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Commissioning New Music – A Short Guide

Illustration : May Kindred-Boothby

Bringing a brand new piece of music into the world for the first time is an incredibly exciting and rewarding experience. Always a collaboration, it brings performer(s), composer, audience and commissioner(s) together for a unique occasion. There’s always a sense of anticipation at a premiere performance as all the weeks, months, sometimes years of creative work of preparing, composing and rehearsing comes to a head in one special moment. No-one knows how it will sound, what the impact will be, until that moment.

While a few musicians get hooked on commissioning (watch out, it can be addictive!) many, both professional and leisure-time musicians, have misgivings about taking the plunge, and just as with anything you don’t practice regularly, it can seem a difficult or worrisome to approach. There may be many questions begging answers. What will the composer create? Will we enjoy rehearsing it? Will we be able to do perform it right? Will the composer approve? What will our audience make of it?

Our mission at Composers Edition is simple – we want many more performers and audiences to experience the wonder of playing, listening to and commissioning new music. As with everything we do, we take a fresh, friendly and inclusive approach to commissioning. Here’s our short guide to commissioning and below it what we can do to help you on your creative journey.

Preparing to commission

‘This is my first time performing Jack Van Zandt’s music and I’m delighted to be able to include it on my series. Painted Night is a very beautiful and evocative work that fits in very well with the series. I love how he invokes the painterly styles of each artist that he is referencing.’
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Eleonor Sandresk, pianist

For any new creative venture it gets much easier once you have a good sense of what you want to achieve. This will depend on a number of factors. What’s the occasion? When and where will it take place? Who’s involved in making it happen? What other works (musical or otherwise) will a commission be paired with? Which values do you wish to reflect or promote? How will the composer be recompensed? You may not have all the answers at the start. That’s ok, sometimes the greatest creations start with just one simple idea. Just keep these in mind as you proceed.

Already have a composer in mind? Great! As long as you have at least half of the above questions answered go right ahead at get talking. At this stage there’s no commitment, you’re just exploring whether in principal a collaboration will be possible. If you’re clear and upfront about what you’re after you’ll soon get a sense of whether you’ve got a good match. Many composers have their own websites and here at Composers Edition we’ll be happy to connect you with any of ours.

Not sure who to commission, or want to find someone new to you? Think of music you love to listen to or enjoy playing. If you’re thinking of commissioning then you probably want something special or unique in someway, so when thinking about existing music, try to distill what it is that attracts you to it. Is it a certain sound world, a particular form or addressing a particular subject? Combine this with the answers to the key questions above and go exploring. Go though your record collection, scan your memory for performances you’ve enjoyed, check out the websites of record labels, publishers, festivals. Talk to your associates and friends, get recommendations. If a similar performer or commissioner has worked with a composer, ask them about their experience.

TOP TIP – Make a shortlist. It’s all too easy to get fixed early on to a particular composer, precipitating some tunnelled thinking which can sometimes lead to unmet expectations, uncomfortable compromises and misunderstandings. Exploring ideas and options with a number of composers can help you better understand what it is you really want achieve.

Getting the ball rolling

‘This 2018 work by Ryan Latimer, taking text from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, is one of our most successful and enjoyable commissions. The words and music convey a wit rarely heard in choral music, allowing a performance that is fun for singers and audience alike.’
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David Temple, Crouch End Festival Chorus

Equipped with your short list and answers to some of your key questions, you’re now ready to make your approaches. Sometimes this will be via an agent or publisher, or direct with the composer. Be clear about what you’re about and any parameters you already have, but remember that this is just the start of a conversation. It might be that this isn’t the right time for a particular composer, or not quite the right sort of project for them. The story doesn’t have to end there and you might be able to develop a collaboration at another time. And remember, just talking through ideas can be illuminating for you.

Give the process time. Correspond, share your ideas and don’t be shy to ask for theirs. You might have questions you feel awkward asking, that’s ok. Just take your time and all will become clear! Throughout this whole process, you can always press the pause button, or for the composer, agent or publisher to do so.

Discuss practicalities. Not only the when and where, but about your resources such as instruments and available rehearsal time. What time-frame works in terms of rehearsals or preparation of scores and parts? How many performances will there be? Will you want printed or digital scores and parts? Is it important that you have exclusive performance rights for a given period? Will it get published? Do you want to record or livestream the performance? Are you just expecting a set of parts to arrive or might the composer be involved in rehearsals? Might they take on other roles as a guest of your organisation or festival? Will they need to travel or require accommodation at any point? You don’t have to get all the answers before proceeding, but asking the right questions will help you develop the best possible experience for all involved.

Think you’ve found the one?

‘My wish was to choose works of composers that were able to capture the soul of the instrument and in this regard I am extremely happy with Charlotte’s piece, which certainly does!’
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Cristina Gómez Godoy, oboist

Well it’s usually one. Composers rarely work together on pieces, but there may be a librettist, poet or visual artist involved, or maybe you’re after more than one piece. It’s now time to make an agreement. There are various sources for contracts depending on where in the world you are, but whatever you use make sure it covers the following:

  • A project summary covering the commission circumstances, aims and key deliverables
  • The Composition : duration & forces (including any specifics for the performers involved and anything that might need bringing in such (electronics & multimedia)
  • The Performance(s) : when and where
  • The Schedule : set out agreed deadlines for performance materials and rehearsal schedules
  • The Legacy : Will the work be published? Will the performance be recorded? How will you be credited? Generally composers or their publishers will assume the copyright, but what about performance rights
  • Payment schedule
  • Clear indications of how and under what circumstances may any changes be made to the work, performance or schedule

The money

‘It was really exciting playing in the Concert. I’ve never been on an aeroplane before, and to see a real Concorde was breathtaking. Performing underneath it felt very special. The main piece, Innovation 216, was incredible to play and powerful. It was very clever to hear how all the different sounds were for all the different aircraft. I will remember it forever!’
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Bertie Barzillia, age 7, Lydbrook Training Band

Talking money right at the beginning of the process isn’t always the best for creative endeavours, but unlike Chris de Burgh once sang you should certainly fix the price before the ferryman ‘gets you to the other side’. You will probably need at least a ballpark figure by the time you round off the discussion of practicalities and it’s a great idea to ask for a quote at that stage. All parties should always be as clear as possible by the time a contract is signed.

If you want or need to raise funds, that will need factoring into your schedule and may also involve the composer to some extent. If you want a period of exclusivity or any ‘extras’ then be prepared for these to have cost implications. You may also tie commissions in with other activities such as recordings, which can all be factored in. You certainly want to be making the very most of the opportunity afforded by your investment in a new work.

Do be aware of the possibility of ‘mission creep’; discuss changes which might affect the costs before they happen and allow for some flexibility if possible. Be prepared to negotiate and if necessary adjust your plans accordingly.

For all but the smallest of commissions a downpayment is normal. Depending on its size and nature the payment may be spread, tied to certain stages of the project. If you’ve got this point, having prepared and discussed the project well, there should be enough commitment and goodwill flowing to deal with all but the greatest of obstacles!

Good luck and enjoy!

We’d love to help

and here’s how…

Finding a composer

‘I started by drawing up a list of composers I personally know, then included composers that I didn’t know personally but whose work I admire very much and who also may be a good fit in composing a new piece inspired by J.S. Bach. I also consulted and received great advice from my good friends… I have launched a commissioning campaign as a way to support the project. Opening this up to co-commissioners gives a way for audiences to participate in the creative process’
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Lorenzo Marasso, pianist

Finding the right composer for you can seem daunting. These days, the contemporary cultural landscape can be hard to navigate with so many different styles, trends and approaches. And then, how do you go about approaching a composer?

Composers Edition offers you our tendering service

We work with around 80 composers based in UK, across Europe, North America and New Zealand. Each has their own style and ways of working and all have proven track records in creating engaging, original compositions for a wide range of musicians.

Expressions of interest: If you’re exploring a commissioning idea we can help you collect your thoughts and then present them to our composers on your behalf. We’ll collect expressions of interest and get back to you with them. You can then choose which composers you wish to explore further with.

Getting into the detail: Once you’ve chosen which composers to talk further with it’s time to get in touch to explore both the ideas and the practicalities in greater detail.

Proposals: The composers will now be in a position to provide you with a full proposal for your consideration.

Review & sealing the deal: We can supply pro-forma contracts, help you source one for your jurisdiction, or you or the composer may come equipped with one. We’ll review your contract and advise on anything we think may need reviewing.

Advice & Support

On Commissioning

Serial commissioner Kate Romano makes the case for helping bringing new musical works into the world

read…

All of our composers are independent artists, and our relationships with them built on trust and equality. It is not our role to select composers for you. Our aim is to help you and the composers get the best possible outcome. However, we are very happy help you develop your commissioning idea and answer questions about the commissioning process. We can also help you go about getting answers you need from the composers themselves.

Supporting the Process. Composition and performance are exciting creative processes. Exciting in part because of the unknowns. Occasionally, something with crop up which feels problematic. If you need advice, then we’ll only be too happy to help, as we do for our composers.

Funding. We know that funding commissions can involve a good deal of work. Our tendering process and the extra benefits set out below can help make a better case for funders. We’re happy to offer advice on funding and to support funding applications in writing.

Extra Benefits from Composers Edition

‘I am so excited to be sharing Susie’s Quiltscape III – the piece reminds me of a bespoke tapestry, multi-layered and full of verve and surprises!’
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Maria Marchant, pianist

By commissioning a Composers Edition composer you will automatically be in line to receive extra benefits and support from us.

Publishing: Working with a Composers Edition composer ensures a greater legacy for your inspiration and hard work. Once works are ready for publication (which may be before or after the premiere) we make score and parts available to our customers around the world for purchase or hire, carrying with it the story of your commission.

Special livery: Scores and parts are working documents designed to help performers deliver the best possible interpretation of the music. They are also cultural markers which can be used to celebrate the music and the occasions for which it has been created. We offer special liveries for commissioned works celebrating the occasion and all involved. Our streamlined rights-free publishing facilities enables us to produce high quality scores and performance sets, even on projects with tight schedules.

Promoting you and your commission: We love celebrating performers and commissioners as well as composers. You are the true ambassadors of the music. As a commissioner of one of our composers we will offer you and your project promotion through our website, mailing list and social media accounts. Typically this will comprise of three news features. The first, on completion of the contract, announcing the commission. The second can be a full feature article which can take the form of a Q&A or profile, usually in the month preceding the premiere. The third feature can be around the publication of the score and parts, further promoting your inspirational role in bringing the work into the world.

Getting the price right: Too often, commissions fall into one of just two camps – the high profile, highly paid and the low profile, under-paid. This doesn’t need to be the case. By supporting the commissioning process and adding value through promotion and publication Composers Edition helps ensure that all parties get a great deal and a great experience, helping us all celebrate through new music together.

Start your commissioning journey today

If you’re thinking about commissioning or would simply like to find out more about how to go about it, then we’d love to hear from you

Find out more about recent and upcoming commissions by Composers Edition composers

Historic 2020 Performance of Liz Lane’s ‘Innovation 216’ Under the Wings of Concorde

Commissioned by Bristol Cultural Development Partnership and performed by Lydbrook Band, Lydney Training Band, City of Bristol Choir, Bristol Man Chorus, Airbus Filton Workplace Choir under the baton of Ian Holmes

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Trio Contraste Commission John Palmer Word Based on J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations

In conjunction with the Carl von Ossietzky University in Oldenburg the 2021 Zwischen Zeiten Symposium will focus on J.S. Bach’s majestic Goldberg Variations and will offer a series of lectures and concerts including commissions of new works inspired by this masterpiece.

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Pianist Nic Gerpe on Anne LeBaron’s ‘Unearthly Delights’

Find out about how pianist Nic Gerpe came to commission LA-based Anne LeBaron, leading to a CD release.

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Thierry Pécou & Ensemble Variances Jeffrey Holmes ‘Kaun (Kenaz)’ Première

Composer Jeffrey Holmes on the special connections between composer and performers behind this commission.

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Sunny Cho performing Colin Riley ‘Eawl-leet’ in RAM 200 Pieces Project

One of several works commissioned by the Royal Academy of Music from Composers Edition composers. Read a conversation between Sunny Cho and Colin Riley and the composers’ thoughts on this new work for cello.

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German Choir London’s Barbara Höfling On Corona Commissions (feat. Ian Stephens and Michael Cryne)

“The Corona Commissions started with a tweet”. Find out just how these commissions came about.

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