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Commissioning a New Work! Our story...

Part 1 - The Commissioning Process

I recently had the pleasure of being commissioned by Everything Conducting’s team member Anna Edwards and The Seattle Collaborative Orchestra. It turned out to be such a success that Anna suggested I share the process with the readers of Everything Conducting.

Origin of the commission

I first learned of Anna and her orchestra when she reached out to me via my website. She found my piece, Sirens for Orchestra, after a youtube search. We had a great conversation and became fast friends. After performing Sirens, Anna asked me to write a piece for her orchestra, which I readily agreed to do.

Anna and I collaborated on virtually every aspect of the new work - from the initial musical ideas and instrumentation, to the final performance. This close collaboration between conductor and composer is not unusual but may seem daunting to people new to the process. Some of you may also feel that your orchestra/ensemble isn’t ready to commission a new work. Not so! I guarantee that there is a composer out there who is ready to write something specifically to suit your ensemble and its needs. Allow me to share our process with you.

Considering Anna’s needs

Anna’s orchestra is made up of professionals, talented high school students, semi-professional, and retired musicians. Anna needed a work to open a 'Women’s History Month' concert in February that had to work well with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, the main work on the program. It was imperative to Anna that the work be suitable for both seasoned professionals as well as the less experienced players. We had our initial conversation in April with the planned performance in February the following year. While that was more than enough time for me to write this orchestral work, keep in mind that some composers might need more time. Every composer works differently, so make sure to ask exactly how long they need and plan accordingly.

My goal as composer was to create a work that was sophisticated enough for any professional orchestra to perform and still be ‘side by side’ friendly. The result was 1001 for Orchestra and Prerecorded Electronics, a piece that works as both an educational/side-by-side work as well as a companion piece to Scheherazade.

While Anna was very open to any musical ideas I had, she did limit me in a few ways. First, the piece could not be longer than ten minutes due to length of the program. Second, I had to limit my instrumentation to the instrumentation of the largest piece on the program (which in this case was Scheherazade). She did, however, allow the use of electronics - as long as it was very easy to line up with the orchestra and could sound good in any performance situation. As the conductor or commissioning institution, it is important to communicate exactly what you’d like for your commission: length of work, instrumentation, and due date are all important things to agree upon so there are no misunderstandings down the road.

The concept

Once these parameters were in place, we brainstormed about a concept. We wanted to make Scheherazade relevant to today’s audience. We came up with the idea of looking at her situation through her eyes. We wondered what Scheherazade’s life was like. Her existence dependent on the quality of her narratives. Finishing one story only to start the next in a seamless flow to prolong her life. Scheherazade lived in fear of the man she shared a bed with. It is a story especially resonant in today’s climate. To illustrate Scheherazade's experience, I decided to use electronics to explore the heroine’s vacillating emotions. I created the electronics score incorporating various modular and analog synthesizers. I designed it specifically for ‘ease of use’: just press play and the prerecorded electronics plays alongside the orchestra with very little tech needed (only a simple CD/MP3 playback in the hall). If the tempi indications are followed relatively closely, the playback is seamless and works perfectly with the piece. Anna only needed to rehearse the piece with the electronics a few times and it was ready for performance. The playback in the hall was flawless and the effect was exactly what we had hoped it would be.

Important details

I took the liberty of creating an audio ‘mock-up’ for Anna to help her prepare the piece, especially since there were electronics involved. This is something you as the commissioning conductor/ensemble should feel free to ask for. Once the piece was written, I sent it to my publisher to prepare the score and parts who in turn sent them to the orchestra. If you are commissioning a composer who is self-published, make sure they are familiar with MOLA (Major Orchestra Librarians Association) and their rules for orchestral scores and parts. For example, you should NEVER receive music printed on 8 ½ x 11 printer paper, page turns should be manageable, and your score should be typeset and easy to read. Most composers know of these rules and adhere to them, but it would also be a good idea for you to familiarize yourself with the MOLA music preparation guidelines here.

Being commissioned by an orchestra and working with the conductor and ensemble is a high point for any composer. Most, if not all composers, are happy to be asked to write an orchestral work and usually go out of their way to make it happen. My advice to you is if you have a favorite composer who is alive, reach out to them and simply ASK! You and your orchestra will be happy that you did.

Part 2 - ‘Will work for performances and recordings’

Well, not exactly, but the good news about commissioning is that there are wonderful composers for every commissioning budget. Do not think that you have to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a new work! This simply is not the case. While it is daunting to even conceive of paying someone to write a work for you and your orchestra, it is a relatively painless process.

First thing’s first

Reach out to a composer whose music you love! If you remember from Part 1, Anna originally found my music on youtube. She subsequently programmed that work the following season and the success of that performance resulted in the commission of 1001. Sound easy? It is! The trick is knowing exactly what you want in a newly commissioned work.

No one knows your orchestra better than you so this is your opportunity to showcase your orchestra’s (and your) talents. Have a great flute player? Ask for a special flute solo. Have an amazing cellist or percussion section? Show them off! Composers are more than happy to compose to suit your orchestra and it’s strengths.

Anna was very specific about her needs as well as the strengths of her orchestra, and I was happy to compose to those strengths! The lines of communication were open between us the entire time I was composing and our back and forth helped shape the piece. While she gave me a lot of leeway, she did at one point say ‘no’ to incorporating a celeste. This leads me to another important point - that it is okay to tell a composer NO! ‘No’ to a celeste, ‘no’ to that 5th percussion player, and ‘no’ turning a 7-minute work into 17 minutes. It is well within your right as the commissioning body to create a framework that you are comfortable with and to make sure the composer sticks to the parameters you have already agreed upon.

Creating the Commissioning Framework

If you are thinking of commissioning something for your orchestra, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What exactly would I like to program? A new symphony? A concert opener? A concerto to feature a player in the orchestra? A new work to commemorate something important happening in your town?

  • What else is on the concert? A large orchestral work? A Beethoven Symphony? A percussion concerto? Utilizing the existing instrumentation of the program will save time and money in rehearsals and performance. Composers are open to these kinds of instrumentation and time restrictions, and you as the commissioning body should feel comfortable requesting them.

When thinking about the cost of a commission, keep these things in mind:

  • As a rule, keep music copying costs separate from the fee for the commission. The costs of copying the score, extracting instrumental parts, and duplicating these materials are your responsibility. A quick conversation with the composer’s publisher can lead to a very reasonable rate for this service. Don’t be afraid to negotiate!

  • If possible, plan to record ALL performances of the commissioned work. This is of enormous importance to the composer and the future life of the work.

  • Decide in advance how much you want the composer involved during the rehearsal process, public presentations, and the like. A fresh face promoting the orchestra to the community might give your marketing and fundraising efforts an added boost. Some composers (depending upon reputation) may want an additional fee for any personal appearances. If this is the case, they should be separate from the commissioning fee and agreed upon in advance.

The Big Question: Commissioning Fees

The commission fee is usually based on the length of the work, number of performers, the budget of the commissioning party, and most importantly the reputation of the composer. A well-known composer like John Adams will demand a much larger fee than someone like… me. According to the NewMusicUSA commissioning calculator, the going rate for a 10-minute work for an orchestra with over 40 players is between $9,000-$24,000. THIS IS NEGOTIABLE! Emerging composers receiving their first commissions may accept lower fees, while more notable composers demand much higher rates.

You, as the commissioning party, can negotiate for any of the listed terms below. Please keep in mind the higher your fee, the more likely you will be able to obtain:

• the exclusive right to give premiere performances

• the exclusive performance right for a limited period

• the exclusive right to give premiere in other cities

• the right to make the work’s first commercial recording

• the right to be credited as commissioner in published editions, recordings, and

programs of all future performances

There are many more aspects of the commissioning process that aren’t covered here. If you are interested in learning more, best to reach out to the League of American Orchestras, or New Music USA to find out more.

Part 3 - Second Performances: The Hidden Premiere

Sirens for Orchestra is a great example of a ‘second performance’. What does that mean? For starters, it means that Anna didn’t have to bear the cost of commissioning a new work while still getting a ‘premiere’. Confused? Here’s what I mean.

Most pieces that are commissioned by large orchestras rarely get multiple performances, or even a second performance. As a result, this is a way for orchestras that don’t have a budget to commission, to ‘premiere’ a work without the added commissioning cost. Not all premieres have to be ‘world premieres’. In fact, many successful premieres are US, regional, or state. Something like a ‘west coast premiere’ can add a great deal of cachet to any concert program.

In our case, Anna marketed Sirens as a west coast premiere. This was not only beneficial to her, but that marketing helped give the piece a new life. That spectacular performance also solidified my relationship with Anna and her orchestras, which led to the 1001 commission.

There are MANY first performances of some incredible works that rarely, if ever, receive a second performance. Why? That is the $65,000 question. Why do some pieces catch fire and some do not? Maybe the marketing of the premiere was stellar? Maybe the conductor talked about the commissioned work to other orchestras/conductor friends/artistic administrators? Most works that get second performances have some kind of champion: the conductor, the artistic administrator, a good review, the possibilities are endless. However, lots of terrific pieces just don’t catch fire, and for no good reason other than they didn’t have a champion.

My suggestion to you is to try to find those ‘one hit wonders’ and bring them back to life! Not only will you have a premiere on your hands, but you have the added benefit that the only cost incurred will be the part rental. A win for the composer and a win for your orchestra!

Where to find these hidden gems? Why their publishers, of course! Need a work by a female composer written in the last 5 years? Call a publisher. Need a work for the 4th of July by a composer from ‘name the place’? Call a publisher. Below is a (very) short list of American publishers that will be happy to help you find those hidden gems:

I obviously had a wonderful time working with Anna on 1001 and know that it was a mutually satisfying experience. While all commissioning projects are different, I think the one thing they all share is the unique experience and satisfaction of bringing a piece of art to life for the first time. You can't duplicate the feeling of accomplishment from all members of the organization! From donors to musicians to the audience - everyone is proud of the role they played. I sincerely hope that this article takes some of the mystery out of commissioning a new work for your group and that you have a similar experience with your ensemble some day very soon.

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