Wednesday, December 7, 2011

NCCO- Panel Discussion on Commissioning New Choral Works

NCCO More Saturday Interest Sessions

In addition to the Alice Parker-centered events Saturday there were two other events. These were choir/composer based events-- the first was on commissioning new choral music and the second was the introduction of the initial compositions of the new NCCO Choral Music Series. Both events were heavily attended and excellent.

The commissioning event was a round table discussion ably led by Alan Harler, whose Mendelssohn Club based in Philadelphia has commissioned 48 works since 1990. The panel members were composers Kirke Mechem and Libby Larsen, composer/conductor Steven Sametz, and conductors Jeffrey Douma and Nathaniel Lew.

(Alan Harler)

Much of the discussion centered on mechanics, contracts, communication between composer and conductors but also on the reason a choir should want to commission new works. A lot of stress was put on the importance of the composer being in the community the week of the performance and interacting with singers, the community, etc instead of just writing a work from a thousand miles away, mailing it in and never having any real personal interaction with the music makers. Good points often with goood humor were made. Steven Sametz was especially entertaining in his comments and Kirke Mechem was wonderful in his sharing of resources.

Here is a link to a book called Composers on Composing for Choirs (published by GIA, right down the street from me!) which you can see on Google Books (go to p. 99) and read for yourself this checklist that Mechem shared with us at NCCO ( I have not yet received written permission to post it directly).

Here are some further commissioning info sources for you if you want to explore this more:

From Meet the Composer

And Catherine Davies of ChorusAmerica has varied materials and articles she is happy to share if you write to her at

Now some personal feelings about this- and there may be a bit of mayhem ahead- oh how I wish I could name names!

I have commissioned just a few works but have been commissioned a pretty fair amount in the last ten years. In my opinion there are some things that just have to happen in order for everyone to "be happy" as Bobby McFerrin would say--

First of all I am going to look at this from the conductor/organizational side of things, and not approach it from where you may have expected for me to start from- the composers side. I am doing this because I am very disappointed by the behavior of some composers and I think some of them need to work a lot harder to do the right thing by conductors and organizations (Lew gave an example of receiving a commissioned work two years past its due date- ugh, ugh, and shall I say it again?- ugh!). Also composers need to realize that conductors and organizations have rehearsal schedules to maintain and that also they are paying out their trust AND money to the composer- they really don't have a true guarantee of receiving a masterpiece and may even get a dud, or something that just doesn't work for their choir or the event the piece was to be for. Because most of the artistic risk is on the organizational side, composers should be far more willing to work harder to gain AND MAINTAIN trust. When I heard of the two year overdue piece that Lew referred to I was mad- it reflects badly on all composer and makes us look like narcissistic spoiled brats.

Conductors deserve to have some real input into the piece in some way- and perhaps in a lot of ways (conductors do vary a lot on how much they hope to control and how much they want to leave open). Sharing text selection decisions with the composer and/or at least approving the final choice to make sure it fits the scope of what they want is something that is very important to most all involved.

Composers ought to NEVER EVER be late with delivering a commission unless they have been run over by a Pizza Hut truck, or succumbed to dementia from being kidnapped by zombies and forced to watch Kardashian reality series shows or something along those lines.

Composers need to strive and honor difficulty parameters, range parameters, and so on that have been discussed in some sort of depth. Even though some of this is subjective, I am able to put some of this into contract language. And I'm not implying here that commissioned pieces should be easy- I am just saying they should fit what was discussed.

All composers should be willing to be open to all communication- not shut it off.

Finally, maybe even some composers who can't respect conductors/organizations should not appear on panels that discuss commissioning new music.

So... I'll keep going...a few years ago the following was my horror story. I have not told this story to any but close friends until now and have pretty much let go my anger about it- but the offending composer was in the room at this NCCO event and it was just galling me over and over to see this person present.

This was a joint commission between my group and two other groups. We chose a well-known composer (who was a friend of two of us at the time, btw) and worked out many musical parameters and timelines in phone calls.

And after all this groundwork here is what then gradually transpired:

We wrote up a contract which included language for a down payment from us once we received a signed contract. But the composer never signed the contract, even when reminded again and again.

We started asking more detailed questions about the text (which was roughly agreed upon to earlier- it was a series of texts on a theme - some texts were already chosen and some still to be discovered) to which we were told "It's none of your business"

We started asking for even simple progress reports which were ignored and then were answered with "Leave me alone, and I will only talk to you through my assistant" (oh yeah, he didn't talk to us either).

As the date the score was due had almost arrived we were becoming so worried it was ridiculous. And then the deadline for the piece to be delivered passed and we were left waiting and with no response to our inquiries. We wondered-- would we ever receive it, how would we handle the fact that we had already printed up professionally printed promotional items heralding performances of this commission, how would one of our parties handle the fact that they were expecting to tour this piece?

The piece became even more and more overdue. I contacted the composers high profile publisher (thankfully the person answering the phone was someone I knew personally and who chose to speak freely to me) and here is what I was told: "Oh, I bet X hasn't even started this piece- X is behind on all X's commission commitments". My stunned response was- "You can't be right- and I can't fathom where we are if you ARE right"!

At this point we were all aghast. We pushed and pushed for communication (after all, by now all three groups should already be starting to rehearse this piece) and finally what happened was this- we received a shoddily, seemingly quickly written piece that did not fit any of the parameters discussed, and which included some text passages that would be obviously offensive to the world view of one of the commissioning parties institution, was far short of the duration time agreed upon, was a cappella instead of with piano as had been agreed upon and many more transgressions. The composer then demanded ALL the fee be paid immediately. In fact, payment of this fee became the only thing that X wanted to discuss. Wow- all we could do was shake our collective heads!

We consulted a couple attorneys (working pro bono, thankfully) and their advice was to refuse the piece as it 1) was so late as to be impossible for at least one of our choirs to prepare in time 2) didn't honor any of the verbally agreed upon parameters 3) the composer had refused to communicate, and 4) the composer had refused to sign a contract. This was met with a threat to sue us- but we stood firm- we knew we were in the right.

Was I comfortable and happy with our stance? Being a composer myself, in a sense I never was- but it was the logical one considering how illogical and unfair all the composer's many actions or shall I say inactions were. The composer finally backed off and saved face I guess in their mind by hawking this piece to their publisher-- needless to say friendships ended and tough lessons were learned by some of us. But today I know WE did no wrong- or perhaps the only thing we did do wrong was trust this "friend" way too much and not find a way to force the composer to sign a contract and talk to us. I have wondered now and then if the composer in question learned anything from what happened- I would hope so, but I really have no way of knowing.

So here is what I learned as a commissioned composer from this- I have vowed to never ever be late with a piece, I listen really hard to what people want from me, I stay in touch and so on. And I think this has really paid off well- I believe that everyone who has commissioned me over the years has been really happy with how I deal with them regarding contracts, text selection, communication-- and I also try to make each special in some musical or textual way- not just delivering one size fits all pieces. So...I write this not to scare people away from commissioning- but to help them get it right. And it does go right, I would bet, about 90% or more of the time!

REMEMBER: WRITE (and get it signed) A CONTRACT-- even with "friends".

KEEP THE COMMUNICATION GOING, and hey, have some fun along the way too- we're creating new art and new artistic experiences together! Commissioning is almost always a great experience for everyone.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what an awful experience, Paul. I do love the silver lining that it makes you that much more conscientious when you write commissions.