Classical: For sale: the corporate concerto

Composers are turning to big business to fund new projects. But is the customer always right?

He who pays the piper may call the tune, but who pays the composer to write the piece in the first place? It might be a state-sponsored funding body, or an ensemble, or a performer (although few pay out of their own pockets for the music they premiere). There are festivals eager to be seen to be promoting new music and charitable foundations (although most prefer to sponsor a performance, rather than the imponderable act of composition). And there are the few individuals who are happy to spend cash on bringing new music into the world.

A host of options, then. But that isn't the same as lots of money - composers find it as hard as ever to get paid to write. And quite rightly, you might say; so much new music is so ordinary, the audience for it so small. Why pay, when hardly anyone wants to listen? Well, some do want to listen. The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, for example, through its Sound Investment scheme, has managed to persuade its audience members to underwrite the commissioning process to the tune of pounds 100 each. Thoroughly laudable, though few ensembles have that kind of customer loyalty.

Yet customer loyalty of another kind lies behind a new work by David Bedford, whose concerto for the oboist Nicholas Daniel has been commissioned by the John Lewis Partnership. The piece receives 10 performances in 11 days ("More than most new pieces ever get," says Bedford) in the company's customer concerts, a series instituted in 1951 when John Lewis himself paid the Boyd Neel Orchestra to perform at the Peter Jones department store in Sloane Square. "I've spent enough in Waitrose over the years," says Bedford. "This is simply getting some back."

"I've never had a problem receiving commissions in 35 years of composing," he adds, but recalls one corporate commission that nearly went awry. "These kind of commissions are fine if they let you get on with it, but in 1986, the Scottish Postal Board asked me to write a piece for students, Seascapes. Half-way through the writing, having discovered that it was the Year of the Lighthouse, the SPB threatened to withdraw if I didn't somehow include the notion of lighthouses. Fortunately, it all ended up quite friendly."

No such problems with the Oboe Concerto, although the form of the customer concerts has influenced Bedford's conception: "Five of the performances are for children, so the company suggested that there might be some audience participation. What I've done in the movement `Lament with Drone' is to have the strings play a drone, which can, if it feels right, be hummed by the audience after a few minutes' rehearsal."

Bedford points out one way in which such commissions have the advantage over Arts Board funding: "Money is difficult to find. The regional boards never have enough, so they give part-funding for new works. The composer, or their publisher, has to find the rest, which is always difficult, so the composer often ends up working for half price. John Lewis paid the full going rate, for which they get their name on the score, in the programme whenever the piece is performed, and on any recording. It's very enterprising, given the audience for contemporary music. They'd get their name brandished much further afield if they were commissioning someone like Karl Jenkins, but they've done this with a genuine regard for bringing a new work into existence."

Never knowingly undersold? For the moment, what the John Lewis Partnership has commissioned remains more or less in-house (though it will surely receive public performances). The Japanese car manufacturer Mazda, however, is involved in new work in a rather more public, not to say promotional way. Last year, it commissioned Michael Nyman's Double Concerto for cello (Julian Lloyd Webber), saxophone (John Harle) and orchestra. This year, at the Birmingham Motor Show, the company presents its latest musical venture: its new cars will be launched to the accompaniment of a live performance of John Harle's specially written Song of the Swift.

This is not simply an advertising jingle. Rather it is a free-standing piece which, the company presumably hopes, will for ever be associated with Mazda. Some will see this as Harle selling his soul, but that is not the composer's view. "Many of my clearest musical visions have been in building compact blocks such as Song of the Swift," he says. "It's machine music, with motor rhythms, describing speed, propulsion. I've often written music which is quite mechanistic, and I'm not bad at writing to brief, so talking to the people at Mazda was very much like talking to a film director who has a clear idea of what music they want for their film.

"When Nyman wrote his Double Concerto, there was disagreement over whether what he was writing embodied the Mazda philosophy of Kansei," which says, approximately, that conflict can be resolved through human endeavour. Nyman insisted that he was writing what he wanted to write, not a tract, still less an endorsement of Mazda's cars. The Double Concerto was a full- length concert piece. Perhaps chastened by the Nyman experience, Mazda has settled for Song of the Swift, which comes in at around five minutes.

"To a large extent, it's a pop composition," says Harle. "I was in songwriting frame of mind, as opposed to thinking in terms of a concert piece. I'm part of a generation of composers that is moving on from what I regard as the conservative avant garde in new music. Whether writing concert music, or music for film, or a piece like this, I quite naturally include elements of other music, rather like a Surrealist collage. That perhaps makes someone like me more attractive to a company like Mazda, than a composer who writes in a more inaccessible style."

Corporate commissions will always be rarities and perhaps, as Harle suggests, they will tend to go to composers who write "accessible" music. Nevertheless composers and their publishers will be hoping that, given the difficulty of tapping established sources of funding, there will be more money where that came from. Whether that results in corporate composing remains to be seen. Watch this space.

David Bedford's Oboe Concerto premieres at the John Lewis customer concerts, Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, on Monday. Mazda launches its new models at the Birmingham Motor Show, NEC, on 20 October

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