The Violin Channel recently caught up with Canadian violin virtuoso and new music advocate, Lara St. John.
In a VC-exclusive blog, Lara discusses her 7 essential considerations when commissioning a composer for a new work.
Make sure you know whom you are asking and that you are doing it in good, if not excellent, faith.
In this era of online, you can certainly hear a large percentage of your Chosen Composer’s canon, and decide if their body of work provides a compelling case for expansion. Don’t commission folks only because they are well-known, or because they were friendly to you at a party. Listen heaps, educate yourself as to their distinct style and make sure a commission is something you can do with total integrity – otherwise, your work will end up in the recycling bin/old file folder of music history. Which neither of you want!
It helps composers to have a few guidelines – most importantly, your expectations on length. Ideally, you have thought about which venues, recordings, videos you wish to do with your eventual piece. You may want a concerto, and for that I would suggest between 26 and 35 minutes; if it fits timewise in traditional orchestral programs, it’ll get programmed more. For a concert piece with orchestra one could have in mind – say, a 9 to 11 minute work to add to the Poème, Tzigane, various Carmens, Rondo Crap etc. basket of oft-performed violin pieces. Or for cello, something that might go with Kol Nidrei, Rococo, Schelomo, etc.
When it comes to orchestral commissions, your best bet is to stick to programmable norms. Even if you’re Yo-Yo Ma, no one is going to program a 45m concerto for cello, sackbut, and full orchestra (not that he’s ever tried that.) A different (such as wind ensemble) or smaller (strings or chamber) orchestra is also a good and sometimes overlooked idea.
Recital-wise, there is more leeway, like a sonata, which could be solo or with piano (or other accompaniment) in one or many movements and between 15-35m. A salon piece either with piano or solo should be below 6m, ideally, and encores between 2-4m.
None of this is set in stone – these are just things to think about. Both you and your Composer of Choice want the work to be played and heard as often as possible, and keeping timing in mind can certainly help with that.
I have found it best, after a few guidelines, (time, size of ensemble, structure idea) to leave composers to their own devices. Composition is creation, and constraining such a thing further than a few instructions is, IMHO, a mistake. If you insist on, say, a work which evokes a hammerhead shark and your Composer has in mind trench scenes from WWI, you may have a problem.
A good case in point is Matthew Hindson’s Maralinga from 2009 commissioned by me and Wolf Trap. Since I knew his other work and his violin concerto, I asked for 8 to 12m work for violin and piano and gave him carte blanche. He ended up writing a searing piece which represented and memorialized the nuclear experiments made by the English in Maralinga, Australia in the 1950s, when they coolly failed to evacuate the indigenous population or provide adequate protection for the Australian workers within the fallout range.
I have played Maralinga with piano and in its eventual orchestrated version in the US, Canada, Europe and on a tour of Australia. Yet, if he had told me “Well, Lara, see, there were these British baddies that wanted to use some uranium in the unexplored outback” I would have been flummoxed, and might have backed away.
The point is: trust your Composer! But first, know him or her.
... about your strengths and weaknesses! If you have the best up-bow staccato since Shumsky, let the Composer know! If you have incredible downwards fingered octaves, say something! If you think you play really great eternal phrases à la Messaien Louange, don’t be shy! Your Composer can use this information to both of your advantages as well as its opposite. If you are hopeless at whole tone trills and/or up-bow staccato, say so! (I speak from experience).
5. TALK AND TRY
I generally say “I can and will play anything, unless it’s dumb” by which I mean that I won’t do something which I deem needlessly difficult. Many composers are not string players and they occasionally write impossible stuff, but it’s up to us to find a mutually agreeable solution. Somehow left-hand pizz and certain double stops seem to be particularly gnarly for most composers. Find a way to create the same effect within the realm of possibility (so you can do it with ease and panache) and I guarantee your Composer will be pleased!
6. DON’T BE LAZY
This may seem contradictory to the above rule, but it’s not. I find that a lot of string folks complain excessively about items which, if they just tried a little harder, would work fine. I’ve had chamber music partners declaim, for example, that an arco to a pizz was too fast to do properly, so I’d demonstrate many times with various ideas to help them. Then they’d get all sulky.
Corigliano’s STOMP for scordatura violin and foot was called impossible by those who had commissioned it, so I recorded it. On video, so they knew I hadn’t edited. Only then did it go ahead.
The point is: know the difference between your Composer writing something impossible; something which could be made more fluid by changing it just a little bit; and you just not trying hard enough.
7. BOTTOM LINE
Try not to ask people to do stuff for free or ‘exposure’. Generally, your Composer of Choice makes a living at this. Don’t be a cheapskate, but also, honesty is good if you can’t afford something you believe in.
There are grants up the wazoo out there if you know how to find them and apply. I am a grant dork, so no advice from here – but go forth and learn grant writing, my young friends! I am sure it will open up some possibilities which otherwise would not be available to you.
If anyone takes any of this advice – I want to know!! And hear the results!
Lara St. John, Violin
Matt Herskowitz, Piano
Release Date: November 6, 2015