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Illustration : May Kindred Boothby
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26 February 2021 Comments Off on On Commissioning Views: 1021 CE News

On Commissioning

Artistic director, clarinettist, writer, broadcaster, producer and most recently CEO of the Stapleford Granary centre for arts, culture and education in Cambridge, Kate Romano is one of today’s most insightful and innovative cultural pioneers and an experienced commissioner of new music for all kinds of events.

As Composers Edition publishes its guide to commissioning, Romano gets to the heart of, and makes her case for commissioning new musical works.

Kate Romano

Twenty years ago, when I was a student, I read something in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Benjamin Britten that I have never forgotten. Britten describes the process of composing as having the music ‘complete in my mind before putting pencil to paper’. He conjures up form, textures and characters ‘in a very precise way’. Then, and only then, comes the process of ‘finding the right notes to say what I have to say’. It is, recounts Britten, a process that is not wholly under his control and ‘one can be curiously uninvolved… it’s all the result of previous experiences digested’.

I was hooked. Of all the things I love talking about, the process of music creation holds endless fascination for me. Where do musical thoughts come from? What drives the urge to compose, to translate shapes, ideas, textures and experiences into sound? What is that relationship between the notes – the pull and push, the equilibrium and instability of density, weight, colour and temperature – that makes you forget that you are listening to a piece of music and transports you into another world? 

Perhaps Britten’s words resonated because I was studying composition when I read Carpenter’s biography; a 5-year period that gained me a PhD and taught me that I could not say what I wanted to say by writing music. It wasn’t that I couldn’t sense the slippery, elusive process of composition – oh, I could – but unlike Britten I couldn’t find the right notes. The result came out watery and opaque… a milky cataract over the clarity I was hearing in my head. Or it was too forced – you could hear the composing going on, and it got in the way of what I wanted to say. So I stopped composing, returned to performing (I’m a clarinettist) and started commissioning. 

I’ve had conversations with over 100 composers since I read that biography. Some are very articulate, acutely aware of how their ideas are formed and where challenges lie. Some talk with their hands and faces, as if trying to contain and explain things that are just out of reach. Composers speak in vocabularies particular to their own work; a landscape of sound, a dialect, a code, a system, a map, the ‘topography’ of a musical work… Most refer to a ‘truth’ – an intuitive knowledge of wrong-ness or right-ness for the music. Often they hint at the recursive, non-linear process of composing… the seed of an idea that took root in one work and flourished in a new one or a feeling of ‘writing the whole piece’ in every gesture they make. They speak of the sensitivity the musical object… of dialoguing with it, cajoling it, dislocating it, resisting it, of ‘letting it run’ and ‘take over’… They describe a need to shut down the world, disengage … the necessary privacy, the loneliness… the hard work, endurance, perseverance …  

What is the role of the commissioner? In 1951, art historian Arnold Hauser wrote: ‘The starting point for production is to be found mostly not in the creative urge, the subjective self-expression and spontaneous inspiration of the artist, but in the task set by the customer’

He was writing about the Golden years of the Florentine Renaissance, the creative period that transformed the city on the Arno into one of the most glorious civilizations in the world. Brunelleschi built the dome over Santa Maria del Fiore, Ghiberti cast the Gates of Paradise and Donatello created statues and reliefs for Orsanmichele, the church of Santa Croce and the Basilica of San Lorenzo. Hauser makes the point that all of this staggering creativity happened not just within artists, but within a system. The Florentine commissioners  – bankers, churchmen and heads of great guilds – were intensely involved in the process of commissioning. They selected the art they wanted, they encouraged, evaluated, provided generous financial support and timeframes. Brunelleschi, Ghiberti and Donatello were driven to excel because they created within a powerful and influential framework and an environment of competition and focussed scrutiny. 

Five centuries later, the Russian impresario Diaghilev satisfied his constant need to be culturally surprised through commissioning. He was a master ‘junction-maker’, assembling collectives of artists from different fields. ‘Astonish me!’ he famously said to Jean Cocteau, which Cocteau did, beginning with the radical and provocative circus-ballet Paradein 1917. Diaghilev also pushed the boundaries of his artists by challenging them: Parade was Cocteau’s first scenario for a ballet, Erik Satie’s first orchestral score, Pablo Picasso’s debut in theatre design and Léonide Massine’s first commission as a choreographer. Diaghilev became an architect of modernism because he facilitated frameworks in which artists could inspire, provoke and enable one another. 

creativity flourishes not just within the mind and body of an artist, but within a system and a commissioner can help provide conditions for artists to excel and astonish and for their work to be appreciated.

The creation of new art rarely takes place in a vacuum. We may not have the wealth of Medici Bankers or the infrastructure of the Ballets Russes, but the principles remain: creativity flourishes not just within the mind and body of an artist, but within a system and a commissioner can help provide conditions for artists to excel and astonish and for their work to be appreciated. What are these conditions? The ambition of the task, the environment in which the work is created, where it is programmed, how it is programmed, how much it has been rehearsed, how well it is performed and understood, who hears it, who hears it again… all of this is the ‘system’ in which a new piece of music comes into being. The ‘system’ also includes strong intuitive processes such as a feeling of ‘now is the right time for this to happen, well’. Its something in the air, the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the time… I trust this intuitive feeling more the older I get. The ‘system’ is strengthened by an ability to identify and seize upon timely opportunities to promote the work. It is reinforced by the way that you write and talk about the new work, which should draw other people to it. To have a ‘culture’ means we need to eliminate many new ideas, because culture only exists when more people start to pay attention to some of the same things. For any new piece of music to stand a chance of being taken notice of, it needs to be brought into the world with great care.

This is not a guide to contracts, fees, rights and royalties; those are well-documented elsewhere. It’s an artistic response to commissioning based on my own experience, because many commissioners are musicians and our reasons for commissioning are usually curious and creative ones.  If you are the performer of the new work, a unique relationship with the music develops. I enjoy the metamorphic relationship with a new piece; it is never static, you never approach the music as an ‘artefact’ or a finished object. One of the burning reciprocal questions (spoken or unspoken) when working with a composer is: ‘do you hear it like I do?’  This fascinating on-going dialogue which continues as you work together, is the bedrock of the collaboration and ultimately determines the way that the piece will be played and heard. Sometimes, I think I find what was missing in my own music. I call it the ‘ghost layer’: a sudden awareness of ‘something else going on’ that feels like it was once inherently there in the music, supporting it like scaffolding… or it may even be another piece of music that is buried deep inside the new piece and is now removed. It was probably there before the new music was composed but its ‘ghost’ still drives or informs or shapes the new music in a subtle, shadowy way. Not all music has this deep ‘ghost layer’ – to my ears, its rare. You don’t need to play music to discover a deep apparitional architecture, because you can ‘hear’ it when its there. But discovering it through a commission is an extraordinary moment of mutual empathy with the composer. For me, as the performer, it is like ‘finding the notes to say what I want to say’

Commissioning new music today can sometimes feel hyper-politicized; a domain where programmers and artistic directors are subject to changing agendas, priorities of institutional boards, public and corporate funders. But commissioning can simply be about a performer and a composer who very much want to work with one another.  At the heart of commissioning is something uncomplicated – you need to be curious and you need to really care about the music.

Kate Romano


Composers Edition Commissioning Service

We believe all musicians, their audiences and supporters, should be able to experience the excitement and pride of premiering new music by todays finest composers. Too often shrouded in mystery, we want to open up the process to all musicians – professionals and leisure-time players of all stripes. That’s why we’ve published Commissioning New Music – A Short Guide which gets straight to the heart of how to go about it and how we can support you make a wonderful creative choice to bring a new musical work into the world.

The illustration for this article was specially commissioned by Composers Edition from illustrator and animation artist May Kindred-Boothby.

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