Friday, August 29, 2014

The Outer Artist - Part 6: It’s Not About You - It’s About What You Do

Sixth in a series on the “business” of being a composer…

In my previous post, I shared a not-so-secret desire that most composers possess: the longing to get their music “out there.” It’s not enough to merely write music. Having spent weeks, months or sometimes even years composing a new work, most composers are not content to simply sit alone and experience the fruit of their compositional efforts by listening to computer generated realizations of acoustic instruments. Even for purely electronic compositions, most of us want to share our art with others. Therefore, to varying degrees, composers are always on the lookout for more opportunities to write that next piece and get it performed in front of an audience. As mentioned last time, I just happen to have six strategies for getting my compositions “out there.” These are strategies that have helped me along the way. In last month's blog post, I wrote in some detail about the first three of these strategies. Once again, these first three - for those not scoring at home - are: 

1. write for your friends; 
2. students: your composition recital is not just a hoop; and 
3. send your scores out to as many opportunities as you can. 

There are an additional three actions that round out my top six strategies for getting one’s music performed. These strategies, however, are in my list due to an uncomfortable realization. It’s not about you - it’s about what you do. To paraphrase Officer Jim Malone (the character brilliantly portrayed by Sean Connery in Brian De Palma's 1987 film, The Untouchables): “You said you wanted to get your music performed. Do you really wanna get it performed? You see what I’m saying is, what are you prepared to do? ” 

Well, here is what I am prepared to do:

4. Think like a presenter.

A recent work that poses no major
logistical problems for presenters.
It takes a certain amount of hubris to be a composer. After all, a composer assumes that what has been written is so important that it warrants a group of strangers to leave their homes, deal with parking and other transportation issues, sometimes even part with money and then give up a portion of their lifespan in order to sit quietly and attentively listen. A composer also assumes that the music written is so compelling that it warrants a casual expectation that musicians will devote hours and hours of their time and energy to practicing the new work then give up an evening of their life to perform the music all for the perk of being grossly underpaid (if paid at all) for their trouble. Finally, the composer is often blissfully unconcerned with how a new piece might integrate with other works on a program or with any logistics associated with its presentation

Composers may not think this way consciously, of course. However, on some level, I must admit to having held each of these assumptions myself. Over the years, experience taught me that to truly get my music performed often, I had to lay aside many of these assumptions and selfish expectations. Once I began to understand that it is impossible for a composer to successfully (and consistently) receive performances without the help of others, I began to stop thinking exclusively of my own desires and began to take into account other factors. I stopped thinking exclusively as a composer and began also thinking like those upon whose help I depend to get my music heard.

First and foremost, a composer is dependent upon a presenter to program his or her music on a concert. The presenter could be a conductor trying to put together a program. The presenter could also just as easily be a performer or chamber ensemble. The presenter could even be another composer hosting a conference or festival and responsible for filling slots in a series of concerts. What are the issues that presenters commonly think about? 

Instrumentation and technical requirements. 

Are pieces easy to program or do they require a lot of extra work? Does the score call for instruments not readily accessible by the group? Are there lots of parts that require doubling? (If professional players are employed, doubling requirements result in higher fees and may even include additional cartage fees.) Are you using percussion? If so, does your score call for 27 different percussion instruments including a full set of timpani, chimes and every drum known to the civilized world? Who has to cart all that gear? How long is it going to take to set-up and tear-down? Beyond percussion, does the score call for an intricate technical set-up involving computers, proprietary software, effects processing, lights, the presence of audio engineers and hours of pre-concert set-up time? 

Or, are we talking about a simple woodwind quintet? 

When composing a new work, I try to always consider how my choices in writing might affect the decisions of future presenters. The more difficult I make it to perform a piece, the more likely a presenter might take a pass on my score. The music itself might be brilliant but the logistics necessary to perform the piece could be insurmountable for some presenters. Of course, there are many well-known composers out there with reputations for writing extremely difficult and technically demanding music. But for me, that’s the point. I am not well-known. I don’t have the luxury of fame. Fame in our field often removes shackles and allows a composer to do whatever he or she wants. Relative obscurity makes such demands a possible impediment to repeated performances. This does not mean that a composer must exclusively write technically and logistically simple music. It simply means that one should pay attention. Think about what a presenter has to do to mount a piece of music. It might behoove the less well-known composer, if possible, to present a musical idea in a simpler way as long as artistic integrity is not compromised

Duration of the piece. 

How long is the composition? Total duration often signals where a piece may be slotted in a program order. It is useful for a composer to imagine where a presenter might place a piece on a concert. Is the work 5 minutes or less? If so short, why even program it? Perhaps it would serve as a fanfare or small overture in relation to the other pieces on a concert. If so - market it that way. The current “Goldilocks” range for contemporary music is approximately 10 minutes in total duration. Most contests and score calls seek works of this time frame (give or take a couple of minutes). It's always handy to have a bunch of pieces with this duration in one’s catalog. A piece lasting over 15 minutes tends to be considered more of a major work. Given that most concerts contain well less than two full hours of actual music (not counting an intermission or set-up between pieces), a single piece lasting 15 minutes or longer could constitute 20% or more of the total music offered on one concert. Why would a presenter devote so much time on a program to just one composer? If you have won major prizes and enjoy high recognition in the field, it makes sense. If your awards are more modest and your visibility not quite as high, then a long piece might be a harder sell. 

Ensemble MD7. Grateful for their recent commission
& premiere of my music. Photo: Mira Herak Usenik
All bets are off for commissions, of course. I just completed a 20 minute commissioned work for a chamber group with a non-standard instrumentation. I was guaranteed not only a premiere (which occurred a few days ago as of this writing) but at least one subsequent performance as well. Since it was an international commission, I decided to pursue the opportunity. However, outside of this commissioning ensemble, I know, in my heart, that the future of this particular piece is uncertain. Nevertheless, I made the conscious decision to proceed with the work anyway. 

Making these types of decisions about a composition brings me to the fifth of my six strategies for getting music off the computer or desk and into the concert hall: think like an entrepreneur. 

But more on that in the next exciting installment of this nail-biting series! As always, if you find any of this useful, please feel free to repost or forward to other interested parties. I also welcome comments on anything I’ve scribbled down here!