Are they vital for a young career?
As a young(ish) composer largely dependent upon commissions, my instinctive answers to the above questions are ‘Extremely’ and ‘Yes’. Commissions are important not just because they quite literally pay the bills. I hugely value collaborations with performers, directors and arts organisations and I believe that such a symbiosis significantly aids my artistic development as a composer. More often than not, a commission has sparked the beginning of such relationships or has provided a focus that has helped develop these partnerships even further. As a result, the practical insight gained from experiencing live performances of my work as well as audience reactions – positive and negative - is invaluable for my progress. Commissions bring wider exposure and ultimately this helps my work. People think in different ways and often hearing somebody else’s point of view can (and does) spark a whole new way of thinking. Seeing and hearing my work being performed is artistically rewarding and performers can add a quality to my music that is impossible to imagine. For me compositions live through performance.
I was delighted to find refreshing attitudes to commissioning when speaking to a cross-section of UK-based commissioners. Director Frederic Wake-Walker’s immediate response was, ‘The commissioning of new work and especially opera from young composers is not important – it’s essential.’ As artistic director of The Opera Group, Wake-Walker is currently overseeing an adventurous new commissioning project ‘Future Bodies’ that involves collaboration between artists and scientists.
Manus Carey, head of Creative Programming at Manchester Camerata, commented that 'Orchestras need to be producing, not just reproducing organisations, to keep them vibrant and relevant to contemporary culture and to prevent them from getting stale. Performing a new work creates a great sense of excitement, a real buzz for both performers and audience.’ New music is central to Manchester Camerata’s strategic plan and they regularly commission composers in the early stages of their careers including current composer in residence Christopher Mayo.
The BBC Proms put the commissioning of young composers at the forefront of its agenda this year and Vanessa Reed, executive director of the PRS for Music Foundation – the UK’s leading funding body of music across all genres – told me that, ‘The commissioning process gives composers and their commissioning partners the opportunity to explore what works (and what doesn’t). This experimentation is particularly important at the early stages of a composer’s career when they are exploring how they want their musical voice to be heard.’ I couldn’t agree more with Reed that ‘composers need to try out new ideas to extend the boundaries of their musical imagination’. Ideally, a commission provides you with time and the artistic freedom to try out something new. Composers need to take risks or they end up churning out the same piece over and over again.
It could be argued that commissions might stifle a creative process but they can actually be very useful for a composer in a practical way. Starting a new work can be difficult but often the commission has already helped with this, i.e. you don’t have a blank page. You already know the instrumentation of your new work, likely the duration (that it is supposed to be!) and performance details. Even if you react against all of these constraints, it is still useful to have had them in the first place. Commissions are often in celebration of particular events and this can be inspiring. I’ll always remember my first major orchestral commission for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Vasily Petrenko as part of Liverpool’s European Capital of Culture 2008 celebrations. It turned out that my new work would be performed alongside Mahler’s Rückert Lieder and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. I found this both scary and exciting at the same time – probably a good mix.
Fortunately, commissions usually come attached to deadlines - absolutely essential for me. They determine the moment I can abandon the work for otherwise, as something of a perfectionist, I would probably continue to work on the same piece forever. Commissions come in all shapes and sizes and I find it most rewarding creatively to vary what I’m working on. So, if I’ve just finished a large orchestral piece, I’m keen to write something contrasting - say a short work for solo violin or SATB choir next.
Anyone can commission music and there are benefits for all according to Reed: ‘Through flagship commissioning programmes like New Music 20x12 we’ve also seen how the commissioning process contributes to the development of organisations, performers and collaborating artists as well as benefiting the composer – from non-professional groups to leading national ensembles, from local arts centres to dance companies and opera groups – the leap of faith the creative process requires means that each commission is an huge learning process for everyone involved. And let’s not forget the audience: audiences are curious about new work if it’s presented in a bold and imaginative way.’
Composer Emily Howard writes operas, orchestral works, concert and chamber music. Her mini-opera 'Zátopek!' was part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad and her orchestral piece 'Calculus of the Nervous System' had its UK premiere at the 2012 BBC Proms. Her music is performed internationally and Howard is currently working on several commissions.