Owning the Piece: A Composer’s View of Writing Commissions

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Carl Strommen

Below’s blog is based on an interview conducted by Worldstrides/Heritage in 2015 with composer Carl Strommen.  “On the Wings of Angels” by Carl Strommen, commissioned by Worldstrides/Heritage, is published and available from Excelcia Music Publishing.

The way I approach commissions depends on the type of performing organization – band, orchestra, jazz band, choral – and their level of play (professional or students). Unless there is a request to celebrate a special event, a centennial or a memorial, professional and community groups generally leave it up to the writer.

When writing for school groups, I address several aspects: current level of play, the make-up of the group, balance, which sections are strong or weak, and the potential for soloists. Major publishers provide instrumental guidelines, including range, keys, and rhythms, for every level of student performance.

My M.O. is to involve the students and director in the process, from inception to final print, as much as possible. I like to visit with the students either in person or Skype sessions. Once the students get over their initial hesitancy of speaking to a writer, these Q&A sessions are fascinating. They want to design the piece, suggest themes and titles, what the cover should look like, how and where the pieces will be recorded and printed, will the school name be on the piece, what is my day like, what time of day do I like to work – on and on. The experience of this process should be educational as well as musical, and the students should have some sense of ownership in the final composition.

Many of my commissioning assignments have afforded me the ability to travel worldwide.  Memorable ones include being invited to Maui to write for the Maui Community Band. Great band, great trip! The band members chose the title “Haleakala,” named after the famous volcano on Maui.

On another occasion, I was invited to spend some time in Barrow, Alaska. This most northern town on the Arctic Ocean has a High School band that is truly outstanding. One director, Ronnie Stanford, does it all – from elementary school to secondary school (Go Whalers!) The students titled the piece “Nalukataq” (the blanket toss)- an event involved in the semiannual whale hunt. In April 2015, The Barrow band performed “Nalukataq” at Carnegie Hall.

Two full days with the band members of a Tennessee High School Band in Bristol produced a memorial to 9/11, “In Their Honor”. Not only did they name the piece, but they also contributed to its composition and orchestration.

I became immersed in Irish music when I was asked to write a wind band arrangement of Riverdance. I still cannot shake the 6/8 pulse. It was helpful in putting together an arrangement for the Notre Dame Band, “The Julia Delaney Reel”.

A few years ago, Jim McRoy, asked that I write an arrangement of Polish Folk Songs for the Long Island University (Post) Wind Ensemble to be performed on their Eastern European tour. One of the band members spoke the language and taught us how to sing in Polish.

Augustana College in Rock Island, IL, includes a Scandinavian Studies Program. During a Skype session, the students suggested that the piece revolve around Swedish folk songs- which we did. The title given by the band members was “Nordanvind.”

What makes commissions like these special is when the performing group and director have directly contributed to the development of the music, there is a sense of “owning” the piece. It belongs to them forever. They might have had a part in verbally describing how a piece should sound- the orchestration or lyrics, for example. To the commissioning party, the message, theme, and backstory are clear. A successful composition, hopefully, will also be made clear and be enjoyed by all audiences.


To purchase “On the Wings of Angels,” please visit excelciamuisc.com. To learn more about the composer Carl Strommen, please visit carlstrommen.com.

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Carl Strommen resides with his family on Long Island New York. He attended and graduated from Long Island University ( B.A. English Literature) and The City College of New York (M.A, Music) and studied orchestration with Manny Albam and Rayburn Wright and composition with Stefan Wolpe. He is an Adjunct Professor of orchestration/arranging and composition in the Graduate School at LIU Post. His compositions and arrangements are performed worldwide.