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"Music was not invented by the composer, but found."

Nadia Boulanger, in Reflections of Boulanger, by Don Campbell, 1982.

"Perhaps all music, even the newest, is not so much something discovered as something that re-emerges from where it lay buried in the memory inaudible as a melody cut in a disc of flesh. A composer lets me hear a song that has always been shut up silent within me."

Jean Genet, Prisoner of Love, Part 1, 1986

Finding a Composer


Identifying a composer generally involves the following steps:

  • developing and publicizing a "call" to composers that outlines your project
  • acknowledging receipt and keeping track of the composer applications
  • identifying and recruiting the selection committee
  • distributing the application materials to the committee
  • meeting with the committee to review the applications
  • identifying a few applicants as finalists and interviewing them
  • choosing the composer you wish to work with
  • negotiating the terms of a contract with your chosen composer

At all stages of the process, you will need to feel comfortable that you’re proceeding in a way that is fair to the applicants and to the members of the selection committee. To be fair to the applicants, you should:

  • carefully review all the materials they submit to you
  • give equal consideration to all applicants
  • apply the same standards to all applicants
  • make your decisions in a timely fashion
  • return submitted materials in a timely fashion

To be fair to your committee, you should:

  • respect their contribution of time and talent
  • make sure that all committee members receive the same information, at the same time
  • make sure that each committee member's views are incorporated into the process

What Composers Need to Know

When you publicize your project to composers, you'll need to be clear about the following:
  • Who will perform the music?
  • What is the duration (in range of minutes) of the commissioned work?
  • What is the fee to be paid to the composer? What is included in the fee (one or more of the following): the composition, residency activities, a camera-ready score and set of parts, travel costs? (See Designing Your Project for more about composer fees.)
  • What is the occasion of the commission/what is the proposed theme of the work?
  • How do the commission and premiere relate to your community?
  • Why is your community commissioning the work?
  • When and where will the premiere take place?
  • Where should application materials be sent?
  • What is the deadline for applications?
  • What should be included in the composer application?

You will also have to decide if you will charge composers an application fee, and what impact this might have on the number or quality of applications.

It is a good idea to request the following from applicants:

  • a proposal letter, explaining how the composer would approach the commission, initial ideas for residency activities, experience with community-based projects, and how her/his qualifications match community need regarding this project
  • a résumé or bio
  • letters of recommendation or references with contact information
  • scores and tapes/CDs
  • miscellaneous supporting material
  • a self-addressed, stamped envelope (SASE) for return of materials

It will be your job to make sure that all these materials are given to the committee member who will review them, and that they are returned, intact, to the composer upon completion of the process, if the materials included a return envelope (SASE).

How to Publicize Your Call

Send the information about your project to various organizations who serve composers. They will publicize (print or electronic media) your call to their members or be able to provide suggestions of composers who write the kind of music you are interested in.

These include:

Contact your state or regional arts board for lists of composers in your state or for composer organizations in your state.

Post information about your project on your Web site.

Contact the Continental Harmony community organizations for suggestions and recommendations.

The Selection Committee

Ideally, your committee should include the musical/artistic director(s) of the organization that will perform the finished piece. Other participants might also include: people from the community; from local government; from allied arts or community organizations; people who make music as amateurs or professionals, as performers, conductors, or composers. When selecting the members of your committee, keep in mind that the participants will develop a stake in the outcome of the project. Who are the people in your community that you would like to cultivate in this way? Who has the experience to contribute in making such a choice? Who can you depend on to take the job seriously, to work well with the other committee members? Remember always that you’ll want a diverse constituency represented, as well as a broad range of expertise.

The committee need not be large. Three people can efficiently and effectively review applications, interview composers, and choose a winner. But if there are many constituencies that need to be represented in the composer selection process, your committee will have to be larger.

When asking people to serve on the committee, you owe it to them to be clear about your expectations: what is the nature of your project? what is the committee’s specific task? what is the time commitment involved? who else will serve?

Depending on what is appropriate in your community, you may wish to recruit committee members with an in-person visit, a phone call, a letter of invitation, or some combination of these.

How It Works

If you have a large number of applications, you may distribute them to different committee members, for them to make a "first pass" at reviewing them. (If you proceed in this way, make sure that all reviewers are applying a common set of standards. Agree in advance: are you giving each application a number grade? from 1 to 10? 1 to 100? a letter grade?) Each committee member will be an initial reviewer who will then share their evaluations when the full committee meets to consider all the applications.

Some composers will request feedback on their applications. It is up to the selection committee to decide whether and in what form (abbreviated notes, extensive notes, rating score/grade only, etc.) to provide that feedback. As such, it's a good idea to keep accurate records of the committee's decision-making process. This will enable you to be clear with all applicants as to the status of their application, and, should it be requested, the committee's rationale for turning down an application.

Here are the things to bear in mind as you review the applications and interview finalists.

  • what is my response to the composer’s music? like/neutral/dislike?
  • is the music of high quality?
  • based on the composer’s prose writing and recommendations, would I want to work with this person?
  • can this composer produce a legible score and parts on time?
  • can this composer create a work of quality within the time allowed?
  • can this composer write to fit our performers’ technical level and make them sound good?
  • how much do we want the completed work to challenge our performers and audiences, and how much do we want it to fit their expectations? given where we are on this continuum, how well can this composer fit our needs?
  • given the context of the performance of the commissioned work, what kind of music will be most successful? how well can this composer be sensitive to that performance context?
  • what kind of experience does this person have in working with communities like ours? with ensembles like ours?
  • how well can this composer work with community groups in making the residency portion of the program a success?
  • how well will this composer be able to communicate effectively and consistently with all our project participants--administrative, artistic, community?
  • how well will this composer be able to work with musicians of different skill levels?
  • how well will this composer be able to work with people of different ages and backgrounds?
  • will this composer be willing/able to take the time to get to know us, what is unique about our community, what is special and worth celebrating about our project?
  • will this composer be proactive or reactive? which will work best with our project leaders?
  • will this composer have enough time in her/his calendar to fulfill our expectations, and to be available to us during the course of the residency?
  • is this composer flexible enough to be able to revise works in response to the needs/abilities of our conductor and performers?

Here’s what all these questions boil down to: is this composer someone we’ll feel good about working with, and will she/he create a piece of music that we’ll be proud to have our name on?

If there has been an initial review of all the application materials, your committee can meet as a group to discuss their impressions of each applicant. Alternatively, the committee can meet as a whole to listen to tapes and review application materials. In either case, the weeding-out needs to take place. If you’re using a number scoring system, you may be able to determine a specific numerical level that distinguishes your group of finalists (applications with, say, a score of above 8.0 out of 10). You may find that the applications fall into clearly defined groups: those that don’t seem like a good fit for your community, those that are truly outstanding, and those that fall in the middle somewhere between these two poles.

To make the process move along smoothly, you’ll need to eliminate the bulk of the applicants, and focus your attention on the ones identified as finalists. This group should be between three and six individuals. All finalists should be interviewed by the entire selection committee, either in person or via phone. It may also be practical to have the applicants respond to written questions. If you choose this alternative, be clear with applicants regarding the date by which you expect them to reply.

After you have finished the composer interviews, the committee will need to complete its task by making its final selection. It's always a good idea to have a first and second choice, in case the first choice is unable to fulfill the terms of your commission.

Once the composer has accepted your commission, you will need to notify all applicants of your decision. This can be done via letter or telephone.

Now What?

As soon as possible, you will need to begin working with the composer you have chosen to develop a specific plan for your project. While you may have already determined the fee, performing forces, and duration of the completed commission, you'll still need to work out details concerning residency activities and the delivery date of the completed score and parts. This point is crucial: be sure to allow sufficient rehearsal time for your performers to feel comfortable with the music. Preparing a new work will take longer than preparing a work that the performers already know.

Once you and your composer have worked out this plan, you should enter into a contractual agreement. In addition to the matters listed above, contracts with composers need to take into account some specific issues, such as copyright, performance licensing, and recording agreements. A sample contract is available by clicking here.

Further information on commissioning contracts is available from:

You may also contact local performing groups for ideas about the language a commissioning agreement might contain.

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