Why commission a new piece of music?

UU Composer Elizabeth Alexander’s response to a question from our Director of Music L.H. Brown, “Although I love the idea of having a piece written for our musicians, I have to ask why should we spend money on commissioning a new piece of music when our funds are already stretched so thin.”

Your church’s “benefits” question is an interesting one.  Here are some of my thoughts, starting with that first, basic question an organization might ask itself when commissioning a new work: “What’s in it for me?”

As far as this question goes, two of the most immediate benefits are indeed “bragging rights” and a “specially tailored piece.”  But I don’t think it stops there.  When a minister crafts a sermon especially for a Sunday worship service, it creates an environment of creative engagement within the congregation.  Assuming the congregation has a culture of healthy dialogue, an original sermon invites public conversation and transformation.  This doesn’t happen with a sermon that was downloaded from the internet and read from the pulpit – and believe it or not, I’ve heard that some churches are doing that now, in order to save the minister from having to refine his/her questions, ideas and challenges into an original sermon!

Similarly, commissioning an original piece of music invites creativity and growth into any music program.  As you know, high quality programs won’t happen if you just throw some sheet music and a conductor waving a stick into a choir room.  Leaders and participants in vital music programs are always asking questions, both spoken and unspoken: “What shall we sing about?” and “Why are we creating music?”  In the context of a church, the question is even broader:  “What puts the MINISTRY in our music ministry?”

At its best (and I always strive for the best!), the process of commissioning a piece of music leaves a musical organization more relevant and vibrant.  It invites greater commitment and engagement from the musicians, as they bring a new message to their community and the world.  In the case of your particular commission, this new piece will reflect the ongoing mission of your church as made manifest in your new building.  Because of the emphasis on wide participation from so many people in your church, those members who don’t participate in the music program may find themselves more likely to support the music program – or even to join the choir themselves.  Lastly, I believe that the text itself witnesses to the sacred commitment at the center of Unitarian Universalism, making it a terrific piece to represent UUs at interreligious and interdenominational events.

And…speaking of denominations…for me, that’s the real best reason for creating new pieces specifically tailored for liberal religious worship.  Over the past decade and a half, since I first became involved in the UU Musicians Network (UUMN), I have watched our denomination’s commitment to music ministry start to take itself seriously.  When I first joined UUMN, there was very little acknowledgement of our denominations’ music from the UUA!  We were to be a religion of “ideas first,” and music…well…if we got around to it.  So much has changed since then!  The UUMN and UUA now are officially arms of the same body.  We have a choir at GA now, and professional musicians leading music at GA worship services.  We have a national UU children’s choir.  We’ve developed professional accreditations, codes of conduct, and hiring standards for our church musicians, as well as a path to becoming a “minister of music.”  Along with that, churches like yours have more fully recognized that “singing our values” is terrifically important and worth supporting, making a commitment to going beyond the old standards stored in the library, and seeking music that speaks to the work of our time.

And this is where I come in.  In order to make a living, I write commissions for individual, school, university, community, professional and church musicians, as well as leading the occasional workshop or receiving the occasional grant.  As UU churches have commissioned and purchased more and more of my music, I’ve been able to devote more of my creative time to composing music for liberal religious worship.  I’ve written many more short, accessible anthems than I would have written without that support.  Other composers have also been spurred on and inspired by the support of our denomination’s churches – both established composers like Jason Shelton, and budding composers in congregations across the country.  By commissioning this piece, UU Greater Lansing gets to be part of that.

Everything we know about the work of our faith in the world tells us that it always goes hand in hand with singing the music of our time, from worship and celebration to sit-ins and vigils.  If we want our denomination to have transformative music, we need to put our money where our mouth is, and help create it.

That’s what’s in it, for us.