There are in fact many methods that composers employ to bring their music before the public. And I’ve come up with what I believe is a useful and revealing way to organize these methods, which I call the “Contrived-Real Continuum.”
As a composer myself, I’m well acquainted with some of these methods through personal experience. None of them are “bad” or “wrong” things to do, but they offer different rewards to the composer.
Below are eight examples of how a contemporary work might be performed nowadays. They are ranked on my continuum model, beginning with the most contrived and moving towards the most real.
1. The composer organizes a concert and hires musicians to play his/her music. This is the most blatantly contrived of all methods: any composer with enough money and determination will probably succeed in renting a hall, engaging some musicians, and possibly even attracting a small audience. But of course, this is not what composers really want: they want other people to do these things, out of sincere admiration for their works. Some composers are reluctant to go down this road – fearing that others may judge them harshly for presenting a “vanity” concert – but others seem to be just fine with it.
2. Composers join together to create a new-music society or collective, and present their music. This is much like the method described above, except with creation of a mutual-admiration society as a kind of smokescreen. As well, such collective efforts may have an easier time attracting funds from government agencies and foundations than individual efforts will. However, such societies’ performances often fail to reach beyond a small audience of friends, colleagues and new-music aficionados.
3. Some kind of ad hoc “mutual back-scratching” arrangement is established. This is a murky, omnibus category, involving a variety deals that are not pretty in the light of day. For instance, a performer might agree to play a piece by a composer in exchange for the composer hiring that performer to play on a contemporary music series that he/she runs. And if a commission is involved, Method 3 can be dressed up for public consumption as Method 7.
4. A composer approaches performers and lobbies them to perform his/her music. Here, some interest on the part of performers is required – and if the composer’s music is subsequently performed, the performance is at least partially “real.” However, this is a tricky business: to be good at it, a composer must have sophisticated professional and social skills. And having to ask to attend a party is not quite the same thing as being invited to it.
5. Performers give subsequent performances, of their own volition, of a piece a composer has paid or lobbied them to play. Composers are gratified and encouraged when this sort of thing happens, because it means that the piece in question has taken on a life of its own. The contrived methods used to win the first performance can then be justified as “priming the pump,” so to speak.
6. A composer submits a work to a “call for scores” by a performing group. The piece is chosen and performed. Sweet! If you’re the successful composer, this means that there are some musicians out there who prefer your music to someone else’s, and want to perform it. However, there’s a modesty in this achievement: the composer’s music was not chosen in comparison with all other performable musical works; it was chosen only in comparison to a specific group of competing scores. And some promotional effort on the composer’s part is still required: if he/she didn’t submit the piece in the first place, it could not have been chosen.
7. Performers seek a composer out, and commission him/her to write a new piece for them. Not only is this a sincere expression of admiration for a composer’s oeuvre, it is an expression of faith in the composer’s future work. Any composer who is in demand for unsolicited commissions has “arrived.”
8. Performers hear a piece of music they like, and decide to perform it. This is also a very sincere thing for performers to do – no social, professional or economic contrivance is involved. I rate this above Method 7 because in this scenario the composer does not even have to be alive. This is about as real as it gets.
No doubt there are other examples that could be cited here of methods used by composers to obtain performances. But I suspect that just about any method could be ranked somewhere on the Contrived-Real Continuum.
© Colin Eatock 2011