We have asked several composers to share insight into their process of composing on commission. Our hope is that it will encourage more ensembles to forge a relationship with a composer who can create new music for them, one of the most satisfying events in the life of both ensemble and composer.
We’ll hear from three Minnesota composers in this issue of Star of the North, newcomer, Sarah Rimkus, and two familiar composers, Peter J. Durow and Daniel Kallman. Composer Thomas LaVoy, who is married to Sarah, will be featured in an upcoming article. Thanks to Abbie Betinis for recommending them. We invite you to explore these composers’ websites where there are thoughtful insights and information on commissioning, which will apply both to them and most other composers with whom you may wish to work.
Peter embedded his thoughts into our quite general prompts. Sarah and Dan’s comments responded to the same questions.
Peter J. Durow
Describe your most notable choral commissions – most or least successful, most challenging or growth-inducing for you, of greatest service to the ensemble or choral community.
Some of my most treasured commissions have come out of relationships that I have developed with commissioning parties. A commission by an alma mater, commissions from former teachers, and several commissions from trusted colleagues have all been fulfilling. I have also enjoyed writing commissioned works for ensembles that I have personally worked with. This has been rewarding to write for specific musicians with all of their strengths and limitations in mind. I completed a commission for a church’s 150th anniversary where I was able to write for specific instrumentalists and incorporate celebratory music that would be successful for the church’s multiple ensembles (SATB choir, Youth/Kids choir, piano, handbells, and b-flat clarinet). (http://peterjdurow.com/index.html)
What prescribed parameters are most helpful? Least helpful?
For me personally, I like to know as many parameters as possible. A short list on the commissions page of my personal website includes:
- possible texts
- the length of the work
- performing forces
- difficulty level
- the date of the first rehearsal
- inscription on the title page
- general mood or style for your commissioned work
The text is usually the most important piece of the puzzle for me. I have done some commissions where I have spent half of my time thinking about and looking for the perfect text and then the other half setting the text to music. If I am asked to set a text that I don’t like or don’t think should be set to music, then it probably is not going to be a piece that anyone will be happy with. So being asked to set a text that I don’t have a connection with would be least helpful for me. The length and scope of a text will also influence the length and scope of the music. One of my former teachers, James Mulholland, once told me: “If the text is “Alleluia, Amen” and the commission is for a 6-minute work, then the music must be superior.”
How do you prefer to select the text?
I prefer to have some collaboration in selecting the text. If the commissioning party has a specific text in mind, I will of course do my best to use the text that they are wanting to use. If they don’t have a text selected, then I would prefer to offer some suggestions so that it can be something that we are both happy with.
What is the choral commission you would like to receive?
This is a good question that I haven’t really thought about. At this point in my life, it would be fun and challenging to write a major work, an opera, or an oratorio. Most of my compositions and arrangements are relatively short works that were written to be successful for a wide variety of choirs. I haven’t had the opportunity to write a large-scale work of substance. So that would be a commission that I would love to receive.
Working with ensembles on commissioned pieces is, in my opinion, one of the most fulfilling parts of being a composer. I strive to create a work that is tailored to an ensemble’s strengths and meaningful to them in its themes and text. (http://www.sarahrimkus.com/)
In composition, specific parameters often make us more creative. When working with student composers, I frequently set highly specific assignments for them and this tends to yield great results – both in terms of the work they produce, and their technical learning and enjoyment of composing. I always appreciate it when conductors are upfront and specific about what their ensembles can do and what kinds of repertoire they enjoy singing.
In terms of selecting text, this is an area where a conductor can have a profound impact on a composition. In my experience, the most important collaborative moments between a conductor and a composer happen at the very beginning of the compositional process when settling on a text. I find it inspiring when conductors have a strong programmatic vision, and thematic direction from the director can be crucial to finding a text that speaks to me as a composer. After all, there are an infinite number of textual starting points for choral works out there in the world. Input from a commissioner can help me zero in on something special, as well as look in sources I might not otherwise have found.
Of course, trust is of the utmost importance and it must go both ways, especially when selecting text. Suggesting specific texts can indeed be helpful sometimes, but I do believe the final call must be up to the composer. Text searching is a much larger component of our jobs than many realize, and we work long and hard to find texts that will produce meaningful and unique work. Personally, I like to have a healthy balance of some projects which have very specific parameters and some which are more open.
Some of my most notable commissions include pieces for The Esoterics, Harmonium Choral Society, Nazareth College Chamber Singers, and several works commissioned by Lee Ryder for Amuse Singers and others. As an example, my piece for The Esoterics set words from interviews I conducted with two women from my hometown who were incarcerated as Japanese Americans during WWII. The piece fit the theme of the “secular requiem” and consolation for loss in a distinctive way.
Other commissions which have not been premiered yet include pieces for the Glasgow School of Art Choir, Portara Ensemble, and the Miami University Men’s Glee Club.
In the future, I’d love to receive a commission to write a work inspired by the work of Ada Lovelace. There are musical works inspired by her already, but they tend to focus more on her emotional life. I’d love to dive into the nitty-gritty of her programming with music. I also enjoyed setting the poetry of Oxford poet Mary Anne Clark in my setting of her poem “The Arctic Tern’s Prayer” for Nazareth College Chamber Singers. I would love to receive a commission where I could work with her further.
The most notable and personally satisfying choral commissions that I have been fortunate to fulfill have been for younger singers. This is primarily because one of my favorite things to do in life is to hear children sing well! By far my most successful piece for youth in terms of sales, repeat performances and positive feedback is Won’t You Sing Along? for unison voices and piano (2010). It was not “commissioned” in the normal sense. Rather, I assembled a consortium of children’s choirs from around the country by contacting directors who had performed other music of mine. Before I composed the piece, I simply asked them to commit to purchasing the number of copies they would need for their choir. In this case, I had a positive response from over a dozen conductors, so an additional benefit is that I had that many “premieres” of the piece. I wrote the text and am self publishing Won’t You Sing Along? but also sell it through retailers, most requests coming from J.W.Pepper, so it has most likely been sung more than any other choral piece of mine. I have put together similar consortiums for other settings for youth choirs. They are Velvet Shoes (for 34 choirs), Early American Songs – Set One (three settings for 32 choirs) and Early American Songs – Set Two: The Spirituals (three settings for 16 choirs). (https://kallmancreates.com/)
In addition, I have had three commissions for extended works for the combined choirs of larger youth choir programs in which each choir is featured individually, all joining together at the end. These works are In Endless Song: A Mosaic of American Folk Music (with piano and string quartet), Caged Bird (on a text of Maya Angelou, with flute, piano and tenor soloist), and Children, Come (a Christmas medley).
Because my choral commissions are almost always for youth, church or school choirs, many of the parameters of the work are decided in advance by the nature of the ensemble (SATB, SSA, 2 part, unison), the abilities of the choir and their accompanist (I always ask to hear a recording or at least a list of literature they have sung), and the occasion for which I am being asked to write (anniversary or retirement celebration, memorial, sacred vs. secular, etc.) These criteria also help to determine my choice of text. I am not opposed to the commissioning party suggesting further parameters for a new work, even a list of potential texts, as long as I have the final say! Having so many non musical decisions made ahead of time “limits” my artistic choices, which I find to be helpful as I start composing.
I would love to receive a commission to compose an extended work for a large, ethnically diverse choir, including singers of all ages, with additional instrumentation, on themes of social justice, pointing to what a beautiful world this could be for so many more of us.
About Dennis Friesen-Carper
Dennis Friesen-Carper is a versatile conductor, composer, and keyboardist with performances in major venues of North America, China, and Europe. Former Music Director of the Pasadena Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus, and Indiana Opera North, he is experienced with orchestras and choirs in professional, academic, and church settings. He is active as guest conductor and composer, most recently at Shanghai University, Wuhan Conservatory, and with the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra of Warsaw. Dr. Friesen-Carper serves as Music Director at St John’s Lutheran Church in Lakeville, MN and is teaching conducting and leading the Philharmonia Orchestra for Spring 2022 at St Olaf College. In December of 2022 he will conduct the Asian Cultural Symphony in concert in New York’s Carnegie Hall.
Commissioners include the Houston Symphony, Houston Chamber Singers, Tucson Symphony, Zhejiang Symphony and Symphony Chorus, Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries, Lutheran Music Program, and Augsburg Fortress, with recent sacred works premiered in Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. Innocents, his oratorio with Walter Wangerin, Jr. on the abuse of power, received the 2010 Arlin G. Meyer Prize.
As Reddel Professor of Music at Valparaiso University, Dr. Friesen-Carper created the all-student Symphony, conducted opera, musicals, and oratorio, taught composition, conducting, and improvisation. He has collaborated with Chinese musicians for over twenty years, including keyboards and arrangements for three tours with Silk Cedar, a Chinese/American fusion band.