If you've heard a piece of new music performed by an orchestra, chamber group or choir, it has most likely come about because the group of performers, the venue or the people who've arranged the event has asked a composer to write them a piece and found the resources to make this happen. The nature of this commissioning process has always formed an important part of composers' careers and it can vary enormously. In the best situations it might be a profound and collaborative meeting of minds between artistic director and music creator. In the worst, a brief transaction which might not have any influence on the way the composer's creative voice develops. On top of this, commission fees which influence composers' working conditions are hugely inconsistent. As a result, composers often find themselves being forced to squeeze their creative process into unrealistic timeframes set by others and/or into a timetable dominated by the other better paid activities that enable composers to survive.
Isn't it time then to think about what composers really need to realise their potential? And, in spite of the wider financial challenges they face, could those who work with composers help by exploring how they might adapt their processes and understanding of what it takes to write a new piece of music?
When we talked to composers (to inform the scope of a new fund that the organisation I lead is launching), the responses confirmed that their needs are not dissimilar to those working in other art forms. The difference lies in the level of attention these needs receive.
Let's take the example of workspaces - the importance of retaining visual artists in London through affordable studios is something you can read about in the Evening Standard, backed by research and international benchmarking. The fact that it's also crucial for composers to have somewhere other than their bedroom to write their next piece, where they can brush shoulders with other creative people, tends to be overlooked.
Composers would also like more control over their own destiny. Many composers want to spearhead their own projects, have more control over their time and how much they get paid. This need is being discussed across other art forms where direct funding of individual artists is an equally pressing concern. However, the music sector is still not completely comfortable with the artist-led approach, even if composers who set up their own groups have been doing it for years.
Of course, there are many world-class organisations in the UK which commission composers, are sensitive to how they work and provide vital platforms for their development. These organisations need continued support. But for composers to develop on their own terms and to be understood beyond the parameters of what's gone before, surely it's time to open things up and offer more choice?
As Judith Weir, Master of the Queen's Music suggests,
"On the (rare, happy) occasions when a new music project receives a grant, the funding is channelled via various levels of administration; the grant-givers themselves, the producers, the orchestral/ensemble managements. What if the money went straight to the composer? Would new music be different?"