Commissioning Compositions

By Ailís Ní Ríain (composer-writer) and James Wilson (musician).


We discuss commissioning new works with both Ailís Ní Ríain (composer-writer) and James Wilson (musician).

Do performers or organisations approach you to commission new works, Ailís?

Ailís Ní Ríain (ANR): Sometimes. It does vary. For concert music I have been approached directly. However much of what I do     is outside that realm. Sometimes it can be a response to an opportunity, for instance, a performance or funding opportunity. 


How have you commissioned work in the past, James?

James Wilson (JW): I recently began a series of seven new works for the flute, Seven Deadly Sins. The first, for flute and percussion (Gluttony: Live to Drink), came about through a mutual friend, composer Gregory Emfietzis based in London. The work developed through one of the modules during my postgraduate studies at the University of Leeds. The small bursary you receive as part of this module enabled me to commission Leeds College of Building to build a brand new percussion instrument that the composer had conceived.

I also used contacts within the University, having commissioned a work by one of the composition lecturers.

Before starting the project, I drew up a list of potential composers that I had in mind to ask. I originally wanted    a wide range of styles and concepts and looked to the people I knew through various platforms and those whose music resonated with me.


What is the process when working with new compositions? Do you receive input from performers?

ANR: Circumstances, geographical distance, clashing diaries and lack of sufficient funding often mean that 1:1 time with musicians can be very limited. Then, when in rehearsal, there can be a lot of pressure to think quickly and resolve issues on the spot as the clock is ticking. This can be frustrating, as the composer doesn’t necessarily have all the answers or indeed, the best answers. A musician will know their instrument better than I possibly could.


Do you contribute or offer input to the composer, James?

JW: The two works to come out of the Seven Deadly Sins project to date have both had a collaborative approach. Emfietzis’s piece required a number of workshop sessions to consider how the percussion instrument would work in practice, including amplification of water. The instrument itself was difficult to transport which made it tricky to rehearse the piece at times. Input was offered between both the percussionist, composer and myself on balance issues between the flute and percussion, stagecraft and theatre, and realising aspects of the score.

Sohrab Uduman’s la cupidité de souffle for flute and live electronics resulted in working together with the composer to record sounds that would later influence the electronics part. Like with Emfietzis, I discussed various parts of the score with the composer on email and in person. It is very easy to resolve small matters over email whilst aspects of sound are naturally easier face to face or over Skype if travelling becomes difficult or expensive.


What do you look for in a new piece?

JW: I take a different stance on new music to many in the sense that I choose to focus solely on the concert flute and not on the other family of instruments (piccolo, alto, bass etc.). Whilst these other instruments open up new possibilities to composers, I like to get them to think about the instrument in new ways and break down preconceived ideas which they and audiences may have.

Collaboration is important to me when making a new work. Other than that, anything goes!

It  is  important  to   document   the   performance if possible with a recording to add to your portfolio of work, which will also help when going out for additional funding and/or other performance opportunities of said work.            


What challenges are there when making original new music?

ANR: In some sense, there are no challenges beyond the artistic one. While those can be trying, it is ultimately what I enjoy doing. Beyond that, there are of course other challenges such as finding the funding to cover musician fees, rehearsal venues, touring etc. This is ongoing and I see it as part of what I do. It is necessary to make time for the artistic and the administrative side too.


What are the potential difficulties you face when looking to commission new works?

ANR: I don’t commission work myself, but the challenges are finding the funding, finding the audiences,  finding the programming opportunities, sometimes finding the instruments – especially pianos and percussion.

JW: The key consideration when commissioning new music is funding and whether or not it should be the performer or the composers that write the funding applications. The funders will then want to know how many performances the composition will receive and who it is reaching, so one must consider venue hire and how you as the performer are going to be paid.


Does the composer organise the first performance (or subsequent performances) or does the performer do this?

JW: This is usually by mutual agreement between performer and composer. It may be that you as the performer have a venue or festival in mind for the first performance or vice versa; budget will usually also dictate this depending on the scale of the project. It is important to document the performance if possible with a recording to add toyour portfolio of work, which will also help when going out for additional funding and/or other performance opportunities of said work.

ANR: It varies. Sometimes an ensemble or musician will contact me knowing  when  and  where  the  premiere  will take place. I will ordinarily help them out in terms     of publicity. Beyond the premiere I might try to find another performance opportunity for a piece, but it can be time consuming and not lead to anything. However,   it does come with the territory. Of course, each different performance is a different interpretation too, which can be revealing in itself. I learn more about my music by hearing different interpretations of it.


What has been your proudest moment in this context?

JW: Later this month (June 2019) I will be filming Ambrose Field’s Quantaform Series I-XX, supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England. The work for flute and acoustic resonances has twenty movements to it and will be filmed, with support from Screen Yorkshire, in unique locations across Yorkshire (grain silo, icehouse, living room etc.).

ANR: I created a work called Sklonište (Bosnian, 'Shelter') which is composed for solo accordion and film and is about the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war.

It is a 60 minute work and totally outside the box in terms of genre. Composing the work and producing the film  plus the research for the work took over two and a half years. Fundraising was difficult as the Syrian conflict was happening at the same time and funders and programmers were more interested in work which directly addressed that atrocity. Trying to find tour dates, audiences and programmers willing to engage with the subject of the aftermath of a previous conflict was at times really very difficult. Since 2015 we have now performed the work on fourteen occasions – yes, some audiences were very small, however, I am especially proud that I've managed to find showing opportunities for it as it is a work I am artistically/ musically proud of. Performing the work in Sarajevo itself was one of my proudest moments as an artist.


Are there many places to seek funding from for such ventures?

ANR: Any type of private funding or sponsorship can be very helpful, both in terms of attracting public funding but also in terms of the artistic freedom it can sometimes levy. It can work differently however, where a corporate sponsor needs the art to reflect their own brand and/or agenda. This can work to everyone's benefit if it is discussed and agreed in advance.

Arts Council England, the PRS Foundation for music, various trusts and foundations and sometimes local authority funding might be approached for music or arts projects. It very much depends what your artistic goals are and whether developing audience and broadening participation in the arts is something which is important to you. Sometimes, a venue or festival might offer a small ‘seed’ commission – not much but enough to buy you a little time to focus on something new. They often couple this with their own inside expertise, space to rehearse and an opportunity to perform.

Arts Council project grants are a great resource for pulling together a larger piece  of  work  that  may include touring. In my own case, I had various part-time jobs from the age of fifteen and all throughout college, university and other training and study. Afterwards, I continued to hold down a part-time job for arts related organisations for ten years before being in a position to get by on my own artistic related earnings. I was particularly lucky to have been awarded a generous award a few years ago from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation which has helped relieve the financial pressure a great deal.

JW: Arts Council England project grants are a great resource for pulling together a larger piece of work that may include touring. I would recommend applying for £15,000 or under. Their new ‘Developing your Creative Practice’ fund is a great way of getting support for mentoring, or similar, for a sustained period.

Help Musicians UK have a number of opportunities depending on the work that you do and genres you cover, as well as having a funding wizard covering smaller and independent funders.

Leeds Inspired is a good example of public funding if some or all of the people you are working with are from Leeds.

Ailís Ní Ríain is an Irish contemporary classical composer and published writer for stage who aims to produce work that challenges, provokes and engages.

James Wilson is a flute player specialising in contemporary music. As part of his Seven Deadly Sins project, James has commissioned and premiered Sohrab Uduman’s la cupidité de soufflé for flute and live electronics and Gregory Emfietzis’s Gluttony: Live to Drink for flute and percussion.

Twitter @wilsonflute

By Ailís Ní Ríain (composer-writer) and James Wilson (musician).

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