Karen North

Commissioner and Composer: A Rewarding Relationship

As a flute teacher, I’m often on the hunt for new repertoire for my beginner and intermediate level students. Many years ago, when I couldn’t find a suitable tutor book for my youngest students, I started writing my six-book series The Young Flute Player, which I added to recently with a method book for adult and teenage learners. But finding suitable material for my intermediate level students proved a challenge; there was a gap between beginner books and the standard flute repertoire.  “No worries,” I thought, “I’ll write a book!” but as I started arranging music, I wondered whether I could include more recent works in this collection? Much contemporary music is still under copyright so is not available and I’m definitely not a great composer, so it was time to look elsewhere.

That’s when I decided to investigate commissioning living composers to write music for my Lyrical Flute Legends (2021) book. It wasn’t easy working out where to start and took some time to research the legal aspects of contracts, licensing and copyright, not to mention the minefield of commissioning fees. Next it was time to ask composers if they would be interested in my project for intermediate flute music. Keep in mind that many composers prefer to write for advanced players as this is more profitable and brings greater renown. Also, some composers I would have loved to invite already had exclusive publishing contracts. 

Nevertheless, I decided to start at the top! 

I was thrilled when Gary Schocker and Elena Kats-Chernin both said yes. Schocker is well-known in the flute world for his wonderful compositions, many of which my students are enchanted with. Kats-Chernin is a leading Australian composer of international reputation; her music is amongst my most-loved of living composers. Another highly respected composer to join this project was Rachel Laurin, a Canadian composer and concert organist whose impressive music evokes musical pictures of great beauty. I also wanted to give opportunities to the younger generation of composers, so I invited some whose music I thought showed real potential.

Elena Kats Chernin
Elena Kats Chernin

Whilst many of the composers had written for flute before, most had written for professional players, not students. I gave the composers a list of technical specifications; some of them followed this, others ignored it! It was tricky to balance keeping within the technical limitations of intermediate level players, yet not restricting the composers’ inspiration.

Most of my communication with the composers was via emails, Zoom meets and phone calls. I couldn’t even meet with composers in my hometown as thisproject took place near the beginning of the pandemic when lockdowns were in place. Nevertheless, some sent me written drafts while others, such as Kats-Chernin, played to me over the phone. Ideas poured forth as she played on her piano and chatted, “Do you like this?” or “What about this?” I was humbled to be invited into her composing world and had so much fun discussing ideas. Choosing titles with her was also very entertaining as she told me about the antics of her friend’s cat Crispin, who inspired her set of three dance movements. She described Crispin the Dreamer (2021) as “a calm waltz in G Major. I imagine Crispin having a lovely nap and dreaming of some delectable dish.” 

One of my main roles was to help the composers understand what was/wasn’t possible for intermediate level flute players as well as the sound of different articulations for notes. Often, I would play the drafts to them (via phone or Zoom) with different articulations to help them decide what they wanted. Occasionally there were passages which were technically beyond intermediate level. I fell in love with Laurin’s Three Canadian Scenes Op.104 (2021)as soon as I played them. Each movement depicts a Canadian landscape, from the serene and majestic sunset on snow in Winter Dusk, to the chatter of birds in Summer Morning in the Woods. In the initial drafts there were one or two bars or short phrases which were beyond intermediate players, but Laurin was extremely amenable to rewriting passages and came up with masterly solutions. The interesting thing is, that although Laurin wrote Summer Morning in the Woods for students, the music is so beautiful that this piece has already been included in professional recital programs.

Working with Australian composer Merry Neille was a different experience as she is a professional flute player and teacher. She knows exactly how to write for intermediate level flute and her pieces come almost ready to go, apart from a few small tweaks to the music or title. Neille is multi-talented, having taught, researched, and performed in South Africa, the Netherlands, Canada, the United States and Australia. She writes, “I love music so much, I have always found it hard to specialize in one specific area and have been a bit ambitious in trying to do it all. I am a little all over the place!” 

Neille’s first composition for flute was Winter Solstice for Flute and Piano (2020), which won a prize in an Australian competition. It was after hearing this work that I decided to invite Neille to contribute to the Lyrical Flute Legends book. Her work Sighs and Silence (2021)is a challenge for many players, not in a technical sense, but in terms of control of the music. In this piece, silence is as important as the music, with long rests between short “sighing” motifs. Neille advises the performer, “The silence created by the rests should be enjoyed, try not to rush the rests; allow the silence to be part of the story you are telling.”

This “story telling” is an important part of all the works I have commissioned. I encourage the composers to use a descriptive title and/or provide a short commentary for the work; these are printed at the back of the book. This is to give the players some guidance in creating a story with their music, not just giving a technically correct performance. This is an important skill for intermediate level players to develop and is sometimes overlooked in the quest for a “note-perfect” rendition.

Neille has also written two works for Inspiring Flute Solos (2022), my second project of commissioned works. Her composition Ladybird (2022) has a clear storyline and is a delightful piece which includes flutter-tonguing, a great technique for intermediate players to explore. It is inspired by musical theatre, and the composer provides written inspiration for the player. The opening section depicts the ladybird “busying itself in the flowers”, with the flutter-tonguing suggesting its beating wings. At measure 32 “a gust of wind sweeps the ladybird up” and in the contrasting Cantabile section, “the ladybird soars.” 

Merryl Neille
Merryl Neille

Bringing quality new music to the intermediate flute repertoire has been extremely rewarding. I feel very privileged to have worked alongside these composers to bring new flute music into existence. Commissioning music can be a beautiful way to remember someone, to celebrate a special occasion or simply to experience the excitement of bringing new music into the world. Was it fun? Yes! Was it expensive? Yes! Was it a lot of work? Yes! Would I do it again? Yes, my next book of intermediate flute repertoire is underway! 

Karen North has enjoyed bringing music into the lives of children and adults for over 35 years in her roles as teacher (classroom and studio), mentor and conductor. Karen is the author of “The Young Flute Player”, “Lyrical Flute Legends”, “Inspiring Flute Solos” and many other instrumental books. She supports teachers around the world through her online workshops, conference presentations, blogs and newsletter. 

Website: https://www.allegromusicpublishing.com/ 

  1. George Fazakas

    Excellent article Karen. I enjoyed reading it. My 2 cents worth I have also been fortunate to commission and premiere several flute works by South African, Argentinian and Dutch Composers, most on my YouTube page, George Fazakas. eg. Jaco Meyer, Franco Prinsloo, Peter Klatzow, Jeanie Zaidel Rudolph, Martin Watt, Mauro Zanolli and Joke van Dal Kleijne. However these were much more advanced performance techniques, some nearly impossible to perform. On another note many years ago a young Meryl had some Winterschool classes by me when I wad still Flute Lecturer at The School of Music, North West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa. I now reside in the Netherlands. Thanks for reading my rantings. Greetings from Vught, Brabant, Netherlands. George

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