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Stop Blaming New Music, Please!

Please click here to read a brief post I wrote on the ScoreStreet blog  about orchestral performers’ continuing to blame the programming of music by contemporary composers for their financial woes. Spoiler alert: it’s nonsense.

So Nu, Music?

As many of my friends and colleagues know, I’ve been working for nearly two years on launching a comprehensive new promotion, publishing and licensing service for classical and jazz composers. Needing a break from dealing with the travails of software application development and the cast of characters involved, I decided last night to actually go out and listen to some of the music that inspired me to pursue what is a seemingly Quixotic quest to do something radical to help composers of new music.

As a preface, I was frequently asked back when I was running the New York office of a prominent classical music publishing company why I was signing jazz composers like Paquito D’Rivera and Andrew Hill, among others.  Among the responses I would give were things like they’re both taught in colleges and conservatories, are performed in concert halls and require a similar sophistication and study of compositional and performance skills.  And they have similar demographics in the marketplace.

The music I heard last night made me once again consider an even more radical reason: it’s all new music. And while there is plenty of contemporary music in both the classical (and I use the term to include “concert”, “serious” and “new music”) and jazz camps that are more firmly rooted in their respective traditions, I suspect that listeners who were unfamiliar with the artists and how they’ve been “branded” would be hard-pressed to classify the musical offerings I heard yesterday as definitely either classical or jazz.

First, I attended a concert of two short sets:  one by Missy Mazzoli and her group, Victoire and the other by the Vijay Iyer trio. With respect to Mr. Iyer’s music, he’s clearly been labeled as a jazz composer –  he’s won a fistful of Downbeat awards this year –  and the piano trio is one of the most traditional of jazz ensembles.  But the music he played had little if any of the trappings of traditional jazz. The drummer didn’t groove on a traditional swing beat. In fact, for long stretches he didn’t keep time at all.  And to my ears, the musical structures and harmonies Vijay composed seemed closer to the classical tradition than to that of jazz.

As for Victoire’s performance, the ensemble of two voices, clarinet, keyboards, violin, double bass, two female singers and electronics wouldn’t immediately strike someone as classical music if they were merely accustomed to hearing symphonies and string quartets.  The works Victoire performed certainly would fit nicely on a program with those of Mr. Iyer and the other “jazz” performer I heard last night. And yet, Ms. Mazzoli is signed to G. Schirmer, another prominent classical publishing company and she does write works for more traditional musical groupings. Last night, however, she presented her works as performed by her own ensemble, reminiscent of a more recent “classical” tradition epitomized by Reich and Glass, composers now regarded as classical – but not back when they first toured with their respective groups.

Then there’s last night’s the third group: Scott Robinson’s Doctette, which performed last night at the Jazz Standard.  Mr. Robinson, an established jazz saxophonist and composer,  presented a set of his compositions inspired by the Doc Savage pulp magazines of the 1930s and 1940s. And while an ensemble of piano, bass, drums and percussion, with Mr. Robinson on various winds, is a traditional jazz format, the inclusion of theremin and the rare, monolithic, awe-inspiring contrabass sax is not.  And like Mr. Iyer’s music earlier in the evening, there wasn’t much in the way of traditional swing beats and the music sounded far more like the music I hear at Zankel Hall than at a jazz club like the Jazz Standard.  And yet none of the music I heard last night sounded anything like the “third-stream” experiments of the post-war period, either.

The other day, my good friend, Frank J. Oteri, writing in NewMusicBox about accordionist, Guy Klucevsek’s album, Polka from the Fringe, concluded, “the next time someone comes up to you claiming to be able to define new music, tell him or her to listen to these recordings.”  I offer a corollary: the next time someone tries to draw lines separating what’s classical and what’s jazz these days,  tell him or her to listen to Mazzoli, Iyer, Robinson and a whole host of genre-bending new music composer/performers.

New Horizons in Snack Food Appreciation

Those who know me – or at least have had a meal with me – might be surprised to learn that I was a rather picky eater as a child. Like many kids, I was extremely reluctant to try new things. My family has still yet to let me live down my infamous statement when one night my mother presented me with something unfamiliar on my dinner plate: “I don’t like it. What is it?”

As an adult, I enjoy consuming all sorts of food: Italian, Indian, Greek, Thai, Mexican, and as a member of the Tribe, it goes without saying that Chinese is frequently in the mix as well. I sometimes get cravings for cold sesame noodles, one of my favorite comfort foods. However, there was one Chinese establishment that I was too afraid to try: despite walking past it nearly every day in the several years since it opened: the Chinese bakery.

Well, it certainly didn’t have that warm, local bakery feeling from the outside – all glass and bright fluorescent lights, with lots of Chinese characters and almost no English. Over time, however, I noticed that all sorts of people of nearly every age and ethnicity were frequenting the place – and it was usually pretty crowded. And yet, for years I dared not venture in. Until today.

After a day of not being terribly productive and feeling anxious about it, I decided to take a mid-afternoon walk around the neighborhood to clear my head and restore my equilibrium. After all, it was a beautiful early autumn day: sunny, about 70 degrees with a cool, crisp breeze.  And my furry paralegals, Earl and Angel, were busy sleeping and sunning themselves. Deciding to seek a post-stroll snack, I remembered the Chinese bakery near the subway stop and decided to head there rather than to one of the more conventional purveyors of confections.

Even though I was wearing my prescription sunglasses, it was still rather bright in there. And the sign near the front of the store saying “please limit your visit to no more than 15 minutes” didn’t exactly give me a warm, fuzzy feeling, either.  But then I started looking around the display cases. Everything was labeled in Chinese and in English and what a selection!

There was as tantalizing an array of typical cakes, cookies, brownies and tarts as you’d find in any bakery. And I noticed the portions were large and the prices were cheap. No wonder the place was packed despite the less than cozy atmosphere. But, there were also all these strange confections that I’d never seen before.

Having become a fan of red bean ice cream many years ago, I decided to dip my toe in the waters of Chinese baked goods (OK, it’s a strange metaphor) and I selected a red bean pastry and ordered a small coffee. The pastry was like a croissant, light and flaky, but with a red bean-flavored center.  Both the pastry and the coffee were quite good and cheap – $2.10 for the pair.

As with food, I try to have similarly eclectic tastes in music. And while I mostly listen to contemporary classical (new music) and jazz these days, I very much enjoy all different types of genres and amalgamations of them  – at least when someone introduces me to them.  Perhaps there’s the moral here: an open mind and some form of introduction  – with music it’s usually friends and in the case of the bakery it was the full house of a heterogeneous clientele beckoning me in – can make one overcome one’s fear of the new and the unknown. And sometimes pleasant surprises await the senses from trying something new!

Composing for Orchestras and Other Ensembles, Part II: Doing the Deal

Last time, I told you how you can find someone to commission you to write a new composition and how much you might get paid for your trouble. Now, I’ll outline the major deal points in a typical commissioning agreement so you’ll be able to deal the deal once you’ve gotten the gig.  A commissioning agreement will cover most, if not all of the same terms whether you’re writing for the Chicago Symphony, New York City Ballet, San Francisco Opera or any number of smaller ensembles. Given the current labor and economic troubles of the Minnesota, St. Paul, Atlanta, Indianapolis and other orchestras, it’s probably better to pursue  a commission from a regional ensemble or from colleges and conservatories like Indiana University and Juilliard.

So, let’s assume you’ve convinced the Schenectady Chamber Arts Brigade to pay you $18,000 to compose that 12-minute piece for soprano, accordion, bag pipes, didgeridoo and percussion you’ve always wanted to write. Now it’s time to negotiate the commissioning agreement.

What goes in the SCAB contract? Of course, your name, the commissioner’s name, the length of the work and the instrumentation all are spelled out. You’ll also agree that the work is original, that it doesn’t infringe upon anything, that any text, samples or quotations you include have been cleared and that the agreement won’t violate any other contracts you’ve entered into.

Typically, you’ll be paid your fee in two parts: half on signing the contract and the rest when the score to the work is delivered. This brings me to a major pitfall: preparing the actual written music. Let’s assume the SCAB piece requires 10 performers plus a conductor. They’ll each need music. And that costs money. Even if you write with Finale or Sibelius, it could cost a few grand to create performance-quality score and parts for this piece. These costs can exceed $10,000 for orchestral works; a full-length opera, with soloists, orchestra and chorus, can easily cost more than $50,000 to prepare. Make sure that in addition to the commission fee, there’s a provision to pay for some, if not all, of the prep costs.

So what does SCAB get for the 18 grand it paid you? They get one or more exclusivities. You’ll always want to limit the exclusivities, as they prevent others from performing your piece and earning you royalties, which can be in the hundreds of dollars per performance from the public performance fees and renting out the score and parts. Any commissioner will get the exclusive right to present the world premiere of the work. If you’ve got a lot of clout or a good lawyer, that’s all the commissioner may get.

Other typical exclusivities include: the right to perform the work for a certain period of time (e.g., one year), the right to present premieres in other territories and the right to make the first recording of your new masterpiece. If there’s more than one commissioner, internal squabbles over who gets the world premiere, recording rights and what territories are reserved for each of them will also need to be resolved. I once engaged in major international diplomacy over several months to sort these issues out in one agreement among six different commissioners in five different countries on both sides of the Atlantic!

There should be limits on liability in the event of late delivery or failure to complete the work. I also like to spell out the precise dates and venues of any performances covered under the contract. I also try to get the commissioner to give the composer a free archival recording of the premiere to help secure future performances of the work, although some of the major orchestras will resist this because of union issues.

There are certain industry customs and they are often somewhat different whether you’re dealing with American or European commissioners. And commissions for major works such as operas, symphonies and concertos are often shared among several commissioners. This can be daunting even for the most business-savvy of composers. If you’re a self-published composer you should definitely consider hiring a lawyer experienced in negotiating these deals to help you.

Finally, make sure the commissioner pays reasonable travel, hotel and per diem expenses if the world premiere takes place far away from where you live, and that you get free tickets to the world premiere for your family, friends — and your lawyer.

An earlier version of this article was published in BMI’s Songwriter 101 site on August 25, 2010.