A Quickstart Guide to Commissions

Garrett Lathe

Garret Lathe

We are privileged to live in a state with an abundant number of incredible composers and stunning premieres every season. Yet the question remains: Have you commissioned new music in the last five years?

After this quick read, you will have not only the information, but also the resources you need to be a part of a commission project next season.


COMMISSION HACK: JOIN A CONSORTIUM

If you want to jumpstart getting new music to your choir, join a Commission Consortium. This model is an agreement between a composer and a fixed number of choirs to premiere composition. Each choir would have a window of time to premiere the piece in their individual performances. Many consortiums include input and communication between conductor and composer for elements of the composition and its performance. The cost of a consortium can vary greatly depending on the number of ensembles involved and the scope of the work. Some can be much less expensive than purchasing a published piece (under $100), all the way to a few thousand dollars for fewer choirs and/or a multi-movement work. A reasonable expectation would be around $200 for a 3-5 minute work.

This is a viable, proven model for a commission experience. If that’s you, here are your next steps:

  • Consider Consortio. It is a marketplace specifically for consortiums, connecting conductors and composers for specific projects based on voicing, instrumentation, difficulty, and of course timelines.
  • Look at organizations like ACDA (National or Minnesota), Chorus America, or others for initiatives and commemorations that include a commission consortium.
  • Contact a composer! Look at their website, check blogs, or just email and ask if she or he has consortiums in the works, or have ever considered the idea.
  • Keep your ear to the ground. You’ll often hear about a consortium that could fit your group well in forums, facebook groups, and blogs.

Whether or not you take part in a consortium, you should consider experiencing, or at least developing a deeper understanding of, the commission process. Here are five brief steps to get you on your way:

STEP ONE: DETERMINE FUNDING

A 3-5 minute work can run from $1,000 to $6,000, varying from an arrangement or a work by an emerging composer to a piece with a few instruments from a prominent composer. Possible funding sources include:

  • Regional Arts Council Grants (RAC). If you are in Minnesota, your artistic activities are fundable by a Regional Arts Council. A commissioned piece can easily fall under a project grant or public art grant (depending on your RAC’s requirements). This funding is usually around 80% of the project, making a commission feasible.
  • Foundation Grants. Slightly more restrictive than arts grants, many regional and state foundations supports arts activities, especially if they include a measurable community impact.
  • Local Education Foundations. For public schools, many communities have a support organization that funds creative and innovative opportunities and programming for schools. While often times funds are dispersed through smaller grants, it may be feasible with coordination for an education foundation to become part of funding a commission.
  • Benefactor/Community Giving. Many communities will get behind a great idea, especially when it supports a commemoration or anniversary.
  • General Budget. The most predictable way to make new music a part of your choir’s life is to build your budget around what you value. It may take a few years (and perhaps a few consortiums) to make it happen, but it is possible!

STEP TWO: FIND A COMPOSER AND TIMELINE

Yes, this is two steps, but they go hand in hand. You don’t want to approach a composer without having a premiere date in mind, but you also want to be flexible if you are set on one composer.

  • Think 12-18 months ahead. Depending on the composer, you won’t always need that much time, but it is wise to be at least 12 months ahead of time, 18-24 months for composers who are also teachers/conductors or composers who are in high demand.
  • Search out composers through convention and conference performances, or even stop by a booth. Ask colleagues of like-minded ensembles for references. Look at aspirational ensembles (those that are slightly above your performance level) and see what composers they are performing and/or commissioning.
  • Know Thy Composer. Once you’ve found a few composers you like, dig deep and do your research. Just as your time is precious, so is your composer’s time. As you dialogue with the composer, learn as much as you can about their background, compositions, and style. Listen to as many pieces as you can.
  • Know Thyself. Have an elevator pitch for your choir, their strength, personality, and what they can and cannot do. Divisi, tonality, dissonance tolerance, and ranges. Got a weak section? That’s good to know! Do your second basses have low B-flats? That will give a composer some great options.

STEP THREE: YOUR CONTRACT OR MINE?

Diving into the pool of contract language is not as daunting as it would seem. Many composers have their own “boilerplate” agreement, as do many choral organizations who commission often. If you want to dig in to what a contract looks like, here is a version that works well. Here are the main building blocks of an agreement:

  • Composition length, text, voicing and instrumentation.
    • A composition’s length is usually 3-5 minutes.
    • You may have already determined secular or sacred, and a general subject. Often the composer will present some ideas before or after the agreement is signed. Know that living poets/lyricists are often compensated for having their work set to music, and this is most often an expense that the composer pays outside of the agreement.
    • You should have an idea of what voicing, including divisi, you want, and whether you want the piece unaccompanied, with piano, or an additional instrument or two.
  • Fees and deadlines. While it varies from composer to composer, the overall fee is usually divided in two: When the composer begins work on the piece, and when the score is delivered. The deadlines for both are up to your rehearsal schedule and composer’s workflow. Be sure to build in extra time to proof the score and arrange printing for the choir. Things like composer visits to rehearsal or performance are usually outside the fees of a contract.
  • Exclusive period, materials, and copyrights. The exclusive period is the time you have the performance (and first recording) to yourself. After that it belongs to the composer and to the world. Materials (the score and any individual instrumental parts) are usually delivered digitally, and sometimes engraver fees apply. Typically the choir has the rights to keep the scores in their files and perform the piece in the future. A choir must not loan these copies out to any other choir, and the copyright remains with the composer.
  • Inscription and dedication. Above the title of the piece you’ve helped create will be your choir’s name, often the conductor’s name, and any dedication/commemoration that you determine.
  • Legalese. It wouldn’t be a contract without some mundane parts, including if one party or the other doesn’t live up to their obligation, dissolution, and the recourse for any variables.

STEP FOUR: COMMUNICATE EARLY AND (REASONABLY) OFTEN.

Key Step: If your composer emails you, reply. Quickly.

Imagine being in the middle of a creative idea, about to compose the most beautiful line you’ve ever heard, but you have a small roadblock that needs to be removed with the help of your collaborative conductor. You send a quick email or text. Hours pass. Days pass. Crickets. Your piece is now destined to live on the towering heap of mediocrity.

While that scenario is a slight bit overstated, it serves a point. The composer is endeavoring on the task of creating something for you. Any way you can help set him or her up for success will keep your collaboration rich and vibrant. A few tips:

  • Meet your deadlines.
  • When a question requires a thoughtful response beyond the time you currently have, say, “I’d love to give you a thoughtful reply.. Can I get back you this evening?”
  • Don’t be alarmed with no communication for a while. Composers are good at keeping a piece on their mind, even when they aren’t putting pencil to paper. In fact, if you’re thinking about it, there’s a strong chance that it’s keeping them up at night.
  • Instead of asking “How is that piece coming?,” say “Is there anything you need from me?”
  • As with all emails, if it’s more than a few paragraphs, it’s probably worth a phone call.

And finally…

STEP FIVE: ENJOY THE PROCESS.

After 15 collaborations, I still find the process magical. Yes, there have been bumps in the road, postponed premieres, missed deadlines… but there have been far more incredible discoveries than disappointments. You get to be the first group to bring a composer’s work to life! Whether you conduct children or seasoned professionals, the sense of wonder is palpable when you first crack open the score and dig into something only the composer has heard in their mind. Share that sense of wonder with your choir, with the composer, and with your patrons!


NOTE: This article is intended to serve as a general outline of the commission process from the perspective of one organization. Experiences will vary from choir to choir.

 

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