Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Personalizing a Commission

Most of my commissions are from ensembles and organizations, but every now and then, I am commissioned by an individual to compose a piece for someone in their lives. These commissions are often gifts to a parent, partner, or child; sometimes a commission is in tribute to someone who has passed away. All of the commissioners are looking for something meaningful that will relate to their loved one. As I start each new project, I ask myself: what’s the best way I can personalize this commission for its recipient?

I find the best approach is to learn as much as I can about the person. If the piece is a surprise gift, then I have conversations with the commissioner. What issues are important to the recipient? What are his/her passions? Are there any particular events that have been important in his/her life? Some commissioners prefer meeting in person or talking by phone; others write their thoughts via email. If the recipient knows about the commission, then I greatly prefer to have a conversation with the person.

There are a few pieces that I’d like to share that highlight aspects of this process:

In Eleanor’s Words and String Quartet No. 3: Gaia
With Nadine and Tom Hamilton and the Biava Quartet
One morning in 2006, longtime Washington D.C. residents Tom and Nadine Hamilton were reading through the New York Times when they found an article about how anyone can commission a piece of music. Tom’s mother Marget was about to celebrate her 90th birthday; upon reading the article, they decided to commission a piece for Marget in honor of this momentous occasion. One thing led to another, and Tom and Nadine eventually got connected to me (it worked out quite well – Tom attended Roosevelt University, where I’m on faculty). Tom, Nadine, and I decided on Eleanor Roosevelt as the focus of the composition because of Marget’s lifelong commitment to social issues. The resulting piece, In Eleanor’s Words for mezzo-soprano and piano, featured six movements, each with text chosen from Mrs. Roosevelt’s My Day newspaper column that ran from 1935-1962. Mezzo-soprano Buffy Baggott and pianist Amy Briggs premiered the piece at Roosevelt University in a private event for the Hamilton family and guests around the time of Marget’s 91st birthday.

In 2007, Tom contacted me again; this time, he wanted a piece for Nadine.  He also intended for the piece be a complete surprise.  I asked Tom to write up a description of Nadine. What I took away from Tom’s essay was a strong-willed, loving wife with a great sense of humor and who embraced life to its fullest, particularly in light of the fact that she was a cancer survivor. I chose Gaia as the topic, as Mother Earth represents these qualities to me. To link Nadine in a more direct manner to the music, I took the “a” and “d” from Nadine’s name and made this into a rising perfect 4th motive that spans the entire quartet. While the Hamiltons weren’t able to make the Biava Quartet’s premiere of String Quartet No. 3: Gaia in Moscow, Idaho in January 2009, they flew out to Chicago for its second performance at the Norton Building Concert Series in Lockport, Illinois later that year.

String Quartet No. 4: Illuminations
With Susan and Nicholas Yasillo and the Cecilia Quartet
Nicholas Yasillo, who runs the Norton Building Concert Series, featured the Biava Quartet in that performance of String Quartet No. 3. Nick liked the idea of a personal commission so much that he commissioned me to compose a piece to celebrate an anniversary with his wife Susan. Nick informed Susan about the commission early in the process, so I asked if they’d both meet me for lunch.  Susan filled me in about her various interests and activities, but when she began describing her fondness for Books of Hours (Medieval prayer books commissioned by wealthy laypeople that contained “illuminated” plates of biblical scenes), her face completely lit up.  By the end of lunch, it was clear to me that the piece needed to be about Books of Hours.  I purchased a $30 replica of Catherine of Cleves’ Book of Hours, which was one of the books Susan has studied, and found five “illuminated” plates that intrigued me. I composed the piece using Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition as a model: there is a “book” motif that the audience hears when the quartet starts the piece and is interspersed among musical representations of the five plates. The Cecilia String Quartet premiered String Quartet No. 4: Illuminations for Susan and Nick at the Norton Building Concert Series in September 2011.

With Barbara Garrop and the Lincoln Trio
The most recent was a commission from my mother, Barbara Garrop. She attended a performance of String Quartet No. 4: Illuminations given by the Avalon Quartet, and loved the idea of a personal commission. She commissioned me to write a piano trio in memory of my father, who passed away a little over thirty years ago. This project proved to be the most challenging.  How do you write a piece to depict someone who has been gone for so long? I can’t ask him about his passions and interests; my own memories of my father are scattered and dim with age. So I gathered together old pictures, letters, and objects that had belonged to him, as well as talked at great length with my mother. I also tried searching the web for additional clues about his life, but as he died right on the cusp of our current computer age, there was very little material online to mark his existence. Ultimately, the piece became about the search itself; the first movement (Without) presents a young child searching everywhere for her lost parent, whom she finds in the second movement (Within) within the sanctuary of her own heart. The Lincoln Trio premiered Sanctuary in November 2013 with lots of family in attendance, including my mother and sister.

As these personal commissions have significant meaning for the commissioners, I carry the commissioners’ involvement further than just the commission itself. I ask all to write the dedication line for the first page of the score. Some of these commissioners get artistic with this: Nick Yasillo quoted a line from a poem of Robert Browning, whereas my mother chose a line from a Shakespeare sonnet. I also occasionally ask the commissioners if they can help with the crafting of the piece’s program note. Susan Yasillo wrote a significant portion of String Quartet No. 4’s program note, with wonderful descriptions of the five illuminated plates as well as the historical background of Books of Hours. Tom Hamilton, who recently commissioned me to write a voice and piano piece when Nadine passed away, wrote a beautiful tribute to his wife that we used as program notes for the premiere performances (to read his tribute, click here to go to my website, then open the header called Dirge without Music). 

Personalizing a commission is a very rewarding experience, not only for the commissioners, but for myself as well. I love being able to give something unique to the recipients of commissions, and hopefully the piece will be something that they’ll want to hear again and again. In the case of Sanctuary, the piece had an unexpected benefit of helping me to gain some closure on the loss of my father, something I hadn’t realized I needed until I started composing the piece.