Commissioning a Composer 101

Daniel Kallman talks about the process of commissioning a composer. The following interview was published in September of 1999 in Cantabile, the newsletter of the Choral Arts Ensemble of Rochester, Minnesota (Rick Kvam, Music Director).  For more information see Commissioning a Composer.

Commissioning 101: Dan Kallman on the Process

Dan Kallman, of Northfield, is a singer and choir conductor whose compositions have been widely performed and published; his piece, The Canticle of Brother Sun, was commissioned by the Choral Arts Ensemble in 1997 and is featured on our Minnesota Voices CD. He tells us here about the process he goes through when composing a new work.

The Choral Arts Ensemble has commissioned Dan Kallman to write a piece specifically for The Choral Arts Ensemble and High School Honors Choir.

1. Contact with composer

“Rick contacted me early this year to ask if I would be interested and have time to write a new piece for the combined forces of the Choral Arts Ensemble and the High School Honors Choir. He wanted the piece ready for rehearsals in early September in order to be ready for performance in December.”

2. How much per minute

“Usually at this point in discussing a commission, once I have determined that I have time to fit it into my work schedule, I have two main questions. The first has to do with the fee that I will be paid. This usually depends on the duration of the proposed composition and the forces involved (solo, chamber, choral, orchestral or other larger ensemble). In this case, we had already decided that the work would involve the two choirs with the possibility of adding some instrumentation, depending on the text I would eventually choose. We then discussed the length, deciding it should be at least double that of a standard anthem that I might be asked to write (for instance, for a church choir). That usually runs around 3-4 minutes, so the contract for this commission states that the new work will be from 7-10 minutes.”

3. Ability of musicians/conductor

“The second main question I have before accepting a commission is usually this (although rarely phrased this bluntly): How capable are the musicians and conductor I am being asked to write for? It can be a great frustration to a composer (and the performers) to create a piece that may be well written only to have it flop in performance because it is just plain beyond the abilities of the musicians for whom it was written. I think I have a reputation for pushing the limit in this regard (ask Rick!) but the results are usually favorable (ask audience members or judges in Vienna!) Because I had already written for both choirs, I already knew that they are both excellent ensembles, superbly rehearsed and conducted, so there was no question from this standpoint that I was eager to fulfill this commission.”

4. Contract

“At this point in the process, a contract was drawn up stating the specifics of the project as outlined above. Included in my part of the agreement is my willingness to attend at least two rehearsals of the piece as well as participate in a Meet the Composer event. The final fee that we negotiated reflects the time and effort necessary to fulfill these extra responsibilities in addition to writing the piece itself.”

5. Composing: finding a text

“Then (early this summer) I was ready to begin working on the project. Most people assume that this means sitting down at the piano and putting notes on paper, but I was still quite a ways from doing that. With a choral commission, selecting a text often involves many (but enjoyable) hours in the library or under a big oak tree in the park going through collections by favorite authors or rereading things that I’ve collected over the years.

“Because I knew that the concert would take place in Lourdes Chapel in December, I was leaning towards sacred rather than secular, with a Christmas theme. I began to think of working with not only a sacred theme, but also with something more overtly Catholic and female. This naturally led me to consider Mary, the mother of Christ. So I was drawn to some of the earlier Latin texts that have been favorites of composers for centuries, including the Ave Maria and the Magnificat. Rick suggested a couple of other ancient texts I hadn’t thought of, including ‘Verbum caro factum est’ and ‘O Magnum Mysterium’. Since the latter mentions Mary’s role (‘Blessed is the Virgin Mary whose womb was worthy to bear the Lord’), I chose it over the others and over the Magnificat which I’ve already set to music twice. I found that ‘O Magnum’ and Ave Maria are linked liturgically as the 4th Responsory at Matins of Our Lord’s Nativity. I also remembered that Victoria’s famous setting of ‘O Magnum’ ends with an Alleluia. So I’ve pretty much decided to use O Magnum Mysterium, Ave Maria (first half) and Alleluia as texts. I’ve started to sketch some ideas out, trying to decide how the choirs might be divided or combined. I’m also leaning against including English translations now–this is feeling more like ‘high mass’ (somehow, throwing English into the mix takes some of the holiness out of it for me).”

6. Space/division of choirs

“Another factor that enters into the process of composing this work has to do with the acoustical space. With two choirs to work with, there are several possibilities: a processional of men, a chorus of women (distant angels), a triple choir arrangement with the three colors interacting. I’m trying to overlap the choirs in such a way that tempo won’t be an issue . . .”

7. Music

“I’m continuing to brainstorm and work with some sketches I have, thinking mainly of color and spatial and textual considerations. At this point, my music notebook has some musical notes and rhythms, but also a lot of written comments to myself. After I get these ideas out of sketches and into more legible manuscript, I’ll want to show them to Rick for feedback.”

8. Premiere

After having about ten rehearsals to prepare, the two choirs will premiere the piece in this year’s “Christmas at Assisi” concerts, December 17, 18 & 19 [1999], in Lourdes Chapel. It will then be recorded for the Choral Arts Ensemble’s second Christmas CD. The commissioning project is undertaken in cooperation with the Southeastern Minnesota Arts Council, Inc., through funding from the Minnesota State Legislature.

(Written by Sara Xavier Decker, Administrative Director, Choral Arts Ensemble. Reprinted by permission.)