New Models: The State of Music Commissioning

The state of commissioning in the 21st century is so varied and confusing that even established composers have trouble describing it: to some it’s the best of times, to others, much more trying. The year 2014 shows how transitional the current situation is. The Pulitzer-winning composition, John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean, came into being the old-fashioned way, through a commission by the Seattle Symphony. However, the classical Grammy Awards were dominated by a series of songs by Maria Schneider, Winter Morning Walks, which was not commissioned by an august organization but crowd-funded on the Internet.

Solid, comprehensive data on commissioning is strangely hard to find, but numbers do tell us something: The traditional sources of commissions – think big-city orchestras – are still leading, but funding for new pieces is hardly overwhelming. For the 2014-15 season, three groups dominate commissioning: The Los Angeles Philharmonic has funded seven new pieces, the New York Philharmonic, five, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, three. (This includes co-commissions.) Besides this trio, no orchestral group has more than two for the current season, and many have none.

For composers, who by definition make a living writing new pieces, the health of commissioning is especially central. But the issue is no less crucial for the art form in general: if classical music is going to continue to not just survive but also thrive, it needs new work. As important as the old stuff is, visual art could not survive without new paintings and installations, theater would die without new plays and musicals, and the literary world would wither without fresh novels and poems.

“There is a sense in the world of new music,
‘Someone will give me a grant. That’s not a growth area. DIY is a growth area.”

What’s quite clear is that, like the rest of the music world, the state of commissioning is in a dramatic kind of flux. Some older structures – like composer-in-residence programs that indirectly lead to new work – are holding on. But the best news is that newer, innovative models have begun to emerge in the 21st century. None of these, on their own, will replace shrinking philharmonics, flat arts funding, and disappearing music publishing. But they offer a route forward. “There is a sense in the world of new music, ‘Someone will give me a grant,’” says Ed Harsh, president of New Music U.S.A. “That’s not a growth area. DIY is a growth area.” Here are a few ways composers can do it themselves, without entirely going it alone.

Commissioning Clubs

One of the first of these models – commissioning clubs – began to emerge at the end of the last century. In the early ‘90s the Commissioning Club was born in the Twin Cities, thanks to Jack and Linda Hoeschler of St. Paul. “We ended up doing kind of a code of how we’d operate,” Linda Hoeschler told Minnesota Public Radio. “And that was we would start with the premise of, what kind of music does the group think needs to be written? Then we would decide who was the best composer for that piece, then who are the musicians we’d want to play it and then where should it be performed.”

The commissioned pieces are performed near – Stephen Heitzeg’s score to the children’s book On the Day You Were Born, at the Minnesota Orchestra – or far, like Stephen Paulus Christmas carol, performed at Kings College, Cambridge University.

Typically, the clubs are made up of a few couples, each of which puts up something like $2,000.

The lack of a larger organization makes these groups more intimate and fast-moving. They’re typically small enough that every member gets a real say in which work to pursue. But all of this also means that like many innovations in the new economy, they can be ephemeral. “I wish there was a lot more of it,” says Ed Harsh of New Music U.S.A. “They tend to be hard to sustain.” And because commissioning clubs are not tied to performing or presenting groups, there’s no guarantee the work they provoke will see the light of day.

One that’s survived – and found a venue for each of its commissions – is the Seattle Commissioning Club, which premiered its first piece in 2008. Last April, its latest commission – Patrick Zimmerli’s Aspects of Darkness and Light – went up in London’s Wigmore Hall.

Commissioning Club within a Performing Institution

Perhaps even more fruitful for the composer is the commissioning club within a performing institution. One of the first in the United States was Bang on a Can’s People’s Commissioning Fund, which began in 1997. A few years later, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra kicked off its Sound Investment program, based on the Minnesota model, but with an assurance that the new music would get at least two performances.

The investors – a few dozen couples put up $300 apiece – typically have three meetings with the composers. “It gives members a chance to get to know the composer, the character of their music, and the process of how they like to work,” says LACO’s Michelle Weger. The process, she says, “helps humanize what people used to consider alien music. It was ear-opening for a lot of people.”

Besides the pride of bringing a new piece into the world, members get two tickets to the performance and a signed copy of the score. They’ve funded a double piano concerto by Uri Caine, David Crockett’s Iraq War-inspired “Fanfares & Laments,” and a piece by rising star Timo Andres.

These groups, like free-standing commissioning clubs, come and go: New Jersey once had one, as did California’s East Bay. The Boston Chamber Music Society launched its Commissioning Club with the 2013-‘14 season.

It’s no coincidence that chamber orchestras like these programs. “The chamber orchestra repertoire by its nature is pretty narrow,” Weger says, and the groups can simply run out of work to play. “Chamber orchestras are often pigeon-holed as period groups.” A commissioning program allows them to move into the future.

Consortium Commission

A similar system but structured around multiple institutions rather than multiple donors, is what’s called the consortium commission.

Perhaps the biggest burst of this kind of thing was the Ford Made in America campaign, a program executed twice in the century’s first decade by more than 60 groups. “These were exclusively small-budget orchestras, which wanted to be more active,” recalls Jesse Rosen of the League of American Orchestras. “They felt they were at a disadvantage compared to major orchestras, but they wanted to participate in [commissioning.]”

In both cases, the pieces were performed by orchestras or chamber groups in all 50 states. Joan Tower’s Made in America, which had its world premiere in Glen Falls, N.Y., in 2005, was performed more than 80 times over the next few years. In 2008, the Reno Chamber Orchestra gave the world premiere of Joseph Schwantner’s then-new work Chasing Light

Consortium commissions, since then, have taken place on a smaller scale and without a formal program. But even if a piece is brought to life by just three or four orchestras, the expense is easier for each to handle. And the composer is guaranteed multiple performances of the new piece, which is important for generation a reputation.

This model is especially fruitful these days with college groups – symphonic bands and wind ensembles especially – and even high school and military bands looking to commemorate an event or just for new material. It can take shape quite informally, says Ed Harsh. “A band conductor knows composer x, and calls band conductor y and z, and says, ‘Are you in?’ ”

“For a few years, people looked at crowdfunding as a bank account nobody has tapped into. Now I’m hearing from my peers that it’s a lot of work. And some people are prepared for that, and some aren’t.”


Classical musicians are only starting to exploit the power of crowdfunding despite the success of platforms like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo in fields like video games and independent film. “For a few years, people looked at crowdfunding as a bank account nobody has tapped into,” says Jean Cook, a researcher at Future of Music Coalition and a member of a young-composers group. “Now I’m hearing from my peers that it’s a lot of work. And some people are prepared for that, and some aren’t.”

The very thing that makes the Internet flexible – its borderless geography – can make it a difficult match for a pure commission: Funders who live far away are less likely to be swayed by the chance to see a performance taking place in a single location. But for recording a new piece of music, it works better.

Some have had great success with crowdfunding. The pianist Gloria Cheng raised $21,000 on Kickstarter to fund her CD (and documentary) of new solo-piano pieces by film composers including John Williams and Randy Newman, to be released in 2015 by Harmonia Mundi.

Composer Maria Schneider has had perhaps the biggest success. Her 2013 album Winter Morning Walks, based on poetry by Ted Kooser, featured soprano Dawn Upshaw with The Saint Paul and Australian Chamber Orchestras. The album was crowdfunded by ArtistShare, and received critical adulation and three Grammy Awards. She’s said that, “ArtistShare, led by Brian Camelio, has done more to change this industry to benefit artists than anyone else up until this time.”

Jazz artists, including Billy Childs, Geoff Keezer, and the Clayton Brothers, have had success with ArtistShare, and Blue Note has announced a partnership with the service that will operate as what the label calls “a low-risk development arm.”

Some composers have been even more unconventional: Berlin-based Brit Charlotte Bray is letting people endow a single bar of her new composition for a mere 10-pound note.

Musician Driven

Another growth area is a rise in commissions that are musician driven, especially by soloists or combos hungry for new work. This tradition is not brand new: The pianist Ursula Oppens has commissioned pieces by a wide range of jazz and classical composers for decades now, and the practice goes back centuries. Sometimes the process is indirect: a musician eager for fresh material urges an orchestra to commission a piece for him or her to play. (Pianist Jeffrey Biegel has been especially active at organizing commissions – often by a consortium of performing groups – of new music.)

Often, a musician’s commission happens informally, because a musician wants something to perform. Other times, it comes from a standing program, like the young-composers series run by Kronos Quartet. “Launched in 2003,” the group’s website says, “the Under 30 Project is designed to help nurture the careers of young artists, while enabling Kronos to forge stronger connections with the next creative generation.” Their fifth and latest composer is Mary Kouyoumdjian; Kronos has also released digital recordings of its previous Under 30 commissions.

Despite starting out playing core repertoire, Hilary Hahn has become a tireless advocate of new music. More than a decade ago, she commissioned a violin concerto from bassist/composer Edgar Myer. More recently, she commissioned 26 new miniatures for her album “In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores.” This included work by Nico Muhly, Jennifer Higdon and David Lang. For the last one, she held an open contest and chose a piece by Jeff Myers. Hahn has not only recorded the pieces, but played them live on numerous occasions.

And the Calder Quartet, a youngish Los Angeles group that plays Bartok’s music and also accompanies indie-rock bands, launched a Kickstarter campaign to commission and record 12 new string quartets, each from a different young composer.

“It’s a more open culture these days in general – less hierarchical, no boundaries, no boxes.”

The state of composing is complex right now, with a mix of encouraging and discouraging. A recent Guardian story looked at a survey of British composers and found their earnings per piece very low. At the same time, New Music U.S.A’s Ed Harsh says that in the States, “It’s 300 percent better than it was 20 years ago. It’s a more open culture these days in general – less hierarchical, no boundaries, no boxes.”

These newer styles of commissioning can have additional effects: Having a hand in a new piece can change the thinking – the very culture – of an institution. “New work requires new mindsets to treat it right,” says the League’s Jesse Rosen. You can’t just treat it like another Beethoven symphony.”

Board members, audience members, even the musicians can find themselves changed by being part of a commission. Robert Bragonier – a retired doctor who, with his wife, has been involved in LACO’s Sound Investment program for almost a decade now – has seen this first-hand. The two used to listen primarily to the conventional repertoire. “And I’ve gotta tell you, that’s totally turned around for us,” he says. “What used to be particularly off-putting for us, we now gravitate toward. When I hear new harmonies or dissonance, I resonate to it. I listen more closely – I try to figure out what it’s trying to say. I know I don’t understand it yet, but I know I’ll like it when I do.”

Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a longtime arts journalist and the author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class. He recently became a staff writer at Salon.com. …more 

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2 Responses

  1. “For composers, who by definition make a living writing new pieces, the health of commissioning is especially central.”

    Scott, I think that might be a little misleading. In a recent piece by composer, Andrew Watts (link: http://www.slate.com/blogs/quora/2013/10/21/what_kind_of_stress_do_full_time_composers_experience.html ), he states that:

    “Being a full-time contemporary classical composer in the United States essentially means teaching and/or arts administration. With national funding and commissioning for music in the state that it is, nearly all U.S. composers make their living (or the bulk of it) through organizational and institutional affiliation.”

    I suspect that there are relatively few composers making a living solely by composing. Most of us do it “part-time” while holding other positions or by supplementing our incomes with other musical activities.

    While your list is a wonderful look at some of the new ways works are getting commissioned, and what you say about the big institutions (e.g. Orchestras) not being particularly friendly territory for new works, I think that the reality is that many composers are getting commissions or performances of their works well outside of many of the normal institutions.

    As Catherine Wichterman in a Mellon Foundation Report (“The Orchestra Forum: A Discussion of Symphony Orchestras in the US”) from 1998 said:

    “Unlike theater and dance companies, orchestras have been largely unsuccessful in fostering the creation of new work and in involving creators in the artistic life of the institution. Composers today find much friendlier territory in dance, theater, and chamber music.”

    I’ve found that latter statement to be much closer to the truth than not. Most of my commissions have been with Theater Troupes, Dance Companies, Solo Dancers/Performance Artists, Indie Filmmakers, or for a number of the small ensembles I run or work with regularly. While much of what you mention above reference new music chamber groups, there just aren’t enough of them (or other traditional ensembles) to go around for the number of composers looking for work.

    Obviously, many of the models you mentioned could be used to fund commissions by the types of organizations I’m talking about, but I think it might be helpful to get young composers thinking outside of the box of traditional classical music organizations as the only source for new commissions.

  2. Dear Scott, Thanks so much for including me in your wonderful article. True, commissioning covers a wide gamut of approaches. In 1998, I created the first largest consortium of orchestras project with Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s “Millennium Fantasy” (resulting in a Naxos recording with a non-consortium member orchestra). 27 orchestras joined the project, which set the stage for future projects of many participants. In my vision, this enabled more parties to join to cut the share costs per ensemble. In November 2000, I created the first 50-state project with Tony award composer, Charles Strouse. The ‘Concerto America Project’, with the assistance of Jeffrey James Arts Consulting, reached the inboxes of every symphony orchestra in the US. Charles did not ask for a large fee, so private donors contributed to the project, and the orchestras only needed to pay the rental of score and parts. This was an unprecedented endeavor and began to catch fire. The Boston Pops agreed to perform the world premiere in June 2002, and the Honolulu Symphony thereafter. This was not to be a pops or Broadway piece, but a serious crossover work of many styles as Charles was a pupil of Aaron Copland, Arthur Berger and Nadia Boulanger before penning “Bye, Bye, Birdie!” and the rest is history. At the time the project was developing, September 11, 2001 took the world in a new direction. We maintained the two orchestras, but I felt it appropriate to abandon the endeavor. But, history says it was indeed the very first known 50-state project created. After this, Lowell Liebermann composed his Third Piano Concerto for me which project began in 2003, and brought 17 US orchestras to the consortium and, for the frst time, a non-US orchestra. An orchestra in Germany presented 5 concerts of Lowell’s concerto with me as they contributed to the project. This was followed by Richard Danielpour’s new concerto, William Bolcom’s “Prometheus” for piano, orchestra and chorus co-commissioned by several orchestras and one in Canada (a rarity for Canada to join a US-based commission), another Ellen Taaffe Zwilich project (“Shadows”, for piano, percussion and orchestra) commissioned by US and Canada, Jake Runestad’s “Dreams of the Fallen” with several US orchestras and choruses, Kenneth Fuchs’s “Piano Concerto: The Spiritualist” (based on three paintings by Helen Frankenthaler; premiere March 11 2016 w/Springfield Symphony MA), Jimmy Webb’s new work for piano and orchestra in October 2016 (pop writer with classical background), and Peter Schickele’s new PDQ Bach ‘Concerto for VERY Grand Piano and Orchestra’ for 2016-18. Thankfully, composers like Lucas Richman composed his Piano Concerto: In Truth for me which we recorded with the Pittsburgh Symphony last year, and he did not ask me to raise the funds. Steve Barta personally raised the funds required to compose the ‘Symphonic Arrangement’ of Claude Bolling’s jazzy ‘Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano’ which we recorded with Hubert Laws, and in the 1990s, Lalo Schifrin invited me to perform and record his ‘Concerto no, 2: The Americas”. In all, these projects have been very time consuming, but well worth all of the hours, weeks, months and years which helped bring new works to the repertoire.

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