New Voices on Composing and Commissioning

Are more composers increasingly looking to the choral genre as a means for expression? We explore the issue in this roundtable discussion featuring Heather Hitchens of Meet The Composer, John Nuechterlein of the American Composers Forum, and Joanne Hubbard Cossa of the American Music Center.

Here at Chorus America we continue to hear new voices in the air everyday. Are we imagining things, or are more composers increasingly looking to the choral genre as a means for expression? To explore the phenomenon, we convened a distinguished coven of composer advocates, featuring Heather Hitchens of Meet The Composer, John Nuechterlein of the American Composers Forum, and Joanne Hubbard Cossa of the American Music Center. Robin L. Perry of Chorus America moderated the roundtable discussion.

Robin: I'm reading more stories suggesting that classical composers are increasingly turning to choral music to express their musical ideas. Do you see this as a trend?

Joanne: It certainly feels like it, and one reason may be the flourishing of volunteer choruses. They may not have big public relations budgets, but they are propelled by enthusiasm and are frequently more willing to take a chance on new music and specifically the music of younger and/or emerging composers. Here in New York we even have composers who have formed their own choruses, such as C4, the Choral Composer/Conductor Collective.

Heather: I don't have any hard data on trends, but choruses have always been very welcoming to composers and they appreciate that. Plus, there is the intrinsic appeal of writing for the human voice.

John: I echo all of that, but there are other reasons composers write for choruses so frequently: They have more direct access to the conductor than with an orchestra, and there are many more choruses than orchestras in this country. So you have interest and access, which together breed opportunity.

Joanne: Choral composers have been looked down upon in the past, as if they were second-class citizens to instrumental composers, even though we see composers of all backgrounds adding significant new works to the choral repertoire. That has definitely changed, and increasingly the choral sound is being integrated into multimedia pieces.

Heather: We lack real data in our field—so much is anecdotal—but I definitely believe there is an expansion of who is writing for chorus. It's not just what is being written, as Joanne said, but who is doing the writing. The less formal infrastructure of choruses reduces some of the economic barriers—commissions and performances are easier to bring about.

John: In Minnesota, choral music has never been the bum end of anything—it's in the DNA out here. With half a dozen top choruses in the Twin Cities alone, much less greater Minnesota, commissioning is the norm. I see it in other cities as well, where choruses are strong. And I see composers who are able to market themselves effectively on their own—Eric Whitacre comes to mind as a composer who does a stellar job of marketing his own choral music. Choruses often give emerging composers an easier point of entry to the field because there are simply more of them. We have several emerging composers in Minnesota writing for chorus who go to the Chorus America Conference because they can find the decisionmaker.

Joanne: Although we are indeed seeing growth in performances of contemporary music among volunteer choruses, the professional and the semi-professional groups have always been extremely responsive to new music. Think of Western Wind, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Chanticleer, VocalEssence, and Volti, for example—they've always performed new music. The connectivity between choruses and their communities reminds me of the rise of the choruses in the gay and lesbian community since the 1980s and all the commissioning they did.

Robin: There is certainly a long tradition, including with children and youth choruses, of active commissioning and promoting access for composers. But there are many groups that have never commissioned—they don't know how to get started. What advice you can give?

John: Call us!

Heather: Meet The Composer is also a tremendous source of information. We've published several comprehensive guides on commissioning music, with people telling their stories about different models they've created. There is also a lot of great new music already out there, so you can perform an existing work by the composer who interests you before committing to a commission. The reverse is also effective in preparing your audience: In the season before the premiere, sing an existing work by the composer you have commissioned to give the audience a sense of his or her work. Prepare yourself as well by listening to and getting to know the composer. But remember that you are commissioning the next work of the composer.

Robin: How does one go about finding works that have already been premiered?

Heather: One idea is to consult with your colleagues. There are knowledgeable, generous citizens in the choral field who would happily tell you about their experiences finding composers. In terms of commissioning for the first time and making it affordable, what a number of small orchestras are doing through the Ford Made In America project is really inspiring. It was the brainchild of Robert Rosoff, executive director of the Glens Falls Symphony in New York, a small community orchestra that had never commissioned. It started with a handful of smaller-budget orchestras pooling resources for a commission and all giving a local premiere. It's grown from there to include 65 orchestras, at least one from every state—they commissioned Joan Tower to write a work, Made in America, which will be performed by each ensemble over the next two years.

John: Other than call us, I think the best advice is to call someone you know and trust who has done it before. Call a conductor who has commissioned a lot and ask how to start. There are always people who are willing to share information and practical experience.

Robin: How do we encourage more performances of new works after their premiere? How do we get them into the choral canon?

Heather: It is ideal if a music director champions the work and tells their colleagues about it. But you can't always count on that, so the best way is to build in multiple performances from the beginning. It's harder, afterwards, to get performances if people don't commit to them upfront.

John: Heather is right...plan for multiple performances right from the start. After that, word of mouth is a powerful thing. In the field of band music I've seen a piece become an instant best-seller because directors told everybody about a new piece they really loved. Within the choral field, there's a huge network of people who talk to each other, and the same premise applies. It happens without any of us even realizing it because there are pieces that suddenly are all over the place, everybody is performing them, and you wonder how it happened. It's because people talk. It happens in the orchestra field, too, which is one reason why Jennifer Higdon has been so successful. The power of word of mouth is a major one for multiple performances.

Heather: Also, the composer needs a couple of times to hear a new work, and they might want to revise it after the first performance.

John: And frequently do.

Robin: Like with every creative undertaking, sometimes the piece of music you commission is a dud. What happens then?

Heather: I've learned that sometimes we don't know if a work is a dud. Sometimes the performance wasn't great because there wasn't enough rehearsal time. I have heard premieres that do not represent the piece well at all. We should be careful about why it came across as a dud. Secondly, composers need the opportunity to hear a work and have a chance to revise it if necessary. I've heard pieces that got shelved that actually had potential. But that's not the way our business works—you've got one shot. In other disciplines you have workshops and readings. There is no R&D—you have the rehearsal, you present the piece, and it either flies or it doesn't.

Joanne: It's so important to have the composer take part. The group I sing with does a lot of American music, and music of living composers. We were talking about a problem with a particular piece recently and somebody said, "You know, I'm offended, we've done so much of his music and he's never come to a single performance." Most composers are delighted to attend performances of their works and are extremely helpful.

Heather: Now there is an example of best practices around commissioning—when you write the contract, if you want the composer to be there, make that part of the contract.

Robin: Commissioning large-scale symphonic choral works seems out of reach for many choruses. Are collaborations a resource here too?

John: Monumental works command a lot of attention. About a year ago the local Roman Catholic Church in Minneapolis commissioned Stephen Paulus to write a piece on the Holocaust as a gift to the local Jewish community. The work, To Be Certain of the Dawn, based on text by Michael Dennis Browne and scored for chorus and orchestra, was performed by a cast of hundreds. It made for a unique story that generated community interest and got a lot of press coverage. On the other end of the spectrum is Cantus, a local, 9-voice all-male professional ensemble that tours the country as a professional ensemble. They have some of the most unique programming and virtually every program has a commission or new work. Recently composer Maura Bosch was in residence with the Tubman Family Alliance, a well-known network of shelters for abused women, to create an original work about the women's experiences for Cantus to sing. But ultimately what she ended up writing is not the story of the women, but the story of the men who were struggling with their own actions. That kind of collaboration is what some choruses are doing to think differently about the way they can work with a composer and connect with the community in new ways.

Heather: Collaborations and pooling resources are number one and number two. I think we have many opportunities in our field to increase the resources by pulling organizations together and encouraging people to commission something new instead of going back to the same old well all the time.

This article is adapted from The Voice of Chorus America, Summer 2007.