originally published in Limelight Magazine
Paying the piper
I wonder how many people reading this have ever commissioned a piece of music. Not nearly as many, I bet, as have bought an original painting, drawing or visual artwork of some sort. And yet, by and large, there is nothing stopping you. If you like the music of a particular composer, you can help bring some more of it into the world. You can have your name on it as commissioner; you might end up as the dedicatee; you can very possibly even decide what instruments or voices are involved. The whole thing could well have been your idea. Commissioning a piece of music can be almost as creative as composing one.
It is happening more and more. Sometimes a patron will approach an orchestra or chamber group enquiring about commissioning a new piece by composer X or Y. Sometimes, the approach is made to X or Y directly. I use the word patron—rather than, say, benefactor or philanthropist—because it seems a slightly more involved word. The best commissioners play an active role in bringing a new piece of music before the public. Ross Edwards's second symphony was commissioned by a couple of Sydney music lovers, Andrew and Renata Kaldor. They were so pleased with the results that they went on to commission an oboe concerto from him. And now, he tells me, there's a fifth symphony in the pipeline, also a Kaldor commission.
In fact you needn't be alive to commission a piece of music. The great Russian-American conductor, Serge Koussevitzky, commissioned many works during his lifetime (Britten's Peter Grimes, Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra and Messiaen's Turangalîla—symphonie, to name three), but thanks to a trust, the commissions continued even after his death. In Australia, among the most prestigious commissions you can receive these days are from the Ian Potter Cultural Trust. The Ian Potter Music Commissions began in 1999 and are handed out every two years. Composers submit proposals for pieces—in much the same way that architects tender for designing a new building—and a handful of them are chosen to receive grants. I was fortunate enough to get one in 2001 for a piece, Tales of the Supernatural, that will have its premiere at the forthcoming Adelaide Festival. The 2003 Potter commissions, announced in October, went to Nigel Butterley, Barry Conyngham, Ross Edwards, Elena Kats-Chernin and Carl Vine. Ian Potter's name, like Koussevitzky's, will always be associated with the pieces his trust financed, and who knows, there might be a Turangalîla among them. When Edwards's oboe concerto is performed by the New York Philharmonic in 2005, Andrew and Renata Kaldor's names will be there alongside the title.
It's important to appreciate that you don't need to be extremely rich to commission a piece of music. There is no fixed guideline for costing new works, but the price is linked to the scale of the piece (a solo is cheaper than a piece for chamber ensemble, which is cheaper than an orchestral work) and to the length of the work. The fame of the composer will also be a factor. A full-length opera from a internationally established composer would set you back something in the six-figure region, and large orchestral works also don't come cheap. But you'd be able to buy a new string quartet for under $10,000, if it's fairly short and the composer isn't Philip Glass. You can probably commission a five-minute flute solo for around $2000. And if that's still too much, there is nothing preventing you from forming a consortium for this type of thing.
One of the most satisfying feelings I have ever known was at the first performance in 1999 of my piece, Icarus drowning. It was commissioned by the Kowmung Festival, a little music festival in central New South Wales which puts on concerts in cattle sheds, schools of art, church halls and Abercrombie Caves—an impressive limestone cave system with an exceptionally clear acoustic. The music is performed on a wooden stage, built in the late 19 th century as a dance floor when the cave was used by gold miners as a social club. My piece was funded by donations from half a dozen of the festival's regular audience members. They each received a copy of the score and of the subsequent CD recording, and together at the premiere these patrons occupied the front row.
There's a lot of talk now about accountability in the arts. In truth it's difficult to hold any artist fully accountable, not least because any good artist takes risks, and risk implies the possibility of failure. But I have never felt so happily accountable as I did conducting that first performance of Icarus drowning, aware that a couple of metres behind me were six people, each knowing that he or she had helped bring the music into existence.
© Andrew Ford 2004