21CM Q&A with Composers


The Composer’s Way

Iconic composers Derek Bermel, Gabriel Kahane, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Steven Stucky, and Augusta Read Thomas talked with 21CM about their creative process, the glorious advantages and limitations of technology, and how being a composer has changed with the times, and remarkably stayed the same.

Esa-Pekka Salonen
Esa-Pekka Salonen

First of all, I grew up in a Nordic country and studied in the ’70s and early ’80s in a very strong government-support atmosphere; I had government grants and an artist salary from early on. It was a very safe and supportive atmosphere, and I was not alone [in getting] this kind of support and encouragement. That is no longer status quo, even in Scandinavia. Things have become tougher for young people. In a sense, I grew up during the golden decades of Nordic arts support. I was incredibly lucky. Somehow, my parents got their timing right.

Change, whether it’s good or bad, provides new ideas and new ways to survive and sometimes to flourish. What I’m seeing now is a lot of initiative and an entrepreneurial approach to music. In New York, for instance, the number of new new-music ensembles coming up is larger than ever before. Very few of them get any kind of institutional support, even long-term corporate support. They’re basically supporting themselves with various kinds of micro-financing, and it’s really hand-to-mouth activity. I think the general feeling among the young musicians is that they have to do it themselves because nobody is going to do it for them.

In a system where composers’ needs are pretty much taken care of by an institutional support network, the positives vastly overwhelm the negatives. But there is the risk of some type of complacency, that people apply for the grant first and then start thinking, “What do we do with it?” Whereas in the current climate you have to have the project first, and then you go for it, and you start doing it and then you worry about financing later. Of course, this self-financing model is not sustainable in perpetuity. There has to be some model at some point for most of these people. But what I’m seeing now is a large amount of invention and energy.

I just had a meeting with people from New Music USA, which used to be the American Music Center, and they were thinking about trying to create a network of local sponsors of contemporary music, people who keep commissioning chamber music for a local chamber music society. They could find and communicate with other similar persons around the country and maybe do co-commissioning and [form] groups of people who could support slightly larger-scale commissions and try to maximize the benefits from these efforts. I think these ideas are great – because it’s win-win. A young composer would get more performances for their work, and the sponsors would get more bang for the buck.

Derek Bermel
Derek Bermel

From a personal point of view, [the work of being a composer] hasn’t changed, because being a composer has always been a process of discovery for me. I’ve always wanted to make each composition an opportunity for me to learn something and for a transformation to take place and to allow inspiration to take root and grow.

What’s changed is that once I’ve realized a particular idea, or engaged with a particular challenge, I’d rather move on – to challenge myself. Sometimes the inspiration is literary; it can be philosophical or scientific. Sometimes it’s even directly musical or from personal experience. But whatever it is, that has remained constant. I’ve always known I want a composition to be a challenge however I’m working or whomever I’m collaborating with. I feel I do my best work when I’m up against a problem with which I’m engaging. That’s why it was interesting to work at the Institute for Advanced Study [in Princeton, N.J.], because I saw that scientists often work the same way.

I think there are expectations in the digital age as to how one presents oneself, to have a profile. Ironically, I think there’s pressure [on] younger composers from other [generations] and from each other to “find themselves” at an early age – to decide that they are about this or that. That’s tough, because I’m not even sure what I’m about, so how can someone in their 20s be sure?

That seems like a scary concept – that I’ve figured myself out so much that I know what my work is going to be about – since it’s about a process of discovery. And so it’s tough. There’s a lot of pressure for a composer, or any artist, to have a marketing concept about what they stand for almost prior to the fact of making the work. It’s even hard to say what the work is about once you’ve made it. Art is, by its very nature, abstract, and if you strip it of that abstraction and try to assign a very clear meaning to what it’s about, you take away the audience’s right to be part of that work and to be integral to the performance and experience of that work. Its power comes from its abstraction. It’s why you sometimes get enigmatic answers from artists about their work.

Steven Stucky Photo copyright 2005 Hoebermann Studio
Steven Stucky

Modern forms of communication – of which the Internet is the most obvious paradigm – in addition to the way they’re threatening older institutional social models and economic systems for handling art, at the same time the whole process of sharing art among ourselves, as a society, has become so much more transparent and open and democratic. I’m kind of thrilled that I can find a new piece by a relatively unknown composer pretty easily on my own without the help of an agent or a publisher, and people can do that with my work, too. And I think that’s fantastic.

I’m always surprised when people come up to me and say, “I like your music, especially piece X,” which I happen to know has never been commercially recorded. So they’ve found it by some other method. That’s pretty exciting.

I think I’m lucky I became established before the ice began to crack under our feet. And I can keep going around on the ice without falling through. I worry more about my students, and other younger artists, who are still training in record numbers for a profession we all still feel a little bit frightened for – performers and composers alike.

I’m teaching at Juilliard now and see the number of people still streaming out onto 65th Street and wonder what will become of them. At the same time, I have to believe that the impulse to perform or compose music, like what you see in students from Juilliard or anywhere, is so powerful – and the impulse to listen even in new ways – that whatever happens to the economic models, the delivery systems, people will still be doing this.

We don’t know what it will look like or what the business model will be, but there’s no way it can go away because it’s connected to people’s lives. It may be closer to the grass roots or work in ways we don’t know how to describe yet, but it won’t go away.

Institutions are certainly evolving; some older ones will pass away and be replaced by something we may not be able to guess at yet. But I think the audience instinct is very strong, too: To receive what you’d have to call a spiritual experience is not going to go away. We just don’t know what the delivery systems are going to look like.

Gabriel Kahane
Gabriel Kahane

Most of my colleagues did work in graduate school and wrote music for student ensembles, which seems to me a much better route than having your first work have monetary value placed on it. There was a kind of trial by fire to my career, which might seem impressive: the first quartet I wrote, The Red Book, was for Kronos, the first large ensemble piece I wrote, Orinoco Sketches, was for the L.A. Phil. But I don’t think this is a good model.

I think it was indicative of a broader trend in which people who make art/pop music – for lack of a better descriptor – were being brought into the fold of concert music. So a lot of these initial experiments in more formal composition became formalized as commissions. There’s very little music that I’ve written that hasn’t been commissioned as a result of that, starting with Sonata, which I wrote in 2007. (For my friends’ music, I’ve written three pieces, and none of them have been commissions strictly speaking; they’ve all been barters of one kind or another.)

I don’t think I would have had a career a decade ago or two decades ago. There’s the cynical explanation for my career existing, and then there’s the more idealistic explanation. The former would be that as traditional classical music institutions find their audiences dwindling and deteriorating, there’s a kind of economic justification for bringing voices like mine into the conversation. It would take a deep psychological inquiry to find out how much that’s the case. There may be [an instance] in which that has been a factor for people like myself, without being explicit or conscious.

I’d like to think that those people in positions of power institutionally realize that what makes something substantive is not the way it’s written down, or its instrumentation, but looking at its substance in a different way – whether it be emotional or otherwise, by a different set of standards.

Augusta Read Thomas
Augusta Read Thomas

Since I was about 10 years old, I’ve been starting to think about composition, and since I was 20, seriously focused, so for over 30 years. I usually work about 16 hours a day, at least 12 of them writing music. So to some extent my experience of life has been that it’s the same ritual, every day, times, months and years – me at the piano, with a pen and pencil in my hand.

In order to spend a life making up sounds out of thin air, like a huge piece every six months – this is incredibly hard work. It does take an incredible amount of you and the piece of paper. My experience of the universe is in that very close position at the piano, writing the object hour after hour. I’m so zoomed in to, like, every little accent or dot. So in a way it’s very hard for me to zoom out. It’s even more intense for me now. I want every piece to be perfect. It’s just because I want to make it as perfect as I can make it. It takes such a huge part of my brain.

I’m really grateful that there are so many fantastic young musicians. I’m really happy that every conservatory is popping out 10 young flute players and 13 oboes and 16 clarinets … and these people can play – at the highest, highest level. That’s really gratifying. There’s no limit to the facility of the musicians in America or in the world. Players like to play – so you see all these groups popping up, and they put on concerts at bars or wherever. What’s driving it is a love of playing and a love of music. I think that’s really valuable. Not every one of them can get into an orchestra, and not every one of them wants to. I think the scene is good in that way.

Esa-Pekka Salonen
Esa-Pekka Salonen

My process has been pretty much the same for several decades now. I’m like a truffle pig that wanders in the forest and sniffs at everything, and if it finds a truffle, digs it up, doesn’t eat it – it’s a well-trained pig – and puts the truffles in storage for the actual cooking session. It’s collecting material, and if I find something, I put it in either mental or physical storage, even when I’m not officially in a composition period. Then, once I am, I have a shoebox – virtual or real – full of these “truffles.”

Then I start going through the existing material: What belongs together? What has some kind of life force? What should be discarded straight away? Then I see what emerges from the smaller units that are the ideas. It’s usually larger units emerging from smaller ones and very rarely the other way around. I like the idea of material having a certain will, almost like DNA – it has to produce certain types of forms because of the code written into it. And I like to think of musical material the same way – that it has a tendency to grow in a certain direction, in a certain way. My job is to just let it go the way it likes to go. It’s more like gardening than building cars, say. But of course, like everything in life, it’s usually neither this nor that – it’s a combination of things. But I’d think that, for me it’s about listening to the material and letting it grow in the direction it wants to go.

Derek Bermel
Derek Bermel

I get excited by points of intersection, and I seek problems to tackle. Whether they’re perceptual, conceptual, tonal, rhythmic, timbral – I need conflicts that I’m seeking to resolve or enter into. Once I start dealing with a problem, these points of intersection seem at first glance to be incompatible, but then I begin finding some correspondence between them.

Those moments are inspirational to me, and they anchor a piece. Finding them can occur as a sort of epiphany – I’ll find the energy and the tension of those moments; they resonate highly. I think every worthy piece has moments when something unusual and eventful takes place. Those are the highs, and the piece ebbs and flows to them and from them.

I take a great amount of care with the material, even if ultimately it manifests itself in a more whimsical way. I have to love the material I’m working with, because otherwise I can’t engage with it in a serious way, a loving way.

This means that the initial process is the hardest. I remember the composer John Harbison telling me that Bach took greater pains with his themes, and made the most revisions to them; once he had articulated the theme exactly the way he wanted it, he was off, and he could move quickly and deftly. That made a lot of sense to me.

Context is an important part of that. In this day and age, we’re often quite removed from the source material. We can view all kinds of events and happenings on YouTube, we can listen to recordings, but it’s all still perceived through a scrim. There’s a beauty in observing things from a distance, but also a danger in being separated from our material, or from the inspiration, or from the events. Living in this digital environment can have the effect of denying us experiences – because so many rich images and sounds are right at our fingertips.

As an artist I seek beauty. If I seek irony, I’ll come up short. It’s not that great works of satire have never been written – take Gulliver’s Travels for example – but irony is most effective when it’s perceptual, not intentional. Everyone has their own version of beauty, obviously, but I think artists can make our greatest contribution when we seek beauty.

The problem with postmodernism is that it can encourage an ironic stance; I don’t know if that can hold up for a long time. My generation in my home town – New York – has a particular sense of irony, but I don’t know if it translates to people older or younger, or from somewhere else.

I need to feel sincere toward what I making or writing. If my stance is ironic, the work itself seems devalued. I don’t expect it to solves the riddles of the universe. Writing music is just a way of sorting out the beauty and the problems of the universe – daunting, but it’s an exciting challenge.

Steven Stucky Photo copyright 2005 Hoebermann Studio
Steven Stucky

It’s changed over the years. And I understand it less and less well: The more experienced and the older I get somehow the creative process gets more mysterious.

When I was younger, I relied more on so-called inspiration, meaning that something pops into your head. When you’re younger, something that pops into your head tends to be something that exists already – you’re recycling unconsciously.

I use that method less and less now. It may be that all of my ideas have already come to me and I need to go finding them.

The second thing is that when I was younger I engaged in a lot of planning: I would know a lot about the shape of the piece and some of the details before writing it down. I do that less and less these days; it seems less and less successful for me as I get older. I supposed I’m looking for ways to be less formulaic and predictable and to repeat myself less baldly than I might otherwise do.

Nowadays, almost everything I write is on commission, so I begin with the physical facts of instrumentation and the hall and even personalities of musicians. But I tend not to know enough about the piece to start, but start anyway because there’s a deadline. I imagine it’s like a novelist who only knows the first page, or, who is it, John Irving, who only knows the last page when he sits down? He knows the ending and nothing else. And then I begin to discover what is the setting and who are the characters and how they interact.

I would have had a much more detailed map in the old days – and for whatever reason that doesn’t work very well for me or appeal to me as much.

I’m getting ideas by working with the materials rather than waiting for the materials to perfect themselves before putting them into a piece.

Gabriel Kahane
Gabriel Kahane

I feel like my creative process is always in flux; I’ve not been particularly generative for a couple of months. I think broadly speaking, for the last five years, if I look back over the work I’ve done, the vast majority of it has been based on research. There was The February House, the Hart Crane piece, the WPA cycle, The Ambassador, which was heavily researched in film and fiction and architecture. And part of that is a response to the general saturation of the culture with so many “texts” – I feel like we’re in a moment where it’s as creative an act to curate as it is to generate something that’s totally new. And when I’m talking about curating, I’m talking about a text I set to music, but drawn from film or history or observations about architecture.

In the age of the Internet, there’s this near infinitude of information available to us. One of the ways I can be of service to an audience, and manage my own sense of being overwhelmed, is to organize my own pathway through information, and the history of information. Both to draw a line historically, from one time to another, and as a way of drawing connections more broadly – in a Brechtian sense, trying to draw on lessons from the past that may come to bear on the present. Where those particular corridors appeal to me I can’t say; I don’t know why the things that interest me interest me.

My love of literature and language is in play there. I think there’s a romantic attachment to things that are dying. I’ve always been interested in erasure, and that governs a lot of things I’m interested in.

Augusta Read Thomas
Augusta Read Thomas

I like my music to sound spontaneous – with an inner life to it, so as each note arrives, it sounds like the right next note, in a jazz way. On the other hand, my manuscripts are incredibly detailed – dynamics, articulation, tempi… So there’s this balance between what you could call high-art notation, and then this incredible spontaneous side. In my own process, I try to keep it very spontaneous – I sing, I dance, I play the piano, I conduct, I really try to feel the music. You get at one with what the beat is or the rhythm or the color is… and then I codify it very carefully, in notation.

This is a really tricky thing, this balance between nuance and spontaneity. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for about 20 years. It sounds simple, but it’s an intricate and complicated and profound thing to be thinking about as you try to build pieces – you have 80 people who have to play together perfectly, but you still want them to be full of animation and whimsy and energy flowing off the stage.

That’s definitely something that’s true of all of my work. And I don’t think you can separate out components of music – you can’t separate rhythm from harmonic rhythm, and you can’t separate timbre from coloratura, or flow from counterpoint, or whatever you pick. Sometimes music will be leaning toward the rhythmic side, but it drags with it harmony or counterpoint or color. In that sense, I’m trying to write music that has a gestalt about it – where all of the elements are allied with each other.

My music has a lot of different character and color to it – one section may be punchy and driving, another might be floating and lyrical, another section might be granulated, or whatever. No matter what I’m doing, I’m trying to have it be a gestalt with all the other elements.

That’s complicated – it’s a bit like doing a five-dimension crossword puzzle, going off in all different directions. If you change a rhythm, that changes a timbre, and that changes the melody you want to use… it’s like dominos falling.

It’s interesting, because there are many musics today that are just investigating one things, like “roll on a snare drum for an hour,” or something like that. Where the ideas I’m discussing wouldn’t be as pertinent. I guess my music is something of all elements – it’s grappling with all those things all the time. I guess you could say it’s maximalist, or something.

And there’s this balance between intuition and intellect. I’m trying to be spontaneous and intuitive, but I’m also very well educated: We all know all of history, and theory and analysis and all this. So the intellect is there. But I balance a huge percentage toward intuition, and I write by ear – I don’t have a system. I just literally play it on the piano. If you go to some universities and tell them you write by ear, they’ll just laugh at you. I’m much more intuitive. I want to keep it at that intuitive level.

Augusta Read Thomas
Augusta Read Thomas

I grew up sitting at a piano from 3 or 4. I started studying piano, then I played trumpet, I sang in chorus, I read music. … And I write music by hand, on paper, with a pen and a ruler. So it’s like a 25-year process. You get used to the medium you’re using. I realize it makes me like a dinosaur, but that’s how I do it. And G. Schirmer, – they engrave my music, and I proofread it.

I think it’s a question of preferences. I have a poet friend who told me a long time ago that he writes poems on yellow legal pads with blue BIC pens. I remember thinking how crazy that was. Why couldn’t he write them on white paper with a red pen? But I do know what he meant: You get used to your paper and your pens and your rulers and your work methods and how it feels – it becomes very much like a ritual. So, I’m still locked in that ritual of many decades.

I teach full time at the University of Chicago, and I taught an undergraduate composition class, so I tried to learn Sibelius, one of the composition programs, mostly so I could keep up with them. I’m starting to learn it, but I’m not very good at it.

As far as technology, the other thing that changed in my lifetime is the way people can find music and download music. For instance, I listen to BBC3 all the time. I hear world premieres. I’m sitting in Chicago, but I’m super informed about what’s happening all over the world. It takes me a lot of time to do the listening, but there’s a lot of access. I’m a real repertoire junkie – I listen to everything. To be able to access these things is fantastic.

Most composers these days have a website – I think it’s just incredibly useful for data. I used to get emails: “Do you have a string quartet?” “Can I have your biography?” “Do you have program notes?” Now, if people are looking for program notes, they probably know there might be one on your website, and they’ll look for it before they contact the artist/composer/conductor.

Gabriel Kahane
Gabriel Kahane

As for technology that aids composers in the act of writing, I think my generation is probably over-commissioned because it is possible through tools like Sibelius to generate music quickly. I don’t think everyone is guilty of this, but there are certainly people who write music using notation software, and there’s a copy-paste syndrome. I’ve heard conductors bemoan moments where, from sloppy proofreading, you can see passages that have been copied and pasted.

That’s also a phenomenon John Adams has spoken about on his blog. I’ve seen him speak to young high school-aged composers about the dangers of relying on the computer. I think also, because the cost of living is so high and commissions don’t pay enough compared to cost of living in a place like New York, people take on too much work, and work suffers because they are writing too much to pay the bills.

As far as the actual nuts and bolts of composing, we’ve put a lot of copyists out of business since we can do more of it on our own. Certainly the number of hours required has gone down with programs like Sibelius. But there’s a cost, a toll, when you’re working in front of a screen, whether it’s the lack of imagination in relying on MIDI playbacks, or the fact that when you’re at the computer you’re hemmed in by what the notation software does best rather than your brain and your inner ear.

I wrote the piano sonata out by hand before transferring it to the computer. I’m grateful that I learned to write music by hand because I think it exercises very different muscles.

Esa-Pekka Salonen
Esa-Pekka Salonen

I’ve been using computers since the early ’90s, so I was an early adopter. I’ve been using notation software primarily, also sequencing software from time to time. I’m using technology as a tool, not as any kind of artificial intelligence.

I’ve been following the progress of some of the software that allows a modular composition process, and they are fascinating but not for me. The idea is that you can somehow quantify the experience of music; that is not what I believe in. When the phenomenon is as complex and multifaceted as music, then it becomes really difficult.

So it’s been mostly notation, and I use a fairly rudimentary media system. I’ve not been very into production of actual sounds. All these technological things are mostly tools to facilitate the old-fashioned idea of putting notes down on a piece of paper, or a computer file, that would then translate them into music when later played by someone.

So the process is very much like it always was, but I’m using these tools like a poet using word-processing software that would facilitate some things, but the process is pretty much the same.

Every tool we use changes the result, and the reason we choose each tool is because we want to have a certain kind of result. Like a painter – a wall painter – chooses a certain kind of brush, that’s because he or she wants to have a certain kind of surface, a certain kind of texture, and so on. And I’m sure that certain technological advances in the 17th and 18th centuries affected music. When Beethoven had access to the Erard piano, the dynamic range of his music exploded. The tool does change the end product to some degree. But the act of inventing music, of responding to musical impulses, that doesn’t change so much. Music does change in response to the technology.

Computers make certain things possible that were not possible 50 years ago. Certain things are very difficult to do on computers or using notation software. So I have seen especially younger composers avoiding those kinds of textures because they are so un-idiomatic for the computer software. It’s a constant dialogue between the medium and the ideas. My generation was the transition generation that started out with paper and pencil, and by now most of us use computers to some degree. If you look at the generation after mine, all those kids grew up with all this technology, and most of them are totally fluent with it. They use it they way I would have been using the pencil when I was in my 20s. We don’t have the perspective to analyze it.

Derek Bermel
Derek Bermel

The ability to have scores and parts stored on a computer makes the process of revision easier, and that’s something that I value – because I make revisions for the first couple of years after I finish a piece, usually, so having that ability to make adjustments and to improve the piece in subtle but meaningful ways is gratifying. That was not the case when I was coming up in the ’90s; it was easier to do everything by hand, and I wrote all my pieces by hand until the late ’90s.

I still write a lot by hand, especially in the initial phase; it’s more in the late phase that things go onto the computer. I’m part of a transitional generation.

One thing I’ll say: I do draw a lot of inspiration from technological innovations. That’s not a direct effect on my composing, but I love being connected to the changes happening in society, whether on a technological level, a philosophical level or a political level.

Steven Stucky Photo copyright 2005 Hoebermann Studio
Steven Stucky

In my case, basically, no. I’m just old enough and never became involved in electronic music. My thinking process and my physical writing process is almost exactly what it was 20 or 30 years ago. Having said that, there’s almost nobody younger than me who could still say that. I don’t compose on the computer, and I don’t use other digital technology very much.

The only way it’s affected my life is kind of trivial but wonderful. For example, I use a copyist – I send a piece of paper to a copyist – but I get the proofs and all the other transactions back by PDF instantly. All of that helps quite a bit. But the process of composing for me is just about the same.

Derek Bermel
Derek Bermel

I think there’s wider acceptance that being a composer means something broader than a person sitting in The Thinker pose. There’s a broader definition now — it can be someone conservatory trained; a person who came up through playing and writing jazz; people who’ve been playing in bands for years who are experimenting with sounds and textures and ways of thinking about composing that sometimes play off technology; or sound artists. …

That has impacted the field in many positive ways. It’s also changed the field a tremendous amount – like where the money goes and the way it flows through various genres. At the same time, the nature of the financial model has changed. The model for composition used to be built around royalties for performance and sales of recordings, and that’s dramatically different now. That affects the concert-music field in the same way it has affected the pop-music field, maybe to a slightly lesser degree. The money is flowing very differently in the field, and in some ways there’s less of it because there are more people at the table. It’s a good thing, I think, but it comes with its own particular challenges.

Augusta Read Thomas
Augusta Read Thomas

I think that active composers – of which there are many – have had a steady stream of commissions for decades. They’re very lucky to have commissions for things like large orchestras pieces, pieces for girls’ chorus, for piano or octet, or whatever it may be – a variety of styles and genres. From my point of view, it seems like a very healthy society in terms of commissions.

The history of music is, to some extent, the history of private individuals who’ve commissioned works – for instance, Bach and Haydn and Mozart, straight through to today. People see it as a fun way to spend money. Instead of giving it to general operating, you spend it on a commission and have a piece dedicated to you, get to meet the composer and go the premiere with all your friends. Several of the private donors who’ve commissioned my work, I’ve kept in touch with them, and every time their piece is played, I write them. Over the years, it adds up to a fun thing you did together 10 years or 20 years ago. I think private donors enjoy that and have enjoyed that throughout history. But more realize now that, you can commission a piece.

So for instance, I had a commission from a family – it was their parents’ 30th wedding anniversary, and the 50th birthday of one of them, or something like that. And instead of buying a silver bowl, or a cruise, the children commissioned a piece for them from me. And so at their party, I appeared with the musicians who played the piece. And that piece is performed all the time. I’ve had several projects like that – that’s very healthy.

In Chicago, where I live, there’s an incredibly bustling new music scene – Spektral Quartet, eighth blackbird, Fulcrum Point. I see lots of young composers being commissioned by these groups – either for money, or “You write a piece, and we’ll play and record it, and we’ll tour it.” Money doesn’t always have to change hands, because for a young composer, the opportunity to have a great performance by a great group in a really cool venue is very valuable to a 21- or 22-year-old. It seems healthy.

When you compare arts funding in this country to Denmark or Finland or Germany, say, it makes it really clear that the private individual or universities have been important patrons.

Steven Stucky Photo copyright 2005 Hoebermann Studio
Steven Stucky

I’ve been writing music since – God! – at least the ’60s, and I do think that there was a sharp increase in commissioning opportunities in the early ’80s. It partly had to do with the Ford Foundation resident composer program, which was visible and inspired smaller organizations, too.

From my vantage point – and I’m looking at younger composers whom I teach or whom I know – it looks to me like the number of commissions being solicited and fulfilled is higher than ever. That sort of flies in the face of some of the bad news about the economic situation and the economic model. But there are so many more routes to commissioning now – crowdsourcing, friends getting together to co-commission a piece, individual donors who make it a hobby to do this.

Traditional commissioning is still going. Those of us who’ve lived off that model keep suspecting that it will go away, but it hasn’t gone away yet. During my lifetime, that model got bigger, and it spread to smaller institutions. The idea of a university doing this kind of commissioning when I was a kid was unheard of. It was the Boston Symphony and the New York Phil. And now it’s those and Pocatello Idaho and Fire Company in Minnesota. From the top down there’s been a democratization and a spread of the idea that commissioning is fun and interesting.

It’s not dying – or not dying yet – at the traditional level. We’re all worried about it, because it’s clearly in a period of transition, and we’re nowhere near finished with the transition yet. Some of us are fearful that the economic trends are going to change the landscape drastically at the level of the big institutions. But it’s early in that process right now, and it doesn’t seem to have to have cut off opportunities for composers just yet.

I think the recession is going to have a permanent effect. It came at a moment – not so much the aging of the audience as much as the morphing of the culture – into a culture in which there are 500 channels instead of two and in which the attitude toward the performing arts is mostly an attitude of entertainment: The New York Phil is in competition with reruns on TV and other forms of entertainment. And that means the subscription model is a lot less viable than it used to be. There are a lot more single-ticket sales and less loyalty to institutions – more playing the field.

For me, there are more giant cultural shifts than the graying of the audience. I have the feeling that the audience for classical music, with a capital c, was not young in previous decades. They were people who could afford the tickets, so they were old enough to have built up some money and have had the kids move away from home.

It’s not just age. It’s everything. It’s a whole rearranging of the multiple audiences and the hundreds of niche audiences that overlap in interesting ways. They’re not monolithic the way they used to be.

Gabriel Kahane
Gabriel Kahane

One thing that has shifted in a way that is really quite wonderful is that the economy behind art/pop music has collapsed. This is a mirror of the economic inequality we see in the broader culture – whether it’s because of streaming services or a host of other reasons. People are making music that has vernacular – singing and bass and drums and guitars – but is more harmonically complex. That music can be very well received critically and still not sell records. It’s very rare for that music to be solvent. So as a result of that, some institutions are realizing they can help facilitate that music by actually commissioning albums.

For the piece that I’m working on this fall – The Ambassador, which is both an album and a stage piece – I used a commission from Brooklyn Academy of Music as an excuse to write an album. I also had a relatively well-funded label, Sony Masterworks, and combined those resources in a way that would otherwise be difficult.

The patronage system is also really crucial. In my experience writing more formal orchestral or chamber music, it’s always been the case that the fees are much more generous if someone I know is involved, like a patron with whom I have a relationship, than if it’s just an institution. To get very crude – dollars per minutes of music – it’s often been the case that I’ve been paid more handsomely to write a shorter piece of chamber music than a long new piece of orchestra music. I think that’s because the pot of money for commissioning is so dependent on individual giving. There are commissioning funds, but it’s so much easier when a private patron says, “I will fund this piece.” And then you can go to an institution and see if they want a premiere of it.

My suspicion, not being a student of economics, is that the role of patronage has probably fluctuated decade by decade as markets have changed. But certainly I’ve benefited by having relationships with some extraordinary people of means who’ve had a belief in my work. I’ve been able to write music I would not have been able to write otherwise.

Esa-Pekka Salonen
Esa-Pekka Salonen

I think the volume of commissioning has gone down, globally speaking; I don’t have any statistical data. My sense is that it’s harder for a young composer, for instance, to get a breakthrough. Some of it has to do with the tough economic climate in which we live at the moment and the fact that so many of the foundations in this country that have supported the arts are directing their resources to other causes – like the Ford Foundation. When I started in this country in the ’80s, Ford was a huge player in new creation, and now the allocation to music is minimal. There are other sources of funding that have also dried up in terms of what we do.

Orchestras are also generally trying to play it safe. Commissioning is still happening but they like to commission from established names. There is more and more co-commissioning happening, which doesn’t benefit the lesser-known younger composer but benefits the well-known composer, who all of the sudden has a co-commission split between eight parties. Which is good for the composer in question and handy for the organizations, because they get a piece by this famous person for a relatively small investment. And I see more and more of this international conglomerate commissioning happening, which is not altogether a bad thing, but it does omit the up-and-coming talent almost completely.

What we don’t have enough of at the moment is commissioning as investment, where we believe in some young talent and try to nurture and encourage the talent by placing commissions. I think there should be more of that – dramatically more if you want to sustain and keep the contemporary edge of what we’re doing. Or the entire art form starts to look backwards. It’s tempting, because in the short term, the box office shows you that if you play Beethoven and Mozart, it’s easier to sell than, say, an unknown young composer combined with Varese or whatever. Short term, I’d like to emphasize.

Many classical music institutions are financially in a difficult position at the moment. They’re almost panicked in the investment part of their commissioning. In the long term, it may have fairly fatal consequences. You have to satisfy the shareholders, the boards and the bean counters four times a year rather than thinking about where we all are going to be 20 or 25 years from now. We need more strategic thinking and less of this short-term tactical.


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2 Responses

  1. Catherine Brooks says:

    I love Gabe Kahane. Glad you included him along with EPS.

  2. Megan says:

    I think it’s very interesting to see which composers prefer writing music by hand vs by computer. It’s also interesting to note that all these composers who use the computer for music making use it solely for writing music down (ie Sibelius). I wonder if younger composers would be more likely to say they use the computer to create sounds and music rather than just scores.

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