How to Commission a Composer

One of the most frequently asked questions about the MTNA Composer Commissioning program is "How are the individual composers in each state selected for commission?" Within MTNA, individual state associations retain a great deal of autonomy and, therefore, each state approaches the challenge of selecting a composer differently. Last spring, I conducted a survey of several states with a long and rich history of commissioning composers. This column offers a few ways they have implemented this process. I hope this information will offer some ideas for states seeking to improve their process or establish a composer commissioning program for the first time.

Call for Scores

Most states I interviewed ask composers to submit one or more scores and tapes for consideration by a selection committee. Some states do this by posting "calls" in their state newsletters, in professional composer's journals (American Music Center, American Composers Forum and IAWM all publish regular listings of opportunities for composers.) and on college music department bulletin boards. Some also send the call to composers who have previously applied for a commission. Rather than posting a general call for scores, some states prefer asking each of their chapters to list one or more composers to be invited to submit scores and tapes for consideration. Some large states limit the call to composers who live within the geographic region of the city where the premiere performance will take place.

Submission Requirements

Most states I interviewed asked composers to submit at least one representative score and tape from their oeuvre. In addition, some also required one or more of the following: a cover letter and brief resume, a description of a proposed project and a self-addressed, stamped envelope for returning the score. Some states further define the process by asking composers to submit works of similar genre, such as all works for solo instrument or chamber works for two to eight performers. This way a selection committee is not faced with the daunting task of comparing an orchestral work to a solo piano piece. Finally, some states prefer the selection process be "blind" and, therefore, ask composers to remove their names from the scores and tapes, and package the supporting materials to be reviewed after a preliminary decision has been made on the basis of the composer's music.

Selection Process

All the states I interviewed selected a composer through a committee. What varied is who sat on the selection committee. Some states have a standing Composer Commissioning Advisory Committee that works with the composer-commissioning chair throughout the year. The responsibility of choosing a composer from a pool of applicants naturally falls to this group. In another state I interviewed, a committee is formed with the previous year's commissioned composer as the chair and two other members from the state association. Another state's committee comprises the state composer commissioning chair, state president and the president of the local chapter where the new work will be premiered. Sometimes, if the performer or ensemble is known, a representative from that group is asked to help with the selection process. Finally, some states ask out-of-state professional composers to serve as adjudicators. In this case, state funds are designated in the budget to pay the adjudicators' honoraria.

Making a Single Invitation

On occasion, some states prefer to invite a specific composer to consider a commission, rather than make a general call for scores. This approach is especially valuable when the state convention will feature a particular composer: Commissioning that composer is another way to showcase the individual and celebrate the collaboration. It is best for a specific invitation to be decided upon by a committee rather than a composer commissioning chair acting alone.

—Patricia Plude
Former National Composer
Commissioning Chair
San Francisco, California

Suggestions to states seeking to revise or implement a Composer Commissioning program:

  • Give some thought to what kind of composers your state would like to commission—young, up and coming; older, more established; somewhere in-between-and establish a process supporting that vision.
  • Provide your selection committee some good, written guidelines for evaluating applicants—guidelines to help them support your state's vision for the commissioning program.
  • The various processes described above take time to implement; you will want to begin sixteen to eighteen months in advance of the scheduled premiere performance. Document the process you decide upon. This allows for personnel rotation in the Composer Commissioning chair position without compromising the integrity of your state's program.
  • If your state would prefer to implement a different process every year, then it might be wise to form a Composer Commissioning Advisory Committee to assist the chair with program management.