Questions for Commissioning
Questions that a composer might consider asking when discussing a new commission, and information that anyone approaching a composer about a commission should be ready to volunteer.
1. WHAT TIMEFRAME DO YOU HAVE IN MIND?
• When do you anticipate premiering this piece?
• When would you like the completed piece?
Conductors will want to pad composer deadlines to allow for a month’s delay, plus enough time to adequately prep the piece for rehearsal. In practice, this could look like asking for the piece 2-3 months before you’ll actually need it.
Many composers plan their commissioning schedule at least a year in advance of the premiere, if not a year in advance of when the piece will be due.
The exact date of a premiere might change, but having an anticipated premiere date (e.g. May 2024, Spring 2025, etc) allows both conductor and composer to prepare an appropriate deadline for the commission as a whole.
2. HOW LONG SHOULD THE PIECE BE?
I aim for a two- to three-minute range when discussing the length of a new piece, e.g. 5-7 or 12-15 minutes. New pieces often expand or contract somewhat in rehearsal and performance.
3. WHAT ARE THE PARAMETERS FOR THE NEW PIECE?
• How difficult should the new piece be?
• Are there any restrictions I should con regarding range and divisi?
These questions are particularly useful in writing for community choirs and school ensembles, where the range may be limited in certain sections, or where one section may be stronger (and able to sing divisi) while another needs a simpler line.
That said, I don’t usually mention divisi or limited ranges in a contract unless the ensemble specifically requests it (e.g. “a new composition for SATB chorus without divisi”).
• Are there any particularly strong performers in your ensemble for whom I should consider writing a solo?
When conductors know they have a lot of strong performers in the group, particularly in one section, I find that useful information to consider as I go about writing the piece. I usually don’t mention this in the contract unless the piece has an extended solo part and is specifically written for, say, soprano soloist & chorus.
• What instrumentation do you have in mind for the new piece?
The instrumentation may or may not be pre-determined at the start of a commissioning conversation. A chorus may have a strong collaborative pianist, an existing relationship with a local string quartet, and/or a member of the choir who doubles on clarinet; in those cases, a composer might have flexibility in choosing their own instrumentation.
When a piece is written for larger forces, a composer may charge more for that commission. Some composers adjust their rates based on the number of staff lines; for example, a piece accompanied by organ (3 staves) would cost more than a piece accompanied by piano (2), and a piece for chamber orchestra would have a rate adjusted accordingly.
4. IS THIS PIECE BEING COMMISSIONED FOR A PARTICULAR OCCASION OR ON A GIVEN THEME?
A new commission might celebrate an anniversary, honor a member of the community, memorialize a loved one, or champion a cause close to the commissioner’s heart. If the piece is honoring a special occasion, it’s helpful for the composer to know that in advance. Similarly, if a conductor already has a concert theme in mind, that will also influence the chosen text.
5. ARE THERE ANY PARTICULAR THEMES OR TOPICS I SHOULD CONSIDER WHEN LOOKING FOR A TEXT?
• Do you already have a text (or texts) in mind?
• What other music is being programmed alongside the new commission?
Some composers—myself included—generally prefer to choose their own texts. Some conductors prefer to approach a composer with a text in mind. A composer may or may not respond to that text and want to set it; still, it never hurts to ask.
Either way, parameters such as the length of the piece, the piece's instrumentation, the concert theme and/or occasion, and other pieces on the program will influence the choice of text.
Within a few weeks of an initial commissioning conversation, I usually send 2-3 options for texts to a conductor, then 1-2 more if they aren’t loving any of the options I’ve sent. We continue this process until we find a mutually agreeable text. I’ve never had this process take more than three batches of potential texts or seven total poems; usually, we settle on a text after the first round of options.
6. WHAT OTHER RELEVANT PROGRAMMING CHOICES MIGHT INFLUENCE MY APPROACH TO THIS COMMISSION?
• What are some of your favorite compositions?
• What are some pieces your ensemble has loved performing in the past?
• Which of my compositions have you and your ensemble enjoyed performing?
• Are you hoping this new piece will be similar to an existing piece of mine?
While I never want to write a carbon copy of an existing piece, it’s helpful to know which pieces performers have responded well to in the past. Do they prefer fast-paced music? Lush, lyrical songs? A cappella choral works with lots of divisi?
If the commissioning chorus loved performing my piece In the Middle, for example, I might ask if they’d like another fast-paced piano part in the new commission. I might also consider sending them texts to consider that were written by the same poet. Every ensemble's preferences are different, and knowing these personal inclinations will impact my approach to the new piece.
7. WHAT RATE DO YOU HAVE IN MIND?
Some composers charge per minute, some have a minimum number and go up from there, and some have other formulas altogether. The exact rate will vary between composers. I have a set minimum rate for commissions and adjust from there, based on the length and instrumentation of the piece.
8. HOW DO YOU WANT TO STRUCTURE COMMISSIONING PAYMENTS?
Many composers structure commissioning payments in two installments: 1) half of the total fee due within 30 days of signing the contract, and 2) half due within 30 days of delivery of the score or the deadline.
If a payment is due upon delivery of the score, that may or may not correspond with the deadline on the contract. In other words, if the piece is delivered earlier, payment would still be due within 30 days of delivery.
For larger pieces, or if budget is an issue, I’ll sometimes suggest we spread payments out over 3-4 payments and/or two fiscal years. The contract will list the dates when each payment is due.
9. DO YOU PLAN TO COMMERCIALLY RECORD THE PIECE?
In my contract, I state that the commissioner will provide me with one video and/or audio recording of the premiere performance that I may use for non-commercial purposes (e.g. on my website and in sharing that piece with other conductors and ensembles).
If an ensemble wants to commercially record the new work, I’ll either use a separate mechanical license or will incorporate the album details directly into the commissioning contract.
A commissioning contract may also include a clause that gives the commissioning ensemble right of first refusal to commercially record through a certain exclusivity date, if the ensemble isn’t sure yet whether they’ll record the work but would like that option.
10. DO YOU WANT EXCLUSIVITY PAST THE PREMIERE DATE?
I usually list the commissioning ensemble's exclusivity date as 15 to 30 days past our anticipated premiere. If the ensemble plans to take the piece on tour in the following months or professionally record it, we may extend the exclusivity date by 15 to 30 days after the tour ends or the recording is released. That said, the contract always includes a date after which, if the piece has not been performed, I may seek another ensemble to give the premiere.
In the event of extenuating circumstances, I’m always happy to discuss extending that exclusivity date by a greater span of time. Whenever I write a new piece for specific performers, I want to prioritize those performers being the ones to premiere that composition.
If the delay stretches by a year or more, though, I may start to consider other options for that first performance. Regardless, the commissioning dedication and program note will forever credit the commissioning ensemble as the forces who helped bring this new piece into being.