Thursday, August 21, 2008

What to do with all these new compositions on my desk?

It seems that once you become director of a chamber choir, you are immediately added to a list of conductors to whom composers from all over the world send PDF's and post mail samples of their works. In the last five years, I have accumulated about one hundred new compositions, and admittedly most of them are still in their envelopes, having never been looked at, and only one of those (after much persistence from the composer) I have programmed, and even that piece had been performed before by another choir before.

It's made me think a bit recently of what is it that attracts choral conductors to new works, and why it is that of the many compositions we receive each year, it is unlikely that any of them will actually be programmed ... ever.

Here are my thoughts. When a composer "gives" a work to a solo performer, the chances that the work will be performed seems somewhat higher (although I have no idea how much higher). Quite often, the solo performer IS the composer. However, when it comes to choirs and orchestras, you are dealing with a large number of people, a board of directors, and a fairly consistent audience base. The risk of performing an unsuccessful work has implications that affect a great number of people.

So how do artistic directors choose "new" music? Often music that is premiered at conferences such as Podium, or ACDA conferences will have an effect on a large number of conductors. Reading sessions at these conferences as well are a great way to see a host of new works, and sing them through with other conductors. Recordings and live broadcasts of new works will likely get a second glance. After that, once a composer has a reputation of being a fine choral composer, they open up doors for commissions - which in my experience is where the highest number of "world premiere" performances come from. Since I've been with Da Camera, we have performed two commissions, and have another coming this year. The main reason for this is they look great on grant applications. Plus there is also nothing quite like the incentive of putting money into to something that will see a project through to its completion.

How many compositions have you performed of works that you have received by email or post mail? What percentage of new works that you perform are commissions? What is the best outlet for you to find "new" music?


Phoenix Rising said...

Almost everything we do is a new piece. I don't wait for the composers to come to me; I put out calls for scores on ACF and AMC and I am almost always greeted with great surprises. Of course, I am a composer myself and we do a number of my works as well. We are small, almost have no budget and are still building our audience, so those considerations don't play as large a factor for us as for more established organizations. As a composer I want to help other composers as much as I can. Giving a composer a premiere and a decent recording is just about the best thing you can give them in their early career. I'm guessing that while many of those unopened envelopes contain rambling nonsense, a good amount of them contain fairly decent to brilliant stuff. It might be worth looking into them.

Kimberly said...

That is a sad little bit of reality, but good to know.
As Phoenix rising said, another way to get your music heard is to start with young companies... that have less to lose and can take more risks.

John Brough said...

Yes - it certainly is easier for a choir to begin with only performing new works - perhaps harnessing a niche in the market as it were.

I had a nice long chat with a composer about this recently, and he of course knows the difficulty in composer new works for choirs and orchestras that aren't commissions. In fact, if they aren't guaranteed a performance, there is no reason to compose them!

An idea I'm bringing to my board on Monday is to introduce a new music reading session, where local composers will be invited to submit new choral compositions, and we will rehearse and read them for them - giving them an idea of the difficulties faced with choirs, and giving their work a voice. We'd also invite local conductors to hear, and participate.

We'll see!

Peter said...

Your idea about having Da Camera do reading sessions for new works is fabulous. I wonder if you would consider including singers and conductors from other choirs in that? Perhaps there might be some works suited for youth choirs or at the other end of the spectrum for ensembles consisting of experienced professional singers. Anyway, I think the idea has considerable merit. Go for it!