How to commission a piece for double bass

This model is worth considering for future commissions in the double bass world and beyond.

With Andrés Martín · Tijuana, Mexico

Back when I was learning the double bass, new music for the bass was a pretty quiet landscape. Sure, there were a few composers pushing the envelope and writing interesting music for the bass. We also had champions of the instrument like Bert Turetzky constantly commissioning new music. Most of what we worked on as bass students, however, was the same recycled list of standard repertoire that bassists had been learning since the 1940s.

These days, we have an incredibly rich pool of composers writing for the double bass. Most of the music that I currently perform and teach has been written in the last couple of years by wonderful composers like Simón García, David Heyes, Teppo Hauta-aho and Bernard Salles. I’m constantly using arrangements from Inez Wyrick and John Kennedy in my student bass ensembles, and I’m exploring composers like Dave Anderson and Jan Alm in my professional-level bass quartets.

Though I’ve never commissioned a piece specifically for double bass, in my past life as an orchestra director I did participate in a few commissioning projects, and I found them to be highly satisfying all-around experiences.

How do composers earn a living?

I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Garrett Hope, who is a bassist and also the host of The Portfolio Composer.  Garrett explores the multiple income streams that composers have typically juggled, like teaching, commissions, performing, and royalties.  He also digs into how these models have changed over the years and how the decline in academia positions, the rise in digital technology, and the gig economy are affecting income options.

While technology has improved our lives in so many ways, it has eviscerated recording and publishing income for musicians. Models like Spotify and Apple Music have done little to move the needle for independent artists, and the slow but inevitable shift away from print media in music publishing doesn’t simplify things either.

Commissioning a piece remains a key income stream for composers.

For me, two questions emerge when thinking about commissioning a piece:

  1. How can composers make enough on a composition for it to be financially viable?
  2. How can performers afford to pay composers a fair amount for their time and creative effort?

Certainly, these are not new problems. If we look back at the letters of J.S. Bach, for example, we find an amusingly high percentage of them consumed with the nuts & bolts of finances. Finances have been a major concern for composers from that time period through the present day.

Commissions have been crucial for composers for hundreds of years, and technological developments like social media and crowdsourcing have opened up new possibilities for cross-commissioning projects.

Let’s take a look at three significant commissioning projects in the double bass world over the past couple of decades.

Several people play recurring roles in each of these stories, including Jeremy Kurtz-Harris (who inspired me to write this post), Jeff Bradetich, Barry Green, and Andrés Martín.

Story #1 – Pooling Resources: The Harbison Concerto Consortium Project (2000-2008)

In 2000, an idea was hatched to commission a double bass concerto from a major composer. San Diego Symphony principal bassist Jeremy Kurtz-Harris wrote a wonderful piece, originally published in the International Society of Bassists’ Bass World journal, documenting the commissioning process for what ultimately became the Harbison Concerto.

This Harbison commission was coordinated through the International Society of Bassists and featured the following 16 soloists and organizations:

  • Atlanta Symphony Orchestra: soloist, Ralph Jones
  • Boston Symphony Orchestra: soloist, Edwin Barker
  • Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra: soloist, Owen Lee
  • Florida Orchestra: soloist, Dee Moses
  • Greenville Symphony Orchestra: soloist, Timothy Pitts
  • Houston Symphony Orchestra: soloist, Timothy Pitts
  • Knoxville Symphony Orchestra: soloist, Steve Benne
  • Los Angeles Philharmonic: soloist, Dennis Trembly
  • Memphis Symphony Orchestra: soloist, Scott Best
  • Minnesota Orchestra: soloist, Fora Baltacigil
  • New Mexico Symphony Orchestra: soloist, Jean-Luc Matton
  • Philadelphia Orchestra: soloist, Harold Robinson
  • San Diego Symphony Orchestra: soloist, Jeremy Kurtz-Harris
  • Seattle Symphony Orchestra: soloist, Jordan Anderson
  • Toronto Symphony Orchestra: soloist, Joel Quarrington
  • University of Iowa School of Music: soloist, Volkan Orhan

In addition to the above performances, the Harbison Concerto was performed by Dennis Trembly, Volkan Orhon and Scott Best at the 2009 International Society of Bassists Convention at Penn State, with each performer taking on a movement of the work.

What we can learn from this project

Clearly, this model worked a decade ago. Though clearly a herculean effort in terms of parties involved, timing, and resources, the net benefit is a major work by a top-tier composer for the double bass.

What has changed in terms of tools, mechanisms, and best strategies for commissioning a piece between then and now?

Andrés Martín: A new composer rises to prominence

photo credit Jaime Lazzaro

About Andrés

Andrés Martín is one of the most fascinating and well-rounded double bass artists working today. I had the pleasure of being introduced to him by Golden Gate Bass Camp director Richard Duke back in 2015, and since then we’ve chatted on my podcast and worked together at several different music events.

In addition to being an active guest recitalist and teacher, Andrés is the principal bassist (and frequent guest conductor) for the Orchestra of Baja California. He also organizes the Latin American Double Bass Festival each fall in Tijuana as part of his Contrabajos de Baja California organization.

In recent years, Andrés has come to prominence as one of the most compelling and visionary composers for double bass works. We dug into his compositional process, the “composer’s mind,” and a number of other topics during a conversation for the podcast a few years ago.

Also, I recently played a beautiful piece of Andrés’ titled Site de Julio with my wife for the San Francisco Winter Bass Bash. It’s a great example of the lyricism evident in Andrés’ music:

Andrés’ Concerto No. 1 – a recognized masterwork

Andrés’ Concerto No. 1 for Double Bass has become a standard of the double bass repertoire in recent years, having been performed in more than 15 countries around the world and was recently chosen as the final round piece by both winners of the 2017 Bradetich Foundation International Double Bass Competition and International Society of Double Bassists International Double Bass Competition. Jeff Bradetich also performed Andrés’ piece Temperamental for his 60th Anniversary Recital at Carnegie Hall.

Here’s a video of Bradetich Competition 1st place winner Dominik Wagner playing Andrés’ Concerto No. 1 and speaking about his career plans for the future:

Story #2 – Anna’s Promise project with Barry Green and Andrés Martín (2016-17)

Barry Green brought Andrés on board for this three-part musical saga revolving around the story of a young bassist named Anna. The first musical journey is titled Anna’s Way and uses music from several composers, including Andrés. The second piece in the series, Anna’s Gift, was composed entirely by Andrés.

Anna’s Promise, the third part of the series, was also composed by Andrés and utilized a set of sponsors to help fund the commission.

Following the premiere with Barry and The United States Army Orchestra “Pershing’s Own” in Washington, DC, in August 2016, bassists from many countries worldwide premiered the piece between October 2016 and June 2017.

Here’s a short video covering Anna’s Promise, and you can learn much more about this project on Barry’s site.

Also, Barry Green, Jeff Bradetich, and I dug into the genesis of this project and how Andrés came on board in the following conversation.

Story #3 – The Dream Suite Consortium project (2017-2018)

Projects have been rolling in for Andrés in ever-increasing numbers over the last few years, with the world premieres of his Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra, played by Omar Firestone and the Baja California Orchestra in Tijuana, México, “Chimera” for Double Bass Quartet was also performed during the 2017 International Society of Bassists Convention.

With interest growing in having Andrés writing a new major work for the double bass, Jeremy Kurtz-Harris led the commissioning of the Dream Suite from Andrés along with the following individuals:

In return for participating in this project, these performers were granted the exclusive rights to perform this work for a period of time and are credited in the score of the Dream Suite.

Listen to Dream Suite

You can hear the entire Dream Suite performed masterfully by Szymon Marciniak. It’s laid out in five movements:

  1. Queda?ndose dormido (Falling asleep)
  2. Agua (Water)
  3. Morir (To die)
  4. Vuela (Fly)
  5. Escape

Order a copy of Dream Suite

You can contact Andrés to order a copy of Dream Suite:

You can also check out a PDF catalog (updated in 2018) of Andrés’ works here.

By the way, there’s also an orchestration available, and you can hear a few minutes of the orchestral version (featuring Andres) below:

Three reasons why this commissioning model worked

1 – Having a champion like Jeremy Kurtz-Harris

We all have good intentions. It’s the execution that stops most of us from turning those intentions into a reality. For this or any other commission consortium project, it someone like Jeremy to “rally the troops” and get the support of these 20 other co-commissioners.

This project is also a great example of the power that we can have at the grassroots level and how much change an individual can create. The world needs more people like Jeremy spearheading projects like this!

2 – The power of the crowdsourcing model

This model is, in many ways, crowdsourcing. Being able to source contributions from a wider audience has many benefits for a composer. There’s tremendous power in going directly to the source and bypassing any intermediaries. There’s also a deeper base for financial support. Finally, there’s the guarantee of multiple performances for a new work—a huge problem for composers.

It differs in part from a Kickstarter/GoFundMe crowdsourcing model in that there’s a champion in the field (Jeremy Kurtz-Harris in this case) spearheading a project using a pool of well-known performers that can guarantee performances. Also, there’s great social proof in having these aforementioned performers behind a project like this.

3 – The phenomenal compositional talent of Andrés

Perhaps it goes without saying, but none of this would have occurred if Andrés wasn’t an excellent composer. There is a demand for Andrés’ creative output because he’s creating a compelling product that people want.

Final Thoughts

This is likely to be the first of many commission consortiums like this from Andrés. It’s a great model for all parties involved, ensuring that performers get fantastic new works and that composers are compensated for their efforts. It goes around any doorkeepers and intermediaries and is a wonderful example of the power of crowdsourcing in art music.

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