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let’s discuss: Performers and Composers by David Smooke

January 4, 2013

Many of you who read the Sybaritic Singer regularly understand my commitment to performing new music and working with living composers. For that reason, I immediately asked David Smooke’s permission to re-post this article (originally written for NewMusicBox) here hoping more singers would read it. Enjoy!

The power dynamic between composers and performers in the classical music world fascinates me. Of course, people who make a living playing pre-written music need those scores or they won’t have any repertoire; however, many of these musicians feel that the heart of their repertoire lies smack dab in the middle of the classical era through the 19th century. We continue to schedule concerts filled with the glorious works of Mozart and Beethoven because those pieces endure as fascinating and beautiful, and many performers happily remain ensconced in the music of that era for their entire careers.

Meanwhile, every year thousands upon thousands of composers are inspired to create new pieces. A simple application of basic economic theory tells us that when the supply remains high despite reduced demand, the product loses value, and this exact situation challenges the new music community. Every few months, new competitions with arcane rules, inadequate prizes, and high entry fees are created. Some composers complain but many more enter in hopes of having a new award for their biography. One of my mantras in these situations has become: no one ever went broke underestimating the desperation of composers.

But even in these seemingly dire days, many performers want to advocate for the music of their time. Numerous avenues exist for those who want to commission new works but lack the immediate resources that would allow them to adequately compensate the composer, including grants, substituting guaranteed multiple performances at accredited venues for an up-front fee, and—in a process eloquently described by Dana Jessen—consortium commissions. Others exert their energy towards continuing vivification of preexisting works, using their concerts to advocate for those pieces that they know move them.

If you are among this latter group, first, thank you. Your work allows music to live beyond the première and to grow through multiple interpretations. You clearly are doing this because you love this repertoire, and your advocacy is essential to us. The good news is that most composers recognize this fact and want to work with you in order to make your experience, and that of the audience, as gratifying as possible.

With that in mind, the best thing you can do before you perform a piece by a living composer is to inform that composer of your plans. Even composers who appear to be too “important” or “famous” to care about your concert might be excited about your event for one of many reasons that wouldn’t immediately be apparent from a distance: it might be a favorite work of theirs that is rarely performed, they might be planning to visit your town on that date anyway, they might have an obscure tie to your community about which you are unaware but which would allow them to help draw audiences. Sometimes, the composer might be able to attend your concert or to coach you privately before the performance. Another benefit you might gain from attempting to contact the composer is that they might help you to obtain a score for a piece that you’re having difficulty tracking down.

After your concert, you can help by asking if the composers would like a copy of your program and a recording. The program itself can be extremely useful if your performance was held in a concert space registered with BMI or ASCAP, allowing the composers to collect appropriate royalty payments for the use of their music at the event. And the recording can be an essential tool for composers who want to get others excited about their music. If you gave a première, then you know that yours is likely the only recording of that piece in existence and is therefore the only way for the composer to share the piece with additional performers. Surprisingly, due to ambient noise, odd venues without dedicated recording devices, odd slip-ups, and other factors beyond everyone’s control, composers often lack adequate recordings of relatively old pieces with broad performance histories.

We appreciate the advocacy that you do on our behalf and understand that you don’t need to play new music in order to have a career. We want to work together with you in order to help spread the word about our music and your performances.

Composer David Smooke (b. 1969) currently resides in Baltimore, Maryland, where he teaches music theory, rock music history, and composition, and is the Chair of the Music Theory Department at the Peabody Conservatory of Johns Hopkins University. The Washington Post claims that “Smooke has some of the most uninhibited brain cells around” and describes his music as “superb […] a kaleidoscopic sonic universe where anything could happen”; the Baltimore Sun adds that it is “a highly creative, absorbing experience.” His honors include those from the Maryland State Arts Council, BMI, the National Association of Composers USA, the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Ragdale Foundation. He has composed commissions for groups and individuals including the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), CUBE, Rhymes With Opera, the Great Noise Ensemble, and pianist Amy Briggs. He received an M.M. degree from the Peabody Conservatory, a B.A. magna cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, where he received the Century Fellowship, the highest fellowship offered by the Humanities Division. His composition teachers have included Shulamit Ran, David Rakowski, Robert Hall Lewis, and Richard Wernick. In addition to his composition activities, David performs improvisations on toy piano with the support of Schoenhut toy pianos, co-curates League of the Unsound Sound (LotUS) and writes a weekly column for NewMusicBox, the online magazine of the American Music Center.


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