July 2001

Joined-up Commissioning

by Piers Hellawell



The processes and priorities of commissioning have to be a leading concern of today's new music practitioners in the UK. Yet the perennial, important hunt for increased resources has meant that shortcomings in deploying those resources - the flawed realities of commissioning - have gone unaddressed. It is time to consider that much better use might be made of what we have - and a better case made for more - if thought and channelled communication were brought to bear on some perennial problems.

Commissioning of new work is important, being the very lifeblood of composers, not only through fees but through access to concert platforms. Yet the dash for commissions has become an orthodoxy, with all the dangers that orthodoxies entail; the result has been the easy assumption that commissioning and premiering a new work is the beginning and end of the task. Can the box showing 'support for new work' be safely ticked after a solitary performance? The legion voices now raised against isolated premieres say it cannot! Frankly, in no other business would even established figures work for 6 or 9 months toward an outcome of a single performance of less than 30 minutes, often with no written guarantee of other performances or recording. While composers with major representation might have consigned such conditions to distant memory, others still have to sustain self-belief in just this context.

There is much lateral thinking to be done in pursuit of joined-up commissioning. The assumption that composers need only a supply of commissions, for example, is a damaging one. Certainly all composers, young ones especially, do need them; yet for more established figures it may also be pressing to get works into the repertoire - new works, rather than New Works. Is it possible for an orchestra to precede the premiere by programming a short recent piece by the same composer? If not, then composers could be asked whether they would prefer a commission or a recorded performance of an existing work, which might cost the orchestra the same or considerably less. Every composer I know nurses some unperformed work from the shipwreck of an earlier commission.

Joined-up commissioning requires, secondly, a realistic view of the context in which a new work appears. How many organisations, for example, have really taken on board that a central outcome for a composer is the recording? Many of us have had large-scale premieres, even multiple performances that may involve London orchestras, only to emerge with no recorded outcome at the end. As a result, the composer has no promotional tool and the work becomes a memory before its composer can assimilate its realities. Often this is for contractual reasons, and only a powerful will to succeed is going to overcome these hurdles - but a powerful will is what is needed, if the status of the recorded archive is to be brought into line with its actual prominence today. Such a sea-change could involve, simply, widespread acceptance of a standard document restricting the composer to non-commercial distribution, or the setting up of technical support for recording by arrangement with the nearest Music Technology course. Some orchestras do this - so it is not impossible. Too often, though, a tussle ensues, as if a recording is an unreasonable aspiration by the composer or worse, the fantasy goes, a plot to smuggle the performance into broadcast or commercial domain by some back door (is there a single instance of this happening?). The joined-up commissioners, by contrast, are the organisations who set out to facilitate, instead of appearing to erect defences against, reasonable outcomes such as this; the spnm has for years had the will to ensure recordings of every performance - so why is this still the exception?

Consideration of time-scale is equally important - not just for the composer, but also so that all parties involved can develop a sense of ownership for a new work. Not least of the aspects needing time is the contractual agreement, along with which composers have traditionally received half the fee on agreement - 'up front' as it were. Next time you run into composers, ask them when they last received a contract before writing a piece, together with first instalment of a fee. The chances are that it will have been a BBC commission, for the Corporation seems to be in a minority today in sticking resolutely to traditional practice. Could approaches to funding bodies not be made sufficiently early so that proper contractual agreement really does precede the composer's starting work? All composers know that in practice the glacial speed of funding applications can mean the composer finally being allowed to 'begin' the new work at the time as it is due for delivery - as if. Composers can, and do, wearily take the floor for this typically British quadrille, but it is by no means a harmless set of steps; for no funding body - least of all the Lottery - will pay invoices until the contract is settled, and the composer's 'first instalment' is frequently a last-minute arrival before the premiere ('first' only in preceding the rest) or else so late that it joins the balance of the fee, as happened to me recently.

It is hard not to feel in all this an element of the old view of the composer as the driven artist, who would welcome payment but doesn't 'do it for the money'. When composers and their publishers still have to write in complaint to organisations after a successful premiere in order to extract the commission, something is wrong, if not with attitudes then with mechanisms. When young composers with no clout have to smuggle mini-discs into rehearsals (sorry folks, but we have to go public to sort this out) or borrow money for their travel costs, we are not seeing joined-up commissioning.

In this and every musical nation, those involved in new art music surely constitute a united force, even a community (if that is the right term? Nowadays every group is a 'community' - I even heard a newsreader refer to 'the arms-dealing community'). Community or no, we must be able to evolve a better joined-up commissioning approach than has pertained in the UK. While the highest-profile commissions no doubt have such outcomes in place, the sheer variability in relations between composers and music organisations shows just how much joining up there is still to be done.

Composer Piers Hellawell is Gresham Professor of Music and is Reader in
Composition at The Queen's University of Belfast.

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Previous articles:

May 2001
The Martland Interview

April 2001
Looking Four-wards

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February 2001
Publishing, Promotion and Profitability

January 2001
From the World to the Warehouse

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