was not invented by the composer, but found."
in Reflections of Boulanger, by Don Campbell, 1982.
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
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
- 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
- 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 youre 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
- 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
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
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
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 youll want a
diverse constituency represented, as well as a broad range
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 committees 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
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 composers music? like/neutral/dislike?
- is the music of high quality?
- based on the composers prose writing and recommendations,
would I want to work with this person?
- can this composer produce a legible score and parts on
- can this composer create a work of quality within the
- 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,
- 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
Heres what all these questions boil down to: is this
composer someone well feel good about working with,
and will she/he create a piece of music that well 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 youre 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 dont seem like
a good fit for your community, those that are truly outstanding,
and those that fall in the middle somewhere between these
To make the process move along smoothly, youll 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
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.
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
You may also contact local performing groups for ideas about
the language a commissioning agreement might contain.