I could wax poetic about why composers should set texts by living authors. Some big reasons include texts that stand out amid the sea of well-worn Public Domain poems, topics and style relevant to today’s audiences, more diverse voices and viewpoints, the ability to interact with the author, the possibility of tailor-made texts, and supporting another art form as a living tradition. I’d happily go on in detail about each of these, but I’d rather focus on actionable information you can use to start (or improve) your journey setting contemporary texts. So I will skip the justifications and assume you like working with words and are at least cautiously interested in setting text by a breathing human being.
While it is possible to find interviews where composers talk about specific projects working with authors, there is fairly limited information out there about the nuts and bolts of how to actually start doing it. Dale Trumbore has written about why and how to collaborate with writers in No More Zombie Poets, Part 1: Choosing Better Public Domain Texts and Part 2: Finding Writers Who Aren’t Dead. Aside from that, Stephen Paulus’s Before You Set Those Words to Music includes a clear introduction to copyright, Public Domain, and text-setting permissions. ASCAP and BMI each have some posts about such permissions as well.
My articles will draw on those sources along with my own experiences to explore the process of working with living authors. By authors, I mean writers, poets, librettists, playwrights, or any other creators of words. I’ll cover critical logistics such as finding collaborators, assessing compatibility, creating a text-setting agreement, and navigating the remainder of the process. My purpose is to provide a primer for composers who haven’t yet worked with living authors and to offer another veteran’s perspective to those experienced in collaborating with writers.
A common question about working with authors is where to find them. If you want to set contemporary text but don’t have a specific author or work in mind, the prospect of finding someone whose writings you like, with whom you are compatible enough to have a good working relationship, and who is also interested in collaborating with you can appear daunting.
In reality, finding contemporary writers is very much possible. It can take time, though, so this is not something best done when you have a project with an impending deadline. Rather, think of finding authors as a lifestyle and incorporate some or all of the suggestions below into your normal activities. Eventually, you’ll discover authors whose work interests you and start building relationships with them.
You could find contemporary texts and authors by browsing manuscripts at your local bookstore and perusing literary journals or similar periodicals. If you don’t want to leave the comfort of your couch, the American Academy of Poets’ website is a great resource. It allows you to search for poems, poets, keywords, poetry activities in your area, and more. They also offer a poem-a-day email subscription and frequently share poetry on social media.
Facebook, Twitter, and other social platforms are wonderful for connecting with potential collaborators. You may already have writers in your immediate network. Or, you could ask friends or colleagues for suggestions of writers to check out. Finding the social media account of an author you respect and seeing who they follow or whose work they share could also introduce you to new possibilities.
Additionally, some platforms include groups where you could find possible collaborators. I’ve found the following Facebook groups very helpful:
Searching for keywords like writer, author, poet, playwright, or librettist bring up many other groups that you might want to check out.
Discovering writers in person limits you to those in or at least coming through your area, but it also allows for more personal contact. Your local bookstores or libraries may have upcoming readings by local authors or those touring a book. Area colleges may have Creative Writing programs that sponsor events, or you may be able to contact faculty to seek possible collaborators.
A Google search for events near you may also be fruitful. When I searched “Connecticut poet,” I found there is a Connecticut Poetry Society. Their website had information on readings and other events, links to local poetry groups and independent bookstores, an annual publication they sponsor, and more. There is a network called the National Federation of State Poetry Societies, which lists other state societies. Yours may have one, too, and there may be a city or regional group nearby where you can meet authors. If you travel, you can also look for events in your destination.
Some organizations specifically focus on connecting composers and writers. A few examples include:
• Art Song Lab
• American Opera Projects’ Composers & the Voice
• Nautilus Composer-Librettist Studio
• Tapestry Opera’s Composer-Librettist Laboratory
• Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative
The programs listed here are primarily educational. Some are tuition-based, while others may be free or include financial support. Some are highly competitive, others less so. All provide the opportunity to meet and work with authors from a variety of locations on new projects.
Artist residences are another place you might meet writers if you can participate in one or attend their open studio days or similar events. As with the educational programs above, you are more likely to meet authors outside your local area at an artist residency.
It may seem obvious, but once you’ve found someone you think you might want to work with, the next step is getting to know them. Get very familiar with their work and try to connect with them either online or in person. Start thinking about whether you might want to collaborate with them and in what capacity.
If you don’t have a pressing need to collaborate with them on an upcoming project, this process can happen naturally through building a friendship. Then you can bring up the possibility of collaborating once you have a project that feels right.
If you already have a specific project in mind—for example, you think something they wrote would be perfect for an upcoming piece—then skip ahead to proposing… a collaboration, that is. Express your interest in setting their text and describe the potential project to see if they might want to work together. If that writer is not familiar with your music, provide a small number of samples similar to the proposed collaboration.
Informed Consent and “The Talk”
Regardless of whether you find a willing partner through an extended courtship or a direct proposal, the next step is to have “The Talk.” This is the phase in which you’ll discuss artistic goals, working process, and the logistics of your partnership including permissions for using the text, your financial arrangements, and any other necessary details. It’s akin to taking a big step forward in a romantic relationship, hence the capital letters.
And as with personal relationships, informed consent is the foundation for a successful artistic collaboration. Both parties must understand how the collaboration is going to work and agree in writing before starting the project.
Arriving at informed consent depends on self-awareness and clear communication. Each person should know their preferences in working with others, their creative process, and their artistic goals or intentions. They must also be able to articulate those elements to their partner, understand how their needs relate to those of their partner and the project, and negotiate any conflicts.
Some of that may happen informally as you and your partner are getting to know one another. Other items will need a focused discussion, either oral or written. Discussions in person, on the phone, or via video conferencing have the benefit of real-time responses and a clearer perception of tone. Both of which reduce the chance of miscommunication. However, this may be uncomfortable for some people.
Typed discussions have the advantage of ensuring that everything is written down and easily referenced. Email and other asynchronous methods may also be easier for scheduling. But the participants should be especially conscious both of their own wording and how they are reading the other person’s responses since typed communication can come off colder and harsher than intended. I typically use oral discussions for big issues and email to finalize details or give straightforward updates.
Regardless of how you do it, having The Talk is essential in setting the collaboration up for success. It will be the foundation for your written contract and a roadmap for navigating your partnership. These discussions also help you to get further acquainted and make sure that you really want to work together before you commit.
The next two articles in the series will go more into the interpersonal and legal issues that should be covered in The Talk.