Tag: competition

Ethical Artistry: Falling Short—Logistics, Programming, and the Moral Complexity of Well-Intentioned Decisions


This post is the second in a four-part series looking at concert curation and some of the larger ethical dilemmas we all face as artists as a result. If you want to jump back, Part 1 is here; Part 3 and 4 will follow in the coming weeks.

(Fair warning: this is the longest article in the series, so you may want to skip around. I cover calls-for-scores; age limits; rehearsal time; venues; thematic programs; and demographics. The final portion takes a closer look at the Philadelphia Orchestra’s choice to add female composers to their 2018-19 season and ethical issues that arise.)

In a recent Facebook thread, composer Ryan Olivier (professor of composition at Indiana University South Bend) asked for help compiling a list of ensembles who specialize in new music repertoire. Ryan had already tallied approximately 50 groups on his own list, and more responses poured in, listing dozens and dozens of ensembles working in every sphere to champion new music.

Ryan Olivier FB thread

It was exhilirating at first, reading Ryan’s thread. I thought of the many groups and artists large and small, supporting projects of all kinds. It reminded me that even in our specialized field—one that can feel lonely and isolating at times—there is a larger community out there that is optimistic and passionate about contemporary music. In fact, most colleagues I’ve come into contact with in the field are creative, eager collaborators who support one another.

However, thinking more about Ryan’s post, I felt conflicted.

On the one hand, our vibrant community aspires to promote positive moral virtues: everything from championing new music, to creating databases cataloging works of living composers, to running calls-for-scores, to devising projects and fellowships promoting under-represented composers, to founding large advocacy and service organizations such as New Music USA, New Music Gathering, the American Composers Forum, to others who sponsor forums, infrastructure, and opportunities. All of this helps new music thrive and stay relevant in modern culture.


On the other hand, in spite of our enthusiasm and good intentions, we’ve seen persistent ethical problems in our field. This includes pragmatic issues, such as the way we review work (and the bias, nepotism, or inconsistency that can occur on panels); to other major philisophical challenges, such as our field’s long history of demographic exclusion and gender bias. (I’ve footnoted just a handful of the many insightful articles discussing these issues.)[i]

We, as a musical community, really do strive to promote positive virtues in our work! We have passionate discussions on Facebook and Twitter, and we see nuanced conference lectures and articles emerging on these topics, yet clearly problems persist, as evidenced by these ongoing discussions.

So why do we keep falling short? I believe that our hearts are mostly in the right place, but that in our zeal to launch a new initiative, or in our constant stream of work running an ensemble, or in the haste of trying to pull off an ambitious project, we often undercut our good intentions.

Here in Part 2, I’m going to dive into many specific issues we’ve all encountered in the field, pointing out some ethical pitfalls lurking behind decisions we frequently face.

Ethical Pitfalls in Logistics & Programming

How do performers, ensembles, festivals, administrators, or curators connect with composers and their music? If you are a curator, do you go on Soundcloud/YouTube listening binges? Are you the spread-sheet type, tallying “bucket lists” of repertoire you hope to perform? If you’re a composer, do you wildly shotgun your music to all competitions far and wide? Do you focus on teaming up with the same set of performers for every piece? Do you have any strategy at all?

There are a lot of ways our music can come into contact with others, but there isn’t a lot of consistency in our field at large for how we evaluate works and provide opportunities for composers. (Sometimes it seems like every ensemble has their own method!) And, no matter what processes we use—from an open call-for-scores, to a competition format with specified prizes and a panel of judges, to a curatorial model that asks individual artists to build programs—we often face a series of similar challenges if we care about promoting works fairly.

Calls-for-Scores: Submission Fees, Review Process, and Transparency[ii]

Calls-for-Scores are a major way to connect composers with ensembles and vice-versa. Many of us have participated in them, some on both sides as submitters and reviewers. Ensembles offering calls-for-scores are usually genuinely interested in promoting composers, but, even with virtuous goals, choices along the way can negatively undermine our good intentions.

Is there a submission fee involved? What type of prizes and opportunities are included with the call-for-scores, and does this justify the fee? (This is a question for both organizers and composers submitting!) It takes a lot of work to run a call-for-scores, and outside judges are often compensated, so sometimes a fee is necessary. Is your organization transparent on your website about why you are charging a submission fee? (I hope this is not a fundraiser!)

Some groups waive a submission fee, if it limits opportunities for otherwise-qualified composers to apply because of financial constraints. This is noble! However, is this approach being consistently applied to all applicants? I know some groups who formally list (and collect) a submission fee in their general call for scores, but also selectively waive its enforcement as they see fit with certain composers in their close circle. (Not cool!) Apply your policies with consistency! It is extremely unfair to require only some composers to pay.

Has your ensemble been realistic about the number of submissions you might receive? Do you have a process in place to ensure…submitted scores are…reviewed in a similar manner? Are you transparent about this process?

Another big issue: how have you structured the review process? Has your ensemble been realistic about the number of submissions you might receive? (Hint: it could be hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds, depending on what opportunity you are offering.) Do you have a process in place to ensure that all of the submitted scores are being reviewed in a similar manner? Are you transparent about this process in your application materials?

pile of scores

Fee or no fee, it takes a lot of time and effort for composers to submit their work, and it is disheartening when bias or inconsistency plays a role in the evaluation process. As an ensemble, think about whether the evaluations should be anonymous or not. Also, can you split up the listening into multiple rounds? Maybe in the first round all pieces will have a similar-length excerpt played and judged. There is no perfect process, but try to at least give each piece the same fair shake!

I was very frustrated sitting on the review side of a call-for-scores one year, as a vague email went out to our rather-large group of performers, encouraging us to access a Dropbox folder where multiple hundreds of scores had been submitted. We were told that we could listen to any number and portion of recordings we chose, and that any comments we left about any pieces would help narrow the batch down to the winners. This group really aspired to champion living composers, and eventually performed dozens of new works on their season, yet their selection process had no consistency or fairness, and hundreds of composers who had paid a submission fee and spent time sending materials weren’t evaluated with similar criteria.

Bottom line: it’s great if you want to curate with a call-for-scores, but make sure to put some real thought into how your ensemble’s selection process can promote the values you stand for!

Age Limits in Programming

There have been wide discussions in our field about age limits. Does having an age-limit minimum or maximum discriminate against those outside of the range? Or does the age limit try to promote a particular initiative (for example, encouraging 10-14-year-old musicians to start composing)? Is it feasible for your group to have multiple age categories? (I think the American Modern Ensemble has a well-thought-out system with two age-based categories, and a third general category open to all.)

Here’s a more subtle question: Do you care about absolute age, or the number of years applicants have trained in composing? Depending on your ensemble’s goals, these questions matter. Let’s consider a hypothetical example.

Imagine two 19-year-old musicians, Jim and Jenny. Jim is a sophomore trumpet major who started composing lessons on the side when he entered college. Jenny is a sophomore composition major, who trained in composition at pre-college for three years. If your ensemble seeks to celebrate your city’s musical youth, then an absolute age category (say, “under-21”) meaningfully promotes Jim’s and Jenny’s work. But, if your ensemble is looking to evaluate and perform works of beginner, intermediate, and advanced composers, age limit categories place Jenny and Jim side-by-side, when in fact Jenny has 5x the experience.

Ultimately, whether age feels artistically and ethically relevant to you is one issue; making sure your policies are promoting this consistently is another!

Rehearsal Time

Most people reading NewMusicBox care about supporting living composers and their music.   Have we thought about the rehearsal demands that bold new works require? Are our rehearsal processes supporting or undermining our larger goal of promoting new music?

This is a really tricky issue! Anyone running an ensemble sees how performers are learning a constant stream of challenging works (new and old), while juggling jam-packed schedules of gigs, teaching, and travelling. There are always budget considerations (even in ensembles with high pay scales) as we determine how much rehearsal time we can afford to pay for any given project, and how many pieces can fit into that schedule. And, as pointed out by Patrick Castillo in a recent NewMusicBox article, there are often other organizational limitations we might rarely consider, including the very spaces in which we work.

Sometimes we make sacrifices: either we program a smaller number of challenging new works, so we can devote more rehearsal time; or, we program more works, but they each receive much less detail in rehearsal; or, we specifically choose works based on their relative ease of rehearsal and performance demands, rather than purely on their artistic merit.

In truth, most ensembles end up considering many of these factors as they make final programming decisions, and in the best cases you can strike a balance where a relatively large number of new works are featured, with each still being artistically ambitious and receiving enough rehearsal to be polished.

Eighth Blackbird fits in a rehearsal during their Curtis residency.

Eighth Blackbird fits in a rehearsal during their Curtis residency. From left to right: Lisa Kaplan, Yvonne Lam, Nick Photinos, Matthew Duvall, Michael Macceferri, and former member Tim Munro.

However, we have all seen the flipside. It can be frustrating when a performer is improvising your piece on stage, because they didn’t leave enough time to learn it properly. It can be equally frustrating as a performer if a composer or administrator hasn’t put you in a place to succeed, because they gave you the music too late or didn’t schedule enough rehearsal time.

If we devote substantial resources of money, time, and promotional effort to commissioning a new work or organizing a major project, we have an obligation to make sure the music is thoroughly rehearsed and polished before it is brought to life.

There is also a further ethical consideration we tend to overlook: if we devote substantial resources of money, time, and promotional effort to commissioning a new work or organizing a major project, we have an obligation to make sure the music is thoroughly rehearsed and polished before it is brought to life. Otherwise, we undercut our great intentions of supporting new music, and we have also wasted many of the resources we devoted to the project—resources that could have meaningfully benefited any number of other projects!

Project Partners & Venues

Depending on your project goals (see Part 1: “Why am I doing this?” & “Who do I hope to impact?”), certain pragmatic choices you make about collaborators and venues can amplify or detract from your project’s aspirations.

When we choose to work with a specific ensemble or performer, many factors go into the decision. Artistic goals, budget, and availability all play a part. But, just as important is gauging an ensemble’s genuine interest in partnering for a project.

Is this just a gig for them, or are they are really excited about it? How does their ensemble identity and their skill set fit with the project specifics? Remember, prestige isn’t the only important factor; sometimes the best artistic pairings have more to do with passion and commitment to a project, rather than any absolute criteria in performing ability and repertoire.

The most prestigious venue isn’t always the best one to showcase the music you’ve chosen…Which spaces will really help your curation shine in its intended way?

The same general principle is true of venues. Have you thought about spaces best suited for your project? The most prestigious venue isn’t always the best one to showcase the music you’ve chosen. Think about everything from acoustic specifics to lighting and atmosphere, and consider which spaces will really help your curation shine in its intended way.

Also, do logistical factors of venue location, ticket price, and concert time prejudice access to your event to a select audience? Is there a significant portion of potential concert attendees who will be excluded by one of these aspects?

Concerts or Festivals with a Theme

Let’s say your ensemble wants to program music with a specific theme. What do you gain and what do you lose with this approach? Consider some specifics of your theme, and why you are drawn to it. Also consider how your theme might include some pieces, but exclude others.

One popular theme I’ve seen is regional composer festivals and concerts. In these cases, only those from a certain geographic area are eligible to participate. On the plus side, there can be good funding to sponsor artists from a specific region (yay!) On the minus side, composers outside of the region are excluded (boo!).

Sometimes a local or regional festival can strengthen ties and promote artists working in the same area, showcasing a spotlight on local creators. But, does this gain outweigh the fact that local audiences might already have access to artists in their area? Does your theme allow the project to showcase some composers from outside the region, as well?

What about programming themes based on social causes or movements? When planned carefully, these themes can be a powerful tool to give voice to under-represented composers and pieces within larger, holistic, artistic planning. If approached haphazardly, myopic programming may do little to shine a meaningful light on a social cause, or worse, it may end up excluding many composers (including those it aspires to promote).

Have you seen approaches more successful and convincing? Or some which left you wanting more? I’ve been particularly impressed with ensembles who take strides to balance their programming, year after year: regularly featuring living composers; working to commission new works and also to give second or third performances of other recently composed works; sometimes curating mini-festivals that celebrate a specific social demographic (e.g. all-female composers; or all African American composers); sometimes curating mini-festivals that celebrate a single composer or aesthetic movement; etc.

I’ve found myself less than impressed with ensembles who don’t consistently promote living composers, or those who claim to promote diversity by featuring a single composer from an under-represented group, while not featuring the work of any other living composers (from any demographics). Real diversity in programming is something many of us aspire to, but it involves careful planning and thinking. Is diversity truly achieved along the lines of any single criteria? Is it accomplished by a single project initiative like a festival of “X” composers or “Y” aesthetic movement? We can probably safely say no.

If we really care about diversity in our programming and musical work, we have to be committed to the “broad view” (see Part 1) and consistently take a look at the projects we pursue over the long haul. Some spreadsheets and quick demographic tallies of season programming can be helpful tools (as we’ll see in Part 3) to assess whether we are a little too zoomed in on a specific niche of repertoire and have unintentionally left out whole branches of composers without being aware.

Recognition is an Important First Step; A Measured Response is Second

Recognizing the moral complexity of these many decisions we face in the field is an important first step. Do our artistic actions align with our stated intentions? Of equal importance is the second step: coming up with a measured response (not a knee-jerk reaction) to the tough questions we are asking. At times, we rush our decisions when an issue feels urgent, but this can do more harm than good, or it can fail to address deeper issues.

At times, we rush our decisions when an issue feels urgent, but this can do more harm than good, or it can fail to address deeper issues.

Let’s consider an example, which will serve to finish Part 2 and lead us to Parts 3 and 4. This centers on the complex and delicate issue of representing diversity in our programming.

Imagine that you are an ensemble or organization that presents concerts to the public. It has come to your attention through public feedback and discourse that you’ve had a fairly big “blind spot” over the years: you’ve programmed contemporary music only marginally, and within that you’ve rarely featured composers of color or female composers. What do you do?

A lot of us would want to spring into action to remedy the situation, and surely there are some short term steps you can take. It would be a good start to rethink your season programming and look for spots where you can insert repertoire by living and under-represented composers. But don’t be too quick to pat yourself on the back. This immediate fix only addresses your blind spot on a very local and short-term level.

What about the larger issue of diverse programming? One major factor in the push to include more works by under-represented composers is that, historically, they haven’t had the same opportunities to work and succeed in our field. So, if you are serious about addressing this issue, it takes increased commitment in the long term—considering not only the numerical quotas and statistics of works we program in a single season, but also the general quality of opportunities we are providing at large.

A few months ago a scenario very similar to this one played out in a very public way. NPR media published a stirring article (“The Sound of Silence”) talking about the lack of diverse programming in major American symphony orchestra seasons. If you missed it, critic Alex Ross summed it up in a succinct, but damning tweet:

Alex Ross tweet

Responding to the intense scrutiny, the Philadelphia Orchestra actually re-worked some of their concert season, adding pieces by Anna Clyne and Stacey Browne, appointing Gabriela Lena Frank as a composer-in-residence, and scheduling a reading session in partnership with the American Composers Orchestra of six emerging female composers (who had previously worked with ACO).

These steps were an important short-term fix, and the orchestra knows the work is not done. Philadelphia Orchestra Artistic Administrator Jeremy Rothman was quoted in a follow-up article as saying, “We acknowledge there is still a great imbalance…At the same time, it’s certainly more productive than ignoring the conversation. When it’s pointed out, we are right to be responsive.”

So what are the larger ethical issues at stake in a case like this? One obvious problem is in demographic disparity. This is, to a large degree, a numerical or “quantitative” issue. The orchestra’s response had a meaningful impact in this regard, as they quickly restructured their season to feature nine female composers in some capacity, instead of zero. (And there may be a greater quantitative ripple felt, if other young female composers can look up to these nine as role models, and feel inspired to pursue orchestral composing as a result.)

Yet, other ethical issues should not have been overlooked. One major aspect of the discussion about female composers is that there are hundreds of talented and qualified female composers working in the field; so if we’re not programming them, it means we’re not taking the time to look broadly at their work (and at the work of all living composers) in the first place.

Where does the Philadelphia Orchestra fall on this issue? Are they committed to looking widely or not? I was not privy to artistic talks on these matters, but I do know that many other orchestras around the country have started public initiatives to review the work of emerging composers.[iii] Has the Philadelphia Orchestra considered anything like this?

Even in the case of this season, the orchestra agreed to feature six mid-career female composers in a reading workshop. But, they relied on the American Composers Orchestra, as a partner in the selection process. Going forward will we see more independent committment to exploring works of living composers from Philadelphia directly? When we feel the need to act urgently with short-term solutions, we may not address other long-term issues that are just as important.

Another issue: what steps are being taken within these major institutions to support and encourage composition education? Other orchestras (including ”Group 1” peers like the LA Phil and NY Phil) have pursued young composer programs in their education departments, giving students opportunities for mentorship and interaction with orchestra musicians. If (and hopefully as) more major institutions really commit whollistically to supporting composers by establishing education programs for students, supporting emerging composers with calls-for-scores or readings open broadly (not just to those previously selected by another organization), and taking a careful look at quantitative programming for established composers featured on their subscription season, we won’t end up with more NPR articles like “The Sound of Silence”[iv] because there is a wealth of amazing music out there that will end up being featured!

At the end of the day, when facing complex ethical dilemmas, it is not enough that we care; we must also take extra steps to ensure a complete outcome. This is where we often fall short as individual artists and larger institutions. The good news is, if we commit to ensuring a complete outcome, our institutions can transform and become a major platform for the opportunity and dissemination of vital creative work.

[i] There is a large archive of articles going back many decades on these subjects, and recently NewMusicBox and passionate individual artists in our field have been trying to shed light and start meaningful dialogue on these complex issues. Here are a few great articles: on issues of systemic racism in music by Anthony R. Green and Jack Curtis Dubowsky; and issues of gender bias and exclusion by Sarah Kirkland Snider, Kristen Kuster, Amy Beth Kirsten, and Rob Deemer (who includes links to many other articles in his work).

[ii] For those interested in running a call-for-scores or a competition, you may want to ask the advice of colleagues and ensembles who have organized these before, and you may also want to check out: https://nmbx.newmusicusa.org/so-you-want-to-host-a-composition-competition/.

[iii] Some orchestras have run their own calls-for-scores and workshops for emerging composers for many years, including the Minnesota Orchestra, the American Composers Orchestra, the Nashville Symphony, the Milwaukee Symphony, the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Houston Symphony, the Pittsburgh Symphony, and others; and many other orchestras including the Colorado Symphony, the San Diego Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and many regional orchestras, have teamed up with the Earshot Network to sponsor calls-for-scores and workshops.

[iv] I am optimistic the orchestra heard the message and that they are trying to address some of these issues on a deeper level (not just with a short-term fix).  They recently appointed two female conductors to their staff roster, and according to a recent press release, current Philadelphia Orchestra “Music Alive” Composer-in-Residence Hannibal Lokumbe has been active, both in taking music into community venues as part of his residency, and also helping to lead some “Composer’s Umbrella” workshops.  I’m hoping these, and other initiatives, will endure and feature more prominently in future seasons.

Hey Jealousy: Social Media’s Envy Effect

How many times have you posted a pic like the one above on social media, or seen one and rolled your eyes? Guilty as charged on both sides of the coin. So what’s that about, and why is it important?

Sometimes I can’t take your perfect life anymore. Logging into Facebook makes me want to vomit. Your exciting new job, the beautiful kids, the throwback Thursday photos of your beach wedding that I wasn’t invited to.

By Tamar Charney

It’s no secret that social media is basically just a highlight reel. In my case, yes, I’m playing great concerts at prestigious venues here and there, and I’m grateful. But that’s not my day-to-day reality. I’m also changing blow out diapers, dealing with toddler tantrums, making budgets, writing grants, and practicing scales. Also in reality, someone has hit my car twice in the last two months, and I have only a handful of gigs scheduled for this summer. That can be scary. Would I put that on social media? Not in a normal situation. Too scary, right? But I’m probably gonna share this article on social media, so I’ll let you know how that feels after the fact.

Here’s the deal. I’m creative, so I just started a record label and production company called Bright Shiny Things. It’s fun! I only have a few performance gigs this summer, but that means more time having fun with Bright Shiny Things. I will also have time to attend awesome stuff like Mark Rabideau’s 21cm Institute entrepreneurship program and the mind-blowingly good Silkroad Global Musician’s Workshop run by the undeniable multi-genre cellist Mike Block. Also, in reality, less gigs means more time with the family and wife. (Maybe I can learn to prevent blowout diapers?) Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy parenthood and business building as much anyone, but I don’t post that on social media because I feel like I need people to focus on what would be considered the “successes.” Social media is all about good news—a filtered view of how we want others to perceive us and how we want to be seen.

But back to the eye roll…what’s that mean? Sometimes it means we’re jealous.

I don’t think jealousy within an ensemble is something people are comfortable admitting to or talking about.

Why is that important to talk about in our art? I don’t think jealousy within an ensemble is something people are comfortable admitting to or talking about, but I’ve experienced this first hand, as have so many of us.

My colleagues in Sybarite5 are all great musicians, and they are also entrepreneurs. They have a lot of super legit performances and projects going on at all times, and rightfully so.

Violinist Sami Merdinian is in demand as a concert soloist in South America, performs often with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and founded the New Docta International Music Festival in Argentina.

Sarah Whitney is no slouch either. She plays violin with the Seeing Double Duo, as well as in a trio project with fellow Sybarite5ers Angela and Laura called Trifecta, and she launched an interactive concert series called Beyond the Notes in the Boston area.

Angela Pickett, in addition to playing viola with Sybarite5 and the above-mentioned Trifecta, is in demand as a solo fiddle player in Broadway’s Tony award-winning Come From Away. She also posts beautifully curated vegan food pics on Instagram.

Laura Metcalf, our cellist, is also a soloist, as well as having a duet called Boyd Meets Girl with her husband and classical guitarist Rupert Boyd. She is a long-time member of the cello/percussion ensemble Break of Reality and just launched a pretty kick-ass concert series called Gather NYC.

The list goes on and on.

I have to be honest, when I found out about some of my colleagues’ projects on social media my initial reaction was probably tinged with some…jealousy! How dare they? Would this mess up Sybarite5? #JELLY #JELLY #JELLY. But now I’m just proud of their accomplishments. How did I get there?

First, I had to figure out what jealousy is about.

Jealousy is based in fear, not in love. A little bit of jealousy can indicate a little sense of threat or fear is occurring. A lot of jealousy means there is a lot of fear. … With jealousy often comes possessiveness, suspicion, anger, controlling acts and a lot of other negative behaviors.

YUCK, right? So, jealousy is based in fear, but if you read my first NewMusicBox post, you know that I’m not interested in having more fear in my life. So let’s unpack this a little.

It’s pretty obvious to me why I’d be jealous of the outside gigs the people in my own ensemble take on. It’s the fear of losing these great colleagues to other (better?) projects and the risk of damage to Sybarite5, something I’ve worked so long to create. Then how will I feed my kids? Any parent knows this is real and powerful fear.

But there is a solution to this: you have to confront your fear. For me that happened recently. We had our first sub with Sybarite5 in nine years. You know what? It was fine. The concert was fine. The residency was fine. It was more than fine! We had a great week, and I’m not afraid of it anymore. Poof. My fear is gone, and my jealousy along with it.

So now I’m happy to say that I’m not afraid to lose the above because of what someone else is doing. I will still be able to do my own thing, with Sybarite5 or otherwise. I have to have confidence in this. I created Sybarite5, and I can continue to create new things. It’s part of who I am. It’s never gonna stop. I like making stuff! So I don’t stress anymore if I see those posts on social media celebrating success because the jealousy is so unhelpful to the creative process.

So when you see this #thrilled2announce stuff posted, know a few things:

1. Objects in the mirror are not as large as they may appear.
2. While that person is probably mostly excited about whatever they are posting about, that person is probably also struggling with things in one way or another, perhaps just as much as you are.
3. You may be jealous, but you don’t have to be once you let go of your fear.

This is post four of four, so I want to give NewMusicBox a real thanks for allowing me to write. It’s been a great experience, and I think I learned a lot about what makes me tick. It’s my sincere hope that these articles help others find their own path a little quicker than I did.

So You Want To Host A Composition Competition

Picture it: you are at the precipice of your arts organization and hosting a competition for composers. Before you pat yourself on the back for not going with a “feats of strength” model, let’s consider this journey you’re embarking on with a generous helping of a composer’s perspective.

It’s inevitable that a composer will at some point consider entering their music in a competition. For those who have, once you start preparing submissions you begin to develop a familiarity with some of the common guidelines. Having the duration of the work as well as its year of composition in the vicinity of the title page is more-or-less accepted as common practice, for example, but competitions often specifically ask for this information.

Composers also develop a familiarity with guidelines that can seem ambiguous in their utility. This article gets into some specifics below, but overall it makes me wonder: For those who host them, what are you actually trying to accomplish with this competition? Are you trying to foster young talent by creating an opportunity for it? Are you trying to encourage people to write for a particularly esoteric ensemble? Are you after the fire and brimstone of spectacle where artists beat each other into bloody pulps using their haphazardly bound manuscripts? In the end, we all want to serve the act of making music, but I sometimes wonder if an organization might not be aware of how their competition’s guidelines might inhibit what they’re setting out to do.

Age Limits

Many competitions have an age limit that can range from 18 to 30 years young. Unless the competition is billed as a “Young Composers Competition,” it strains credulity to see how this requirement is pertinent. Composition as a career isn’t arrived at in the same way that performance is. We often start much later in life. It’s a unique parental combo that pushes their pre-schooler into composition lessons, dreaming of the day when their protégé can barely scrape together an income from sitting in a dark room, scribbling incomprehensibly on staff paper. Many of us come to it by chance. Sometimes it’s our discovery of improvisation, the encouragement of a teacher, or even just simple curiosity. These humble beginnings have the potential to start a cycle that can last a lifetime. A model doesn’t really exist for the active nurturing of composers from early childhood in the same way we nurture instrumentalists. As such, composers can declare themselves at any stage of life and an age limit is often unnecessary and arbitrary.

On The Acceptance of Previously Performed Works

It’s understandable that part of the draw of a competition, in terms of getting butts into seats, is the spectacle of it. Spectacle, so the thinking goes, can be fostered by mirroring the performance aspect of sport. That’s not to say that composers are judged by how far they can heave their manuscript down the pitch, but there’s a definite emphasis on a performance within the frame of the present competition. For instance, we haven’t been handing gold medals to long jumper Bob Beaman for forty years just because he still holds the record for the longest jump (8.9 meters, for those measuring). We evaluate the athletes who show up and base our evaluation on what they do that day. The value is placed on performing in the present competition. Transmogrifying this idea over to the art world, the idea is that if a piece has already been performed, then its moment has more or less passed. If the previously performed work were allowed into the competition, it would be the equivalent of one of Bob Beaman’s mythical forty years of gold medals.

However, this reading breaks a little under thoughtful pressure. A composition competition isn’t really about evaluating the present performance, as there is none. The act of composing can be divorced completely from performing to the point where it’s about the deliverable—the composition itself. What disallowing previously performed works really amounts to is a back-of-the-napkin way of making sure that all the works submitted are new and the spectacle is just a bonus to help promote the event. A guideline requiring compositions needing to be recently composed will create a problem, as the history of each submission will need to be checked; it would be a bit of an upset if the winning piece was revealed to violate guidelines.

If your ensemble’s instrumentation is even slightly esoteric, you might also want to consider how disqualifying previously performed works is akin to shooting yourself in the foot. If your goal is simply to get great new music, then what if someone out there has an excellent piece for you that you disqualify because it was performed during the second year of their undergrad studies? You could be missing out on something stupendous and not even realize it.

Entry Fees

This might be my most foolish moment, coming out in favor of entry fees, as I am forever going to be the one paying them. But if I’m totally honest and sigh resignedly, then I have to acknowledge they are often a necessity. It does take time to evaluate scores. Time is money. If you’re hosting a competition you’ll see a higher volume of scores than you’re used to. This means more of either your own or your jury’s time to evaluate submissions and that time is worth something. It also has the added benefit of filtering out some of the fence sitters who are sending in a work just because it’s a competition and not because they think they have a great piece for you.

And to be clear, many other composers and New Music USA come down against entry fees but acknowledge it’s a complex topic.

To play devil’s advocate for a moment (or even more dastardly in this case: composer’s advocate), part of the reason that so many of us grumble about entry fees is because rather than see the product in action, we see what has the vague outlines of a bait-and-switch. In other words, you provide us with a wonderful product: spending the time to get to know our music. This is something we all cherish. But in the vast majority of cases, all we see from our end is a form letter thanking us for our interest in your competition, and it’s rare that the name of our piece is even mentioned. To contrast, I once participated in a competition that circulated a form to its judges—identified on the form only by number to preserve anonymity—which was filled out with comments on each piece. These forms were returned to the entrants and made our participation a richer experience.

Are You Really Sure You Want It To Be A Composition Competition?

Honing in on a purpose for your competition rather than simply hosting a bloodbath and handing out towels will result in an event that makes far better use of everybody’s artistic energy.

Before you stoke the fierce rivalries between stacks of paper, you might consider other options. A commissioning competition is ideal for a group that has the funds and desire to commission a new work but lacks the personal contact with a composer upon whom to bestow the terms of the commission. Instead of asking composers to write a new piece for your ensemble, ask them to send in a CV, scores and recordings of a handful of representative works, and a project proposal for what they would like to write. The organization can then decide, based on a composer’s past work and their proposal, what would be the best fit.

Also, don’t discount the utility and practicality of an open call for scores. If your desire is to see as much new music for your ensemble as possible, a press release calling for creative individuals to send in their best work will yield a mountain of PDFs and bound volumes for you to wade through.

It’s easy to polarize the issue of competitive art making, and the fuzziness of art metrics are a big reason for this. That are certain aspects of craftsmanship that come in to play, but at some point—and likely sooner than you think—judges are going to be picking pieces because they like them and their reasoning will be nebulous. That isn’t to say they won’t be able to justify their reasoning, but that reasoning is going to have more to do with their personality and preferences than anything you can measure.

There’s also a misplaced lament for the loss of the commissioning model of supporting artists whenever competition is brought up. But both have always existed side-by-side. (See Beethoven rising to prominence in competitive piano duels, for instance.) However, there is some ethical grey area around being asked to write specifically for a competition. “You didn’t place but at least now you have a great piece for your catalogue!” doesn’t really address the problem of asking artists to work for free. Writing a great piece takes a great amount of work and composers already have lots of great pieces in their catalogues. Their time is often best spent promoting those and writing new ones that are destined to be performed.

Honing in on a purpose for your competition with these considerations in mind rather than simply hosting a bloodbath and handing out towels will result in an event that makes far better use of everybody’s artistic energy. Composers won’t feel like they’re participating in some kind of cattle call, your performers will be more likely to be playing something fabulous, and your audience will be more likely to be excited by something that expands their horizons. Who knows how many great pieces are out there, desperately craving your attention, that could be shut down for rulebook reasons as mediocre as they are miscellaneous? If your primary goal is great music, then make some space in your mail room and brew a pot of coffee. Because it’s out there—and it is legion.

Chris Sivak

Chris Sivak is a multi–instrumentalist and composer residing in Vancouver, BC. His output covers a wide variety of ground ranging from the soberly serious to the seriously absurd; all lush and lasciviousness, hunting for the perfect musical moment, to manic chamber opera featuring casts of characters out to tickle your funny bone. Chris studied music at UBC with Stephen Chatman and Dorothy Chang. He subsequently moved on to become the composer in residence with the Laudate Singers Of North Vancouver from 2014 to 2016 and is an associate composer with the Canadian Music Centre.

New Music Opportunities for Young Students Grow in Missouri

Multiple C.O.M.P. winners Menea Kefalov and Ande Siegel of Ladue Middle School, Ladue

Multiple C.O.M.P. winners Menea Kefalov and Ande Siegel of Ladue Middle School, Ladue

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” – Lao-tzu

Though becoming a composer or musician is a long journey, students who want to learn classical music or jazz at least have a well-defined path to follow. Take lessons on an instrument; join an ensemble or two at school; supplement that with additional performance opportunities in church, a community band or orchestra, and whatever else might be available; and a young musician can get familiar with basic concepts, techniques and repertoire in an orderly and systematic way.

While only a few may follow that path all the way to become professional musicians, many others will stay on it long enough to become the sort of adults who listen to jazz or classical radio, purchase concert tickets and recordings, and so on. Small wonder, then, that classical and jazz organizations of all sorts have gotten involved in education in a big way.

In contrast, for a younger student who wants to compose or perform new music, the path seems much murkier, or even non-existent. Until they get to college, most young musicians simply don’t get a chance to work on much contemporary music, and performance opportunities for the work of composers younger than 18 also are comparatively rare.

With music programs in many school districts already operating on tight budgets, most don’t have the resources to expand beyond what they’re already doing. But here in Missouri, educators and musicians have been developing some new ways to cultivate the composers and new music performers of the future.

The first effort is part of the Mizzou New Music Initiative (MNMI), an array of programs at the University of Missouri’s School of Music intended to make the school a center for the creation and performance of new music. While most of the Initiative’s programs are for undergraduate and graduate students at Mizzou, it actually began nine years ago with the Creating Original Music Project (C.O.M.P.), a university-administered statewide competition for student composers from grades K-12.
C.O.M.P. is open to public, private, parochial, and home-schooled students, but each student who applies must have the signature and sponsorship of their school’s music teacher. Not-for-profit groups, such as community agencies, churches, and after-school programs, also can sponsor entrants in partnership with the school music teacher, as can private teachers and other musical mentors.

The students’ work must be original—no arrangements or improvisations based on existing pieces—and teachers and/or mentors may only assist students in notating or recording the pieces.

Students in the elementary school division (grades K through five) can submit works in one of two categories, Songs with Words and Instrumental. For middle school students in grades six through eight, the categories are Fine Art Music (which includes work for string quartet, piano solo, solo instrumentalist with accompaniment, and similar) and Popular Music (rock, country, folk, hip-hop, alternative, etc.).

The high school division (grades 9 through 12) also has Fine Art Music and Popular Music categories, and adds one for Jazz. (There’s also an “Other” category, though the judges—faculty members from the School of Music—can move a work to another category at their discretion.)

Students in the Fine Art categories must submit notated versions of their work, while the entrants in the other categories may submit notation or recordings.

Composers of the top three works in each category win plaques and cash prizes for themselves and their schools, and are invited to perform their work (or have it performed, if an ensemble or additional instruments are required) at the C.O.M.P. Festival, an all-day concert held on a Saturday in April on the Mizzou campus in Columbia.

Hearing their works performed in concert is an exciting opportunity for the kids and their parents and teachers, and the event and the awards provide some strong positive reinforcement for their creativity. For the past two years, the concert audio also has been streamed live on the internet via the School of Music’s website, allowing friends, relatives, schoolmates, and neighbors who couldn’t make the trip to Columbia to hear the performance.

HyunJun (John) Yoo of West Middle School, Columbia, a multiple C.O.M.P. winner, with Jeanne Sinquefield Ph.D of the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation

HyunJun (John) Yoo of West Middle School, Columbia, a multiple C.O.M.P. winner, with Jeanne Sinquefield of the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation

Many of the high-school age winners then go on to attend the Missouri Summer Composition Institute (or “C.O.M.P. Camp”), which is open to students entering grades 9-12 and entering college freshmen. Students who wish to participate must submit scores of original works, and a total of 16, split into “advanced” and “intermediate” divisions, are invited to participate in a week-long program held on the campus in June.

C.O.M.P winners who are selected can attend the program free of charge on scholarships designated for that purpose, while others pay a $100 fee for the week. While they’re at camp, the students get composition lessons from Mizzou faculty and graduate students, participate in various other enrichment activities, and compose a piece to be premiered at the end of the week by a resident ensemble.

Meanwhile, a couple of hours to the east in St. Louis, a joint project between the new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound and the Community Music School of Webster University is giving student musicians ages K-12 the opportunity to learn about and perform the work of living composers, experiment with extended instrumental techniques, and more.

AWS, nominally based in New York though the members live all over the country, has been coming to Missouri since 2010 to serve as the resident ensemble for the Mizzou International Composers Festival, which is held each July as the signature event of the Mizzou New Music Initiative. In 2012, with funding from the Sinquefield Charitable Foundation, which also funds the MNMI, Alarm Will Sound began offering a “St. Louis season” of performances at the Sheldon Concert Hall and other venues.

Then in 2013, select members of AWS began coming to St. Louis in between concerts to work with students at the Community Music School of Webster University, which offers a variety of music classes and lessons for students of all ages on Webster U’s campus in suburban Webster Groves.

AWS oboist Christa Robinson, who had experience teaching elementary school students, worked with the CMS faculty to develop a curriculum for a series of monthly sessions designed to accommodate 12 to 15 students.


At the end of the year, the CMS students, who ranged in age from 7 to 17, joined Alarm Will Sound for their final concert of the season at The Sheldon. They performed Steve Reich’s Clapping Music side-by-side with AWS musicians and on their own presented John Adams’s Short Ride In a Fast Machine, Elena Kats-Chernin’s Fast Blue Village 2, Vinko Globokar’s Laboratorium, and David Biedenbender’s Schism, which was written originally for AWS to perform at the 2011 Mizzou International Composers Festival.

The program has now been formalized as a regular class that will meet every two weeks beginning this fall. Alarm Will Sound members will continue to come to St. Louis once a month to teach the group, with CMS instructors using the alternate sessions to answer questions, review concepts, and practice techniques and repertoire.

In a couple of years’ time, the goal is to have what AWS Managing Director Gavin Chuck calls “Alarm Will Sound Jr.,” an ongoing new music ensemble coached by members of AWS.  In addition, this year Chuck and Robinson also plan to get the CMS students playing some works composed by past and present C.O.M.P. winners, tying the two programs together and giving the student musicians and composers the opportunity to develop peer-to-peer relationships.

While C.O.M.P. necessarily is a work in progress as well, it’s an encouraging sign that two past winners of multiple C.O.M.P. awards now are on full composition scholarships at Mizzou, taking the next steps on a path that could lead them to careers in music. While there’s no way to know exactly where they and their peers will end up, these two programs at least have helped get their journeys off to promising starts.

Todd Lerew Wins the 2014 ACF National Composition Contest

Todd Lerew - credit Nedda Atassi

Todd Lerew
Photo by Nedda Atassi

The American Composers Forum has named CalArts student Todd Lerew the winner of the 2014 National Composition Contest for his work flagging entrainment of ultradian rhythms and the consequences thereof. Lerew has been awarded a cash prize of $2,000 and his piece will be toured by So Percussion in future seasons. The piece was commissioned by ACF along with the works of two other competition finalists–Michael Laurello and Kristina Warren–which were workshopped by So Percussion as part of the the group’s Summer Institute at Princeton University and premiered on July 20.

Based in Los Angeles, Lerew (b. 1986) works with invented acoustic instruments, repurposed found objects, and unique preparations of traditional instruments. He is the inventor of the Quartz Cantabile, which uses a principle of thermoacoustics to convert heat into sound, and has presented the instrument at Stanford’s CCRMA, the American Musical Instrument Society annual conference, the Guthman Musical Instrument Competition at Georgia Tech, and Machine Project in Los Angeles. He is the founder and curator of Telephone Music, a collaborative music and memory project based on the children’s game of Telephone, the last round of which was released as an exclusive download to subscribers of music magazine The Wire. His solo piece for e-bowed gu zheng, entitled Lithic Fragments, is available on cassette on the Brunch Groupe label. His pieces have been performed by members of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, the Wet Ink Ensemble (New York), the Now Hear Ensemble (Santa Barbara), and the Canticum Ostrava choir (Czech Republic).

flagging entrainment of ultradian rhythms and the consequences t

Sample page from Lerew’s flagging entrainment of ultradian rhythms and the consequences thereof.

Composer and vocalist Kristina Warren holds a bachelor’s in music composition from Duke University and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in composition and computer technologies from the University of Virginia.

Sample page from Warren's score for Choose.

Sample page from Warren’s score for Choose.

Composer and pianist Michael Laurello is an artist diploma candidate in composition at the Yale School of Music. He earned an master’s in composition from Tufts University and a bachelor’s in music synthesis (electronic production and design) from Berklee College of Music.

Sample page from Michael Laurello's Overwhelming Capacity.

Sample page from Laurello’s Overwhelming Capacity.

The National Composition Contest is open to composers currently enrolled in graduate and undergraduate institutions in the United States; this year’s installment drew more than 250 applicants from 39 states. Each finalist received an award of $1,000 plus an additional stipend of $750 to help defray expenses associated with attending the workshop and studio performance.
The competition began during the 2010-11 season as the Finale National Composition Contest, partnering with the group eighth blackbird. JACK Quartet was the ensemble for 2011-12. The competition went on hiatus last season, returning in September 2013 under its new name, the American Composers Forum National Composition Contest.

(from the press release)

Competitive Nature

Recently, a number of colleagues forwarded me a post that was published on one of Slate’s blogs entitled “What Kind of Stress do Full-Time Composers Experience?“. While the article really doesn’t answer the question (the author, Andrew Watts, assumes that the definition of a full-time composer “essentially means teaching and/or arts administration,” a presupposition that side-steps the true stresses of composers who survive “full-time” on their compositions alone), it brings up a common complaint about the composition field: competition.

Most often, when “competition” is discussed in new music or composer circles, it usually pertains to an organized contest for a prize or award of some type. Watts’s suggestion that competition is a stress point in the life of a composer looks not to contests, but to the built-in competition that is inherent within the series of educational “hoops” that a composer (supposedly) must travel through in order to have a chance at acquiring the aforementioned teaching positions:

4) Lastly, composition as a career is an extremely competitive environment. As mentioned above, it is often necessary to have the support of an institution, such as a university or conservatory, in order to make a living in the U.S. as a contemporary classical composer. With the example of becoming a faculty member at a university, a composer generally needs: a) to have a solid grounding in performance and musical fundamentals from high school or before b) gain admittance at a top undergraduate composition program [these usually accept 10 percent to 20 percent] c) gain admittance at a top master’s composition program [these usually accept 5 percent to 15 percent] d) participate in numerous festivals, workshops, masterclasses, internships, competitions, etc. e) gain admittance at a top doctoral composition program (many of these take four students a year out of 100-plus applications; f) wait until a current university composer retires or dies, and then be one of the few lucky applicants to land a professorship (at any given time there may be only a dozen or so institutions hiring, and there will always be top competition from all over the world for these spots).

This “brass ring” outlook is very much the prototypical concept of competition among composers who still reside within or have recently emerged from those “top” programs that Watts emphasizes. Such a linear “a+b+c=success” model is an easy trope to subscribe to, primarily because of its narrow focus and simplistic logic (most composers who teach at conservatories attended conservatories, therefore if one attends a conservatory, one must strive to teach at a conservatory), and subsequently the sense of competition for resources between composers is fanned throughout their studies. Not only does this interpretation of the world miss the forest for the trees (fodder for another column), but it overlooks any potential benefits that a competitive nature can foster in a creative artist.

A theory about the benefit of competition between composers was posited recently in an insightful article by Karol Jan Borowiecki for the Journal of Urban Economics. In his piece, entitled “Geographic clustering and productivity: An instrumental variable approach for classical composers,” Borowiecki investigates the potential advantages that individuals may have when living in large metropolitan population centers by comparing the lives and creative outputs of composers in the 18th and 19th centuries. In addition to the concepts of proximity encouraging close relationships with other composers and proximity encouraging interaction with influences outside of the artist’s core industry resulting in innovation, Borowiecki includes a theory about friendly competition:

The second theory advocating a clustering benefit is posited by Porter (1990). In Porter’s view, the local competition in specialized, geographically-concentrated industries is the biggest stimulus for growth. It is posited that the presence of multiple rivaling individuals might be the source of important incentives for out-performing the competitor. Considering the economics of superstars in which ‘small numbers of people earn enormous amounts of money and dominate the activities in which they engage’ (Rosen, 1981) and a ‘Winner-Take-All Society’ (Frank and Cook, 1995), the importance to write better works than fellow composers seems to be of considerable importance also in classical music. The high concentration of composers might create a very competitive working environment, where only extraordinary performance is acknowledged. Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) was aware of that and was mostly motivated to make his presence in the French capital:

In Paris they are accustomed to hear nothing but Gluck’s choruses. Only place confidence in me; I shall strive with all my might to do honor to the name of Mozart. I have no fears at all on the subject. (Letter of 28 February 1778, published in Mozart, 2004)

In 1778, the year Mozart spent in Paris, his productivity peaked and he wrote 19 influential compositions, as recorded in Gilder and Port (1978). Furthermore, his productivity was in that year three times higher than his annual average of around 6.6 compositions.

Interpreting this through the lens of our present day, it’s not difficult to see how this concept is carried out both as it was in those previous centuries, with composers continually being drawn to urban centers, but also through the new super-communities created through social media. Articles abound that decry the sense of competition that can creep into one’s psyche as Facebook and Twitter bombard us with a continual stream of friends’ and colleagues’ successes, but that competitive urge does not have to be destructive in nature. As Borowiecki’s article points out, our inner drive to improve and excel can be encouraged by that sense of competition, especially if it is combined with positive relationships with one’s colleagues and an openness to new influences outside one’s own sphere of comfort.

It is much too easy for those who are still in the beginning stages of their career to feel overly competitive with their colleagues because so much of what is in front of them is unknown, just as those who are further along in their careers can find themselves both overly competitive and bitter because of real or imagined failures or slights from others. While that competitive drive can be unhealthy if left unchecked, if focused correctly, it can also be turned into an advantage that can reap benefits for everyone.

Ageism in Composer Opportunities

We're Closed

“Sorry We’re Closed” by Tommy Ironic, on Flickr

“We don’t serve that population.”
“You are ineligible and our policy is non-negotiable.”
“If you look elsewhere, I’m sure you’ll find other opportunities.”
These are words no one wants to hear when applying for an opportunity for which they otherwise qualify except for one thing: they are too old. They are, unfortunately, actual responses I have received from providers of composer opportunities when querying them regarding their age discrimination policy. However, this article is about more than any one composer. It is about a wider industry practice. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate that ageism exists within composer opportunities, to attempt to explain why it exists, and then to propose solutions for operating without age discrimination. We’ll take an empirical approach looking at data related to composer opportunities. We’ll also take a logical approach to examining various arguments for and against ageism. Lastly we’ll look at the issue anecdotally via comments from various composers. The goal of this article is to educate and inspire change for the betterment of the entire new music community.

Discrimination against someone of the “wrong” color, ethnicity, sex, or sexual orientation is generally frowned upon in modern society. Progress has been made on these fronts to change peoples’ thinking and to embrace inclusion. However, progress is still needed in the area of discrimination on the basis of a person’s age. This one is arguably subtler, but it ultimately has the same effect: to exclude someone from pursuing an opportunity for which he or she would otherwise qualify. People usually are not aware that they practice ageism—just as with other forms of discrimination—because their assumptions all point to a certain expectation they believe is true. With respect to composers, said expectation goes something like this: child prodigy enters school already a mature genius; impresses all of his/her professors; then sets the world on fire with his/her youthful vigor, technical wizardry, and creative talent while winning all sorts of competitions; and proceeds to redefine an art form for the betterment of humankind.

There may be examples throughout history where this fairy tale plays out in the likes of wunderkind composers such as Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven; but is this the most accurate representation of a composer’s path? What about Brahms, whose first symphony wasn’t completed until he was 44, or Janáček, who did not make a mark until his early 50s? While the wunderkind may make for a good story, so does the person who fought all stereotypes and began to attain great things at an older age. But, let’s forget about all of these stories and focus on reality. We’ll do this in the context of looking at hard data on age discrimination as it pertains to present day composer opportunities.

Opportunity and Competition

For purposes of this discussion, composer opportunities include anything of a competitive nature which may further a composer’s career. This encompasses juried competitions with prizes including cash awards, commissions, appointments, readings, performances, and/or recordings. While some may argue the efficacy of competitions, the fact remains that they are crucially important for launching a composer’s career in today’s environment. An objective view of the record bears witness to the fact that there are virtually no examples—at least I cannot think of any—whereby a modern composer has attained notoriety without winning a significant composer prize. It’s a dog-eat-dog world highly geared toward recognition gained through competitive means. There’s an underlying assumption that the best always wins and that true talent gets recognized.
Winning competitions puts accomplishments on a composer’s resume which may be weighed at times more heavily than the quality of the music itself, either intentionally or unintentionally. Whether this is good or bad is irrelevant. Organizations need to sell seats to their events and they stand a much better chance of doing this when they can advertise a composer with impressive credentials versus one with zero or few competitions won. It is a complete waste of time and money for composers to submit work to a major musical ensemble for their performance consideration without sufficient credentials to warrant the interest of the organization.

Regardless of whether you agree with the principles behind all of this, the fact is that one must compete—and win—in order to get ahead.

Too Old To Tango

Ageism is very much alive in the emerging composer arena. In short, once you get to a certain age, you’re considered too old to tango. To support this claim, let’s examine composer opportunities as published on ComposersSite.com. After careful research, this site has been identified as containing the most comprehensive listing of opportunities available for composers of classical music. Further, the site is freely available.

There are other sites which list opportunities, including the opportunities page made available to members of the American Composers Forum—which at present has an annual membership fee of $65. The American Composers Forum opportunities listing is well organized and provides a number of good opportunities but they seem to publish fewer opportunities than what is available on ComposersSite.com.

The person behind ComposersSite.com is composer Robert Voisey, who kindly made available the database of opportunities published on his site for this analysis. The following figure shows the types of opportunities listed on March 28, 2013.
Opportunity Listings from ComposersSite.com as of March 28, 2013
For this study, these opportunity types have been further organized as follows:
• Award – monetary award (may also include free pass to important event)
• Performance – no monetary award, just performance
• Position – paid position
• Residency – no monetary award
• Workshops – conferences

For purposes of numerical analysis, I’ll consider the award, performance, position, and workshop opportunities as opportunities which might further a composer’s career. I’ll also break out just the award opportunities.


“Sorry we’re closed” by xddorox, on Flickr

More than 400 opportunities were reviewed from the ComposersSite.com database as published over a six-month period from November 2012 thru mid April 2013. Many of these opportunities were deemed to be insignificant for purposes of advancing a composer’s career. For example, if the performance opportunity was not offered by a nationally recognized ensemble, it was excluded. Also excluded were opportunities which restricted on the basis of a person’s race, ethnicity, sex, or domicile. Opportunities with application fees of $50 or greater were also excluded on the basis that participation in said opportunities was exorbitantly expensive for most composers. The process of filtering left me with 165 opportunities to examine. For those curious to see the detail behind the filtered and unfiltered lists, they are available for download.

Now for the results. Of these 165 opportunities, 35% are restricted to composers at or below the age of 40. If we filter just the award opportunities, we have 82 total in which 36% are available only to composers at or below the age of 40. Of all the opportunities, there is merely one which is available only to people older than age 40 and that is the Composers Concordance Annual “Generations” Concert and Composition Competition which provides one division for composers over age 65. Noteworthy is that the same competition—which simply provides a performance opportunity—also has a division exclusively for composers under the age of 25. There is not a single opportunity made exclusively available to persons between the ages of 40 and 65.

The moral of this story: in today’s society, you better make it as a composer before you turn 40. Once you pass that milestone, you will need to understand that you are at a competitive disadvantage to younger composers as there are 35-36% fewer opportunities available to you.

Should we be concerned about this disparity? Well, the feminist movement has drawn much attention—and rightly so—to the fact that equally qualified women receive 19% lower pay than men for the same jobs (as has been reported in Time magazine). Our 35-36% numbers are of course much higher, and here the issue is not a difference in pay but whether or not one is even allowed to enter. From this perspective, the 35-36% numbers are huge.

Now that we see who is affected by ageism, the next question is who is responsible. It is very difficult to hold any group or organization accountable since ageism in favor of the young is rampant in so many areas across modern society. However, characterizing the problem as simply a societal issue isn’t a sufficient excuse since, as will be discussed later, ageism hits composers particularly hard.

Arguments Made in Support of Ageism

No Entry

“NO ENTRY” by Simon Lieschke, on Flickr

We will now explore the various arguments made in support of ageism using comments I have personally received via direct email correspondence, phone conversations, and online forum discussions with fellow composers, opportunity sponsors, and leading industry professionals. Quoted assertions in this section represent actual statements made in response to the questions “Why does your opportunity discriminate based on age?” and “Is it not possible for someone over a certain age to be a student of composition?”

Provide More Chances to the Young
“The limit of 39 years of age is set in order to give more chances to the young generation of composers.”

This may have been needed during a time when opportunities were disproportionately offered to composers of an older age. However, the numbers clearly show that today it is the younger composers who receive far more opportunity. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to argue younger composers need more chances when they already have more chances over older composers.

Favor Those with Less Experience
“There are those younger students who by virtue of their age have had less experience in the world. Are they always going to be up against those that may have had the opportunities and time to learn and progress much more?”

The assumption in this argument is that favor should be granted those who, by virtue of their age, have not attained the same level of experience as older people. If an older person wants to begin a new career as a composer, they enter with the same set of skills and experience as the younger person. Should we deny a 60-year- old grandmother the opportunity to start a career in composition due to her age? And if she bravely attempts such a feat, should we insult her chances at success by discriminating against her by virtue of the number of opportunities for which she qualifies to further her career?

One might argue that grandma is wise in her ways by virtue of those 60 years of experience and therefore has a competitive advantage. But what lessons might she have learned in those 60 years which will now help her when she is already restricted from applying to 35-36% of the opportunities? What life lesson can she use to convince people to give her a chance? How does experience help if doors are closed to being with?

Numbers Don’t Justify Helping Latecomers
“For composers, how many people really are we talking about who begin a career or study later in life?”

That seems like a reasonable argument and the number of latecomers are likely dismally low—although we’ll hear from some latecomers later in this article. Latecomer composers appear to be a minority group. The question then is simply whether or not we should ignore this minority group because they are insignificant, or if we should do the opposite and help this group grow. Discriminating against minority groups is generally shunned in democratic societies. If the number of older composers just starting off is low, maybe more, not less, opportunity should be made available to them. For those who contend that the 60-year-old grandma making a go at a career in composition is an unlikely scenario and therefore doesn’t deserve attention, well, maybe there aren’t many of these cases specifically as a result of the current discriminatory practices and cultural thinking which makes such an endeavor virtually impossible.

Older Composers Already Had Their Chance

Another argument put forth somewhat related to the “experience” argument is an assumption that older folks have already had their chance. This one can really strike at the heart of the issue in a manner which can be quite hurtful to older composers who really never did get their chance. Take for example the composer who, due to life events, was not able to pursue a career in composition until after the age of 40, or the person who just simply decided to make a career change later in life. Is it correct to assume that an older person indeed has been given a fair shot in any given field and therefore should not be offered the same opportunity as a younger person?

Young is More Interesting

In many ways there’s a culture of youth driving the marketplace. At play here is thinking that there’s something more sexy, appealing, or exciting about young talent which can make for a better sell in the brochure, on stage, at the donor’s reception, or in the grant proposal, thereby making the sponsoring organization look more vital—and, in some less philanthropic endeavors, helps make more money. I think it’s wonderful that society places so much interest in maintaining appearances of vitality, but I think it’s wrong to associate those characteristics with age. Age need not—and often does not—have anything to do with it. In fact, sometimes less experienced or younger artists—or those still in the process of developing their voice—may find it necessary to utilize stylistic fads and trends to fulfill the image expected of them. Often these attempts die as quickly as they are born. Maybe there should be more of a focus on just the character of the music and less on the age of the person behind it?

Same Old Horse

“Older composers submit older and outdated stuff. Younger people submit newer and fresher material. People are more interested in new, fresh material thus there’s more interest in works from younger people.”

I believe this argument is just plain wrong on various levels. Yes, at times innovation may occur within the younger groups of society. But, as already discussed, sometimes fads and non-lasting expressions also flourish within younger groups. The fact is there are plenty of examples across multiple disciplines, including musical composition, where innovation is attained in older years. Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky and countless other recognized composers continued to innovate their art past the age of 40.

On the point of focusing just on newly composed work, the age of the composer need not factor into determining this criteria. The competition rules can easily restrict submission to works created, premiered, or recorded within the last x years. I see no valid reason which suggests one needs to target young composers in order to ensure the submitted work is actually new. I further find spurious the notion that the best or most interesting work is that which was created recently.

Limit Submissions Due to Purported Resource Limitations

“Unfortunately, there has to be a limit. Every day we get around three applications. If there is no limit, we are not able to devote [our attention to] all applications.”

This argument suggests that the organization sponsoring the opportunity doesn’t have sufficient resources to accept applications from everyone, therefore it only accepts submissions from people under a certain age. I find this argument extremely weak, as it says nothing about why they choose a narrow age range as their filter. They just as easily could limit submissions to people over versus under a certain age. Or, if they really want to restrict their workload, they could limit submissions to composers between the ages of 45-50 or some other silly, arbitrary threshold. This is but one example of how phony excuses are used to justify or deflect away from an underlying prejudice.

Cater to the Young Even Though Not Required Under Organization’s Mission Statement

There are various examples of 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organizations who accept tax-deductible donations and who discriminate based on age even when it is not within their organizational mission statement to do so. For example, one organization sponsoring a composer opportunity states their mission as follows: “Our mission is to enrich the cultural vitality of the region and to offer a unique experience to exceptionally talented musicians.” However, they limit composer submissions to those under the age of 35. Looking at their mission statement, one has to ponder whether or not it is possible for an older emerging composer to “enrich the vitality” of the community. This is but one example of a disconnect between an organization’s mission and their policies, and one which I believe hampers musical progress.

More a Problem for Composers than Others

Ageism most definitely exists in other professions and in some it makes perfect sense. This is why you don’t see many professional baseball players over age 40. But in arts and letters, ageism really doesn’t make sense, even though it is rampant across virtually all music disciplines. One might argue that ageism has the same impact in other occupations and thus there’s nothing special about how it plays out in the emerging composer field. The only problem with this line of thinking is that the way in which a composer establishes his or her career is completely different than the manner in which a person pursuing almost any other occupation establishes his or her career. In most fields someone has a job and is hired by a company which is bound to follow federal employee hiring laws which explicitly disallow age discrimination. The same laws also protect musicians, but only for actual employment opportunities and not for the competitions, performances, recordings, and other opportunities which are the methods by which a composer launches his or her career.

Unless a composer has a full-time position as an employee at a university, he or she generally functions as a freelancer seeking commissions or—in most cases pay-to-maybe-win—opportunities. Working as freelancers and going after the typical freelance opportunities means that composers receive no legal form of protection against age discrimination.

There are numerous examples in other disciplines where someone may embark on a new career in their later years and not face the degree of ageism experienced by composers. Why should there be any obstacles based on age for someone choosing a career path, in particular a path where maturity and experience can bring a lot to the table, such as with music composition?

Beginning or renewing a career in composition after age 40 should not be any more difficult from an opportunity perspective than a career change in other industries. It may be equally challenging from a career training perspective, but there should not be the additional burden of ageism.

Young vs. Emerging

I think that most opportunities seek to identify and assist emerging talent but many use age as their criteria. I believe this is a flawed method due to the unethical and exclusionary issues associated with ageism. I don’t believe age should or needs to be used to determine emerging status.

There are many practical methods a competition or opportunity may use to restrict the scope of applications to just emerging talent without resorting to ageism. An opportunity can prevent prior winners from participating or can limit the number of times the same applicant submits—opportunity organizers may complain about the tracking needed for this, but it’s really not that difficult with modern software. An opportunity can literally define emerging as “not earning a living based on teaching, commissions, or royalties from composing.” It can also be based on the honor system. If composers feel they are emerging, they can apply. Would truly established composers be willing to suffer the embarrassment of winning a competition specifically designated for emerging talent? That’s tantamount to them admitting in public that they don’t believe they are established. They would be shunned and laughed at. But, who knows, maybe even a former big name talent might try to apply to help get their career kick-started again, or maybe even to make a little money to help pay the rent. It may be disheartening to them and to others to see them go through this, but should we deny them the opportunity to renew their career?
Hidden Discrimination


“Blinds” by reway2007, on Flickr

Some opportunities list no age restriction but discriminate in private. This speaks directly to the point made earlier that ageism is a subtler form of discrimination. At least one highly sought after and respected composer and contest adjudicator recently shared with me that preference is highly tipped in favor of younger applicants for at least one prominent opportunity, even when no age limit is officially listed. Knowing this, why even bother if you’re considered too old to tango? Why pay the application fee and take on the costs for postage and score duplication if you will not be treated equally?

One significant opportunity for composers to have their works read by an accomplished orchestra announced the winners as “the nation’s top young composers” even though age was not a published criteria for said opportunity. An inquiry as to why their announcement made reference to “young” composers when the opportunity was specifically offered to “emerging” composers was met with no response. Are “young” and “emerging” synonymous?

Then there are the mixed messages, such as those which advertise a student or emerging composer award but also set an arbitrary age threshold—generally somewhere under 30 or 35. Or the competition that doesn’t have the words “young” or “emerging” anywhere in its title or in the mission statement of the sponsoring organization, yet somewhere in the fine print the opportunity-seeking 40-something-year-old discovers s/he doesn’t qualify because s/he is too old. What a letdown.

What is “Young” Anyway?

Then there’s the question of just what is young anyway. Is the 50-year-old person who eats well, exercises, and maintains an active lifestyle and positive mental outlook more of a “young” and vital person than the overweight, junk-food-eating, negatively charged, emotionally distressed 25-year-old? Have you ever been wrong on guessing people’s ages based on their looks and behavior?

I contend that youth and vitality are a state of mind to which any person, regardless of age, may represent a glowing example. Setting an arbitrary age threshold of 30, 35, 40, or whatever for determining the age at which one is no longer considered “young” is a futile exercise and prohibits from participating those who may in actuality possess more vitality in their spirit and art than those far younger in years.

Accordingly, I’d like to see these arbitrary age thresholds die a quick death and for ageism to no longer exist within composer opportunities.

Older Newcomers on The Rise

“I didn’t start at composition in a concentrated way until I was 48 or so. Up until then I was busy playing, arranging, and orchestrating other people’s music. I believe anyone should be granted equal opportunity when pursuing a career change in their later years.” —Phil Orem

“I composed a lot as a teenager then built a career as a performing musician. When I recently turned 40 I decided to pursue composition in a serious manner and am actively writing new work.” —Andy Skaggs

“While I am totally supportive of opportunities aimed specifically at student composers, I question arbitrary age limits; i.e., under 30 or 35. These seem targeted more at keeping mature composers out than welcoming in new talent. Beethoven, Brahms, Verdi, and Wagner wrote some of their greatest works past age 40. Is there something about veteran composers that makes managers and conductors uncomfortable?” —Stanley Friedman

We're Open

“We’re open” by enricod, on Flickr

I’ve run into a number of people over the age of 40 who decided to enter the field of composition after many years as professional performers. I applaud this career shift and believe people entering composition this way deserve just as many opportunities for success as those entering at a younger age.

Composer Jim Stephenson is a perfect example of someone who was a working musician for 17 years before deciding to pursue composition as a career. In Jim’s case, he was about 38 years of age. While writing this article and already having pondered the question of why there aren’t any competitions just for older composers, I saw Jim post the following lighthearted status update on Facebook: “So tempted to start a competition for composers OVER 40. Would be interesting, I think.”
Then there are recognized composers such as Joan Tower who didn’t receive an orchestra commission until her mid 40s. Clearly, people are recognizing the need for “older newcomers” to be granted more opportunity in classical music composition.

Goodies from Oldies

Besides the effect on composers’ careers, ageism inhibits diversity and arguably prohibits great art from having a chance to be heard. Remember that guy Brahms who completed his first symphony when he was 44? Now just imagine that composer out there today who is in his or her 40s and who just completed what may be considered an incredible work but who can’t get it heard because a large percentage of opportunities discriminate against people his/her age? It’s not just composers who suffer under ageism; the whole industry suffers.

Ageism wouldn’t be a problem if there were a representative number of competitions to which only composers over age 40 would qualify. But sadly this is not the case. Anyone want to launch a series of Senior Composer, Old Composer, Reborn Composer, Old Newcomer Composer, Gray Newcomer or Goodies From Oldies competitions? There’s always a market for new things, even for “old” people!

The tenets of a democratic society shun inequality and embrace the concepts of inclusion and fair treatment for all. I would like to see these same concepts applied to the emerging composer industry for the benefit of composers as well as the betterment of music in general. I invite opportunity sponsors to re-evaluate their position on ageism, and I encourage all composers to insist upon fair and equal treatment.


Bill Doerrfeld

Bill Doerrfeld

Bill Doerrfeld is a composer and pianist of classical and jazz music. For more info on Bill’s music and his writings please visit www.billdoerrfeld.com.

Monterrey Afterword

The XI Encuentro Internacional de Jazz y Música Viva ended Saturday, but I stayed in Mexico until Tuesday before flying to San Francisco, where I am writing this post. Thankfully, this year’s event wasn’t marked by the social unease that framed Encuentro X. (Monterrey was the focal point of several drug cartel-associated mass murders that occurred on the opening night of last year’s festival and again on the morning after the last performance.) However, it was framed by its own internal controversy that emerged from its saxophone competition sponsored by Roberto Romero’s company, Roberto’s Winds.

Musicians who use their own instruments often take care of problems arising from the wear-and-tear of practice, rehearsals, and performance themselves. (Competent violinists are expected to change a string or adjust a bridge and trumpeters constantly open valve casings to lubricate moving parts.) But when major problems arise, such as when my bass took a fall in October and lost its fingerboard, a specialist is required to bring the instrument back to playability. So it behooves every working musician to cultivate a long-term relationship with at least one well-established instrument repairperson.

These highly skilled craftspeople can be found just about everywhere. Some work out of their living rooms and garages, others out of multi-leveled facilities that double as instrument showrooms and/or music studios. To enhance their bottom lines, most will sell accessories for the instruments they repair (cases, sheet music, etc.) at a reasonable markup. Others go as far as to offer their own line of “custom” instruments and accessories. (I deploy quotation marks because these items are usually mass produced to a set of manufacturing specifications that are the repairperson’s retail “customization,” instead of tailoring the product for any specific customer’s requirement.) Barrie Kolstein, the proprietor of Kolstein Music, provides a case in point. His shop, located in Baldwin, New York, offers its own line of strings, rosin, repair kits, polishes, and other accessories, as well as a large assortment of high-quality instruments. A more instrument-specific facility is Lemur Music, a double bass shop located in San Capistrano, California, about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego.

Good repair people are usually pretty good players, too. Steve Berger is an excellent guitarist who often plays with vocalist Melissa Hamilton and is a long-time accompanist for pianist-vocalist-songwriter Bob Dorough. He is also a gifted guitar technician who, unfortunately, lost his repair shop, which was located in the basement of the Westbeth artist residency complex during the flooding of Lower Manhattan caused by Hurricane Sandy. But instrument repair is an art in-and-of itself that requires training, practice, and talent. More often than not, a good repair person will let performance fall to the wayside as more and more artists bring them their broken tools of the trade. Another facet of repairpersonship is how “schools” of repair and instrument design become established through apprenticeship. Iconic names like Stradivarius and Selmer belong to such schools in which a family member takes over the business. Such is the case of Barrie Kolstein, who took over Kolstein Music from his father, Samuel.
Often apprentices break away from their masters’ tutelage to strike out on their own. Such was the case for my first long-term repairperson, Chuck Traeger. He started out working alongside Samuel Kolstein and then broke away to start his own company, The Bass Shop. I used to carry my factory-assembled, possibly pre-war Juzeck up the three flights to his Christopher Street shop. He showed me everything that needed to be changed to maximize its sound (new tailpiece, fingerboard, and bridge), explaining why it all had to be done while demonstrating his points on the instruments that filled his intimate “showroom,” a 35′ x 15′ waiting area that he crammed almost 100 basses in, some being sold on consignment and some waiting to be repaired or picked up. His logic was impeccable and the list of bassists who trusted their instruments to him backed up everything he said. Over the two years it took to get my bass up to snuff, I learned more about the instrument than any private teacher could show me. When I finally had the money to buy a high-quality pedigree instrument from the early 19th century, I wound up buying one of Chuck’s personal basses—the one that lost its fingerboard.

Traeger’s apprentices, David Gage and Bill Merchant, alternated repairing my instruments. Gage took care of the first major mishap, when a taxi ran into my bass and caved in one of the bouts (the rounded panels that make up the sides of the instrument). It was like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle with no picture to follow. But the repair has lasted for over thirty years without needing to be revisited. Merchant took care of the next one, when I slapped the side of the bass too hard while producing percussion sounds and poked a hole in it. He used a long metal rod inserted through one of the instrument’s F-holes to push the piece of wood that was hanging towards the inside back into its original position and then applied a patch behind it. It was supposed to be a temporary fix, but it also lasted until another accident tore open the entire side of the bass in 2011. When Traeger retired, Merchant took over his shop and Gage established his own in Lower Manhattan. I’ve stuck with Bill over the years because of brand loyalty, and I recommend both Merchant and Gage (and Kolstein as well) to anyone needing work done on their bass.

Merchant’s facility is a bare-bones repair shop. You walk in and there are basses for sale and basses being fixed. There are one or two of his “Traveler” basses and one or two of his “Vertical” basses on display (if leaning in a corner counts as “on display”). There are two photos on a bulletin board (one of me and one of David Finck) and the “office” section is filled with bass cases. He does great work. By contrast, David Gage occupies three floors of Tribeca loft space. The ground floor is the repair shop and the two upper floors are display/event rooms where bassists have given master classes and workshops. My first exposure to The Marks Brothers (Mark Dresser and Mark Helias) was in this room. There haven’t been any workshops or master classes this year because of the upcoming International Society of Bassists Convention. Instead, Gage Instrument Repair has been developing a new line of products that they intend to unveil there that includes a new piezoelectric transducer pickup that I hope to review in the future.

Like Gage, Roberto Romero runs a multiple-story complex that includes a repair shop and show room. He also has several floors worth of practice rooms he calls Michiko Studios that are very reasonably priced. The rooms are clean, with in-tune pianos, good sounding drum sets, and well-maintained amplification systems and are very popular with New York jazz musicians. Romero came to New York from Italy in 1981. He was on his way to Brazil, but ran out of money. He took a job at the now defunct Sound of Joy School. He was asked to help the school’s owner build extra rehearsal studios on West 46th Street—on the same block where the street dance scene in the movie Fame was staged—and met his mentor, a well-respected saxophone technician named Saul Fromkin, there. Romero’s skill as a repairperson was tempered by a genius for understanding what Fromkin’s clients needed. Word got around about Roberto’s talent for saxophone repair and he became Fromkin’s lead repairperson. When Fromkin’s health began to wane in the late 1980s, he retired and Romero took over the business.

If Nashville is the center of country and western guitar, New York would have to be called ground zero for jazz saxophone. Thirty-two years of maintaining and repairing the instruments of the best saxophonists in the world have given Roberto Romero a profound understanding of what makes American music tick. His clients have included Joe Henderson, Michael Brecker, Dave Liebman, Joe Lovano, Lee Konitz, Dexter Gordon, Clifford Jordan, David Murray, Paul Winter, Jay Rodriguez, Pharoah Sanders, Benny Golson, Joshua Redman, Bobby Watson, Dave Schnitter, Joe Temperly, and Sonny Rollins. Some of these names are synonymous with the music known as jazz, and these greatest of jazz musicians rely on their saxophones retaining the idiosyncrasies that help them express their musical sound and ideas, their voice. So, being a repairperson isn’t about resetting someone’s horn to factory presets. Romero has to know what the players want their horns to sound like and what they need to have their horns be able to do. So when Ornette Coleman called Roberto’s Winds because his alto saxophone fell off the roof of his car on his way to the airport, Romero cancelled his vacation long enough to repair the instrument before Coleman’s flight left. (It reminds me of when a taxicab knocked the neck off of my bass while I was on my way to catch a train for a New York State Council of the Arts tour. Bill Merchant got out of bed, opened the shop, and glued the neck on in time for me to catch the next train to Buffalo.) Repairpersons like Romero have to know how these iconoclasts think and how they’ve lived. He’s heard them talk about how they learned to play music and why they play it the way they do. So it’s a very special thing when someone like Roberto Romero sponsors a saxophone competition with the first prize being one of his signature instruments. Last year he did this and the winner sold the instrument within a short period of time so he could have the money and then came back to compete again this year!

To be fair, the person in question has every right to do whatever he wants with his property, even a hand-crafted saxophone he won in a student competition. But it struck Romero as a real waste of that instrument. You see, Romero opened a store in Mexico City last year, so if anyone nearby needs to have their instrument repaired, all they need to do is set up an appointment to have one of the best saxophone repair people in the world attend to it. If the young man wasn’t satisfied with how his soprano saxophone played, all he had to do was to call Roberto’s Winds and discuss the matter. Roberto Romero’s calling in life is to make saxophones work for the artists who play them. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the young man got rid of the horn. As a result, Romero directed the judges to hold all the applicants to a standard more in keeping with the artists who make it possible for him to sponsor the competition, rather than merely deciding the winner to be whomever was the best from this year’s applicant pool. It’s the difference between grading on a curve and giving an absolute grade. The result was that no prize was awarded at the competition, which was held on the first night of the festival. It was announced that the competition would be held again on the festival’s last night. This was agreed to by all of the judges involved, as well as by the accompanists (myself included). The competitors would just have to practice for the next five days and do better.

It was a sublime statement to these young men, who believed that they were competing with each other when they came into the performance hall and left realizing that they were competing for a standard of musicianship. Needless to say, on the last night no first prize was given out. Instead, two second prizes–a collection of DVDs featuring workshops by some of Roberto’s clients (Joe Lovano, Chris Potter, Dave Liebman, and others)–and one third prize–a set of reeds and accessories for maintaining a saxophone–were awarded. Some of the contestants’ parents were upset and wrote letters, but Omar Tamez has stood by Romero’s and the judges’ decision. Tamez and I spoke about it while I stayed at his home in Monterrey, recuperating from the mold that permeates the air conditioning of so many of the hotels there. We realized that by not giving away a horn to someone who hasn’t really paid enough dues to play it, Roberto Romero did more to transmit the epitome of the jazz tradition to Mexico than all of the radios, CDs, and streaming videos could ever do. Those mediums, which are outlets of the Great American Culture Machine, can only present what their manufacturers believe will sell the most units. The message that they’ve conveyed about jazz is that it’s easy, natural, and best done by the unstudied. But Romero told the truth: that life doesn’t imitate art, it fashions it.

Competition and Community

Recently, a young student ensemble held an international composition competition and selected two student composers from the same school as the winners. Understandably, this generated some ill will among the applicants, with some implying that the contest was fixed. A second, more charitable interpretation might be that the two winning composers were actually the most deserving. After all, if they were actually trying to rig a competition, why make it so obvious?

I’d like to propose a third and slightly more complex explanation. I find it plausible that the members of the ensemble sincerely believed that they were selecting the most meritorious composers. I also find it extremely probable that factors other than pure merit entered into the decision, factors involving practical and aesthetic considerations. It makes sense that students from the same school would be more likely to cater to those practical needs and share those aesthetic concerns.

To me, this suggests an inherent flaw in composition competitions that is universal, not specific. (In fact, some applicants seemed less offended by the possibility of foul play than the appearance of foul play.) Composition as a field is so broad and encompassing that it’s not really even possible to judge a piece of music on merit alone.

Nor should it be. As anyone who has tried to program a concert knows, practical and aesthetic considerations are not optional—they are paramount. In fact, if this event wasn’t structured as a competition, it wouldn’t be problematic at all. Sharing the same aesthetic concerns and working together towards a common goal are characteristics of a healthy, functioning artistic community. Turning it into a competition, however, changes this positive impulse into something poisonous, something that excludes rather than includes, something that breeds bitterness and toxicity.

New music culture’s inability to conceive of an opportunity as anything but a competition is a big problem. We need to create more opportunities for young composers that aren’t structured this way, but can we even imagine them? What would they even look like?

Laughing at Ourselves

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 Adaptistration.com 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.