Why should I commission a work?

New works are the lifeblood of our art, because (as the tagline from the American Composers Forum regularly reminds us) “all music was once new music.” New music matters; it advances the frontiers of music-making and gives scope to new expressions and new experiences of sound. This is perhaps the most important reason to commission new works: doing so creates new repertoire for ensembles to perform and ultimately share with their audiences. It is an experience in which everyone who participates, benefits.

But there are other benefits to commissioning, as well. Performers premiering newly-composed works often speak of the excitement that facing and meeting this challenge creates, and the way in which it develops new skills of audiation, ensemble performance, and vocalism required to meet the demands of the music they perform. Conductors who commission and program new works not only gain an opportunity to sharpen their own rehearsal skills, but can leverage these experiences to set their choirs apart from the competition, attract greater notice, and build audience shares.

A final benefit of commissioning new music is that it allows works to be custom-tailored for the ensemble that premieres them. Not every choir necessarily has the numerical forces or vocal flexibility needed to perform Morten Lauridsen’s Lux Aeterna, Eric Whitacre’s Lux Aurumque, or Thomas Tallis’s O Nata Lux. But music written specifically for your ensemble, with its particular strengths, weaknesses, interests, and audiences deliberately kept in mind, has the potential to make your ensemble sound its very best, strengthen its confidence, and enable it to make progress in areas where they may be presently challenged or in need of further growth.

Where do I begin?

Send me an e-mail to introduce yourself and your ensemble! The product you are hoping to commission is a byproduct of the relationship we forge. As such, the more I get to know about you and your singers the better and more meaningful the work will be. Consider telling me about the music you have performed, the program you are currently putting together, or works you are hoping to tackle the season during which the commissioned work would be premiered. Tell me about when you think your ensemble is at its best, and when you think they struggle to shine. If you have recordings of recent performances, consider sending me a link to a YouTube video, or sharing samples via a Dropbox folder. Keep in mind that until we have a chance to get to know one another and discuss the project, the question you are most dying to ask is probably the question I am least capable of answering:

How much does it cost?

There are a number of variables that affect the price of a commission. A few of the questions I typically ask as part of our initial dialogue in order to determine an initial price are:

  • How long do you want the work to be?
  • When do you need the final score?
  • Will the work be unaccompanied or accompanied?
  • How many voices will be used?
  • Will there be solo passages, descants, or divisi? If so, in which parts will/can they occur?
  • Would you like me to select the text, or will it be supplied in advance?

It’s okay if you do not have the answer to those—or other similar—questions. These are talking points designed not only to help us work out a price, but also to help us begin to get to know one another. So don’t worry about not having all of the answers up front.

I’m worried that I won’t have enough in my budget. Is there any way to lower the price?

If the price we ultimately come to is too high, there may be adjustments we can consider making to help yield a lower cost. If your plans involve being able to start rehearsals on the work in six months, what about pushing back the premiere a bit? The busier I am the higher the cost, so the more time you can give me to compose your work the less expensive the price may be.

Does the style of piece you are hoping for really necessitate the instrumentation you have requested? While it’s great to provide a lot of information about what the piece you are wanting to commission should ultimately sound like, too many requests can make it difficult for me to be creative. Sometimes telling me the style and spirit of the work you are after without prescribing how you are hoping I achieve that sound will lower the cost.

Is there a way we can adapt the work so that it is more likely to be performed again or published? For example, a secular work involving pipe organ will have a very limited audience. Swapping the secular text out for one that’s sacred, or considering the use of “keyboard” over organ will make the piece significantly easier to find repeat performances and thus allow us to lower the price.

Those are just a few of the ideas we might consider.

If price is your biggest concern (and I get it! I’m a teacher too, so I know what it’s like to have to balance a budget and justify expenses!), I strongly encourage you to tell me what your budget is for the project. Let me figure out how to do what you are asking for with the amount you can offer. The truth is that I want to compose a work that touches you, your singers, and your audience. While price is likely your biggest worry, it is often the least of my concerns.

Will you come work with my ensemble and attend the premiere?

That’s entirely up to you! However, I generally expect you to cover the cost of travel, lodging, and meals for my trip.

Do I need a contract?

Contracts are a great tool used for protecting the composer and commissioner in the event that either is unable to complete the work. While I have never had that happen, the possibility exists and a contract tells us how to proceed should a disaster occur. More importantly, contracts are a way of getting the scope of the work in writing. If your organization has a standard contract for commissioning musical works, great! If not, I have one that I can provide.

The information presented above is adapted from the paper and associated talk: Demystifying the Commissioning Process: Advice from Both Sides of the Podium by Gerald Custer and Blake Henson (2015).