I have noted lately how often composers are asked for commissions that actually cost them money, negative commissions, so to speak, in which they are expected to support the event in more ways than one besides donating their services. I don’t dare say it out loud…but whenever someone asks me for a piece, I have a moment of anxiety wondering whether I’ll be able to “afford” the commission in terms not only of time but of budget. On the other hand, I am not in a position to turn down any offers as there are so many of us who have music to be performed, and I am thrilled to be asked, so I usually end up doing the project… but as of this year I need to try to better balance my earnings versus the demands of creative projects and become a bit more selective.
In our depressed arts economy where there is never enough to go around, the reasoning goes: “if the performers don’t perform, we don’t have a concert. The composers have already done their work so it doesn’t matter if we pay them.” This distorted way of thinking is prompted by harder times. Ideally, a more democratic perspective would be to divide the money equally between all the people involved: performers,composers as well as organizers who all should get compensated for their work. This would create more a kinship and a sense of respect of everyone. When I get paid the money is actually returned to the music community (performers, engineers, etc.) so it creates a healthy spiral effect in the form of new projects being realized. It goes all the way around. But as it is now, I have to wait a long time to afford to pay performers to record the new work. This is why I so often turn to doing my own performing and writing a lot of electronic music which does not require anyone else, just my fingers and my voice. Meanwhile, I have over an hour’s worth of chamber and orchestral music from the past eight years that never got a chance to get properly recorded. I know what you’re going to say: who cares?…
Our society is focused on the performers because they are at the front of the stage, but the musical experience does not exist without the piece. ANY composer’s work is worth money, as any other work made to order, even from composers “with no fancy names” (that was the name of an event programmed by Phill Niblock), as any carpenter’s work: you can do without the nice carpentry work, but it sure enhances your lifestyle and so does music. This treatment of composers is really unsettling, and it seems to be getting worse all the time. I think one should be very careful in suggesting that for any reason composers should NOT get paid…making them the the sacrificial victims of the music community. The up-side of is short-lived, and the down-side affects everyone of us, performers and composers alike, in the long run.
And by the way… here is an interesting podcast from Kyle Gann talking about the postminimalist movement. Here is the link: