September 2001

Private Commissioning

First Peter J. Mallett and then Michael Graham-Jones give their very different personal reasons for commissioning new music



From tragedy, music

As my mother lay dying of cancer last year, one year after the death of my father from the same disease, plans began to take shape in my head for something positive to come out of this personal tragedy.

I was already making preparations for the London debut at the Wigmore Hall of the Rubio Quartet from Belgium, a group I represent in Japan, in a concert featuring the Japanese pianist Yoshiko Endo as part of the 'Japan 2001' festival. Due to the Rubio's reputation for 20th century and contemporary music, and having been advised that a premiere was necessary to attract press attention, I had decided to commission John McCabe, who was known to the pianist, to write a piano quintet. The initial plan had been to look for sponsorship for the composition, but the idea came to me to commission the work privately as a musical memorial to my parents for a concert in aid of Imperial Cancer Research Fund.

With a composer as focused and disciplined as John McCabe, the commission has in fact proved to be the easiest element in the complicated arrangements for this concert. The work was ready exactly on schedule; John has been very co-operative regarding rehearsals in Belgium. The composer had complete freedom in the creation of this quintet, my only condition being that it should have a Japanese connection. By chance John had already written the germinal concept for a piano quintet several years ago, inspired by Japanese director Kenji Mizoguchi's classic 1954 film 'Sansho Dayu'.

The resulting work, 'The Woman by the Sea', is in one movement and begins with John's notation of the evocative cry of the lone mother in the film, wailing from the cliffs for the children from whom she was long ago separated. American artist Sarah Brayer, a friend of mine in Japan, has donated art work, also inspired by the same scene in the Mizoguchi film, for the programme and flyers of the Wigmore Hall concert on 12 September when the Piano Quintet will be premiered. The original print will be raffled in the interval of the concert with all proceeds being donated to the Imperial Cancer Research Fund.

Peter J Mallett, Chairman Art SPACE (Society for the Promotion of Arts and Culture Euro-Japan)

"Where have all the patrons gone?
Gone to meetings every one!"

Why, nowadays, are so few pieces of new music commissioned by individuals? Is it a healthy sign for corporate bodies - councils, committees, trusts, companies, colleges, quangos and so on - to dominate patronage and thence public taste? Is ours the Age of Bureaucracy and Compromise? On the other hand, why should an individual want to sponsor a work of art?

Because it's fun! That's the first reason I give when asked to say why I have commissioned new music. There are other reasons, of course - serious ones, moral ones, solemn ones, pompous ones, musical ones - but it's the fun of the process which I find uppermost.

I say 'process' deliberately because, in the case of my family and the four works we have (so far) commissioned - first, a painting of the family, then chamber music pieces for the 25th, 50th and 55th wedding anniversaries - the fun has come not only from the act of choosing the young artist (rather like the thrill of placing a bet) and from delight in the celebratory piece itself but, notably, from the relationship with the artist. He or she alone decides what to do but the work cannot be begun, nor well finished, unless its purpose is mutually understood. That is what entails process. In our case, each time, it is a revelatory, intensely enjoyable and on-going process; and the family is enriched through it.

Having had lucky bets, it's also enjoyable to feel at least as good as those corporate bodies - and, perhaps, less given to compromise.

Michael Graham-Jones
Standlake, Oxon, 5 August 2001

See the listings section for details of performances of works commissioned by Peter Mallett and Michael Graham-Jones.

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Event listings for this month


Previous articles:

July 2001
Joined-up Commissioning

May 2001
The Martland Interview

April 2001
Looking Four-wards

March 2001
Chamber Made

February 2001
Publishing, Promotion and Profitability

January 2001
From the World to the Warehouse

December 2000
What price new music?

November 2000
Composing for dance
from start to finish

October 2000
John Lambert remembered

July 2000
Joanna MacGregor

June 2000
Announcing the shortlist

May 2000
Word of mouse

April 2000
Child's Play

March 2000
tables turned

February 2000
the ENO Studio

January 2000
a challenge from Michael Oliva

December 1999
into the next century...

November 1999
Joanna MacGregor writes

October 1999
obsessed with consuming?

September 1999
spnm welcomes Joanna MacGregor.

July/August 1999
Spectrum 2 - miniatures for piano.

June 1999
Hoxton Hall New Music Days.

May 1999
Bath International Music Festival is 50.

April 1999
Who is Georges Aperghis?

March 1999
On frost, birth and death

February 1999
Keeping busy...

January 1999
Now that's what I call contemporary!