What do you enjoy and what are the challenges?

Of course they all expressed their love for string instruments since the survey came from a string player. They pointed out that our instruments are capable of playing “extremely fast, articulated, special effects and virtuosic acrobatics to deep, dark, and gorgeous sustained lines” (Michael). Jeremy likes how we can “get a nice, smooth, connected and blended sound, or you can vary the texture quite dramatically.” Yes, string instruments are pretty awesome.

For non-string-instrument-playing composers, the challenges are understandably: fingerings, jumps, impossible double-stops, harmonics, etc. The “special string techniques” that I have had to explain the most have been harmonics, both natural and artificial, how they work, the note coming out as which octave, how flat some natural harmonics are, etc.

For composers who play string instruments, the challenges of writing for strings lie outside of the familiarity of the instruments. They are personal and differ from each other quite a bit: balancing strings with other instruments (Garrett), getting outside of the comfort zone of the idiomatic writing (Michael), writing idiomatically that seems hard and complex but is not as difficult to play (Roger), and competing with the large amount of string repertoire there is (Tommy).

If you had to write a piece for viola, which could be of any form or style, what would it be like?

Four out of the six composers expressed interest in writing a viola concerto/concertino (yay!!!). I have to say playing new concerti would be pretty awesome. Roger likes the challenge of balancing viola against a large ensemble. He sees it as a problem-solving game. (One thing you should know about Roger is that he is an extremely scientific person. A lot of his pieces are named after science material, matters, phenomenon, etc, such as Tectonics (2012) for orchestra and Scintillation (2004) for viola and piano, among others. So, his looking at those horrible balance problems that we violists face as a game is not really surprising.) Even though the idea of premiering a concerto is exciting, I have been reluctant to commission one. It is because I am worried that I would not able to assemble a large enough group of musicians who are willing to play new works. As a solution for wanting to commission but not having enough performance opportunities, I think it is only fair to make an absolutely stunning recording of the concerto with an orchestra, so that the composer can enter the piece in competitions to have a chance for it to be known and played more widely.

Another solution offered by Tommy is to commission a concertino, which is a concerto with small ensemble accompaniment. This would be easier to put together and not as difficult to perform more frequently. You can have the best of both worlds!

Aside from a specific genre that the composers said they are interested in working on, they more or less expressed that they would tailor the style of the piece (be it concerto or not) to the abilities and preferences of the performers.

I hope this post has answered some of the questions that you might have regarding commissioning and has given you some interest in working with your composer friends. If any of you would want to commission a viola concerto, please let me know! We can organize a consortium!

Happy commissioning and premiering!

You can click on the composers’ names to go to their website.

Jeremy Crosmer

Thomas Dougherty

Michael-Thomas Foumai

Daniel Knaggs

  • Eventide (2013) for alto saxophone and viola
  • Snowdrifit (2012) for viola and live electronics

Garret Schumann

Roger Zare

Here you can click on their names for the scripts of their original response

Jeremy Crosmer

Thomas Dougherty

Michael-Thomas Foumai

Daniel Knaggs

Garrett Schumann

Roger Zare