Lindsey Goodman is principal flutist of the West Virginia Symphony Orchestra, solo flutist of the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, and adjunct lecturer of flute at Marietta College. A charismatic soloist, chamber collaborator, teacher, and clinician, Lindsey is a strong advocate for contemporary music, living composers, and electroacoustic and multidisciplinary works.
I’m a big fan of new music: brand-spanking fresh music which smacks of the world we see out our windows and on our computer screens. For me, performing this vibrant, diverse repertoire is a calling, and one of the most visceral ways for me to get that fresh ink buzz is by asking composers to write me new pieces. That process is a called commissioning, and anyone, from an individual performer, to a musical ensemble, an arts patron, or a music lover, can commission a new work.
Today, in your state, your county ... perhaps even down the road from you, exist the people of legends: composers. Composers write music, and they, contrary to your history-book memories of powdered wigs worn over stern looks, are living, breathing people who express their experience in our shared world by pressing pencils into paper (or keys on a computer keyboard), stating their world views through notes, rhythms, and sonic colors.
To me, this skill is completely and utterly magical. Where only silence existed before, living composers create powerful emotional experiences through sound. Commissioning is my way, as a purely re-creative (re-creative in this sense meaning one who reinterprets another’s original outputs instead of crafting her own) artist, to tap into the musical birthing process.
Personal zeal aside, commissioning is vitally important to keeping classical art music alive and thriving. “All music was once new”, quips the catchy tagline for Composer’s Datebook on radio broadcasts through American Public Media. To take that one logical step farther, if there is no music of today, there can be no music of tomorrow.
What’s the commissioning process like?
Hopefully, my unabashed soapboxing has you running down the street in search of your friendly neighborhood composer, but before you knock down her door, consider the very individual nature of the commissioning process. I’ve commissioned twenty pieces and premiered over fifty, and each experience has been as unique as the people involved.
At the outset, it’s all about choosing the right person for the job at hand. When I needed a set of encores, I trolled through my mental list of incredibly-talented composer colleagues to select someone who exhibited both lyricism and virtuosity in his flute writing. Alternatively (and flatteringly!), sometimes a composer has chosen me as his inspiration. Either way, thorough knowledge of each other’s styles and aesthetics helps a commissioner discern who will be a good match personally and professionally for his own artistic voice.
After the initial icebreaking email, cup of coffee, or bowl of Pho during which the commissioner pitches a collaboration to her composer du jour, it’s time to communicate about the project expectations. Will the commission be specific in scope (a ten-minute piece for singing flutist and singing pianist) or provide more general inspiration (something for flute with or without piano or electronics)? Is there a premiere date already on the books, or will the piece be written as opportunity and the muse rear their ephemeral heads?
Once composition is actually underway, put on your hard hat and enter the construction zone, if asked! While some composers understandably are most comfortable to deliver only the glossy final product (with all the messy birthing occurring safely behind closed doors), others want to have fertile conversations beginning with questions like “does the flute have to use vibrato?” If your newly-christened composer best friend wants feedback, collaborate fully, offering both practical pointers from your instrumental expertise and honest, uplifting musical reactions.
When the piece, be it first draft or performance-ready, finally makes its way into your expectant palms, ink still wet on the page, maintain an open line of communication to both provide and accept constructive criticism as you make yourself available for consultations and readings. Crafting the best end result for all involved should be job one!
The commission is done. Now what?
A commissioner not only provides the genesis for a new project, but should help that burgeoning masterpiece succeed at every juncture, understanding that her job doesn’t end with the premiere. If the fates have smiled on your collaboration, you’ll have a thrilling new masterwork of immense personal significance which you’re bursting to share with the world. Alternatively, even Beethoven wrote some clunkers, and I am personally guilty of having commissioned some hard-to-program pieces with orchestration too specific to remount. The unknown is part of this package deal!
Assuming the first option (!), you and your composer are responsible for ensuring that your musical baby has a long and happy life. You should be the work’s best advocate to fellow performers and audiences, utilizing your resources to give the piece multiple performances, keeping the composer informed of concerts, giving her a rightful bow, sending along programs and recordings, and continuing to accept feedback as your interpretation evolves.
Of all the aspects of my musical life, my commissioning projects are among the most cherished. Through these processes, I’ve forged deep friendships, gained immense personal insight, and been the recipient of some staggeringly-beautiful music. Every time I perform one of these collaborations, I walk on stage to a friend smiling back at me from the waiting music stand. Sharing these works with fresh audiences is an unmitigated joy, and that sense of wonder and discovery, that fresh ink buzz, is available to anyone intrepid enough to answer the call to commission.