When you get down to it, there are only two basic approaches to composition: writing for oneself or writing for someone else.
This is obviously not a matter of style. Any style can fit under either of these broad categories. Neither approach is necessarily better than the other, though the second can be more lucrative if you have enough people who want you to write for them and can pay well.
As an emerging composer, most of my work has born out of me writing for myself. I am still developing connections with people who might want to commission me. But I have had the privilege of composing a couple of commissioned pieces, including one I worked on over this past summer.
The story begins in 2020, when I was commissioned by the Greater Tiverton Community Chorus to write a Christmas piece in celebration of the ensemble’s fortieth birthday.
Beth Armstrong, who was directing the group at the time, must have really liked my work because I got a surprise email from her at the end of May 2023 asking if I would be interested in a commission for her other chorus, The Chorus of East Providence.
The obvious answer was YES!
But there was a major snag: I was moving. We had just put our house on the market.
Could I write a choral piece AND pack up my house AND finish an orchestra piece I was in the middle of AND seal up the sale of the house AND move one thousand miles AND settle in before the work was needed to start rehearsals, with an eye to performing it in December 2023? Given the timeline, I’d probably even start school before I finished the piece.
That was a tall order.
My interest in the commission wasn’t just about the money. In fact, I got creative in negotiations because of the ensemble’s budget constraints. I wanted to write it for Beth and help her dream come to life.
Beth has been one of my biggest cheerleaders since I met her in January 2020 when I started accompanying the Tiverton chorus. She knew I was a composer and when the pandemic hit, she was the driving force behind the first commission with the Tiverton chorus, providing me with some work while everything was shut down, despite only knowing me for a couple of months. When we all got back together as things improved, she championed my work. She entrusted me with the ensemble in her absence. She changed my title from “accompanist” to “collaborative pianist” and always said she felt we truly collaborated together, solving problems and making decisions about the music we helped the chorus prepare.
Beth’s idea for the new commission was unique. She had written Christmas songs a while back and wanted them arranged for SATB chorus with piano and oboe.
Now, she was entrusting me with her musical babies to help them grow into something bigger and fuller. This was an honor I could not say no to. I didn’t want to say no.
So, I determined that, despite all the obstacles, it was going to happen. I would write the piece, and I would give it my all.
The funny thing about this commission is that it really wasn’t my “style.” I wrote a piece in a style I probably would have never chosen if I was writing for myself only.
But I see music as a bit like acting – taking on a character and telling a story. I always compose in service to the non-musical idea and consider what will best communicate it.
In this piece, I was writing to serve Beth and composing to help her style be brought out in the piece. Her songs provided plenty of inspiration, and listening to her melodies gave me with everything I needed to capture the essence of her music. I found it fun to creatively think of ways to bring out the best in Beth’s songs; for me this was the epitome of collaboration.
It didn’t matter that the idea – or even the melodies – didn’t start with me. In fact, many of the sometimes-overwhelming steps of composing were either eliminated or reduced because my choices were already decided for me.
I ended up writing a 7-minute choral song cycle of four songs I titled Magic & Merriment. Knowing Beth, I felt the title suited her and captured the full spectrum of Christmas themes in her songs: the magic of wonder, and the merriment of celebration. It also harkens back to Christmases of yore, matching some of the age-old poetry Beth used for texts. The oboe added a hint of the Renaissance, and I couldn’t refrain from adding a tambourine to round out the festivity.
I believe that “composing for oneself” and “composing for someone else” should overlap. If I can’t connect with the project on a personal level, I won’t be able to capture the essence of the idea and the music will not come alive. While I wrote in a different style than I usually do, I found the part of me that resonated with the project – and in this case, it was a love for Charles Dickens’ writing.
Magic & Merriment will be premiered by the Chorus of East Providence at their concerts on December 9&10, 2023. Information about tickets can be found here.
If you are interested in collaborating on a project, contact me here.