Anatomy of a Commission: Performers as Commissioners

Designed for both music creators and their collaborators, “Anatomy of a Commission” is a digital resource that aims to increase transparency about the commissioning process. For more information about the initiative, visit American Composers Forum’s website.

The process of commissioning has been a central aspect of JACK Quartet’s music-making since its inception in 2005. Inspired by early interactions with composer Helmut Lachenmann, the original foursome jumped headfirst into plumbing the depths of new styles, hoping to be part of a musical expression yet unheard and dreaming of a touring career filled with the most challenging contemporary music.

From the very beginning, JACK has been committed to commissioning and premiering new works for string quartet, particularly compositions that expand our musical abilities through new challenges. We love exploring fresh musical terrain with a composer and experimenting with different styles, sounds, and perspectives to help shape what they write. As performers who value collaboration, we benefit significantly from building close relationships with composers, who can tailor their writing to each of us.

Commissioning has helped JACK build a broader repertoire of string quartets, an international community that embraces experimental chamber music, and a practice of listening that expands the way we think. And while the founders of JACK knew that commissioning would be at the heart of its operations, it’s taken us nearly 20 years to establish active ownership of our commissions, curating how and with whom we create new work.

The desire to chase artistic impulses with our composer colleagues has since shaped our way of operating, and we have intentionally built our entire organizational structure around commissioning.

JACK began by pursuing opportunities in university composition departments to perform student works at departmental concerts, and curators of new music festivals in the U.S. and Europe contracted JACK to premiere works by their commissioned composers. Early on, it was as simple as that for JACK: the group was asked to perform works initiated by composers and curators, and we accepted fees for the concert engagement. This can be a very fruitful way of working, but it is no longer typical for us.

Initially, the quartet operated as a traditional business partnership, the way many touring chamber ensembles organize their finances. But after participating in a workshop with Kronos Quartet, JACK learned about Kronos’ nonprofit structure and realized this was the ideal avenue to fund commissions with the composers themselves, without waiting for outside organizations to create opportunities.

The desire to chase artistic impulses with our composer colleagues has since shaped our way of operating, and we have intentionally built our entire organizational structure around commissioning. Becoming a nonprofit organization enabled us to prioritize a commissioning model that is truly collaborative and allows for the required time and space to create new works. Funded by a combination of grants, our annual operating budget gives us the freedom to rehearse and create more projects, while simultaneously being able to say “no” to a few more externally-motivated concert engagements, which necessitated learning repertoire at the request of concert promoters.

JACK Quartet with JACK Studio composer Seare Farhat -- Photo by Cherylynn Tsushima

JACK Quartet with JACK Studio composer Seare Farhat — Photo by Cherylynn Tsushima

An early project we conceived on our own stemmed from the relationship with our dear friend Cenk Ergün. Cenk and the original members of JACK have known each other since their student days at the Eastman School of Music. Having kept in touch over the years, Cenk and JACK reunited in New York City and decided to apply for a Chamber Music America grant. This funded the commission and a portion of JACK’s fee for a performance, and JACK programmed the work on a concert at the 92nd Street Y.

Leading up to the premiere, JACK and Cenk met for numerous workshops where we recorded sketches and discussed the notation of the non-traditional harmonic and rhythmic language of the score at length. Describing this process would be an essay unto itself, but this aspect of collaboration is at the heart of the artistic work of our ensemble. Following the premiere, we partnered with the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC) where JACK recorded the work for New Focus Recordings. This is a familiar blueprint for many musicians: relationships started during student years, close collaboration on shared musical interests, a premiere made possible by a concert booked by the ensemble, and a recording funded by new-music-focused organizations to document the project.

Cellist Jay Campbell and I joined the quartet in 2016, which was when JACK started aggressively applying for commissioning, organizational, and project grants to fund more rehearsal and workshopping time. This new approach to our nonprofit led to a big change in the way we prioritize our commissioning energies.

JACK Quartet --Photo by Shervin Lainez

JACK Quartet –Photo by Shervin Lainez

In 2018, when JACK got the news that we had received the Avery Fisher Career Grant, we decided to use the funding to seed our own in-house program, which got its name, JACK Studio, from our friend and mentor Claire Chase. The original version of JACK Studio was an application-based opportunity, in which six composers were commissioned to write works of any length or style. Many composers were also selected for “readings” in an attempt to provide access to new composers we don’t reach through university programs that pay us to visit.

The first cohort of JACK Studio had a somewhat unusual arc due to the pandemic, but still demonstrated what we hope all of our efforts lead to: a micro-community of music making and friendship. We met over Zoom, the composers hung out without us on Discord, we created new work (some online and eventually, in-person), and we learned a lot.

JACK Studio reflects the way we aim to approach our work with student composers at the academic institutions where we are engaged. As ensemble-in-residence at Mannes School of Music at The New School, JACK has worked to provide consistent contact with student composers that leads to a collaborative model. We provide open sessions for all composers in the fall where we review scores and discuss notation, then we provide readings of sketches in a second meeting. In the spring, the composers have the opportunity to submit complete works for rehearsals and performance. This is similar to the model we’ve developed in our decade working at the University of Iowa, which has led to an ever-strengthening culture of string writing.

We hope that JACK Studio can create the opportunity for long-term relationships with younger composers, even as we enter our mid-career and don’t have the benefit of sharing our school days with this next generation of artists. One example is JACK Studio composer Elliot Reed. Through intense collaborative rehearsals, Elliot built a novel language of hand gestures that represents shared musical gestures and imagery, which led to an outdoor performance in Central Park where the roving audience member unwittingly cued our musical performance. His creation challenged not only our musicianship, but also our organization as we self-presented this work in a public park.

Our relationship with Elliot has continued: we have since partnered with MoMA PS1 to create a video work during his residency there. And through our relationship with the Lucerne Festival, we commissioned a new version of his public art statement with students and JACK working in a tight-knit ensemble. What began as an in-house commission that we self-presented has blossomed into larger organizations recognizing our work together and supporting further collaboration.

As time has gone on, our close relationships have continued to grow and change with us. We were able to fund a second commission by Cenk Ergün through a New York State grant and a premiere at the TIME:SPANS festival. By this point, our collaborative relationship was quite intense; we exchanged hundreds of emails about points of artistic inspiration, debates about notation, and plans to have experiences together. Due to our ability to house projects and create space for them with our nonprofit structure, we were able to present a 40-minute version of the work from memory at the premiere this summer, something that would have been unthinkable given the volume of music we were learning a few years before.

JACK Quartet and composer Natacha Diels -- Photo by Annie Horner

JACK Quartet and composer Natacha Diels — Photo by Annie Horner

One final example of how a project has shaped the way we organize our business is our long-term collaboration with Natacha Diels. Natacha wrote Nightmare for JACK (a ballet) for a Columbia University residency in 2013. I remember seeing a video of this piece when I still lived in Chicago, and it blew my mind! The use of parametrically controlled playing, combined with notated choreography, led to a sense that the quartet was a strange set of dream puppets. Fast-forward to a shared educational residency in Banff in 2019, JACK and Natacha agreed to embark on a major, multi-work project. We have created five episodes of this “Internet TV Show” together and will give the premiere of the live version, now titled Beautiful Trouble, at Penn Live Arts in February 2024.

This project is so multifaceted and complex, and it would be impossible to think about doing without organizational support. We have received commissioning funds from three different external partners: TIME:SPANS provided major commissioning funds for video creation, Natacha has provided funding from her university position at UPenn, and Mannes has provided rehearsal space and tech resources on several occasions. Many of JACK’s recent organizational and project grant applications have also been geared toward providing resources for this project, and future grants are aimed toward funding the touring of this work, which includes live electronics, video, lighting, costuming, and lots of extra props and audio gear.

JACK’s ability to pursue this ambitious artistic project with Natacha and run our Studio program would not be possible without the support of our nonprofit organization, which now includes our full-time executive director Julia Bumke and other vital part-time contractors, including our grant writer Tracy Mendez. It was possible to do this work ourselves while we were still growing, but burnout was inevitable as our own projects took off amid our touring schedule, which is often separate from our in-house commissioning. Having organization-minded managers moving these projects forward has been crucial, even on simple levels, like managing our calendar to ensure proper workshop time is set aside from our performance schedule.

As we look to the future, our JACK Studio program continues to grow into its next phase. Once again inspired by the scope of commissioning projects created by Kronos Quartet and Claire Chase, we are folding in commissions by more established composers. Our hope is that this leads to less of a distinction between “early career” opportunities and “established” voices, creating a multi-generational program when JACK Studio is on the bill. Creating new pieces of music in community is a complex process, and every project is unique. Being flexible and growing with the demands of each project has been key for JACK’s development as an organization — and as artists.

Anatomy of a Commission is supported, in part, by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional support is provided by Augusta Gross and Leslie Samuels, and Rob Mason.


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