Strategize your catalog

From my composition teachers, I’ve heard two schools of thought regarding a composers’ catalog. You could try to have works for certain ensembles in your catalog, or you could build a catalog based on your commissions and interests. In other words, you can say “I don’t have a brass quintet, so I better write one,” or you can say “no rush, I’ll write one when someone asks.”

I think either approach is valid, and while I’ve gravitated toward the latter, I’ve certainly treaded the line in my career. 

Arguments for building a catalog based on standard ensembles

  • When someone asks, “hey, do you have a piano trio?” you can immediately say “yes, yes I do!”
  • You make sure you are well-rounded and experienced

– Arguments against

  • You might be writing some pieces “for the drawer” (i.e. it may take awhile to be played)
  • You might appear to have your eye on commercial potential rather than artistic merit
  • You still need to be open to non-standard groups when the opportunities knock

Arguments for building a catalog organically

  • This shows your interests and unique expertise–e.g. You could be known for your percussion music
  • You might have better luck with performances because you’re writing for people who want to play
  • You can follow your muse instead of feeling like you “have to” write a brass quintet

– Arguments against

  • You may be pigeon-holed in a particular genre
  • You might build a catalog of works that are hard for people to program (odd ensembles, etc.)
  • You may miss some opportunities if a group needs a piece quickly/immediately

What are some standard ensembles?

If you are looking to build a catalog strategically, you might consider creating a piece for each of the following. This is not an exhaustive list of ensembles; just suggestions.

  • Unaccompanied solos
    • These instruments are particularly eager to play new music: percussion, saxophone, trombone, viola, flute
  • Duos for the same instrument
  • Piano + percussion duo
  • Piano trio (violin, cello, piano)
  • String quartet (two violins, viola, cello)
  • Wind quintet (flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn)
  • Brass quintet (two trumpets, horn, trombone, tuba)
  • “Pierrot ensemble” (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, percussion)
  • Percussion duos, trios, quartets, and ensemble
  • Concert band
  • Orchestra with “double winds”
  • SATB choir
  • SSAA choir

Some others that come up with less regularity:

  • Horn trio (violin, horn, piano)
  • Bartók trio (violin, clarinet, piano)
  • “Quartet for the end of time” (clarinet, violin, cello, piano)
  • “L’histoire” ensemble (clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, violin, bass, percussion)

If you are interested in electronics:

  • Soloist + fixed media
  • Soloist + live electronics (e.g. Max)
  • Stereo fixed media

What’s the easiest to get programmed?

If you are submitting to festivals and conferences, know that whatever is easiest gets programmed. This isn’t necessarily the piece that is easiest to play. It’s the piece that is easiest logistically.

  • 2-channel fixed media
  • Solo pieces that you can play, or for which you can bring along the performer

How long should my pieces be?

Err on the side of brevity. A 7-minute piece sounds less daunting to learn than a 12-minute piece.

Keep ensemble pieces under 10 minutes. Keep solos under 5 minutes. The vast majority of calls for works ask for shorter pieces. 

What have you done, Adam?

While I’m primarily in the ‘organic catalog’ camp, I do think about the potential “legs” of a piece. I’m hesitant to write for an ensemble with an odd instrumentation unless we are friends and I know they will play it! Just to give a few examples of pieces that have worked well for me:

TitleinstrumentationTotal known performancesCalls, conferences, or organized by performersPerformances I organizedI performed
TidalPiano + fixed media191548
hammersToy piano141317
TèarmunnHorn + vibraphone14**1220
fluid dynamicsVideo/fixed media12848*
PetrichorClarinet + fixed media101000
C/K/PVideo/fixed media7435*
ripplesBass clarinet + marimba5**500

* I was present, but did not “perform” beyond hitting play

** Judging by sheet music sales, there are likely more performances of these pieces that I don’t know about. I Google myself and these titles on occasion and have found out about a few that way.

You’re welcome to check out my CV for more information. And I am always happy to chat about the composition biz. Drop me a line!

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