Julie Simonds has been around Australian Music for many, many years. I first met her Julie she was working for the ABC, who (at the time) was running the state orchestras (Sydney SO, Melbourne SO, Tasmanian SO etc.) For many years Julie has been a regular presenter on Fine Music, a volunteer-run classical radio station in Sydney.
Julie has begun a new series called 100% Australian Made, in which she features Australian composers talking about their history and their music, together with excerpts of their music being played.
I am honoured to be the first guest on this important program, syndicated across the classical-music public radio stations in Australia.
Perhaps a decade ago, as part of my role as Chair of Composition at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, I organised a regular seminar for all the composition students.
One week, I walked into the teaching space and noted there were 6 exceptionally talented young women sitting together amongst the cohort. (There were more than 6 women in the room – but these were exceptional in my estimation.) I took them aside before the class started, and said to them, “You are all immensely talented. Women are underrepresented in music composition. If you agree, I would like to support you to achieve the highest you possibly can, including providing opportunities for your works to be heard and workshopped.”
This informal “hot-housing” approach seemed to work, judging from the young women’s progress. A few years later (2015), I suggested to the Dean, Anna Reid: what if the Sydney Conservatorium instituted a formally designed program within a postgraduate degree, directed specifically at women to try to address some of the systemic problems they faced?
What if the participants were enabled to write music for a range of professional musicians and ensembles in an unprecedented way? These musicians and ensemble directors would get to know the composers and their work: an important side-effect that may have positive effects on career progression into the future.
Anna was receptive, so I designed it to be a two-year program. The reason for this was that the participants would write a piece for a musician or ensemble in the first year, and then do the same again in the second year, thereby having an opportunity to take what they have learned and re-apply it. There are too many one-offs in the composer development space.
Research shows that role-modelling is extremely important to educational experiences. There were many excellent potential mentors who could help to guide the women on projects, such as Maria Grenfell, Moya Henderson, Anne Boyd, Elena Kats-Chernin and Natalie Williams. It would be fine for me to direct the overall program, but a lot of the nitty-gritty should come from successful women rather than a bloke.
I didn’t want the program to just be an artistic training opportunity. I remember reading a comment from Dr. Sally Macarthur from Western Sydney University that women weren’t being taught business and networking skills to the same extent as men, and were thus at a disadvantage. The classical music industry does rely in large part upon connections.
So what if we aligned the artistic, creative and musical side of the program with mentors from the business side of things, giving the participants the chance to use these skills to their advantage. Would this be helpful to the composers?
The following document was prepared for Anna Reid as a first draft for the program, dated 31 March 2015.
As can be seen from the above document, we were aiming to work with a terrific range of musicians and partner organisations at the highest professional level. There are a full set of important skills learned from this sort of collaboration that go beyond the typical university experience of writing for student performers. In the first iteration of the program, Claire Edwardes, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, the Goldner String Quartet and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra all enthusiastically agreed to be a part of the project. They are all incredible musicians for whom any classical-tradition composer would be delighted to write a new work (or two).
In planning this project, I consulted with current female composition students of the SCM (Sydney Conservatorium of Music) to get their opinions on the value of such a program. It was an interesting discussion. There was certainly enthusiasm for the composition activities, “Wow! Writing for the Goldner String Quartet? AND the TSO?”, and also for business skills training as well. But some expressed reservations that they would have been selected on their gender rather than on their merit. I recall responding, “Change is coming, and so this is an opportunity for you to be part of what’s ahead, and to take the opportunity that is offered – if it’s not you, it will be someone else.”
The support of the Dean of the SCM, Prof. Anna Reid, was critical in getting this all happening and approved. It could not have come about without her.
Its first iteration had the clunky name of the “National Women Composers’ Development Program” (NWCDP). I considered “Composing Women”, but was aware of a festival of the same name in the 90s run by Becky Llewellyn, and didn’t want to be a man erasing previous women’s achievement.
The inaugural program was a tremendous success. The four students worked terrifically hard, wrote lots of fantastic music – including for some extra opportunities that were not part of the original brief, such as a new work for the Canberra Symphony Orchestra’s Australian Series for flute and harp.
After the initial success of the program, it was clear we had to run it again. However, for its second iteration we were extremely fortunate to have Professor Liza Lim join us as the Sculthorpe Chair of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. It made sense for Liza to take over the leadership of this program.
The fundamental structures stayed the same: a group of four women selected to undertake high level work with top-performing ensembles around the country (and in this case, internationally), with students in 2018-2019 writing for American flautist Clare Chase. The students in this cohort wrote a new work for Sydney Chamber Opera: a massive achievement by them, and one that won critical acclaim – including for Peggy Polias whose opera won the Dramatic Work of the Year in the 2021 Art Music Awards. The name of the program was changed to “Composing Women” and it’s been known as such ever since. The program & its director, Liza Lim, even won an international Classical Next award for innovation in 2020,
“…for being the only higher-level composition programme for women demonstrating a sustained, strategic commitment to change.”.
After two successful cohorts run by Liza in 2018-2019 (Josie Macken, Peggy Polias, Bree van Reyk and Georgia Scott) and 2020-2021 (Brenda Gifford, Fiona Hill, May Lyon and Jane Sheldon), the decision was made to cease the program. Why? And specifically, why if it had made such a difference?
“The program has created a significant cultural ripple effect in the classical and art music world. We haven’t done it alone – which is really important – change only sticks when everyone comes along,” said Professor Lim.
“But now, no organisation can say that they’re future oriented or relevant to contemporary society without women’s presence.”
Things have certainly changed from 2015 to 2022 in the support and prominence given to female classical composers in the Australian context. Liza’s thoughts were that enough had changed in the consciousness and engagement of women as composers by organisations, ensembles and musicians interested in contemporary music that a program like this was not as needed as was previously the case – and that the resources of places such as the Sydney Conservatorium could be directed elsewhere. As an example of this, the SCM started its Equity in Jazz program, headed up by Jo Lawry – it’s certainly true that gender equality in the jazz area is a fair way behind that of classical music composition. We also have been discussing other areas that would benefit from such targeted support.
So, what has been learned from the Composing Women program?
Most importantly: if a problem has been recognised, and if stakeholders wish to make a change, there needs to be a significant, long-term investment, rather than a one-off opportunity. The two-year program is a model that works. The Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra has adopted it for the Australian Composers School and it works very well there, too.
In the general case of composer development, there are two ways to get high-quality contemporary music. The first is to wait for the next Mozart to come along. (Good luck with that, I say!) The other approach is to invest in training in a significant, long-term way. Provide opportunities for composers to try things out, to get things wrong, to fail. This is a contentious approach because musicians’ time is valuable (and expensive). A classical orchestra can program a Brahms Piano Concerto that we know from more than a century’s performances will be amazing. Indeed, current composers should stand on the shoulders of those who went before. But there is more to establishing an innovative, contemporary career as a composer writing fantastic music than this. Composers need the space, the time and the opportunities to learn from other musicians in a practical way. Excellence doesn’t appear out of nowhere, or from just reading a textbook.
If we – musicians, the arts industry and audience members – want the classical music sector to develop and grow, long-term programs can contribute to serious cultural and musical change, as Composing Women successfully did.
I am often asked how much a commissioner should expect to pay a composer for a new piece of music.
For example, a recent email:
I was wondering if you happened to have a copy of the current Australia Council suggested commissioning rates? I am looking at launching a Commissioning Project for our Centenary and need to pull together a budget for the Executive.”
A few of things about this. First (& most important) it’s wonderful that this organization wants to commission new music to commemorate their centenary. There are many reasons as to why this is a good thing – though of course I would say that.
Second, there is the reference to the “Australia Council suggested commissioning rates.” Back in the day, the Music Board of the Australia Council for the Arts had a guideline of what composers should charge per minute of music. This was dependent upon how many ‘lines’ of music were used in the piece. So a string quartet would have 4 lines, and an orchestra might have 24 lines. More lines = higher rate per minute.
There are problems with this, particularly that it was largely irrelevant to genres of music outside the Classical/Art Music and Jazz idioms – and even then, the improvisation side of things was problematic. Also, it was a pretty blunt instrument in terms of who it was targeting. For some composers, the rates were too low. For others, they were very generous.
So during my time as the Chair of the Music Board, the suggested rates moved from being a quasi-Award Rate to instead the maximum amount that the Australia Council would contribute towards a grant application.
In other words, the “Australia Council suggested commissioning rates” ceased to exist some years ago. Any rates that are published or available are now often misunderstood as to their purpose because of this history.
Third, as my colleague Paul Stanhope has rightly pointed out, there are many reasons for a composer writing a piece: the money on offer isn’t necessarily going to be the driving force. The artistic rationale is often even more important. What a good thing!
So where are we at today?
The rule is that everything is up for negotiation. This is a good thing in my opinion.
In lieu of any other further concrete information, here are my suggestions.
The rate for a commission is dependent on several factors:
The status and experience of the composer in question;
What they are asked to write for, i.e. the complexity or otherwise of the brief;
The financial resources of the commissioner;
How much the composer needs the money;
The interest of the composer in writing the proposed piece of music in question and/or how available they are, together with what is on offer beyond writing the piece itself.
The status and experience of the composer.
There are three main categories for consideration.
Premium composers. These are very established composers who are regularly commissioned, performed and recorded by the best and most prestigious music organizations in the country and internationally. They may have an international publisher. They may be the rarest of breed: a freelance composer, though more likely, like everyone else these days, have a portfolio career. Typically they are booked up a few years in advance.
The starting point for these composers I would estimate at about $2000 a minute. They have a lot more competition for their limited time, and/or they are doing it for their living in a lot of cases. There is little point haggling for less than this unless they want to do you a favour. The idea is that there will be prestige for you in commissioning them. Such commissions in theory have a better chance of having a ‘life’ (repeat performances) due to the track record of the composer.
The $2000/minute of music figure probably won’t vary that much despite the size of the ensemble and/or size of the ensemble for whom it’s being written. For less you might get an arrangement of an existing piece, which isn’t a bad thing in itself.
Established composers. These are again composers who are regularly commissioned, performed and recorded by high standard music ensembles, though possibly not as often. They probably will not have as much work booked into the future as the Premium composers – meaning that there may be increased availability, though very often pretty busy.
I would budget for around $1000/minute in general. There is room for negotiation here. Start at the $1000/minute and work up or down. These composers may well be very busy doing a range of things but may have time here and there, and/or university jobs meaning that they are willing to do something they are interested in for a bit less.
Emerging composers. The Australia Council defines an emerging artist as someone in their first 5 years of professional practice. This doesn’t work for composers as it typically takes a great deal longer to become established. I would state that composers who aren’t regularly commissioned or performed by the top-notch ensembles would fall into this category, and typically they may be in the process of developing a personal and distinctively recognizable style or voice at this stage.
Here I would suggest between $200/minute (for someone still at or just out of Uni) to about $500/minute. The size of the ensemble here will make a big difference.
You don’t want to rip such composers off. However in reality, they need you more than you need them. The prestige of a commission, the standard of performers and the potential audience listening to the performance matters a great deal here in terms of the negotiations. And hence there may be flexibility.
What they are asked to write for, and the complexity of the brief
It stands to reason that a 90 minute chamber opera with multiple collaborators should demand a lot more money than a 10 minute vocal sextet. A desire by the commissioner or composer to approach new forms of music making, to extend the discipline, to write a piece that could be seen as falling within the string quartet canon, for example, may require a lot more time, effort and brain power than a miniature to celebrate a birthday. And hence more money.
(Note that the added complexity will NOT ensure a higher standard piece. In fact, often quite the opposite.)
The financial resources of the commissioner
There are corporate organizations who don’t sneeze at spending $100k on their end of year Christmas functions. There are others who sell raffle tickets to raise money for new commissions.
If an organization can’t afford the going rate for a composer, they can negotiate, but if they can’t afford it in the end, there are many other composers who may be able to do it. And do a good job.
Note that if the commission is tax deductible, some commissioners are much more inclined to take it on, particularly if it they are in the top tax bracket.
How much the composer needs the money
Supply and demand works here too, just as in every other field of endeavor.
The interest of the composer in writing the piece of music
When I needed a roof repair done, it was fairly obvious that the roofing contractor giving a quote wasn’t that interested in doing the job, as he quoted $12000 for something that would take 2 days.
A composer’s interest in doing a commission can be piqued further by raising the commission rate – especially if he or she is busy. A higher commission rate may result in other commissions being delayed to make way for this one.
The performers, recordings and so forth aligned to the commission will affect the willingness of the composer to take it on. I ensure that all my commissions will be recorded, and I will be furnished a copy of the recording. Otherwise there is little point in me spending months writing it.
A composer may be particularly interested in writing for a particular ensemble. For example, I am always down to write new works for string instruments, even if the money on offer isn’t what I would usually charge.
It is often worth the commissioner discussing with the composer what sort of piece the composer wants to write, rather than come with a pre-conceived idea. Personally I find this more challenging, preferring more information and restrictions up front – the more parameters are given, the easier the piece is to write! But composers vary in this regard.
The commission fee to the composer isn’t necessarily the end of the matter. Typically, the following should be budgeted for:
Production of parts
For a large ensemble such as an orchestra or wind symphony, someone has to prepare the parts. It could be the composer or it could be someone else. Then they have to be manufactured. This can cost a fair amount of money.
It is usual for some published works to be hired out to performers. Performers pay a set rate per performance. This may or may not include the commissioned work’s premiere. In the UK, commissioners pay double the standard hire fees for the privilege of giving the premiere performance, in addition to the commission fee for the music itself. This is much more negotiable in Australia, in general. Often the hire fees are included in the commission.
Attending rehearsals, giving workshops etc.
Some composers want to be paid for attending rehearsals and performances of their music. Some don’t want to be. There may be costs involved. It is a good thing to get the composer to the work’s premiere if possible, and thus pay airfare and accommodation costs if they are not local, and particularly if it is a prestigious commission. These should be negotiated.
For educational institutions such as schools, composers should be paid if they are giving workshops to students or the like, just as any teacher is paid for doing so.
It may be tempting to ‘go in hard’, and try to get a bargain rate for a commission.
In most cases, this is false economy. There is little value in the end in not paying the composer what they’re worth. I have heard the results of this first-hand, in a situation in which a composer was insulted by the amount offered, decided to do it anyway and obviously tossed off the quickest piece they possibly could to fulfill the brief. No-one wins in this situation. Certainly not the audience or the commissioner. It is highly unlikely that pieces such as this will go on to have a life beyond the first performance.
The last two Tuesdays I have been mentoring composers as part of the Ku-Ring-Gai Philharmonic Orchestra’s Australian music program. This is an excellent opportunity for emerging Australian composers to hear their orchestral pieces workshopped by a community orchestra. It’s a long-standing commitment to Australian music by a community organization that understands the importance of nurturing an art form.
One of the composers, Solomon Frank, is a 2nd year student at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. He wrote a piece in which the orchestra players are required to grunt, groan, slap their cheeks around + other assorted bodily sounds, in addition to playing their instruments in a ‘normal’ fashion.
It sounds a bit 1960s, right? But no-one is writing this type of music any more, at least, not in the orchestral world.
I remarked to Solly that it would be best if he didn’t write this sort of music when he inevitably moves to the professional orchestra sphere. He immediately responded, “why not?”
Good question. My thoughts were shaped by my own and my peers’ experiences as more established composers: that the orchestral players would absolutely crucify him, that he likely would never have another piece played by them in his lifetime, that he should try to master foundational concepts rather than going ‘wild’, and most importantly, that he wouldn’t be making use of the considerable expertise of the players in the orchestra – i.e. playing their instruments extremely well, rather than blowing raspberries. It would be a wasted opportunity.
However, upon reflection, we live in an extremely conservative, risk-averse age. Yes, emerging composers have to pay off their iPhone like everyone else. And hence they perhaps shouldn’t aim to bite the hand that feeds.
But there must be more to life (and art) than money.
The best and most striking thing about Solly’s new piece is that it contained numerous sound worlds that I had never ever heard from an orchestra before. That’s a very rare thing indeed. The last time I felt like this was hearing the orchestration in Carl Vine’s Violin Concerto – in 2011 – a long time between drinks.
Solly took risks. I’m so pleased he did. He forced the orchestral players outside their comfort zones. And in this case, the risk paid off with entirely new sounds. It was totally worth it.
There are so few people taking risks these days, not least in the field of orchestral music. We composers are more than aware of (1) the competition for few orchestral opportunities for composers, and (2) the cost of having an orchestra there, doing your bidding, and the subsequently responsibility: you’d better make the best use of it!
And yet, when the typical results are technically very competent but lack originality, we can’t help but be disappointed. Why is it that middle-aged men such as myself and Paul Stanhope are amongst the youngest composers out there getting regular orchestral gigs? Where is the fire, the brimstone, the energy, the boldness, the extremism, the drama of orchestral possibilities from the younger generations? Where are the emerging composers out there making statements? Taking things to the limits? If the young and emerging composers aren’t doing it, then who will.
A few years ago, the eminent music education guru Richard Gill lamented to me in conversation, “why is no-one vomiting in timpani any more?” Maybe it’s about time we started.