Getting Heard: What it means in a modern digital world

or a composers quest to be performed

Recently, I've been writing a series of posts entitled "What kind of Classical Music Should I Write?" Part of the reason for this series is to better understand the quest to be heard. Putting black dots on a piece of paper isn't music unless those dots get transformed into something audible.

In this digital world, where anyone can post a YouTube video, or put their music up on a music sharing website it's easier than ever to get music into the hands (or ears) of listeners. Classical Music is seeing a boom in online sales by virtue of the virtual world.  There are few composers I know that don't have some sort of musical presence on the internet - and justifiably this is just one way for them to market themselves. My own website,, has gotten me more than one performance by allowing a way to get samples and pdf scores into the hands of potential performers as part of the consideration process. But before any of that can happen, the music has to first be performed.

Libby Larsen and Stephen Paulus founded the Minnesota Composer's Forum, which has become American Composers Forum. Bang on a Can, which recently had a hugely successful Marathon in New York, was formed by composers Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe. Their idea was simple - instead of sorting music by style or genre or venue it would be more powerful to sort music by innovation, finding the rebels in each musical community, the restless creators not content to leave conventions unchallenged. Putting all these fresh voices next to each other on one gargantuan concert would let an audience feel the excitement of innovation itself. The real key was composers who didn't wait for commissions to come, but rather created their own avenue for success.

Other composers are composer/performers, performing their own works or getting together with friends to collaborate. Certainly this has been a major element in jazz composition --musicians getting together to jam resulting in something worthy of recording. Electro-acoustic composers have the advantage they need no one but a microphone and their computers (or tape decks) to generate their unique sound. A number of urban artists are using software tools to create their beat tracks complete with effects.

What can orchestral composers do? Midi realizations are a glimpse at what a full orchestra might sound like but pale in comparison to the real thing. So, ultimately we need to get our music into the hands of an orchestra. To do that we need the people who make the decisions, music directors, conductors and the like, to see (and hear) what we've written.

Related to what I said in part 2 of the "What sort of Classical Music Should I Write?" music directors and conductors are busy people. Marin Alsop herself has commented she's likely to only give a new score 2 mins worth her time. "If you haven't captured my attention in 2 minutes, I'm not likely to continue to listen." In our sound-byte world, orchestral composers are faced with making a GREAT first impression --a two minute segment that can excite our listeners on first hearing. We don't have the luxury of extended development of an idea or theme, or even if that occurs in the music, some part of the music needs to be immediate and visceral.

In the book publishing world, there is a standard format for approaching an agent or a publisher with a new book idea --the query letter. Beyond this, there are books that list the various addresses with details as to what the agents or publishers are specifically looking for. So, if you've written a theory text book, you don't waste your time sending a query letter to a young adult publishing house. There is nothing like this for the music world.

Continuing to use Marin as the example -- If you want to send something to Marin Alsop for consideration, you have to do a lot of homework to find who her agent is, and how they want to receive your material. And then, you have no idea what (if anything) she's looking for specifically. Maybe she's into "new music" - her Cabrillo Festival has received numerous ASCAP Adventurous Programming Awards- but maybe she's looking for a specific something right now. There is no direct way to find out.  It's possible to find the information out (I've done it), but it can be very time consuming and with no guarantee of success.

So, composers have to do their homework (which has nothing to do with composing music), find a variety of conductors and/or musical directors that will review their work, print the score (which isn't cheap), produce a midi realization (of the best 2 mins), put it in the mail (again, not cheap) and pray --pray it lands on their desk at a time when they're looking for something and in a good mood. In the end, the likelihood the composer's score will get anything other than stuffed in a pile is pretty rare. Certainly feedback won't be forthcoming, not unless the recipient is actually considering the work.

If we don't get feedback, do we continue to submit scores? Did they even get the score in the first place? Did they like what they heard, but already have completed their program for the year, or was it not quite what they were looking for?

Other important questions: What format do they want, full score or just the 2 min section? Do they accept pdf's so they can review the score on their laptop (while traveling) or do they prefer printed scores? Are they even looking?

Right now, getting performed is all a matter of who you know. Marin Alsop likes Kevin Puts. Kevin is a good composer. As such one of his scores is more likely to get considered than someone she doesn't know. Daniel Barenboim knows Elliott Carter (another good composer), so Elliott gets commissions where as an unknown composer doesn't. Jeffery Kahane likes working with Kenji Bunch.  Kenji wrote a piano concerto that recently premiered under the baton of Jeffery Kahane, but was it exceptional? (Not in my personal opinion --more like a theme and variations on the Love Boat theme).  I'm not suggesting Kevin, Elliott or Kenji isn't worthy of consideration. I am suggesting their are other composers out there (myself included) who also write music worth consideration (and commission... hint, hint). Nor am I suggesting people ignore their friends. We just need to find some way to get the right material into the hands of the people interested in it --at the right time.

YouTube is a great way for an unknown artist to become known --but there is a lot of luck involved. I'd like to find a way to help reduce the amount of luck one needs to get their music considered.


Anonymous said…
I can see why music directors of the big important performing organizations go to their friends for new pieces - they can't afford to fail. With budgets and endowment funds under stress, you can't afford to take a chance on an unknown quantity - so you naturally go to someone whose work and talent you know will deliver the goods. Hard to fault that, really.

What we need are more performing venues and opportunities - places where risk is acceptable. Reich and Glass solved the problem by starting their own performing ensembles. What if every performing organization at every level wanted to offer at least one new work in the coming year? How do we encourage that?
Chip Michael said…
Paul -

I absolute agree, there is no fault for people choosing a known quantity (quality). There are other options out there...

Last year I was composer in Residence for the Boulder Symphony Orchestra, a local ensemble. This year they've commissioned another piece! The Kansas City Philharmonic is looking at performing one of my piece and potentially commissioning a Piano Concerto. So, I am making headway. But it's not easy...

Thanks for the comment!
Chip Michael said…
Chip Michael said...
Received an email from Marin this morning (and I quote):

I am always looking for new pieces. Not terribly interested in rep with vocalists, NONE with chorus, not many concerti unless someone extremely famous, and always interested in short orchestral openers to get to know composers.

All scores AND CDs (even midis helpful) get to me at Cabrillo Music Festival.

I listen or look at everything. If you don't hear back, I wasn't interested at that time.

- She does more new music than most, which is hugely encouraging!

FYI - you'll want to contact

470 Park Avenue South
9th Floor North
New York, NY 10016 USA

to send your scores her way...
janetbxyz said…
Very helpful article. Thanks for putting it together in such a clear way.

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