Ensemble Talk: On Working with Composers (Successfully)

Beginning in undergrad (and sometimes earlier), composers are taught how to approach performers—what to say, what not to say, how to phrase critiques, ask questions, and ensure a successful performance. But because traditional performance institutions, particularly those following the conservatory model, value dead composers above all else (except for that one large ensemble concert a year that’s reserved for new works), it’s not uncommon to encounter performers who haven’t thought all that much about how working closely with a composer can require something beyond basic professionalism. Young performers, particularly those who play works by a composer friend, seem particularly susceptible to this, but everyone can stand to benefit from some organized consideration every once in awhile. So what do composers wish their performers knew?

  • Establish a singular point of contact. Oftentimes an ensemble will commission a composer, but it’s not incredibly useful to be hearing random details from every member of the group. Make sure it’s one person’s job to keep the composer up to date on deadlines, needs, specifications, and expectations. Then make sure that person follows through. It’s very easy for things to turn sour because a deadline wasn’t communicated or something everyone thought was said actually wasn’t. (Email is a great and often preferred method of communicating, because then you’ve got a paper trail in case things go wrong.) If you’re at all unsure your composer is current on what you want out of the project, touch base. It doesn’t need to be complicated—something as simple as “Hey! Still on track for the [date] deadline?” can tell you if everything’s good.
  • Deadlines are EVERYTHING. Every time an ensemble sets a sight reading date, a composer begins working backward. We need a week, sometimes more depending on ensemble size, to prepare parts. (For a large ensemble, budget two or three times that.) We also need time, before that, to conceptualize, sketch, draft, edit, and finalize the piece. That window can be anywhere from a week to multiple months. I (and many others) prefer to have at least six weeks to allow this process to happen at its own pace, so it’s not unusual to be planning pieces two or more months in advance. Because of this, changing deadlines—particularly moving them up—can cause major, major, major problems, especially when we have other projects going on. A week can be the difference between a rushed piece and a stellar one.
  • During this process, communication is key. Lots of composers try to budget in some extra time in case of a scheduling crisis, but we can’t adapt to new specifications if we don’t know they’re about to hit us in the face. Most of us try to get in a little work each day, much like a performer’s practice schedule. If your instrumental professor asked you to play, say, Sequenza or Kryll several days before you’d been told to have it performance-ready, would it be as good as if you’d had the full time available? Would you be able to play a piece that was suddenly a duet instead of a solo? Perfectly sight read an extra two movements? You might be able to do it, but you probably wouldn’t count it among your best work. Neither would we.
  • If you’re going to want to okay the piece before rehearsals, allow time for edits. If you think a passage is too hard for your group, that’s a good thing to talk about, but we can’t do anything about it if we’re already up against deadline. Depending on the composer, edits can take from a couple days to a couple weeks, and it’s best to ask your collaborator what they’d prefer.
  • When rehearsals start, know the difference between helpful critiques and unnecessary criticism. I encounter this most from people who consider themselves my peers—folks I have classes with, people who are in my ensembles, people who are part of my life regularly—and it’s one of the most potentially damaging parts of the collaboration process. Chances are, it won’t cause your project to fall through, but it’s never smart to put your composer on the spot just to poke fun at something in their piece. Our works are our babies, but they’re also little microexpressions of ourselves. If we work our hearts out on a massive effort for your group and someone gets on our case for, say, something resolving in a way that doesn’t follow tradition, rehearsal goes from productive to pejorative in a heartbeat. Questions of “are you sure you meant [notation]” or “what do you intend here” can be incredibly helpful (though with the former, be prepared for the answer to be “yes, I meant that”), but keep it to questions that are going to help you prepare the piece. Don’t complain about inconsequential details just because you have the composer in the room. A good rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t treat Beethoven that way, you definitely shouldn’t say those things to your composer.
  • If you liked working with us, tell your friends. We get commissions largely through word-of-mouth, and if we’re writing for your ensemble, chances are we’d be interested in crafting works for similar groups. If you had a positive experience with us, please pass that on. We’ll be incredibly grateful.
  • Let us know when you’re performing our work again. We probably know when all our world premieres are, but second performances can be more important than that initial offering. If you’ve kept our stuff in your catalog and you want to play it again, tell us! We’ll probably list it on our website or wherever we talk about our events. Two weeks’ notice is pretty good, but if you don’t remember until three days before, tell us anyway. We love knowing you liked something enough to play it again! ♦