On Whether a Commission is a Commission?

September 22nd, 2018

I have recently been commissioned to write a piece of music. ‘Hurrah’, I hear you say – ‘but why are you telling us this banal information?’ ‘Is it such a red-letter day that you need to let the world know?’ Well, no, not really, I’m not partaking in some weird sort of gloating, or announcing my news in the most faux-sophisticated way I can think of, but rather that the very concept of being commissioned to write a piece of music got me thinking…what exactly is a commission and has our concept of what this word entails changed in recent years. Has being ‘commissioned’ to create something become divorced from the actual paying of money for this service? Or has it always been such? I’m confused…

I think the main impulse behind this is the way the word gets bandied around certain musical circles that I work in. No problem with that, composers are being commissioned all the time (well, social media would have me believe that…), that’s how many new works of art come into being. But I also know that many people are using the word ‘commissioned’ as an interchangeable synonym for ‘being asked to write for’ – there is a difference, and it’s not purely semantic – nor should it be. Now, I have no problem with both parties (the commissioner and the commissioned) using this term if they are both in concurrence, perhaps both get something from using it, but I think this causes issues further down the line, and probably leads to some issues of expectation at a later juncture.

I recently heard of a choir ‘commissioning’ five new works from young composers – a laudable project that no doubt benefitted all concerned, but learning more about it I found out that no money was to change hands in the creation of these new works – the ‘commission’ in this case was the opportunity to write for said choir and have the new piece performed. Again, no real issue with this, other than I’m not sure that ‘commissioned’ is the right term for this transaction. Surely ‘we have asked five composers to write for us’ is more correct – or is it? Does it matter? Does it engender the idea that composers will work for free (which many will in any case) and that they will submit to the idea (again, maybe semantically) that the outside world will perceive that they have been paid for their endeavours?

I have no problem with writing music for free, if it’s for the right occasion for the right group and for some tangible benefit for all parties, this may be more applicable in my case as I have a full-time job which pays my bills (though it is a philosophical position I adhere to as well). I completely understand composer colleagues who wouldn’t dream of doing things for free and I totally respect that decision. But is it right to call an agreement that doesn’t feature a composer being paid for their work a commission? I’m not convinced. Yes, using the term gives composers a certain cache that is missing from ‘written for…’ but is it right? Is it not just perpetuating an already difficult situation?

On the other hand, if a choir/ensemble stipulates the parameters, suggests the venue, date and specifics of a work and the composer agrees, then surely that is a commission, even if no money has changed hands. Surely to commission is to ‘authorise the production of something’ – no mention of money in that definition? In the case of the choir and the five young composers, five new works exist because of the joint venture undertaken by choir and composers – these works wouldn’t have existed if it wasn’t for the ‘commission’.

Maybe all this is splitting hairs and if people want to use the word ‘commission’ for whatever they understand or want it to mean, then that is fine. However, I am reminded of one of those social media memes that suggests that a musician might like to play at an event ‘for important exposure’ rather than for payment, and that in no other profession would such an engagement be offered. The more we divorce the word ‘commission’ from paying a composer, the more we devalue the art of actually writing music, which I can assure you is quite difficult.


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