by Erik Franklin
One of our chief missions as a quartet is to create and perform new works for our ensemble. So far, we have been fortunate enough to work with several of our composer-colleagues and have premiered their works. Collaborating on this music has challenged us as players and taught us many things about performing as a group. Many of the pieces have proven that today's composers (and clarinet quartets, for that matter!) can create wonderful, serious music for audiences to enjoy.
As a new group, one of our biggest concerns was how to find a composer that we were willing to take a chance on, and even harder, finding a composer willing to take a chance on us! Often, as young professional musicians, we find ourselves "hustling" - seeking gigs and other opportunities to establish our credentials and to help pay the bills!! That can sometimes leave little time for "side projects", even if they are creative musical endeavors. One thing that I have learned is to never ignore these "side projects" in the pursuit of a "dream job". These creative pursuits make us who we are as creative people, and they teach us about music in ways that cannot be recreated. Also, that dream job may never come, or it may not be such a dream, after all...so denying yourself creative opportunities along the way certainly wouldn't be a good idea...
I digress... We have had a lot of success with procuring new compositions by simply asking composers if they are interested in working with us! Most have said yes. The worst response we have gotten is "not right now." I have found that there are as many composers out there willing to compose new music as there are groups willing to play it. Some we have paid with a commissioning fee, some we have compensated with a recording, multiple performances, etc. Still others, we have cut other deals. We started by asking friends and colleagues, but now we are making friends with new composers, which is a treat in itself!
A couple of our favorite pieces written for us have come from composers who have found us online! Perhaps my favorite story is how we got one of our first pieces - Let's Snap! by our friend JunYi Chow. JunYi went to IU and knew our member Sammy when she played in the New Music Ensemble. When we launched our Novacane Facebook page in 2014, JunYi reached out to Sammy and said he had a piece that might work well for us..."are you interested?"
Are we interested?! YES! JunYi sent us a fantastic three-minute piece that we have enjoyed playing many times. We even asked him to adjust the instrumentation to fit our group's affinity for the tenor clarinet. Let's Snap! is an audience favorite, and it's one that we will likely keep in our folder forever. We won our first competition - the Chicago Clarinet Ensemble Competition (2014) - with that piece, so it holds a special place in our hearts.
Though Let's Snap! was immediately a hit with us, many of our new pieces admittedly are not. Working with composers has taught me first and foremost to reserve judgement until after the first (or even second!) performance. Many times our dissatisfaction with a piece of new music is not the fault of the composer or of the composition, but of OUR inability as performers to create what the composer intended. When we work on new pieces as a quartet, we make sure to dedicate plenty of time to the endeavor, because often these pieces are complex and require a lot of time to get them just right. Frankly, some first readings sound terrible, but it is because the piece is unrecognizable. As we improve and the piece shapes up, our opinion of it changes...by the time we perform it for others, it is usually one of our new favorites!
I think that's the coolest part about good music - there is usually something there for the audience to grasp onto in the first listen, but the performers get to live with a piece for a very long time, shaping it before the audience hears it, and often refashioning it for future performances. It stays fresh for us as performers because we become intimate with a piece's working parts, and new details emerge each time it is played. It's like looking at a great big painting - a first glance is often pleasing, but looking at it extensively, tracing every brush stroke, analyzing every detail, every dot and line, variation of color, brings new meaning to the work and its creator.
One last thing I will say is pay for good music. Our quartet, as a new group, does not have an unlimited cash flow, but we consider investing in new music by good composers a priority. We can't only play free gigs, and composers similarly can't write for free. Plus, giving them some financial incentive will insure a timely delivery!
Below is a list of composers who have written for us. Click their name for a link to their websites. Many of them will be featured on our concert in January 2016 (details to come on our website), including the world premiere of Brandon Nelson's They Who Decide Fate for Novacane and orchestra.
Are you a composer interested in composing a piece for us? Know someone who is? Leave contact info in the comments below or contact us on our website.