The Competing Realities of Commissioning
FRANCIS Humphrys gives a sparkling and hearty laugh. The director of the West Cork Chamber Music Festival is describing how a friend of his on the festival team complains year after year about how much money they spend on commissions for new pieces of music.
A masterclass at the West Cork Chamber Music Festival
Humphrys can laugh -- a bit like a father gleefully insisting on some outdated family custom that the children can't abide -- because the annual complaints always fall on deaf ears. His commitment to new music is very strong. 'There are chamber music festivals all over Europe,' he says, 'and they each have to have a raison d'être.
'Our raison d'être is to expose Irish audiences to music they mightn't normally hear in the course of the year, from musicians or combinations of musicians they wouldn't hear in the course of the year. And I feel it's absolutely essential that we make our contribution in new music. You only have to read about Mozart and Brahms and what they all went through to know that new music always has a fight on its hands. I would consider it irresponsible if we weren't out there trying to do our bit.'
His track record over eight years in West Cork speaks for itself. This year's festival (28 June -- 6 July) will feature the premières of new commissions by Deirdre Gribbin (a piano quintet entitled Speaker's Corner) and Ian Wilson (a song cycle for soprano, violin, harp and bass flute on poems by Tony Curtis). As well, the Osiris Trio will give the first performance of a piano trio commissioned from Kevin Volans and held over from last year.
Humphrys points out that West Cork is an international festival and that he believes firmly in also commissioning non-Irish composers as an essential part of his remit. Then again, being international works both ways, he says, because he always endeavours to persuade non-Irish performers to include Irish works in their programmes. This creates the prospect of the players, having learnt it for West Cork, performing Irish music elsewhere.
But Humphrys is the first to admit that there are problems. No matter how jovial his dismissals of concerns about expenditure, he is caught between the competing realities of festival economics on the one hand and the needs and entitlements of composers on the other. It's a tension to which many involved in commissioning new music can relate.
|'If composers are to be allowed the chance to make a living, then we have to get the proper fees.'
West Cork commissions two substantial chamber works each year. 'For those two commissions we have a budget of about 12,000 euros,’ he explains, ‘half of which comes from our Arts Council multi-annual funding. Sometimes I just have to say to the two composers, “That's all I can afford: it's take it or leave it.” Usually they take it, having asked for figures sometimes almost double that. It's terribly difficult, because I'm as much on the artist's side as on our finances' side. One year it was so drastic that I actually wrote out the cheque myself. Things got that bad. Then I met someone at the festival who very kindly refunded me.'
The story reveals the sincerity of West Cork's commitment, a commitment which no one questions. But even West Cork falls short of fee guidelines drawn up jointly by the Contemporary Music Centre and the Association of Irish Composers. The guidelines have been generally welcomed by composers. The same composers point out, however, that almost no one follows them.
As one composer said, if not even West Cork is able to deliver, it's very dispiriting. 'If composers are to be allowed the chance to make a living, then we have to get the proper fees. And I think the CMC/AIC fees are fair and proper at the moment. There's nobody in Ireland, not even Gerald Barry, who has wall-to-wall commissions and just can't get them out quickly enough. Therefore there are periods of leanness, and fees have to take that into consideration.'
In relation to the guidelines, the national broadcaster is among the many who come up short. On the one hand, RTÉ Lyric FM's evolving new music policy shows signs of a small but decisive breaking away from the ghettoisation of which it has stood accused to date. But on the other hand, a new plan to commission five-minute works suitable for dropping into many different parts of the schedule is based on a budget which so far has offered bottom rates to leading composers. It's otherwise an attractive plan and comes along in the context of current Lyric commissions for guitarist Mark-Anthony McGrath (for the programme The Blue of the Night), for the National Chamber Choir, and for the 2003 AXA Dublin International Piano Competition, as well as a co-commission with the Irish Chamber Orchestra for Irish mezzo-soprano Ann Murray at this year's Killaloe Festival. But why does Lyric FM, and by extension RTÉ, ignore the guidelines? It doesn't help the situation that composers are already upset with Lyric for shortcomings in the logging of broadcasts (leading to problems with payment of broadcast royalties), something which has been brought to Lyric's attention by the Association of Irish Composers, the Irish Music Rights Organisation, and Aosdána, Ireland’s affiliation of creative artists.
The other main RTÉ player, and one of the country's biggest commissioners of new music, is the Music Division. Director Niall Doyle maintains that commission fees for the RTÉ performing groups come down to negotiation. He is aware of the CMC/AIC guidelines but insists that they are only one factor alongside others such as how much was paid last time and how much money there is. 'It's tough,' he says, 'because there are always more composers than there are opportunities. I'll always make more enemies than friends!'
|'There are always more composers than there are opportunities. I'll always make more enemies than friends!'
He points out that gradually the performing groups are playing more and more new music, a point acknowledged by composers. 'Five years ago Niall Doyle inherited a quite unbelievable mess,' says one, 'with an immense amount of internal wrangling hampering him. He has emerged bloodied but unbowed and reasonably successful, doing his best to live up to some kind of responsibility to composers and to contemporary music. Perhaps his stewardship hasn't yielded too many fruits as yet, but it will if given a chance.'
Other composers, while agreeing that RTÉ Music is more fair than many when it comes to agreeing fees, have deep concerns about its decision-making process for new music commissions. In short, how are composers selected? Doyle concedes that the process is not structured, as in a twice-yearly commissions meeting for example, but is simply a component of forward planning. 'I meet with the general manager of the performing group in question, or with the festival director [in the case of the newly established Living Music festival], or, in the case of the RTÉ Vanbrugh String Quartet, with the four players. Occasionally a conductor is involved and, very rarely, someone external to us. The decision-making process is discursive and not difficult.'
It means that decisions are often made on the impetus and opinions of as few as two people. How these two people come into contact with composers and new music is what causes concern. 'Through general listening,' says Doyle. 'Looking at scores in the Contemporary Music Centre. Composers themselves approach us. And some of our players, who are active in new music outside RTÉ, make suggestions based on the composers they've encountered.'
This is too vague a policy for many composers who would prefer to see a more systematic process with stricter criteria leading to greater transparency.
However, their concerns with RTÉ are as nothing compared to the almost universal unease surrounding the commissioning policy of the Arts Council. The Council's current scheme, according to its published guidelines, 'offers awards of up to 10,000 euro for commissioning artists working in any artform. The aim is to foster the creation of new work, encourage dynamic proposals for repertoire renewal, to build artistic networks and artistic relationships (between artists and commissioners), to encourage new types of commissioners, and to promote greater diversity in the opportunities available to artists.'
Composers' greatest difficulties are twofold: the process of assessment and the criteria of assessment. The guidelines continue: 'Applications will be shortlisted by the Council staff following which they will be assessed by expert panels. The Arts Council's decisions will be based upon the recommendations of panels.' Composers are very concerned about who presides over the short-listing. They question the degree of musical expertise which exists on the panels. Some even assert that in some cases funds have been awarded by panels which have included no one with musical expertise at all. One composer tells of her encounter with a non-music panellist whose estimation of the earning power of composers was extraordinarily exaggerated.
|'We know it's not perfect but we are constantly working towards the best situation in which the Arts Council can acknowledge new work.'
The other grave concern is with one particular aspect of the Arts Council's artistic criteria: 'how the commission stretches boundaries within and across artforms'. A non-composer who appreciates this concern is Fergus Sheil, director of the contemporary music ensemble, Crash. He is looking forward to the day when Crash receives not only its revenue and festival funding (84,000 in total for 2003), but also funds earmarked for commissions. He has put the point to the Arts Council, citing, among other factors, what a benefit it would be to planning if the ensemble -- for which commissioning is so central -- could know that it would be funded for X number of new works every year. He is confident that the day will come. Meanwhile, he has a great deal of sympathy with composers with whom, of course, he is in constant contact.
'There is an awful lot of disquiet about the commissioning scheme,' he says, 'because of the very guidelines the Arts Council gives to the composers. These guidelines have in the past -- and hopefully in the current scheme -- worked to Crash's benefit because they favour new types of commission, new types of work. And we're easily able to demonstrate a capacity for new ideas and for commissions which cross the art forms. That's all right for us. But if someone wants to write a string quartet or an oboe concerto or whatever -- which are valid things to be doing -- it's very hard to get a commission. Those kinds of things aren't actually considered to be ground-breaking. So there are some composers who have done very well, and there are others -- by no means lesser composers -- who fare less well in the commission scheme.'
Paul Johnson gamely answers the case for the Arts Council. His busy portfolio includes Artists' Services Manager, Deputy Registrar to Aosdána, development work and the management of individual awards. He speaks with the same sincerity as people like Francis Humphrys and has a fundamental good will which nonetheless sometimes yields to a sterner side for which he makes no apology.
'We do have a music specialist,' he affirms. 'Nollaig Ó Fiongháile, who is both a practitioner and an academic. New music applications are passed to her first. If the composer is unfamiliar to her, she passes it back and I involve other people. The process is in the hands not of bureaucracy but of people.
'After applications have been short-listed, we endeavour to have a panel that reflects the applications being considered. If there is a music application, then music is represented on the panel. Panels have large numbers of people, so decisions never rest on one set of shoulders.'
Johnson acknowledges that the area of artistic criteria is one of ongoing concern. 'We know it's not perfect,' he says, 'but we are constantly working towards the best situation in which the Arts Council can acknowledge new work.' He accepts that the process may be too long but is quite adamant that the upset over stretching 'boundaries within and across artforms' is based on misunderstanding. 'I can state categorically that there is nothing wrong with applications for a composer who wishes to focus on the string quartet. There is no formula. Innovation can be interpreted in many ways. Our guidelines are designed to stimulate innovation, but that doesn't mean that there is anything wrong with traditional forms. There is no obligation to use multi-media.'
Johnson points out that the process is, after all, a competition, 'and so we have to use an application process, we have to use benchmarks. The panel considers the application form and supporting material such as recordings and video. It's up to composers to make arresting and interesting applications. That's part of funding life. There is no obligation on the Arts Council to fund a composer just because he or she is “established”.'
He pauses and remarks good-naturedly on the slight militancy that has come into his voice. 'It is healthy for us to be challenged by composers. The process is not perfect, so it's important for us to listen to artists' voices. This debate is bringing composers together.' But, as any number of composers will point out, there is at present no forum in which they can air their concerns.
Some kind of forum seems like an obvious part of the way forward. Issues such as fee guidelines and commissioning processes and criteria could be the subject of reasoned discussion involving all concerned. In many commissioning organisations, of course, there is in the background someone holding purse-strings, sometimes more tightly than Francis Humphrys's plaintive friend in Bantry. But there is also genuine good will -- not only in Bantry but in Lyric FM, in the RTÉ performing groups, in the Arts Council and elsewhere -- which, mobilised and forming a united front, might eventually prevail to the greater benefit and satisfaction of all.
Michael Dungan is a writer and music critic. His weekly articles and reviews appear in The Irish Examiner.