Red Tape: The Difficulties Orchestra Composers Have Obtaining Recordings of their Works

Red Tape: The Difficulties Orchestra Composers Have Obtaining Recordings of their Works

[NOTE: This letter was sent to all my colleagues on the Orchestra Committee of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in an effort to illuminate a composer’s perspective about the necessity for making archival recordings of world premiere performances of the works we commission. I also spoke to the committee and the management in person. It is not my place, to in any manner, interfere with the negotiations between the musicians and the management. I do not take either side. My job as Composer-in Residence is TOTALLY rewarding and inspiring. I care deeply about the CSO and therefore feel strongly that we need quickly to resolve this issue.]

Friday, May 2, 2003

Dear Colleagues,

Thank you for the privilege to speak with you today about the issue of making archival recordings of the compositions that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra commissions and premieres.

As you requested, this letter is sent to recapitulate my thoughts and to illustrate my suggestion.

We all understand that this issue falls under the umbrella of the far larger issue to do with the radio broadcast rights. As a musician who composes, I would like to address
specifically what it means if we do not record for archival purposes our new music.

Our opportunity involves great artist musicians (composers, performing musicians, conductors and soloists) with hundreds of years of collective experience, such that the quality level is exceptional and therefore to be treasured, supported and nurtured.

Composers, as you know, can spend eight, ten, twelve, to fifteen months composing a big work. Large works are not made on a conveyer belt; composers get extremely close to their music. They spend additional time overseeing the engraving, proofreading and editing phases of the project to insure elegant and articulate materials.

Furthermore, composers spend about a week here at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for no fee (hotel and travel are covered) in order to attend rehearsals, give lectures, and do other activities that get arranged by our staff. (If a composer were at a university or at a festival for the same week, for instance, they would receive an honorarium of about $5,000.) Composers are generously giving of themselves, their time and their expertise above and beyond writing the piece.

If we commission a work, and prepare it for performance, and then do not record it composers are badly hurt. When composers are hurt, so, in turn, is the profession and, in turn the art form suffers.

Composers need recordings of their music for several reasons.

Foremost is to be able to reflect carefully upon the sound of the work in a quiet setting, away from all the nervousness and distraction of the public concert events. Such reflection leads to a deeper understanding of the workís strengths and weaknesses and allows the composers to grow and improve their musicianship.

Prizes, including the Pulitzer Prize, the Siemens Award, the Grawemeyer Award, just to mention a few, all require recordings. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra will not win one of these awards if archival recordings are not made.

It is very difficult for a composer to win future commissions without recordings of previously made work. Awards for general excellence in composition (such as an award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters or from the MacArthur Foundation) all require recordings. Second performances are hard to organize and become almost impossible to arrange without the reference of an archival recording.

The general respect that a composer is afforded in the profession is not helped if the composer has no recordings of their orchestral music. For instance, getting hired for a teaching job requires recordings. If a composer spends one year writing a large orchestral piece, and then comes up for tenure, without a recording, tenure becomes more precarious.

In short, a composer is not able to benefit fully from their effort and skill, nor benefit from the excellence of that massive collective musical experience I already mentioned, when archival tapes are not made.

This situation will, in turn, lead composers to only compose for orchestras that give archival recordings. Colleague orchestras such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the San Francisco Symphony, among others, all give composers archival recordings of every performance of a world premiere.

Donors may not want to commission anymore if they know that the sound will evaporate into thin air after the premiere. Donors are in the business of helping to advance the art form and would expect composers to be able to hold a document of the sound of their composition. It will be hard to tell the Schmidt Fund, the Prince Prize, and The Royal Philharmonic Society—who commissioned the Rands, Wagner, Carter works which we are about to premiere—that there will be no archival recording.

Music is sound – it is not a concert program or a score or a part. This seems a simple thing to say, but in the end it is perhaps the most important sentence in this letter.

I would hate it that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which is a leader in the world in so many ways (one of those ways is its dedication to the music of our time, and to a diversity of musical styles being composed today) to take the stance that it will not allow composers to hold a document of the sound of their music on a private recording.

Music is about nuance. We need to document the sound of it.

Music is collaboration.

I can assure you that composers of the international stature, such as Bernard Rands, Melinda Wagner, and Elliott Carter, would never, by inappropriate or misuse of archival recordings, betray the trust you afford them. They, like you, are consummate professionals of the highest integrity.


Therefore, my suggestion is to remove this issue from the larger issue of broadcast rights. To allow composers recordings of each performance of their world premiere. To insist that composers sign a detailed contract stating the limitations on the usage of the recordings, which clearly outlines the consequences if it is misused.

I attach here, for your reference, a contract, which I recently signed when the Los Angeles Philharmonic premiered my new work, CANTICLE WEAVING in March. I signed a similar document in January when the Philadelphia Orchestra premiered my new work, CHANTING TO PARADISE.

With all my respect, and admiration, and as a fellow musician, I want to ask that you consider these points in your deliberations.

It has been, and remains, a privilege to serve as your advisor on matters to do with new music.

Respectfully submitted,


Augusta Read Thomas
Mead Composer-in-Residence, Chicago Symphony Orchestra

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