Programming Cottier Chamber Project

February 9, 2015 in Andy Saunders, featured, guest blog by Andy Saunders

cottier chamberStarting with a blank piece of paper (or in my case, a pile of blank post-it notes) is one of the most exciting parts of programming a festival. What shall we do this year? Shall we have a theme? Are there particular composers that we want to feature? Or maybe an instrument? A period? A country? If so, what and why?

When The Cottier Chamber Project began in 2011, there were a few rules that I gave myself, to help guide the programme. Firstly, I was aware of how much interest and passion for chamber music there was amongst orchestral players. Many people had small groups that would do the odd concert here and there, but would love to spend more time rehearsing and performing. Secondly, I wanted to feature a whole load of different line-ups and genres of chamber music, rather than the usual diet of string quartets and voice/piano recitals (there is some cracking music out there for odd combinations…so why not perform it?!). Other than that, I suppose that it struck me that there was a lot of enthusiasm for chamber music that was untapped, and which deserved to be encouraged!

Those guidelines have changed a little, though not a huge amount, as the festival has developed, funding parameters have changed, and various relationships and partnerships have flourished, but the core aims of the festival are still the same.

So…programming the festival. Let’s approach this from two different angles – my point of view, and your point of view.

The Cottier Chamber Project isn’t a new music festival. It’s also not an old music festival though. It’s a very mixed programme, that has the aim of allowing the audiences and artists to explore, experiment, and make some new discoveries along the way. I tend to start off with a few lists – composers and pieces that I’d like to include, ensembles and artists, and maybe some general themes. I’ll begin conversations with lots of groups, sometimes asking for specific repertoire, sometimes asking whether there is anything that they would like to perform. There is then lots of to-ing and fro-ing, until the programme takes shape. I’ll spend a lot of time cottier 2listening to things on-line and researching various links between composers and pieces. I’d like to go to more concerts to hear new groups and composers, but I’m often working when they’re on, so that’s a little trickier. I’ll make sure that the whole programme has a wide variety of repertoire, period and instrumentation, and I’ll try to find strong ways to include and link trad, world and jazz music to the chamber music programme. Last year, we expanded to include a dance thread (The Cottier Dance Project – you can probably see what we did there…!), which is curated by Freya Jeffs. We’ll have a look at possible collaborative pieces, see who we think would work really well together, and then start off those conversations as well. We’ll put together an outline draft of our dream programme in March/April (so 14/15 months before the festival), which will then constantly be tweaked until the print deadline (next week – aaaargh!). When all’s said and done, it’s surprisingly close to the original plan.

We’ll put in a few big funding applications early on. If they’re successful, then it means that we’re in a good place and can start moving on things. If not, or the money is less than we need, we’ll need to put a few things onto the backburner. In terms of commissions, it’s been a slow process to build it up to the point that we’re at this year, particularly as our funding has been so tight, and we’ve been partnering with another organisation. For this year, we’ll have 4 purely musical commissions. One from a well established international composer, one from an established Scottish composer (Scottish meaning ‘lives and works in Scotland’), one from an emerging Scottish composer and one from our composition competition (the only restriction here is that composers must live in Scotland – any age, background, experience is fine). We’ll also have one commission from a trad composer working with a group of dancers, and then we’ve got 3 new dance commissions (again from variety of established/emerging, Scottish/overseas choreographers) and one commission from a puppeteer.

cottier danceOf course, funding is a major issue when it comes to commissioning. If I can’t make a strong enough case to a funding body or supporter to commission someone, then that’s the end of it, which is one of the reasons that I try to put together a balanced selection of commissions.

Our audience is also very mixed. We get a lot of people who are either industry professionals themselves (performers, creators, administrators, etc) or regular audience members at the national companies and main venues. We also get a lot of people who live locally and want to try something unusual, and increasingly we’re getting cultural tourists from overseas. We’re beginning to develop a reputation for programming some unusual and surprising pieces which always turn out to be good, so hopefully that means that audience are beginning to trust that whatever is on the programme will be worth hearing. Obviously, it’s important to get an audience to turn up (the more the merrier!), but I’m also happy to programme things that I know fit into a definite niche. They may not be as attractive to a large audience, but they’re important to some people, and are therefore important within the context of the whole festival’s programme.

Now, if you’re a composer, then you’d probably quite like to be on the list of people that I ask. I can imagine that it’s pretty frustrating – you can write pieces, and then persuade groups to play them, but that only pays the bills if someone pays you to write them in the first place (or you get lucky and the BBC use it as a sound track to something lucrative!). You’ve probably got good connections with some really good performers, who would be quite happy to programme your music, but haven’t got the funding to pay for it. Long term funding for composers is a different issue than the one in this piece of waffle – one that is constantly at the forefront of discussions within NMS. In no particular order, a few things to keep in mind might be:

  • If you would like a promoter to consider commissioning you, invite them along to a performance of your music that you know will be good! Sending an email without any opportunity to hear your work isn’t going to work. That goes for performers too!
  • If there are groups that you know already play regularly in a festival or venue, collaborate with them on a pitch for a commission – having someone to play the piece that you want to write will be useful.
  • Bear in mind the context and style of the festival – will your proposed piece fit well with the overall vibe and scheduling of the festival? Will it need loads of complicated electronics, lighting and staging that will make the producer’s life a misery and blow the budget? What else will be in the programme for that concert?
  • Artistic Directors regard their whole programme as a piece of art in itself, so if they say ‘no’, it’s probably not a reflection of whether you are any good or not. It’s just that it’s the wrong fit for this particular festival programme. There are many more composers and pieces than slots in the schedule, so the majority of composers are going to be disappointed.
  • I’ve got long term plan for the festival, and I’d imagine that most other festivals do as well. That means that I’m planning to be commissioning people for a fair few years to come, so I might well get to you at some point. I’m assuming that composers would still like to be being commissioned 10 or 20 years down the line…I realise that this isn’t much help immediately, but it’s the reality of things.
  • Funding doesn’t guide the programming, but it’s an essential component in making it happen. If you’ve already got a commitment (or at least strong interest) of some part funding already, then that is attractive to a festival. Co-commissioning or co-producing something is perfectly possible, and probably increasingly a good idea.
  • If you see a call for scores that has specific parameters, it’s probably not worth trying to persuade a festival that your piece really does fit, even though it’s for different instruments, the wrong length, about a different subject, and you don’t live in the specified region! Sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised…

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As with composers, there’s a huge amount of work that goes on to make a festival happen that the organisers aren’t paid for. Obviously that’s not an ideal scenario, but it means that there is a huge amount of artistic integrity in the programmes. It’s certainly the case for me, and I’d imagine that it’s the same with other festivals, that every piece and performer is there for a reason, and it all fits into a plan and a story. I’d love to commission everyone every year, even people whose music I don’t particularly like, but is obviously well crafted and has something original to say (I’m not the greatest fan of Tchaikovsky, but I can concede that he was a good composer!). Sadly, the reality of it is that I can’t.

The programme for the 2015 edition of The Cottier Chamber Project will launch in the first week of March. There’s a fair amount of new music in there, some of which is hopefully a pleasant surprise, so I hope that you’ll grab a copy of the brochure or look up the website (www.cottierchamberproject.com) and mark up your diary for June! If you’re planning to enter the composition competition that we’re running in collaboration with the RSNO, good luck!