I have extensive experience as a composer commissioned to write new work, the following being a few examples of particularly successful commissions:
Relentless Time for orchestra - The Brooklyn Philharmonic
The Lark of Avignon - for wind ensemble and piano solo - Franklin and Marshall College
Chamber Music - for choir and harp, University of Texas Concert Choir
That’s It! - cello, Francesco Mastromatteo
Gnomus - electro-acoustic - The Dance Consortium
While I am still open to commissions and currently involved in a few projects, I have serious concerns about the typical commissioning situation, which usually includes the following requirements and a problem:
Duration of the work
Commission by Reputation
Below, I will discuss what is problematic about each of the above and my solutions.
Duration of the work
The correct length of a given work is a crucial element when it comes to the time-art of music composition. Consider the following problems:
the work will not “breathe”
the work may not take the appropriate time needed to develop the full potential of its ideas
When it comes to orchestra music, the contemporary composer will most likely find themselves confined to a single movement limited to 15 minutes, maximum. If any composer has thought seriously about the significance of generating ideas, processes and formal conflicts that “earn” substantial length and planned such lengthy works accordingly, the standard commission length will repress the realization of these ambitions.
This is a mortal sin. Any work that is too long is wasting everyone’s precious time.
On occasion, a composer enjoying a spike in reputation will be asked to write a “big” piece, the duration of which, will be arbitrarily calculated by the commissioner and not arrived at through the compositional process. When you combine this approach with The Deadline the result will very likely be a lamentable waste of time with mere repetition, mechanical processes and slight repackaging of a simple musical concept.
There is a tendency in recent decades where the only time a major symphony orchestra commissions a work of over 20 minutes is if it is a concerto. The reason is cynical and not about getting the best new music: The concerto soloist has to have a “star” reputation established with standard repertoire that will get the symphony board into their comfort zone. Having heard a number of new concerti in recent years, the only one that stands out is The Concerto for D’Drum composed by Stewart Copeland. All of the rest commit the mortal sin of running much longer than their paltry ideas and superficial formal plans deserve.
Check out my Labors of Love. Many of them have been sketched to the point where I can provide a ballpark estimate of a piece’s duration.
If none of my Labors of Love appeal to you, then reach out anyway.
But, I will need a little time to “think about it.”
“Think about it” is code for: I will listen to see if I hear music and can envision a form.
If I can’t hear the music, I will decline the invitation.
When you think of a composer’s best work, keep Brahms’ First Symphony (10 years in the making) and Berlioz Symphony Fantastique (after it’s initial premiere, Berlioz would not complete a piano reduction; the final stamp on a work’s completion for 13 years, during which time he made constant and significant revisions) in mind.
In the current culture, these things are happening:
Composers missing deadlines because they accept too many commission opportunities.
More commonly, composers who consistently make their deadlines with pieces that are, at best, workmanlike and uninspired, at worst, a chore to listen to attentively. I deign to name names at this point, but there are quite a few “successful” contemporary composers whose ongoing work reveals a consistency of diminishing returns.
If I were to offer an explanation for this, I would imagine that the composer who positions themselves to be constantly busy with new commissions does not have enough time to think and build strong conceptions, more importantly, not enough time to listen.
Again, check out my Labors of Love. In those descriptions you may get a sense of how far along some of those ideas are developed. Incentive from your commission offer would fast track something that would have already had a good head start in development, and that we both would be excited about, thus insuring that the deadline you have in mind would be met.
If you would rather commission me to write something else, fine,
Expect the following:
I will encourage flexibility in your programming schedule.
Keep the Dutilleux Violin Concerto L'arbre des songes, (The Tree of Dreams) in mind. It took him 10 years to complete. It is a great, beautiful piece that enjoys an ongoing presence in the repertoire. Now, try to identify another recent contemporary violin concerto of similar stature.
there is this final problem that begets other problems which begets the ultimate problem:
Commission by Reputation (by the commissioner)
Acceptance of the Commission (by the composer) for
Shrug-worthy Music that performers and audiences barely tolerate that forms no experience worth remembering
First and foremost, commission me to compose something for you based on my music and not on my reputation. And yes, again, check out my Labors of Love.
My love of composition is tied inextricably to a process where I let my imagination free to roam. I often just listen, I improvise in my aural imagination, seeking the most striking material. It is common for me in the early stages of a musical idea to not write anything down:
If it’s a melody, it has to be memorable enough to stay with me. Even it is pleasant enough, if it comes and goes, it don’t want to work with it.
If it’s a formal plan or a guiding concept, supposedly unique, I have to be able to hold it in my mind. If it is not strong enough to stay, I don’t want it.
If it’s a harmonic structure, I’d better be able to truly hear it’s benefits and possibilities, otherwise it’s gone and good riddance.
A significant amount of my best, most successful work is un-commissioned and has come about by pondering musical possibilities completely free of the typical commission requirements mentioned above or simply because, in the constant exercising of my inner ear, my aural imagination, I hear something that I would like to come into being. Here are just a few examples.
Cumulus Nimbus for orchestra
An Die Ferne Geliebte for baritone voice and piano
Toccata for piano
Coma Concerto - for wind ensemble
On to practical matters…
Many of the Labors of Love have an anticipated commission fee. Although I do refer to standard guidelines for larger conducted ensembles, ($1,000 per minute of music) you will notice that many projects have a very reasonable price. The reason is that I have already started these projects with compensation being a secondary consideration.
Look over the 30 Dollar Commission area on the website. You will see that many of the Labors of Love are linked to it.
I value deeply the collaborative process and like to work with performers as directly as possible, which is greatly aided by current communications technology. For any given project, I may request as part of the commission an ongoing process of sharing sketches and making revisions relevant to feedback received from the performer(s).