I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of “premieres,” and why they are often over-valued by performers and ensembles. Sure, they sound fancy in an artist bio (e.g. “So-and-so has premiered works on eight continents…”), and they can contribute to the perceived legacy of a performer. We must support the creation of new works; I am an active performer of new music myself, and enjoy premiering works and supporting my composer colleagues. But the reality is that many (most?) premieres occur in the presence of a small number of people, mostly colleagues, followed by a long period of time (forever?) during which the work is not performed. What’s more important for a piece of music is actually what happens after the premiere. The culture of “premiere-hunting” among performers leads us down a road that, paradoxically, can be stifling for new music and composers themselves.
In light of my own experiences in new music, I present here several thoughts about premieres and new music in the form of four pieces of advice for performers:
1. Only ask a piece to be written for you if you have plans to perform it.
Performers often want NEW pieces and they want them by a deadline, but rarely do they guarantee to composers that they will play the piece. Some performers have no shame in asking every composer they know for a piece (after all, one of them might turn out to be BIG someday), but then end up letting the works collect dust on their shelf for months or years. And when that performer’s koto/bass viol/sousaphone trio never programs it, who will? Composers are spending large quantities of time to turn out several pieces a year for free for performers, and then end up feeling grateful to get more than one performance out of the work. Honestly, it’s insulting.
But it’s not like this situation is anything new. Benny Goodman famously paid Milhaud only $750 for a clarinet concerto in 1941 (after talking him down from his asking price of $1000), demanded that he have sole performance rights for three years, and that it be rushed to completion by an upcoming deadline. And what happened in the end? He never played it. It had “too many notes.” You have to wonder if Goodman might have received a better piece had Milhaud not been overworked and underpaid!
If you ask a composer for a piece, it’s only fair to have plans for premiering the work and allow enough preparation time for a solid performance. Try to program it on several performances, not just one. Even better: pay them, if you can afford it. Even a token of a couple hundred dollars communicates that you value not just being the first one to perform a work, but the work itself, and the artistry that went into it.
2. It’s not the premiere that’s valuable — it’s the collaboration.
I’ve seen performers hold a call for scores for a specific instrumental combination, and demand that the works have never been performed before. This seems really egotistical to me. You’re expecting a serious composer to take many hours of their life to write a new piece for free, specifically for your group, without actually being able to contact or work with you during its creation, and with no guarantee that it will even be chosen for performance?
What actually happens is that you will get a lot of submissions from student and amateur composers who are willing to do it “for fun” or “for the experience,” or on the off chance they might win something and it will help out their career. A few of these pieces might be good if you’re lucky. You might even have the good fortune that a really great composer has a piece lying around that fits the requirements, and it happens to have been unperformed for some reason. Realistically though, your choices may end up being fairly limited, forcing you to settle for an okay piece when there are plenty of amazing, already-written works for your ensemble out there.
If you really want a premiere so bad, find a composer you like and commission them. These days, composers are so hard up that sometimes you can call it a “commission” even if you don’t pay them! It makes it sound like money changed hands though, so you and the composer both sound prestigious. It’s a win-win.
By commissioning a composer, you have the opportunity to collaborate, and collaboration is really the most exciting part about a premiere anyway. By working directly with a composer, you have the opportunity to influence the actual music. In collaborations, I’ve done all of the following:
- helped composers to determine the most idiomatic ways to express their ideas for the clarinet, to make them more accessible to others in the future
- assisted in finding the best way to notate extended techniques
- improvised sounds or melodies that made their way into the resulting piece
- corrected typos or mistakes in draft versions of the score
It’s great to have a passion for new music, but focusing on the premiere while ignoring the collaboration is kind of like planning your own wedding without taking the time to get to know your fiancé. A collaboration can result in a work that’s not only an expression of your personality and specific talents as a performer, but that’s been thoroughly vetted and is ready to be performed by the next player or ensemble.
3. Respect the honor of being the “second performer.”
Speaking of “the next player or ensemble” after a premiere, let’s talk about what I like to call being the “second performer.”
My quintet, the Madera Wind Quintet, held a call for scores last year. We debated restricting it to works that had not previously been performed, but ended up leaving the call open. It’s good we did, because our favorite five works out of the 130-plus submissions were all pieces that had already been performed. In most cases, the works had been performed only once or by one group.
It’s no mystery why the works we chose had all been performed before. First, they were written for actual people, rather than by a composer sitting alone at a computer desk following an idea and emerging with a finished product thinking, “okay, who can I get to play this?” To give a couple examples from our call, Philip Wharton worked with the Borealis Wind Quintet on his Quintet, and Peter Nickol’s Ultramarine was written for the London Myriad Ensemble, who contacted us themselves to let us know how excited they were that we were recording it.
It can indeed be so thrilling as a composer or premiering performer to discover that a piece “has legs.” I couldn’t be more excited about my quintet’s upcoming CD Five at Play, because it may well give “legs” to some great pieces of music. We started with six excellent but largely unknown works for wind quintet (five from the call and one commission) and gave them several performances and recorded them, in the hopes that these pieces will get picked up by other groups and become part of a 21st-century wind quintet repertoire. Several other quintets have already shown interest in our project, and the CD isn’t even out yet. If we had limited our call to only premieres, the quality and impact of our project would have been much more limited.
To me, it’s not the first performance that’s important, it’s how big of an impact a piece has on how many people. Which brings me to my next point.
4. Focus on the music, not yourself.
If we’re all honest with ourselves, we know that there’s tons of already-written music out there, even new music — heck, even 21st-century music! — that’s amazing. That deserves to be played. That deserves to be better known, and taught to our students. If you have the choice between premiering a work that might be second-rate, or programming a piece that wasn’t written for you but may well be one of the better works from its decade, consider not just your legacy but the legacy of the music itself in making that decision.
Are you recycling someone else’s leftovers by being the “second performer”? Far from it. You are taking a leadership role in the formation of a canon. Not a singular canon, necessarily, but a collection of new works that could be considered representative, groundbreaking, or musically superlative in a certain style or genre. That, and also, you are making a composer very happy — both honorable endeavors in which you should take much pride.
If performers fall into the trap of constant premiere-hunting, we decline a role in helping to shape a body of work that may continue to be performed generations from now. If we don’t help to define the “best” music of our time, who will? Organizations with the money to sponsor composers-in-residence, perhaps. University professors who have to develop a curriculum for music history courses and new music ensembles. Composers themselves, by accepting each other’s works to conferences. If performers constantly shirk this responsibility in pursuit of the premiere-as-ego-boost, I believe we risk further fragmentation and irrelevance of new music–after all, we have the power to be its greatest advocates.
Premiering new works is a noble endeavor, but it is only one piece of the puzzle. Finding a programming balance between composer collaborations and second (or third, or fourth…) performances of recently-written pieces can do much to encourage vitality and cohesion in the new music community.
My bottom line is this:
If you’re into new music, great, go support a composer. Just don’t always make them write you something new.