Laughing at Ourselves

Laughing at Ourselves

In addition to being a serious lot, composers tend to be both competitive (as the lifeblood of our art—performances—are of a limited supply) and not a little sensitive about their own self-perceived flaws. Humor, therefore, is a rare bird.

Written By

Rob Deemer

We are a serious bunch, here in the community of composers and performers of new music. We did not arrive at our place in the world by accident. Years of study and practice, pain and suffering, fighting the good fight in the face of derision and confusion by most in the traditional music community, and ignorance among the general public has forced us to put up a united front of strength; our music is hard, our music is smart, our music is not for the faint of heart or the brief of attention span. Our styles may differ—we may call for extended techniques or groove-based looping technologies or derive our material from plainsong or hipster bands or the spectral analysis of the lowest note of a bassoon—and yet no matter what niche we find ourselves in, you can be damned sure that we are serious about it…because we are a serious bunch.

It was this über-seriousness that Los Angeles-based composer/percussionist Benjamin Phelps decided to poke fun at in a blog posting this past week entitled “How to win composing.” Coming more or less out of the blue (since Phelps seems to only post every six months or so on his personal blog), the post lays into one of the biggest and most satisfying of piñatas within our community—the composition competition—with no mercy. Outlining a step-by-step approach to (supposedly) winning composition contests, Phelps systematically skewers a handful of issues with which anyone with a smattering of experience within the world of composition competitions (either entering them, judging them, or performing the selected works) would be familiar.
Compared to mainstream attempts at finding humor in the new music community, Phelps deals less with stereotypes than with funny-but-true aspects of being a composer in today’s art vs. career world through the lens of competitions. From obnoxious titles and nested tuplets to the overuse of crotales and triangles, he calls out some of the more obvious (and no less funny) characteristics of much of today’s new works. Of course he’s generalizing, but these things do carry baggage with them; if one compares a work with simple rhythms to a score full of nested tuplets, it’s an easy knee-jerk reaction to assume that the latter is not only more complex but took more time to write and exhibits more attention to detail, thereby increasing the “seriousness” of the work and the composer, no matter the reality of the situation.

Phelps precedes these characteristics with two other items that have more to do with the judging process in competitions but could be extrapolated out to the entire new music industry. His first “step” deals with success begetting success:

The first thing (step 1) that will really help you win competitions is to have won a lot of competitions already. This is very important. Many committees don’t want to go out on a limb and decide that something is good for themselves—they feel much more comfortable selecting winners that other committees have already put their stamp of approval on. You will find that a small number of contestants tend to win the majority of competitions. This is not only because they are the best composers, but because they have a proven track record of success and so must be the best.

The tone may be tongue-in-cheek, but if one considers how composers are selected for performances, residencies, and various other opportunities, the reality (or at least the perceived reality) isn’t that far off. With so many composers to choose from, it is natural for many in the selection process to pick composers who are known—either by reputation or through personal experience—to them in some form rather than someone who is unknown and therefore riskier. Is that inherently wrong? Not necessarily, but care should be given to ensure that familiarity not be the only driving force behind such decisions, and composers should be aware of the ramifications of a reclusive, anti-social lifestyle.
His second “step” is a bit more dicey, but no less telling:

If step 1 proves problematic for you, I suggest applying to competitions where your teacher sits on the judging panel (step 2). Often the most prestigious competitions are reviewed by panels of older, respected composers who themselves have won many competitions and most likely teach at prestigious universities. This makes sense because who is better at judging hot new trends in music than old people? Study with them. Many of them will want to secure their own legacy as important composers and teachers by demonstrating that their students are very prolific competition winners, who themselves will one day make excellent competition judges. Take advantage of this.

Again, looking past the character that permeates the post, Phelps is touching one of the unspoken third rails of new music—the perceived notion that the playing field upon which awards, residencies, prizes, etc. are given is not level and that the relationship between the contestants and the judges (through either direct or indirect experience) has a strong bearing on who is chosen. The fact that these prizes and residencies can have an immense impact on future opportunities for a composer, especially at the outset of their career, makes this issue that much more delicate. No one except those on the selection panels can know what all goes into the decision process of this or that award, but it does the entire community little good when winners of awards and prizes turn out to be studying with one of the judges. It’s always perplexed me why this issue could not be avoided. We have such a rich supply of talented top-shelf composers in this country, and yet so often we do see the same names being asked to oversee these important opportunities. Food for thought…

In addition to being a serious lot, composers tend to be both competitive (as the lifeblood of our art—performances—are of a limited supply) and not a little sensitive about their own self-perceived flaws. Humor, therefore, is a rare bird for the most part—not only amongst the ranks of composers but in concert music in general (Matthew Guerrieri, Tone Deaf Comics, and “Who’s Minding the Score?” from are a few illustrated exceptions). While humor can be a devastating instrument if not used with care, the occasional parody such as Phelps’s blog post can not only entertain but generate discussion (and perhaps even change) as well.