Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Commissioning Process…Where to Start??

The idea of bringing a new piece of music into the world, or having someone write you something specific, is a very exciting notion.  A notion, that up until a few years ago, I never thought would be a reality.  Commissioning or hiring a composer seemed to be a daunting task….who do you ask?  How do you find composers?  How to you pay for the piece?  As a quintet, Mirari does quite a bit of commissioning, which is decided on and paid for by the group.  As an individual it can seem a bit harder to pull off.  Through sharing my individual experiences commissioning new works, I  hope to shed some light on  what can seem like an intimidating process.

Why Commission?

Commissioning a new piece of music can seem like a daunting or confusing task, it definitely seemed that way to me.  On top of that, for many people, the idea of commissioning a new piece of music is expensive.  As musicians ourselves, and especially when early in our careers, we’re not exactly rolling in money…but I’ll get to that in a bit. One reason to commission is to simply bring new music into the world.  The tuba (the instrument I was commissioning for) has a relatively small body of music, especially when compared to  instruments like the violin or flute.  It was only in the past 50 years or so that the tuba has been taken seriously as a possible solo instrument, with composers writing for it in a solo setting.  As a result the compositional options seemed endless.

Another reason to commission, which didn’t occur to me at first, is composers (for the most part) WANT to work with performers, and the performer-composer relationship is a unique one in the music world.  Unlike performing musicians and conductors, composers don’t have the same opportunities to collaborate with other musicians.  In addition, commissions are one way that composers earn money for what they do…just like performers earn money by performing, composers earn money by composing.  As a musician I like to support fellow musicians in their craft.

Who to commission?

Unless you already have an idea of whom you’d like to commission, the first task is finding the composer.  This can also seem daunting at first, because unless you know a composer and his or her music well, you may be unsure as to whether you’ll enjoy working with them and be happy with the end product.

The internet is a super useful tool for this.  The first time I commissioned a piece I started my search by going to a number of different composer websites and listening to samples of their music, trying to get an idea of what each composer and their music was about.  Since this was going to be someone I was going to be collaborating with, I also wanted to make sure that the individual wasn’t going to be a pain in the behind to work with.  Once I started narrowing my list I spoke to people that knew the composers on a professional or personal level to get their take on the composers as people.

I considered a variety of composers from around the country, taking into account their location, their musical language, what instrumentation they had already composed for, and their current popularity and success.  I wanted to commission a composer that was clearly well thought of but not too big of a name for cost reasons number one, and also because I wanted to promote a composer that wasn’t well known in the tuba world.  I didn’t want another work written for tuba and piano, so specifically looked for composers that worked frequently outside that box.  In terms of location I hoped to find a composer within driving distance to have the ability to work with them in person.  Finally, I thought it would be great if the composer had already composed for tuba in a solo or chamber setting, as then they would be more familiar with the instrument.

What about the $$?

Just like there are a variety of ways of finding and working with composers, there are also a number of ways of funding a commission.  Commission fees vary based on a number of factors, including composer experience, your personal relationship with that composer, length of the piece, and complexity of the instrumentation (i.e. it’s cheaper to commission a piece for a solo instrument over a concerto with orchestra).  I found that most composers charge a certain fee per minute of composed music then adjust that based on the other factors mentioned.

Young and up and coming composers want to get their music out there, and as a result often have a much lower commissioning fee and are a great way to go if you are on a tight budget.  I commissioned a work for trombone, tuba, and recorded sound with fellow Mirari member, Sarah.  The composer (Inez McComas), Sarah, and I agreed on a unique commissioning arrangement.  Inez considered herself to be an up-and-coming composer.  As a result, she believed it was more important and more valuable for her works to be heard in performance than to receive a monetary fee.  With this idea in mind, Inez suggested that for each minute of music composed, Sarah and I would owe her one live performance.  The piece she composed, called “The Middle Pigeons”, ended up being 7:15, and as a result we owed Inez at least 7 live performances of the work. 

A quick side note about another way to find and fund a commission, and that is having the composer find you.  After performing a duo recital a student composer approached Sarah and I, asking if she composed a piece for the duo, would we be willing to program it in future recitals.  She has composed a few pieces for tuba before and plays horn herself.  We said yes, and since then have been in contact with her regarding the nature of the piece, typical audiences, and extended techniques that we or are not capable of, our personal ranges, etc.

Besides the up and coming composer route there are many other ways to fund a commission, and my other personal way of funding a piece was through a consortium.

Funding my commission of Asha Srinivasan, Professor of Composition at Lawrence University, was a much different process.  During our initial meeting, she and I agreed on a commission rate of $3000 for a 10-minute work.  She based this on her per minute rate.  Keep in mind though, that many well known composers will charge upwards of $1000/minute.  Remember….just like we as performers have to make a living do what we do, so do the composers!  Think about high-level performers charging a high fee…composers are the same.  Our product is performance, while theirs is the music they produce for us to perform.

Back in the early stages of finding and selecting a composer I had an idea that whatever the commission fee ended up being would be too much for me to cover all on my own.  $3000 was indeed more than I personally had, so I decided to establish a consortium of tuba players.  I had heard of consortiums before, but had never participated in one.  Initially I had hoped to create a consortium with a minimum of eight other members.  From May through June of last year I contacted around 40 tubists, explaining the project and the consortium, trying to determine the level of interest in a project like this from each potential member.  I received a positive reply from seven individuals.

All of the administrative and emailing work was time consuming, and as you can see, in the end I received a positive reply from less than a quarter of the people I contacted. At first I thought, wow, what I waste of my time, contacting all of these people.  But even though I didn’t receive a monetary contribution from every person on my contact list, making those contacts did have value.  Many of those that I contacted I’ve never had any connection to before.  This consortium has allowed me to connect and network to musicians around the country, something that could prove invaluable in the long run.  And with the seven that did participate in the consortium, I’ve established and/or continued to build a stronger relationship.

Each member of the consortium contributed $250 and in return they received a copy of the work and participation in an exclusivity period of one year following the premiere.  I created a consortium agreement form for each member to sign and return with the $250 fee.

Besides paying through performance or establishing a consortium there are numerous other ways and options to fund a commission, I’ll go over a couple others.  First, grants.  When I began exploring options to fund Asha’s commission and my CD project I met with the grant librarian in the Memorial Union Library….and was completely overwhelmed.  Through my meeting with her I learned about the giant databases where you can search for grants for an endless variety of purposes.  After a day of sifting I decided that for searching for, and the even more rigorous process of applying for grants, was too much for the scope of that project.  That said, the grant library is a fantastic resource where I learned a great deal.  I hope to someday soon get my feet wet with grant writing, as it is an enormous resource.

Another funding option is using Kickstarter, an Internet and social media based source to fund creative projects.  I created a Kickstarter project to help fund my CD recording process, but it can also be used to fund a commission.

Connect, Collaborate, Build Relationships

One major difference between working on a piece you’re commissioning and most other works is the fact that the composer is alive.  I know, this seems very, very obvious, but it is a fact that is often overlooked. In the past I’ve played a great deal of pieces where the composer is still living (due to the young age of the instrument) but I’ve never made any effort to contact the composer.   The first time I made a real effort to contact a composer was for my first CD project, URSA.  For that project I made some sort of contact with every composer, and if possible, I strongly encourage other musicians to do the same.  Building a relationship with a composer beyond the notes on the page can add a new element of depth and understanding to the meaning of a piece. 

If you have the opportunity to work with a composer on one of their pieces, DO IT!  And keep an open mind.  The composer wrote the piece hearing it in a particular way, so they will most likely have suggestions for you, which will hopefully aid in your understanding and preparation of the work, but at the same time, if they also are keeping an open mind, they may adjust the music to reflect something they like that you’re doing.  A few months before recording the title track of my CD, I had the fabulous opportunity of working with Libby Larsen, when she came down to Madison from the Twin Cities to work with pianist Kirstin Ihde and me on her tuba concerto.  Throughout the coaching Ms. Larsen made a number of suggestions to Kirstin and me, but more than once, when she heard something that we did that wasn’t marked on the page, that she liked, she marked it in her score to later give it to her publisher for a future publication of the piece.  Once again, composers want to work with performers!

When commissioning music that relationship becomes even more personal.  Working with a composer through a commission becomes a true collaboration, one that can be incredibly rewarding for the composer and performer alike.


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