How to commission
Commissioning a new work is a really exciting way to bring into the world a brand new piece of art that is custom-made for you or your ensemble! Typically, a conductor or performer (the “commissioner”) (or conductors/performers in the case of co-commissioning or a consortium) asks a composer to compose a new work (the “commission”) in return for a commission fee. The composer and commissioner then organize the terms of the project together, usually with a contract.
Getting started: things to consider before the first conversation
The first conversation with a potential commissioner is usually at least 30 minutes long, and in that conversation I aim to find out as much as I can about the performer(s) and organize some specific details about the work itself, timelines, and fees. There are a few things I almost always ask about, and some of these things are really worth considering in advance of that first conversation.
Some things for the commissioner to consider in advance:
- What will be the date of the premiere performance? Backing up from that date, when do the performers need the final score in hand, when does the final score need to be delivered to the person making copies for the ensemble, and what should be the schedule for looking at drafts?
- What kind of ensemble will this work before? What kind of accompaniment? Do note that commission rates are often based on ensemble type, with higher rates for larger ensembles, and creating instrumental parts is considered a separate task from the creative work of composing a piece, which often means a separate fee beyond the commissioning fee.
- How long will the piece be? This may or may not affect the commissioning fee, depending on whether the fee is based on a per-minute of music rate (like the Canadian League of Composers rates) or a flat fee, and both of those options are good ones, depending on the situation. For example, I recently worked with a commissioner who asked for a short piece, but stated that a short piece that is really well constructed may take quite some doing, and suggested that in this case, the per-minute-commission rate felt inappropriate as the resulting fee would be too low. I must say I truly appreciated this insight!
- What is your budget?
- Is there a text? If so, have you chosen one? Is the text in the public domain or will you need permission to use it? If permission is required, we will need permission to set the text (which we can’t always get!), and often there is a fee due to either the author, poet, or publisher of the text. This fee is the commissioners responsibility to pay and is in addition to the commissioning fee
Questions I often ask in the first conversation (other than the above):
- What is the theme or concept of the program this commission is for?
- Is there a work of mine that you have in mind that you are hoping this work will be similar to? Are you open to a variety of styles and sonorities or do you have a specific vision for sound?
- What is the level of the ensemble? Can you share some works (mine or other) that demonstrate the approximate difficulty level you’re going for? Can you share some works that the ensemble especially enjoys performing or that suit the ensemble’s sound particularly well?
- (For voices): What are the optimal ranges for the sections of your choir and what are the reliable highest notes for your sopranos and tenors? Are those high notes sustainable or just good for a brief moment?
- Where can there be successful divisi? Are there sections that should not divide? Do you have any terrific soloists in the choir that I can keep in mind?
- How involved do you want to be during the creative process? I often compose in a very “quilt like” fashion, but it can still be possible to have some correspondence along the way!
- Will we plan to work together in the rehearsal phase?
Working with a contract
Some commissioners have their own commissioning contract, but often I use my own, which I developed from the template provided by the Canadian League of Composers. View a sample commissioning contract here.
I’ve found working with a contract to be incredibly helpful and provides a great starting point for getting organized. A contract also:
- Serves as a checklist of topics we need to discuss about the new work
- Ensures that deadlines and dates are clear and reminds all involved to “think backwards” from the premiere date so that scores are in hand with the right amount of time for rehearsal
- Protects the commissioner by including a “fee shall not exceed” line, since often commissioning fees are based on a per-minute-of-music rate.
- Gives us a framework for deciding whether the fee be a flat rate or a per-minute-of-music rate
- Gives everybody involved a sense of clarity, organization, and security!
During the creative process
If we are working together to find a text, this is the first big step to get DONE. Finding text can be a major time-vortex, and I ask commissioners to be involved in this process, as I often find that commissioners have a very solid artistic vision and even if I find several texts to suggest, more often than not, the commissioner is able to find something that aligns better with what they’re looking for. Often, it’s good to get that text in place before finalizing the contract, since it’s impossible to meet commission deadlines if we haven’t chosen a text!
Once the composing phase begins, here are some things to consider:
- If anything changes along the way, it’s important to let me know as soon as possible. For example, perhaps the concert the work will be premiering in will include a piece with cello, so you’ll have a cellist present and would like to suggest the option of having a cello part in the piece
- This idea goes for creative ideas as well. If something strikes you as a great idea for the work, please share it! It might not always be possible to include it, but it’s always good to know.
- Keep communication simple and clean. In other words, it’s best if correspondence on creative matters happen between the composer and one other person, in the case of new works for ensembles. Things can get time consuming and confusing quickly when a lot of stakeholders start weighing in or checking in during the creative process. Of course for something like a piano trio we can all work together, but for large ensembles, it’s good to keep it simple.
- I might check in from time to time to run creative ideas by you and when I do, I really appreciate the feedback! For example, if something doesn’t look like it will showcase the performers well, I’m glad to know it!
- It might be comforting to know that I often work on two or three different pieces during a composing-work-day. If you reach out to me and I happen to be working on something else – don’t panic! Sometimes the day is divided into shifts like any other job, and each shift is for a different piece. This helps me keep creativity fresh.
The first look: considerations when editing drafts of a new commission
When I’m editing one of my pieces, I like to look at it from four different perspectives: the composer’s perspective, the conductor’s perspective, each performer’s perspective, and the publisher’s perspective. Each of these viewpoints gives me different clues about what needs to still evolve in the score, whether it be finding a better spot for a page turn (pianist’s perspective), adding in more bowing specifications (performer’s perspective), or adding more breath marks and rests for choral works (conductor’s and singer’s perspective). These things all save valuable time in rehearsal and help clarify ensemble and artistic intent.
If you have commissioned a work, here are some considerations I appreciate feedback about when looking over drafts (some of these don’t apply to solo works):
- General impressions – anything that comes to mind spontaneously that you’d like to share
- Do the ranges, divisis and solos all work well for your ensemble, or better yet, showcase the strengths of your ensemble?
- Please set aside the time to carefully study each part and let me know of anything you notice re: missing slurs, typos, things that are unclear to you, things you think will be unclear to performers, or anything else
- Please go through it as a conductor (if applicable), imagining teaching it to the ensemble and planning your rehearsal and let me know again things that are unclear, questions about breath marks, instructions that you’d need to give in rehearsal that we could instead save you rehearsal time by adding them to the score (for example bowing, slurring, more specific dynamics, breath marks, etc.)
- Does the balance work well for your group?
- How does the score look?
- Are there places that be notated in a way that makes it more accessible?
- Are the fonts all legible and a good size for your group?
- Is there anything you’d want to change about the layout or the music spacing?
- anything else that comes to mind re: voicing, dynamics, sonority, texture, balance, etc!
These are a few ideas to help us communicate as thoroughly as possible so that the final score is the best it can be. I can’t overstate how great it is to take the time to edit things in as much detail as possible – it saves so much time in rehearsal and leaves more room for interpretive work!