Tuesday, February 28, 2012


What mechanisms exist for connecting composers and performers?

Okay, I know what they are at the John Adams/SFS/LAPO or Magnus Lindberg/NYPO or Mark Adamo/SFO level: organization wants a new work from a prominent composer, the organization or the music director knows or likes a particular composer, a big-money donor wants to sponsor a new work, etc.

Then there are famous new music ensembles like ICE and Bang on a Can.

What happens elsewhere? How do composers and performers find each other?


Tod Brody said...

In my experience, which is primarily with smaller organizations (San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, Earplay, San Francisco Chamber Orchestra) the process is not that much different from what you describe with the majors. The group's artistic leadership identifies a composer they would like a new piece from, funding is arranged (sometimes with help from foundation grants or service organizations), and the plan proceeds from there. It might also begin with a big-money (or even medium-money) donor who wants to make this happen for the group. The main difference in these cases (between small- and large-budget organizations) is the scope of the commission, which could be reflected in the size of the new work (both in performing forces needed and in length of the piece), and the level of the composer which the organization can afford. In some cases, a very high level (normally high $$$ commission) composer will work for a smaller than usual sum if they're especially enthused about the performers or the project, but in general, an organization like Earplay, for example, isn't likely to commission an Adams or a Lindberg (even if they were still writing chamber music).

Some smaller- budget organizations also create composer residencies, in which a composer has a longer-term relationship with the organization. Financial arrangements vary. Local examples include Mark Winges's long-term residency with Volti, and Gabriela Lena Frank's residencies with Berkeley Symphony and San Francisco Chamber Orchestra.

Many (most?) of the smaller-budget performance organizations also have yearly contests, in which composers are invited to submit scores which are then evaluated by the group, and a winner or two or three are chosen to have their works performed. This can be a good way of forming connections between performers and composers with whom they've previous not collaborated. In reality, it's often used by these small-budget organizations to raise a little money (there is usually an application fee), and few of these collaborations end up being long-term partnerships.

And, there are a few foundations and service organizations which offer funding for commissions. In our area, the Gerbode Foundation commissions the Creative Work Fund sometimes fund composer/performer collaborations (they also fund non-musical artists). Nationally New Music USA (the name of the merger between Meet the Composer and American Music Center) and the American Composers Forum both have commissioning opportunities, some of which favor new collaborations.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Thank you! That is extremely informative.

Are Magnum Opus commissions still being made? Maybe not; I can't find recent references...

Elaine Fine said...

Composers who are successful at getting commissions work very hard to cultivate relationships. The business end of composing is like the business else: you have to identify your "market" and then make your work appealing to that market.

I stopped entering composition contests years and years ago, but I find people to write for among the musicians I play with. Some of the musicians I play with are extremely good, and it is for those musicians that I feel I write my best music. Some of them come up with money from various organizations and entities (I don't make it my business to know), but most of them, who don't have the financial wherewithal to do such things, trade in a currency other than money.

Tod Brody said...

Elaine's point is very important. The composers who get opportunities are the ones who are proactive and who put their best energy into cultivating relationships with performers, presenters, donors, etc. You have to be awfully good before you can expect your phone to ring with a commission opportunity. This puts composers who lack personal and communicative skills at a serious disadvantage.