The original plan …
… for this website included a page devoted to “How to commission music.” But when I looked around, there were plenty of web sites and booklets that provide excellent guidance on this topic. See the Links page for a sample selection.
Instead, we will spend a few moments sharing some hints, tips, and dark secrets we have learned along the way.
Join a club
By far the easiest way to commission new music is to join a commissioning club. Ideally, you want a club run by a local ensemble or presenter. In other words, if you live in LA as we do, a New York club (American Composers Orchestra? Orpheus Orchestra?) could involve serious travel costs and hinder regular contact. If you love travel, though, that could be a wonderful excuse to jet about.
Being in a club means you can rely on others to curate selecting the composer and guiding the process to completion. You also have an instant supply of like-minded friends who are joining you for the journey. All you lose by joining a club is sole ‘ownership’ of a piece. Really, who cares about that?
Our favorite local club is Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s Sound Investment. They stage several salons each season where you can follow the creation of the piece and interact with the composer. Plus, the orchestra embraces these projects with enthusiasm and consummate artistry. For a starter list of other clubs, see the Links page.
Keep it simple
Giant projects with grand ambitions (operas, oratorios, multi-year multi-piece extravaganzas, site-specific pieces for exotic ensembles) can be incredibly beguiling. They frequently garner wide attention and accolades. But their scale and complexity are not your friend. The more time needed to gestate a project and the more moving parts it has, the greater the chances that something will go seriously awry.
If you are a risk loving adventurer, who embraces free climbing, hang gliding, speculating in cryptocurrency, doing the annual Cresta run on your skeleton, then big projects may be just your ticket.
When asked, we normally say that you need three sturdy legs (a tripod, if you will) to launch your commissioning project: a composer, a performer (or ensemble), and a presenter. Once you have those three, the path is normally clear.
Some of our favorite projects have been chamber music, where the composer, performers and presenter are all friends, and an entire project is finished in months. Projects like these can be just as rewarding as a Met opera.
Surprise a friend
If you find yourself stumped trying to think of a memorable gift to give to a special person in your life, particularly one who loves music, consider commissioning and dedicating a piece to that person. Such a gesture is guaranteed to surprise, if not shock. One caution: keep in mind that commissioning projects frequently slide off schedule, so don’t schedule the ‘surprise performance party’ until your score is in hand.
You can have the most fun commissioning if you join actively in supporting the entire process. Encourage friends to come to the premiere, post frequently about it on social media, publicly support the composers and performers. After the premiere, keep talking up the piece. Support the creation of a recording. The vast majority of new pieces live very short lives. If you want the pieces you support to live longer, you should not hesitate to act.
Learning new pieces can be hard work
If you are a new music fan, it is easy to forget that what is new and thrilling to you involves hard work (sometimes really hard work) on the part of the performers to learn and polish the piece. So don’t be surprised if your enthusiasm for a new work is not matched by all the performers.
In fact, be prepared for some strong blowback, especially if a piece is deviously difficult and the score is delivered late!
If the composer explores the depths of extended techniques, or uses unconventional notation, or, perhaps most challenging, does not have a clear idea of what they want, just getting to a shared understanding between composer and performers can take real effort.
Not all musicians embrace these particular challenges. Which is not to criticize them. It is easy to understand how much joy and satisfaction can be derived from perfecting beautiful works that audiences love to hear. It is no mean feat to bring new life to classics.
There are, thankfully, a group of musicians who embrace new music wholeheartedly. If you can connect with such performers, embrace them, hold them close, and shower them with love and support.
If you look closely at our list of pieces, you will find some performer names reappearing regularly. Now you know why.
Commissioning is like a relay race
When you commission a new piece, you are either the first or second member of a relay team. As with any relay team, every member has an important role. For these races, yours is at the beginning. Regardless of whether you initiated a project, or joined one that was already underway, your role is critical to getting the enterprise moving.
Then, you hand the baton (project) off to the composer. Once the piece is finished, the composer hands it off to the publisher. Once the publisher has checked and engraved the score and parts, it is time for the performers to have their turn. They are assisted by the organizations who stage their performances, and in the process, hand off the piece to the audience – the final participants in this relay.
As a commissioner, you normally receive thanks from the composer and performers, a credit line in the score (especially if you request it), and usually, acknowledgement in the program at the premiere.
After that, you are history. The race continues, but your contribution is completed. If you are lucky and your piece is played more than once after the premiere, you should feel justly proud of how well your team has performed. But your involvement will rapidly fade from sight. Most audiences, indeed, most performers (after the premiere) have no idea who commissioned the piece. Truth is, Andrey Razumovsky is the exception that proves this rule.
That is just as it should be. Music is a living art. While a score may be ‘set’ for all time, it is not yet music. Music must have performance, and in those moments, it is set free from any of our particular fantasies. It is your gift to the world.
When we started, we ruminated about abstract notions of ‘paying it forward’ and ‘creating a future masterwork’ and the like.
The surprise has been the enormous satisfaction with the creative process itself. The unexpected outcome of this enterprise has been how a simple project can grow beyond its beginnings, and lead to unexpected opportunities, connections, and friendships.
The road we followed has not been straight and easy. We’ve encountered plenty of twists and turns. In some cases, we’ve watched beloved projects run completely off the rails.
But in the end, the rewards have been worth it. Beyond measure.