On Commissioning

To be a saxophonist today means to be a performer of contemporary music. It’s an exciting time for us because new models of performance (see “new music ensemble”) are more inclusive of the saxophone, and composers are excited about our instrument. In this environment, you’re likely to become involved in commissioning new works yourself. However, if you’re new to the commissioning process, where should you start? I’d like to share some important ideas for younger saxophonists interested in helping build a body of repertoire for our instrument that will be lasting and meaningful for us, other musicians, and non-musicians alike.

The first is, for us, often the most frequently overlooked: learn the repertoire. Not saxophone repertoire (you already work on that), but the great works of the western musical canon and beyond. The problem we face as saxophonists is that most great music has not been written for our instrument. The solution is not to ignore that music and continue to miss the boat with our own generation of great composers. Knowing repertoire helps us better understand the outstanding existing repertoire we do have (there’s no way you can fully understand a piece like Denisov’s Sonate without knowing the music of Messaien or Boulez), and will ensure we are better at identifying quality composers we hope to commission. As a great teacher once told me, “be a great musician first, and a saxophonist second.” Don’t forget that old music has much to tell us about the music of today. I’m certainly passionate about many composers of the 20th and 21st centuries, but I’m also in love with the music of Gesualdo, Lassus, Bach, Frescobaldi, Corelli, Scarlatti, Mozart, Schumann, Mahler, and Debussy. I might advocate spending extra time with the music of the last 125 years simply because of its astonishing variety, and because it relates more directly to our own time and to what we hope to achieve for the saxophone.

An (perhaps obvious) addendum to my first point is to make sure that you learn your instrument.Spend a lot of time mastering the classic contemporary repertoire for the saxophone: Albright, Bolcom, Eckardt, Denisov, Berio, Lauba, Stockhausen, Aperghis, and other established repertoire is a helpful precursor to striking out on your own with new works. This might come slowly at first, but mastering the techniques required in these pieces will give you the expressive and technical ownership of your instrument that will enable you to collaborate meaningfully with composers in creating new sounds and techniques of your own. I would also strongly advocate getting outside of so-called western art music in exploring what the saxophone is capable of. Know the language of jazz, and know the other half of the avant 20th century: Eric Dolphy, Dewey Redman, David Murray, Ornette and Coltrane, Steve Coleman, Anthony Braxton, Evan Parker, Roscoe Mitchell, and many others. Work on improvising in jazz and in other settings. The saxophone has been a powerful vehicle for many different voices, and you should know as many as possible. And please, don’t limit yourself to the styles of music I’ve mentioned here: ask people whom you respect what moves them and who they’re listening to.

Let’s say you’ve been working hard at checking off the boxes I’ve listed above, and you’re ready to try for your first commission. Start off by asking some questions before even one note is written. What are you interested in? What’s lacking in our repertoire? Several friends of mine have decided to concentrate on specific ensembles: saxophone/percussion, saxophone/percussion/piano, saxophone duo, and so forth. How long do you want the piece to be? Where and when will the piece be premiered? Another important factor is that you try to create conditions whereby the work will receive subsequent performances by yourself, and ideally, from other performers. Instrumentation, the technical demands of the work, the length, and especially audio/visual requirements of the piece are things to consider because they can be big factors in how frequently the work will be performed.

Interaction between the composer and performer is the most rewarding part of this process for me. It’s a chance to explore your own abilities on your instrument, to try new things, and to use your imagination. Holding sessions with the composer to work out the parameters and materials of a new work is crucial; engage in discussions to start, and then bring your instrument along to test out the composer’s ideas when necessary. Always record your sessions, especially if you’re playing. If a year goes by before the piece is finished, you might forget what sound you were making during your meeting by the time you get the completed score! You should also think about the simplest way to achieve a desired effect in music, and to be honest about what is feasible for a performer under pressure. Can you circular breathe while going back and forth between slap and regular tongue on complicated multiphonics and extreme altissimo? I attended a session at the Darmstadt courses entitled “against silly notation.” (To be fair, in music that is lumped into the very loose category of “The New Complexity,” part of the point of the music is to see what comes out of a performance where the performer is pushing themselves to the absolute limits of what is technically possible.) Suffice it to say that the tutors at the courses, who can play anything, were hoping to convince some of the students to think hard about ends vs. means when notating their music. You can help composers out by providing resources: Marcus Weiss’ book on saxophone techniques, published by Barenreiter, came out just a few years ago and is a fantastic resource for performers and composers alike.

Finally, we must address the 800-pound gorilla in the room: money. Musicians are really good at a lot of things, but dealing with money is usually not one of them. Getting a composer paid means going one of a few different routes. Applying for grants or prizes is probably the most difficult route for emerging musicians, partly because you often have to be a non-profit to even apply, but also because granting institutions want to make sure the projects they fund are going to be successful and reach as many people as possible. Grants are also extremely competitive, so even when you have a successful composer paired with a successful performer, you still might not get the grant. Crowdfunding really took off a few years ago, and is a good option and a way to get non-musicians involved in your project, which is always a good thing. Visit websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to see the powerful advertising and media tools they give you to tell your story. Forming a consortium is a good way to take some of the financial burden off of yourself, and your fellow saxophonists will be exited to get involved with a good composer. Here, you’ll ask your colleagues to contribute a percentage of the composer’s fee in exchange for the right to call their first performance a premiere or to have their name listed as a dedicatee. Be sure to think about performance and recording rights to a work and draw up a contract that the consortium members will find reasonable—ask someone who’s done it for examples if you don’t know where to start. Lastly, if you have the money, paying a composer directly who you really believe in is worth it.

All of these funding avenues have one thing in common: they demand the ability to speak and write cogently about what you do and why it’s important. This might be a moment of soul-searching for you, but if you love what you do and are ready to dedicate your life to it, it’s absolutely necessary that you sit down and put into words your feelings about your art and why it matters to other people. In this day and age, it is simply not enough for most of us to merely be proficient performers. You must be an advocate for yourself and get good at talking to people about why they should support you. Why are you excited about these composers? Why should people care about the music you play? What’s the story behind what you do and/or what the composer does? Not only do you have to have answers to these questions, but they must be convincing. The good news is that finding the answers to these questions will benefit you in ways that go far past commissioning, so it’s a worthwhile undertaking. In summary, commissioning new works is an exciting, rewarding, and sometimes arduous process that is an absolute necessity for the saxophone. We all know how versatile and powerful the musical vehicle we’ve chosen is, but it’s also our job to prove though thoughtful and committed commissioning projects that music can’t do without our voices.