Site Search

New Members

Other Resources
News Archive

Search Forums:
  General discussion - composing for specific musician  angryjane at 20:57 on 26 September 2006

I am new to this forum and would like to open up a discussion about composing for a specific musician or specific ensemble.

I have composed pieces for a few other musicians (I am also a musician). The most hurtful and negative experience was composing a piece for a particular soloist and advocate of new music. Up until the actual performance of the piece (that is, when we initially discussed the piece and when I gave her the completed score) she was extremely enthusiastic. She had mentioned possibly using the completed piece in a concert overseas after the premiere in the US.

After the concert however, she departed without saying anything to me and basically never said anything about the piece thereafter and has never to my knowledge performed the piece again.
The piece was well received at the concert so it wasn't as if the audience was throwing tomatoes at the stage or anything outlandish and it wasn't "personal" as she has been sincerely friendly when I've run into her since that fateful day.

Ever since then, I've been wary of writing a piece for someone specific again unless that person is a close friend. It was just too horrible an expeience.

So what exactly happened? Was the piece terrible? I didn't think so at the time and I still don't. Did the musician suddenly have a change of heart? Was it because she was with a colleague who probably hated the piece? I'll probably never know.

Yes this is a sad and personal story but at this point, I would like to try to compose music again for musicians who I don't know personally but of course I would like to write for artists who will love the pieces I write for them and want to perform such works specifically composed for them several times and so on.

How does one avoid the bad situations or is there really no guarantee? Was my experience just a fluke or has anyone else had similar or even more disheartening experiences? Is there a proper way to compose for someone you don't know so that both of you will be happy with the outcome? How does one compose a piece for a specific soloist or ensemble successfully? Is there a proper way to communicate with musicians whom you don't know personally but who you would like to compose for? Should we just not bother and wait for artists to "come to us"?

I'd be interested in hearing both other tales of woe and happy collaboration stories.

  Re: General discussion - composing for specific musician  Team Gaughan at 12:44 on 27 September 2006

While I was at college a cellist asked me to write a piece for her with piano. She then went on to stipulate that she would like the piece to sound like the Rachmaninov Cello Sonata as she didn't like new music. I didn't write anything but did get the Rachmaninov out of the library for her!

On the other hand I worked with a Viola player, writing a concertante work with chamber orchestra, that was brilliant as I learnt so much and enjoyed writing my first major string work.

In regards to 1st performances it does often seem impossible or very difficult to get a second performance of your piece, no matter how well performed and recieved. This is often a comment raised about premieres at the Proms.

I have found that singers are often keen to perform a piece again especially if it is written for them and they have been involved in picking the texts. They seem to find something new in each performance.

  Re: General discussion - composing for specific musician  piargno at 15:20 on 27 September 2006

I am still young, and have much to learn about this whole topic, but I will recount 3 experiences out of the many I've had so far:

1) I accompanied a tubist, and he didn't have any money, so he offered to perform an original of mine. So, I wrote a tuba sonata for his senior recital, and he played it twice. He complained it was nearly impossible, but his teacher really liked the piece. It has never been performed by him again, nor will it ever be, and I hate both recordings he made of it.

2) My friends Nicole and Kate (flute, and harp), asked me to write a piece for them freshman year, and they performed it twice. I Love the second recording immensely, and it was well received. Then Kate left, but she still remembers the piece. Perhaps she'll find a flutist whereever she is and perform it again.

3) I wrote a rather harmonically progressive, yet french salon jazzy piece for piano and marimba. My marimbist wanted to play this every day! He absolutely loved it!

So, with this in mind, I have to say the biggest factor in getting a repeat performance is repertoire and difficulty. I know that if I written a less difficult tuba piece, he probably would have performed it again. The harp and flute piece wasn't as difficult, very well received, and might get another performance somewhere else. But any chamber piece that's "non-modern" sounding for percussionists - they eat up! Look at the chamber repertoire for percussionist; practically all of it is experimental. Yet I know so many percussionists who absolutely love Chopin. Too bad he didn't write anything for them - but you can, and I almost gaurantee your percussionist will adore you. But just an aside, the percussionist didn't tell me to write a romantic piece for him, rather I talked to him about his favorite composers, and wrote a piece using my harmonic language fused with influence from the composers he named. It just all worked out for the better.

... and I second the song thing. What I just recently heard is that Sopranos really want new rep. My friend Emily just complained about the lack of new rep for Soprano because everyone seems to write for Mezzos, and she's sad. So, she performed a piece of mine recently, and is going to perform it again soon, and probably again next year. I'm also writing more pieces for her now.

  Re: General discussion - composing for specific musician  scott_good at 19:15 on 29 September 2006

piargno has made an important point

difficulty is the first thing i do when assesing new repertoire to perform - if someone composes a work that makes me sound great, then i will play it more than once if i can find the opportunity - however, if the work is too difficult, i wont even try

i always know that there will be someone that can play it, just wont be me. i only have so many hours to practice

as a composer, it is very difficult to find the ballance between virtuosity and impossibility. this requires much study - and will be part of the key to continued performances of your music.

however, going back to the original conflict, angryjane, sorry to be cynical, but you must be prepared for rejection. funny, but i learn this so well on lists like this, where composers start bashing other composers who are in my humble opinion, brilliant and creative and succesful. the music world is unfortunately a bit cut throat, and not all will like your music - often without reason.

what i would do (if you are truly happy with the piece...) is show it to someone else. your original performer might think otherwise once they hear someone else is performing the piece! - especially if they are singers.

remember if the music is rejected by one person, even if it is who you composed it for, it is still your music to do with it as you please.

  Re: General discussion - composing for specific musician  angryjane at 19:43 on 29 September 2006

thanks everyone for your advice and i hope some more composers will add their tales/advice to this discussion.

yes scott good, i am considering showing the piece to another musician at some point and actually renaming it (that is, not "for" so and so) - i appreciate your spelling that out as a composer's right.

it is interesting to me to hear that so far the experience of composers here has been that musicians prefer playing pieces that are "easier to play". i always thought that certain musicians pride themselves on playing music that showed off their virtuosity and would frown upon something too simple - perhaps as scott good pointed out, there has to be some balance somewhere. in my particular story, the soloist actually did thrive on difficult/challenging pieces or at least something where she could use some different extended technique. maybe she didn't like her own singing while playing her instrument!

of course if something is impossible or requires hours and hours of practice, i can understand why a soloist would want to avoid this unless they are being well paid or otherwise rewarded for their efforts.

it also sounds like everyone has more luck composing for specific vocalists which is a surprise to me but i will take it into consideration.

  Re: General discussion - composing for specific musician  piargno at 10:36 on 30 September 2006

If it is a singing and playing thing - string players hate it. No matter how good the piece is. At least that's been my experience with that type of composing before. But pianists don't mind! (At least I don't... hehe...)

What is the instrumentation of the piece?

  Re: General discussion - composing for specific musician  dunkinwedd at 22:31 on 30 September 2006

And I think you have to bear in mind the rehearsal time you are committing a performer to. If the piece is relatively traditional/easy to perform, there will still be a lot of rehearsal time needed. If it's experimental/technically challenging then you're asking performers to give up huge chunks of rehearsal time for a piece that they are unlikely to perform many times.

If I were angryjane - and especially if some time has passed - I think I would tell the musician she wrote for how it appeared to her and how she feels, and ask the soloist straight out "Did she think the piece was terrible? Did she suddenly have a change of heart?"

The answer may be hurtful, but in my experience what you imagine is much worse than what you know. At worst you might find out something - and at best you might get another performance!

  Re: General discussion - composing for specific musician  angryjane at 18:13 on 07 October 2006

hello piargno and dunkinwedd,

the piece was originally written for a solo cellist.
actually i know another cellist who improvises and sings.
i might ask her at some point if she'd be interested in the piece or i might just move on. i do like the piece but i would rather write new pieces than try to revive an old one unless i find someone who would genuinely be interested in performing the piece.

as for asking the original cellist what she really thought about the piece, i did already and she didn't really give me a straightforward answer so i assume she didn't want to hurt my feelings any more than she already had. i mean if someone wrote you a piece and you hated it, could you really tell that person that and why? relatives would have no trouble saying something that harsh but presumably someone that is more an acquaintance would be reticent about saying something brutal to your face.... well maybe some people would have no trouble but this was not the case here.

on another tack, has anyone composed for ensembles or a soloist who solicited compositions and what has your experience been - what are the "right" questions to ask in order to have a fruitful experience for both the composer and the ensemble or soloist?

  Re: General discussion - composing for specific musician  James McFadyen at 21:02 on 24 November 2006

Dealing with commissions can be a little tricky at times, but a lot of it depends on the musician you are writing for.

The important element here is for the commission to be paid. We've all done free commissions, but eventually you have to start charging.

If they pay for the commission, the musician will feel more attached to the piece, having shelled out several hundered pounds, they will be more likely to take an active role in deciding the music's outcome and thus sculpting the music they actually want to play.

From time to time, a musician may just leave it all up to you, afterall a musician will usually approach you because they want your style of music.

A lot of the bigger composers will probably tell you that commissions are about playing it safe. While the biggest Orchestras in the world may commission John Adams, he still has to play it safe as he stated in an interview on his website.

More important than commissions is the fact that you are writing the music you want to write. This is commonsense, but this will only get you so far and every composer will have to live with the fact they will have to take commissions which are perhaps not too inspiring on a truely artistic level, but will pay the rent nonetheless.

One last important thing: You can't please everyone all the time, it just isn't possible no matter how good you are!