Caveat emptor?

With the whole Golijov kerfuffle happening, it got me thinking.

When asked to write a piece for someone, how much should the composer accomodate the desires of the performer? Now flip it around: When asking a composer for a piece to be written for them, how much should the performer know about the style of the composer’s music prior to the request? How much of this changes when the situation involves money instead of a “if you write me something, I’ll play it”situation?

I’ve been on the short end of this stick a few times in the past year. When someone asks for a piece from me, I usually talk to them and find out what they like to do, what their particular strengths are, and if they have any particular needs that they want addressed by the piece. Sometimes this information is useful, sometimes I get a vague “do whatever you want” kind of message.

There have been times when I already have an idea and just started writing, only to find out that the direction I was going was not what the requestor wanted. Is this my fault for not finding out what they wanted? What if the requestor simply didn’t know enough about my music and asked me for a piece without knowing my style?

I feel like I’ve been writing music that is fairly consistent in language for the past few years. I’m almost in a rut. My tempos are slow, my textures are simple, there isn’t a whole lot of technical fireworks. When someone asks me for a piece, I assume that they have heard something of mine, liked it, and want something similar. I’m surprised when I send drafts to people and they say they want music that is the fundamental opposite of what I do. I have to ask the question: is it me or is it them?

How much is a composer expected to write to the demands of the client as opposed to the client asking for a piece because they like what the composer does? Is this happening to me more frequently because I often write for people without a fee? I feel like if I insisted on payment for every piece I wrote on someone’s request, I would be MORE beholden to their wishes instead of my own. I mean, I know how to write music that is the opposite of my natural tendencies. I’d rather not, though. If you want a piece by someone who sounds nothing like me, ask THEM to write it, not me.

Am I way off base here? I’m not trying to make a living as a composer so my experience with “write to order” is a bit off. I love the fact that pretty much everything I write was requested by someone. I hate the fact that sometimes the people requesting pieces want somebody else’s music written by me.

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One Comment

  1. Posted March 5, 2012 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

    Maybe it’s just me, but if I request/commission a piece of music, I do so knowing the composer’s work. I think the only thing that would really surprise or upset me is if the composer decided to do something radically different from his/her current style, if they have such a thing. But I do believe it is a caveat emptor sort of situation. Outside of saying I’d like a piano piece approximately so long, I don’t necessarily feel like I can impose myself much beyond that. A composer isn’t Burger King.

    Is it a societal thing? Are we so used to getting what we want when we want it that some people assume that composers are just vending machines? Why bother commissioning a piece of music at all?

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