I’ve always seen the benefit in writing works for friends. Not only are they appreciative of the gesture, but it can be a great way to get one’s music played with little effort on the marketing side. I’ve written works for friends whether they’ve asked me to or not. Last year, as a way to thank the piano and string players for the workshop performance of The Wife, I wrote each of them a miniature for their respective instruments. (See: for Willem Oosthuysen.) It’s unlikely those pieces will ever be performed in a concert setting, but they’re not necessarily meant for that setting. I should hope that Willem went home that evening, sat down at his keyboard (or piano, if he should be so lucky to have a piano in his NYC apartment) and played through the short piece a few times, perfecting the performance in a matter of minutes. Giving Willem and the other players these pieces is, to me, a more intimate kind of thank you; it affords them intimate moments with music written only for them, time to connect with themselves and me. But I’ve also written for friends, without pay, with exactly the intent of having the music played in the near future. One such example is I had left my room, commissioned by my cousin, saxophonist (and my bandmate for ten years) Joshua Mlodzianowski, and performed by himself and my high school friends, M. Maxwell Howard and Phil Ducreay at the 2012 Crane Saxophone Chamber Music Festival.
Recently, however, I received my first paid commission. Dr. Mathias Wexler, cello professor at Crane School of Music, tapped me to write a work for 10 cellos for the students in his studio (plus himself). Not only would the piece be performed, but it would be recorded and used as promotional material for the school, and to help the string department obtain funding. This all came about because of Stockade Kids. See, one of the students in that cello studio is Curtis Karwacki. Curtis played on SK’s debut album on a track called “Hometown,” for which I’d written a string quartet arrangement. After playing on the record, he became obsessed with our music, so much so that he showed the record to Dr. Wexler, who then contacted me about the commission. In the original email, Dr. Wexler wrote that he was looking for a “hip, somewhat funky, cool, urban type piece.” I took that to mean something with a groove, something with a relationship to popular music. The resulting piece, Three Unspecified Locations, is a three-part work beginning with a slow passacaglia that grows more dissonant with each new cello added; then moving to a fast, Steve Reichian section in 7/8; ending with a pizzicato melody passed between all the cellos in 11/8 with the first-section’s theme coming in underneath as a polytonal canon, finally fading away to nothing. Earlier this month, the students and Dr. Wexler recorded the piece under the Madstop record label, Crane’s not-for-profit label run in conjunction with the Music Business department. I except to hear the finished product very soon, and as soon as it’s released I’ll post it for the world to hear.
I bring all this up because I think it’s important to discuss the distinctions between writing for oneself, writing for others, and writing for others for money. Writing for oneself means anything goes. While writing my “100 Poems,” I don’t have to think about limitations of players, rehearsing with an ensemble, or deadlines. I assume that there performers exist who can play my music (no matter how difficult), that when the time is right, I can organize an ensemble for performance, and I can take as long as I want with each poem (provided that I finish all of them by year’s end). Writing for others injects a set of challenges into the process, although the results may ultimately be more rewarding. I was recently commission to write a piece for Stockade Kids’ trombonist, Aden Brooks’ senior recital at the Eastman School of Music. That piece, Nature Variations, found me looking to jazz idioms to construct sections of that work, when I don’t normally look to jazz for inspiration (though it’s a music I always enjoy). I was also reined in by limitations of the rehearsal schedule. I had a month to write the piece and Aden has had a little over three weeks to rehearse. Knowing this, I constructed the piece as a series of miniatures, any or all of which could be played in full or in part. This way, Aden could choose the material he felt like he could tackle in the short rehearsal period and leave out that which might be too difficult to tackle for this performance. Most importantly, I’m thinking about a person. Aden’s a fun guy. Aden’s also an actor—we performed in a few musicals and plays together back in high school (see: here and here—good times). There are sections of the piece which lend themselves to a theatrical performance: a recitation of a list of words, interpretations of graphic notation, and jumping back and forth between sections. That the work’s form in performance is decided entirely by the performer means that Aden will be able to use his experience as a performer, always on his toes, to shape the contour of the piece itself. Ultimately, if the piece doesn’t fit the person, the piece is a failure. Being paid to write, though I only have one experience with it, seems to be the most outwardly difficult of all. There’s a higher expectation about the piece’s quality and fitness with respect to the parameters of the commission. I was paid to write a piece for the ten student cellists of Crane. They’re each at different skill levels and I needed to accommodate that. I also need to interpret the request, “hip, funky, cool, urban,” in terms of my own style, which, when concert music is concerned, is not always funky and rarely urban. And if I don’t do that, I don’t get paid. I had to satisfy three parties: Dr. Wexler, the students, and myself. Navigating the space between us was demanding immensely satisfying, and I like Three Unspecified Locations a lot. I also like being able to pay my rent, so keep the commissions coming!
Of course, it’s not always about money; it rarely is. I’m not being subsidized to write 100 vocals works this year (although, I’m actively looking for grant money). Writing music satisfies a desire to make music, a desire whose origins I still don’t fully understand. That’s often payment enough. But if, in writing music for others, I can satisfy two souls at the same time, then that’s time and energy well spent.