Keep it simple: What the Arts Council can learn from Sounding the Feminists

New commissioning schemes for women composers are not all straightforward

The Sounding the Feminists and NCH schemes are designed to present few barriers to entry, while the Arts Council scheme is dizzyingly excessive. Photograph: Aleksandar Georgiev/Getty Images

The National Concert Hall and Sounding the Feminists have announced details of two commissioning schemes. They are both part of the initiative "to promote and commission work by female artists" announced by the Minister for Culture, Josepha Madigan, last March.

The schemes, with awards of €10,000 (in Scheme 1, for established composers) and €2,500 (in Scheme 2, for emerging composers), are “aimed at established and emerging female/female-identifying musicians and composers from all musical idioms”. The intention is to provide a platform for Irish-born or Irish-resident composers and musicians “to work collaboratively in producing new work to be performed as part of the NCH’s programme in 2019”.

The first scheme is for a 10- to 12-minute piece for an ensemble of up to 20 musicians. Proposals “may include a score-based work for a specific ensemble; a non-score-based, improvised, electronic, sound-art or installation-style composition; new or experimental ways of conceiving music; collaborative works from more than one musician or composer; or works from any musical idiom/genre”.

The second scheme is for a five-minute work for an ensemble of up to six musicians, and application is limited by a set of three eligibility questions: Have you had a professional performance of a work? Have you had a professional recording of a work? and, Have you received a professional commission? If you can tick yes to all three you are not eligible. But you will still qualify if you’ve only ticked yes to two.



Apart from the numbers of players indicated, instrumentation for both schemes is at the discretion of the composers. Applicants need to supply their PPS number and submit a 200-word outline proposal of the work as well as a detailed musical CV accompanied by a supporting audio file. Apart from that, the application form is just a single page that covers both schemes in less than 100 words.

Applicants are obliged to register with the Arts Council's online services; online application is mandatory, too

The closing date for applications is Monday December 10th. Shortlisted applicants in Scheme 1 will be interviewed by a panel early in January prior to any award being announced. It is intended that the successful works will be performed at the NCH in 2019.

The straightforward approach of the new schemes has a lot to commend it. The clear intention is to present as few barriers as possible to anyone interested in applying, apart from ensuring that individuals with too much experience are excluded from the emerging composer category.

By comparison, the documentation for the Arts Council’s music commission awards is dizzyingly excessive. It runs to around 5,000 words, and applicants are obliged to register with the Arts Council’s online services; online application is mandatory, too.

The documentation includes helpful checklist warnings such as: “My proposal involves working with vulnerable persons, and I have submitted a copy of my safeguarding vulnerable persons at risk of abuse policies and procedures,” and “My proposal involves working with animals, and I have submitted a copy of my/our animal welfare protection policies and procedures.”

The council's music commissions scheme, of course, is not actually directed at composers. As the documentation makes clear, "In the context of this award, a 'commission' involves one person or entity (the commissioner) supporting and paying another (a composer or group of composers) to create and deliver an artistic work(s) or project(s) that takes place within a set of parameters agreed to by both partners." And "All awards are informed by the Arts Council's 10-year strategy (2016–25), Making Great Art Work: Leading the Development of the Arts in Ireland."

Illuminating blather

The council provides a link to that document where you can find illuminating blather like this: “Our commitment to renewal is not about a restoration of previous models, but about selective and well-planned resourcing of excellent practice, inclusive of fresh and dynamic approaches to public engagement.”

The council does, of course, allow artists, including composers, to commission themselves, though not through an act of commissioning, but rather through a bursary. It’s not just composers who can apply for these bursaries of up to €10,000. They are open to performers, including conductors, and also to “Professional artists working on the creation or performance of new Irish music or editions of important historic Irish music not yet generally available”. The guidelines are similar in length to the ones for commissions, and also have cautionary notes about animals and children.

The council is funded by the taxpayer through the Department of Culture, as is the National Concert Hall, and the department and its Creative Ireland project are behind the hall's new commissioning schemes. So it seems reasonable to conclude that there's no a priori reason for a €10,000 award of public money to require the kind of hoopla that the council has grown around its application procedures in recent years.

If you’ve ever wondered why so many in the arts community sound grumpy when they talk about the council, the council’s application procedures and the after-the-event documentation they demand are probably the best places to start.

It’s good to see a group of other State agencies showing a simpler way forward.