Those who commission offer vital support and inspiration - and can set intriguing challenges...
‘To stop the flow of music would be like the stopping of time itself, incredible and inconceivable’ (Aaron Copland). I strongly relate to this in my composing work, but I find that it’s not the whole story. The flow of music is channelled, accelerated, concentrated – think of a river in its fast-flowing upland state, hemmed in by the contours of a mountain valley, rather than lazily meandering through a floodplain – by an impending deadline and the promise of a performance.
And this is where commissioning comes in. Commissions for new music come from many different sources – performing organisations both professional and amateur, arts organisations, funding bodies, festivals, charities, private individuals, trusts and foundations, and often a combination of the above.
A commission enables you to set aside serious time to devote your passion and expertise to the music in hand, to delve into its inner life, assemble your ingredients and allow them to simmer together, so to speak, and then to go through the laborious / ecstatic / exhausting / life-affirming process of getting it all worked out, developed, scored and tweaked to perfection. And a commission often also involves one or more performances – the vital and wonderful stage where the piece moves into the realm of sound.
What does a commissioning body get out of the process? Most obviously, they enable a piece of music to come to fruition that otherwise may never have been written. And they can influence the outcome, from practical concerns such as forces and duration, to more involved queries. I’ve recently written a number of in memoriam chamber pieces – Thea Dances, Oboe Quintet, Springhead Echoes and Clarinet Quintet – and for each of these I’ve alluded in one way or another to music loved by the dedicatees. For me this sort of to-and-fro with commissioners has been a valuable part of the process, making our connection far deeper than if it was limited to discussions of fees and deadlines.
It’s marvellous that so many amateur groups, from orchestras and choirs to wind and brass bands, are engaged in commissioning. Their committee members in particular are to be applauded: for zero financial recompense, they devote swathes of time to the meetings and correspondence that such activity inevitably throws up.
My Clarinet Concerto, which receives its premiere tomorrow (May 11), was commissioned by such a group, the excellent Kensington Chamber Orchestra (KCO), conducted by Tom Seligman. It’s dedicated to the clarinettist Mandy Burvill, who in the interests of full disclosure I should mention I’m married to. I’ve long wanted to write a concerto for her, and early last year Tom suggested bringing the idea to life. The commission fee was sought and found through the efforts of KCO itself. Performing materials are available for any orchestra to hire for free until September 2020, via the contact form at ianstephens.net.
Scored for chamber orchestra, it contains strong elements of autobiography, explored through three movements over a 25-minute span. It’s full of hidden codes and allusions to fragments of tunes that have punctuated our life together, in the context of a full-hearted 21st-century music.
Writing a piece for the person you share your life with isn’t always straightforward. We have had these two modes over the last few months, concerto talk (will this work? … try this bit for me … this might work better … is that an F sharp? ... do you really mean this?), and everything else talk (have you fed the cat? ... how was your day? ... shall we watch Fleabag? ... gin and tonic?). It’s been a little strange having this impending performance that we both are central to, but in which we play very different roles.
Alexander Borodin was as famed as a chemist as he was as a composer, so he could afford to say ‘music is a pastime, a relaxation from more serious occupations’. Not true for me, not at all: music is absolutely my serious occupation, and it’s all credit to those who commission music that composing keeps me seriously occupied.
Ian Stephens’ Clarinet Concerto is performed by Mandy Burvill and Kensington Chamber Orchestra conducted by Tom Seligman on Saturday May 11 at St Peter’s, Notting Hill, London. For more information please see ianstephens.net and kco.org.uk. Further performances with Mandy are with New Bristol Sinfonia on 29 June 2019 and Liverpool Mozart Orchestra on 8 February 2020; Jacob Perry performs it with the Orchestra of St Mary’s in Penzance on 11 January 2020.