The Cycle of Get

The Cycle of Get

From our earliest encounters with music, we are told tales of extraordinary accomplishment by musicians: stories so magnificent that no musicologist could hope to put them into context. It is absurd to think of Mozart applying for graduate school, but we scarcely question a cinematic portrayal of him dictating the Requiem from his deathbed.

Written By

Paul Mathews

The Cycle of Get

Mozart never went to Kinko’s.

In an often-cited letter to his father, Mozart complained about working all night to transcribe Die Entführung aus dem Serail for winds before less-operatic pirates could claim the royalties. However, Mozart never paced in shops redolent of toner fumes while his scores were prepared the night before a postmark deadline. Similarly, Haydn never submitted a portfolio of major compositions to receive his honorary doctorate from Oxford, but simply recycled a symphony (Hoboken 1/92) previously commissioned by Count d’Ogny.  Beethoven had no transcripts sent to Albrechtsberger in advance of his studies.

The 18th-century composers received training and pursued careers in a small, guild-like network that was considerably less formal than their waistcoats. Modern composers confront a bewildering array of career paths.  Because of the confluence of the concert season and the academic calendar, many of these opportunities begin with an application submitted in the spring.

April is truly the cruelest month, during which established composers anticipate the awarding of the Pulitzer Prize, the Rome Prizes, and the Guggenheim Fellowships.  Emerging composers learn whether or not they have earned one of the ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards or have gained a placement in a summer festival or artist colony (knowing they will still contend for the Bearns Prize and the BMI Student Composer Awards, both announced in May). Most composers in higher education will be consumed with admissions or applying for teaching positions.

The first day of May is circled on many calendars because it is both the NACAC-approved deadline for responding to college admissions offers and last day for colleges accredited by NASM to hire faculty teaching at other colleges without negotiation.  In short–and in the sadly more-familiar jargon of sports–May 1 is both the day that students sign letters-of-intent and the faculty trade deadline.  What follows is a denouement of mortarboards and Elgar: that bottomless cup of trio.


Some composers will thrive in this market of opportunities. For them, spring will seem as orderly as the cadential rhetoric in a sonata, with the supertonic six-five of interviews giving way to the tonic six-four of an obvious choice. A few others may find themselves suddenly ennobled by an unsuspected windfall.  For them, spring is like a perhaps handout, raising the flats of outrageous fortune into a Picardy third. Or so it would seem.

In fact, those who prosper will almost certainly tell their stories differently.  Any accomplishment in music requires sustained and dedicated effort.  When the spotlight of recognition lights upon an achievement–be it an award, a job, or a fellowship–the achiever will often take pains to explain the unglamorous hours spent in pursuit of the goal.

The personal narratives of the accomplished and recognized may be moving and even inspirational, but they are largely disregarded.  Work is not sexy. Luck is sexier. Effortlessness is the apotheosis of sexiness.  Music–even music in the academy–is a world that trades on the fantasy of talent: the divine right and manifest destiny of artistic triumph.

From our earliest encounters with music, we are told tales of extraordinary accomplishment by musicians: stories so magnificent that no musicologist could hope to put them into context. It is absurd to think of Mozart applying for graduate school, but we scarcely question a cinematic portrayal of him dictating the Requiem from his deathbed.


I have been facetious in pursuit of a specific and uncomfortable fact of life:  the ongoing dialectic of accomplishment and recognition.

Accomplishment is a subjective measure of achievement. Given the solitary nature of composition, the sense of accomplishment is largely self-assessment. Others may say, “Wow, that piece was quite an accomplishment,” but the composer is more likely to sense accomplishment months earlier when looking up from the staves and proclaiming, “Wow, that is one sweet-ass lick of counterpoint!” Only the composer can truly make this assessment because only the composer can put the accomplishment in the intertextual context of his or her idiomatically indexed library and inner-iPod.

Recognition is the acknowledgement of accomplishment. As a matter of logic, everything described in the previous paragraph is recognition: the individual recognizes his accomplishment.  However, in our workaday vocabularies, recognition is the observation of the other, where the other may be a performer, teacher, audience, Pulitzer board–even Jaye P. Morgan, mallet in hand, poised to end your appearance on The Gong Show.

The difference between accomplishment and recognition, as here defined, is as obvious as it is fraught with danger.  In short: what the artist values may not be what the other observes.  Indeed, these two observations may be so different as to not even intersect.

Everyone knows that accomplishment and recognition are two different things, but anyone who has achieved accomplishment without recognition forgets the difference.  It creates a wild imbalance to the ego and the sense of aesthetic propriety, and we tend to project the inverse of that imbalance on the individual who is recognized in our stead.  If I have accomplishment without recognition, then clearly the talentless hack that wins the job, commission, prize, or admission offer has recognition without accomplishment.  Whew.  [Mop brow.] Balance is restored.

Projecting our disappointment by challenging the selection process is a first-line defense: easy, natural, and more readily available than bourbon or Mahler. But when the hurt and anger passes, and the last acquaintance says the final reassuring platitude–perhaps accompanied by a graphic that features a kitten Photoshopped into implausible peril–there are things to consider about what may have happened in an elsewhere beyond our ken.

There are significant differences between applying for a degree program, a prize, or a job, much less a summer festival or commission.  Since I am largely concerned with the deliberation and outcome, I have adumbrated these differences.  In what follows, the composer that applies for anything is an applicant or candidate; the people tasked with making a decision are the committee or adjudicators.


We apply with a view of the big picture, fearlessly not sweating the small things.  Sometimes score readers–especially young score readers–obsess over details.

For example, when I began teaching orchestration, I insisted my assignments be done with impeccable precision in placing dynamics and a careful measurement of hairpins. As if channeling a Victorian schoolmarm, I wanted every assignment “neatly lettered.”  About a month into this reign of prissy terror, I had an unwelcome epiphany:  notation is easy to grade; evaluating orchestration is difficult and time-intensive.

I lead with this confession to note the difference in the kinds of judgments that inform a selection process: the measurable quantities and the subjective qualities.  We all sneer at rules and guidelines as so much administrival drivel.  But regardless of our private thoughts about recommendations, transcripts, or anonymous submission, anyone applying for anything should take pains to observe the rules.  Whether or not a portfolio of compositions will crown the composer as the voice of a generation is a matter of aesthetic judgment.  Whether or not the portfolio arrives in three bound copies by the postmark date is a simple binary decision.

I do not mean to suggest that a score of unimpeachable brilliance would be summarily dismissed for a breach of protocol. Just as gravity bends light, extraordinary musicianship will scramble the best-laid plans of orderly conduct. Rather, I am suggesting that in matters of application, a poor first impression may prevent unimpeachable brilliance from getting past the first round.

A careful aggregation of statistics from multiple resources has led me to conclude that there is … like … a metric buttload of composers out there. A college teaching job will draw dozens of applicants.  A competition will draw hundreds of scores.  Any application for anything will likely be received by an assistant of unknown musical aptitude. These score-wranglers have the thankless task of making sure the rules are observed, for the sake of good faith and best practices. But even the greatest musical minds and sharpest score-readers may overlook brilliant music in a badly rendered score, considered in haste.  And the early stage of a selection process is often characterized by haste.


The adjudicator may enter into a selection process with any number of lofty goals and forward-thinking aspirations, but the moment the process begins, there is one immutable fact:  there is an awful lot of good music on the table surrounded by an awful lot of less-good music.  The sheer volume of applications is daunting.  It is the perfect time to panic.

The first round of evaluating a large sample of applications is typically a cursory scan that results in a binary decision: yes or no. These tend to be snap decisions: the kind of thin-slicing Malcolm Gladwell explores in his book Blink.  Given the urge to purge, any aspect that must be qualified or nuanced with explanations–i.e., any element that slows the process–may result in elimination.

There is an unpleasant irony in considering such snap decisions. The worst-case scenario conjures a situation wherein the extremes of originality are discarded for the comforting heterogeneity of the middle.  In short–and thin-slicing is the epitome of “in short”–it is survival of the safest.  Unfortunately, the history of musical innovation is a record of extremity. One wonders if a committee empaneled in 1942 would have even considered Cage’s “The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs” a song with piano accompaniment.

Brilliance shines through blinders and brilliant adjudicators will bend to accommodate irregularities attending innovation.  But only if they see it.  Thinking outside the box is better saved until one actually gets invited into the box.


Berlioz believed that a unison part played by fifteen average violinists sounded markedly better than the same passage played by four first-rate violinists.   While he may have been overly optimistic about the chorusing effect, he was right about one thing: a large sample blends variance and cancels extremity.  A committee considering an application is a small sample: every voice is heard and must be considered.

When three people enter a room to make a decision, they are likely to make a decision that none of them would have made as individuals. The nightmare scenario is well known:  one adjudicator has his heart set on one applicant, while another adjudicator keeps patiently explaining the logic of her choice.  When Twelve Angry Men becomes three adjudicators at an impasse, sometimes the only way forward is a compromise that crowns the candidate acceptable to all parties.  While the expression “compromise candidate” is pejorative, that candidate is not necessarily less worthy or less deserving.  Indeed, a different committee may very well have unanimously selected the compromise candidate. The committee itself may be comprised of compromise selections. For just as the committee may be confined to submitting the top three choices, the overseeing organization may be confined with selecting three judges in an effort to cover a broad cross-section of styles and aesthetics.


In his seminal essay “New Music, Outmoded Music, Style and Idea,” Schoenberg wrote, “It is very regrettable that so many contemporary composers care so much about style and so little about idea.”  In Schoenberg’s formulation, style comprises the elements of a composition that reflect the composer; the composer does not affect this style but is rather concerned with the development of the idea:  the germinal and generating gesture that is mapped-out over the compositional whole.

Of course, Schoenberg was not the first to express concern about varied kinds of music. Indeed his Verklärte Nacht was, by his own admission, an attempt to merge the style of Wagner with the developmental technique of Brahms. (The merger involved an inverted ninth chord: an irregularity that made the score-readers of the Vienna Music Society reject the sextet in the search for safer fare. Accomplishment with recognition deferred.) Similarly, a self-conscious use of style was hardly novel.  Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte is an object lesson in polystylism.  Schoenberg realized that these topics, which had been largely the shop-talk of composers, were increasingly communicated to audiences in an unsophisticated way.  A preoccupation with style became a fashion, and composers were reported to be making style the agenda–the idea–of their compositions.

Policy statements of modern composition departments reflect Schoenberg’s sentiment, if not his taxonomy. Professors are eager to relate that discipline and technique are learning objectives, that they do not admit students or hire (or tenure) colleagues on the basis of style.  Music directors and foundations are similarly tolerant, if less precise, speaking to the transcendence of artistic vision.  From the faculty mixer to the Polar Prize, modern music is a big-tent coalition.

We needn’t tax the angels of our better nature to embrace a variety of styles: our earliest exposure to music was an ad hoc mixtape of the polished and profane.  There are no Darmstadt lullabies, no fight song from dear ol’ IRCAM.  No pianist credits her “mad chops” to hours of drill-it-and-kill-it with a tattered copy of Fluxus Fingerpower!. At every stage of our musical training, and even our basic socialization, we are inculcated with a mesh of musical styles.

A cursory glance at the programs for any ensemble reveals our variegated listening diet. A new music concert might span works from 10 to 100 years (always gerrymandering Webern into the contemporary). An orchestral concert can easily span 250 years back to the middle period of Haydn.  A musician who plays the recorder may have a working repertoire spanning 500 years, including “Stairway to Heaven.”  And then there’s the internet. Spotify is poly-style porn.  One recent evening, I was embarrassed to be caught red-handed, listening to the American Top-40 Countdown from 1979.

The guilty pleasures of our listening habits betray us. But to listen is not to compose.  Composition asks more of us.

Composing music will not bring fame to most. Or riches.  Composition will not make us more attractive or desirable. (At least while we are alive.) In short, but in words too romantic by half, the only reason to compose is to scratch the itch that attends not composing.  We may seek variety in listening. We may support colleagues and students in their choices. But we compose as we think we ought.


Thus far, I have treated applications to school, jobs, and competitions from a safe, ironic distance, as if they were the occasional pursuit of some people, unsatisfied with accomplishment and desperate for recognition.  In fact, submitting scores is the constant work of the professional composer.  Some people who compose may sell insurance, conduct the Wiener Hofoper, or even be an Associate Dean, but the composing profession, in the inglorious abstract, is the acquisition of opportunities.

For most composers, this will involve successive roles in academic life, from graduate student to emeritus.  In a fantastic article in The Musical Times–which everyone should read if only to learn how composition may be a “FUBU discipline” (#respect)–Jonathan R. Pieslak writes about the measure of composers as professors.  Professors advance through the tenure ranks by publications and research grants, but:

…because these criteria are not immediately apparent aspects of music composition, academic administrators seem to have been forced into developing different norms to evaluate the quality of a composer’s work. Books and articles are now commissions and performances, and an increased emphasis is placed upon awards, recognitions and honours. A steady stream of performances, high-profile commissions and honours from reputable professional associations symbolises success, and this means that the music itself is seldom evaluated on its own terms. A work is only as good as the commission that funded it, the group who performed it, the reviewer who acclaimed it and the professional organisations who awarded it.

The Musical Times, Vol. 146, No. 1890 (Spring, 2005), 51.

That sounds suspiciously like work. Unsexy work.  We may imagine Beethoven strolling down a country lane pondering the rise of Napoleon and the subversion of E-flat major with a C-sharp, but the modern composer must seek such insights in spare moments of the Cycle of the Get:  get into school, get a prize, get a job, get another performance, etc.  And each acquisition, while a momentary rush, is little more than an opportunity: a berth to compose in the service obtaining the next opportunity.

These are high stakes, and the stakes increase with each success.  The big tent of modern music begins to narrow.  I might like my colleague.  I might respect his work ethic and technique. But when my colleague is selected for the opportunity I sought, my thoughts become uncollegial and complicated.  The great irony of these situations is that the conflict is real and visceral: a threat to future success and even one’s livelihood.  But the conflict is expressed in terms of aesthetics:  They hired that guy?  Dr. G-flat ninth chord? Not even inverted?  Our accomplishment without recognition makes us doubt the accomplishment of the recognized.

Most composer-on-composer crime in the university happens in private meetings.  These are personnel issues in which the participants are sworn to confidentiality.  Sometimes these ethical bonds are so strong, it takes both gin and tonic to dissolve them. We’ve all heard the stories, spread with suspicious annotations like the fingerings in cheap editions of Mozart’s sonatas.  But when these matters do not concern employment, public speculation and second-guessing is only inhibited by tact.  And tact, it turns out, is a poor inhibitor.

Consider the Pulitzer Prize.  The amount of ink and kerfuffle attending the annual announcement from Columbia seems wildly disproportionate to the actual cash prize: a mere fraction of the amount awarded for the other prizes, but given the broader exposure in the mainstream media, specialist publications like NewMusicBox are obliged to chronicle the “hum near Harlem.” The sudden rush of colloquy and calumny rapidly floods the narrow channels we frequent for community and advocacy.  Feedback and hullaballoo ensues.

The “problem” with the Pulitzer Prize–and may we all have such problems–is the problem with every prize: there is only one to give. In any given year, a committee might find “distinguished musical composition” in five pieces in three different styles by ten different measures. Somehow, the committee must find a way to relate the achievement in one style with the achievement in another style. The metrics of that comparison are idiomatic: one doubts they are truly shared by all members of the committee. But the committee does share the burden of making a decision that will have significant implications.

Uncomfortable questions follow. Should the committee consider the results of previous years? Has the award historically privileged one style over others? Does the list of prior laureates show an awkward homogeneity in gender, or race, or the pedagogical lineage of Roger Sessions? And if so, should the current committee make amends?

These are awful questions, the very asking of which presumes an inequity. That these are necessary questions may be inferred from the fact that too many readers are now too carefully considering which Pulitzer recipients may have studied with Sessions and his students.

Such are the high stakes of a solitary recognition. Given the broad colloquy about the Pulitzer and routine expressions of dismay, the winner is often put in the awkward position of minimizing the importance of what should be a crowning professional recognition.  Why would anyone consent to join a committee tasked with making such a decision? And how is the final decision made?


Otto von Bismarck famously observed that people shouldn’t see how laws or sausages are made. We might add that people should not see how final decisions about admissions, applications, and prizes are made. (Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that von Bismarck ever said his famous bon mot. John Godfrey Saxe wrote it in the Daily Cleveland Herald, 29 March 1869: accomplishment without recognition.)

Let’s take the segno to the coda: the last stage of adjudication.  Fade in on the weary committee at a shabby table. The easier work of thin-slicing the applications into a more-manageable group must seem like ages ago.  In each subsequent pass, the decisions are more difficult for each individual and far more difficult for the entire group.  In the periphery of each exchange between committee members, there is a meta-conversation, a subtle give and take about what might be ideal and who might be acceptable.  Nothing is too adversarial, and there’s undoubtedly a genuine sense of respect among the adjudicators.  And yet, the committee also has skin in the game.

An admissions committee will reflect the interests of the individual faculty. Naturally, teachers want to place students into situations where they will succeed, but students define the working life of a teacher.  Perhaps the teacher wants variety. Perhaps the teacher wants ease.  But whatever the case, the teacher recognizes the commitment that comes with a student and the degree to which the student/alumnus will reflect on the teacher in an increasingly interconnected network of schools and performers.

A faculty search committee, at its best, will reflect the needs of the students.  Unfortunately, the “needs of the students” is a moving target.  Students will come and go; their needs will change.  But the hired colleague will likely be around for some time to come.  Once again, the working lives of individual teachers are at issue. A faculty search committee would be foolish not to consider the collegiality of a candidate.

The prize jury is the most difficult group to read. Their motivation is ideological.  Sometimes judges agree to serve because of their commitment to an institution.  Sometimes judges are eager to contribute to the musical discourse of society. But ultimately, judges agree to judge–and are probably cajoled to judge–as a way to pay it forward.  The sense of obligation we feel to our teachers, we owe to our students. What we learned from the past, we share with the future. The Cycle of the Get is recursive at the Cycle of Intergenerational Debt.

The varying agendas and responsibilities I have suggested are most manifest in the large middle of a selection process, spanning from “this is going well” to “how will we ever decide?” The very last work of the committee is profoundly mysterious. There have been various studies of musicians adjudicating performance competitions.  That method of judging is easier to evaluate because the individual judges make an independent evaluation in real time.  A collective decision is very difficult to study.

I once took minutes for the final meeting of a faculty search that was about to implode.  The report of that final meeting is an amazing document: it reads like the transcript of a basketball game. Without officials.  In a prison yard.  I make the comparison to a basketball game in part because the participants were sweaty and cellblock-indelicate in their choice of vocabulary.  But mostly I refer to the fact that, like many basketball games, you only really needed to see the last five minutes.  Nothing in the preceding ninety minutes predicted the outcome of the final vote.

I don’t mean to suggest that hours of work were negated by the random outcome of a final vote.  Rather, I think that the final minutes of that committee’s deliberations–of any committee’s deliberations–involves a kind of decision-making that is ineffable. And even if those decisions were effable, the participants might be unwilling to eff them: the decisions might be inconsistent with their personal preferences and professional postures.  The unrepentant serialist might go secretly gooey for a well-placed D-flat major seventh chord.  The pedantic professor might be enlightened by the genius who is too ecstatic to follow the lesson plan.  In the end, we plan for the good; the great we can only behold.

After the detailed and principled work of each successive stage, the committee is reduced to the highly cultivated intuition of artists.


Independent of a commitment to composition, a commitment to the composing profession includes a lot of applications.  All that applying will get you a lot of big fat “no.” Get cozy with rejection: it is the baseball card clicking the spokes on the wheel of the Cycle of Get.

Many of these rejections can be taken in stride. Some are potentially devastating. When your current teachers do not accept you for a graduate program, it hurts.  When your colleagues do not select you for the teaching job you are occupying on an interim basis, it is embarrassingly disappointing. At such times, we are not ourselves. Even the proud and private should seek advice while carrying on with dignity. Public rejections cripple the ego.

At such times in my own career, I try to return to the work I have done with fresh ears.  Often, what I find is that my aspiration was based on a self-assessment that was inaccurate. Sometimes I gave insufficient attention to a quality I considered a strength only to find that it was a liability. Perhaps, in retrospect, that sweet-ass lick of counterpoint might need some textural space to bloom. Perhaps my glib answer to a question about remedial studies did not reveal my extensive experience in this area and offended the committee member committed to outreach in at-risk communities.  In either case, and in many others, what I prized as accomplishment was poorly presented and thus, not recognized.  Difficult and unproductive hours follow, with satisfaction hard to come by.  But those schools that did not hire me? They are never getting their staplers back.

I note one last time that throughout this piece, I have treated the issue of applying for schools, jobs, and prizes at a cool, ironic distance.  These are weighty matters.  Even the idea of “a career in music” is fairly abstract.  The topic I have been discussing–the topic to which we should address ourselves–is nothing less than the way we will spend most of our waking lives.  Will we compose on a cycle of semesters or in the five-to-nine complement of a nine-to-five job?

Hard work attends such questions, work that will drag through a summer of Sundays and into the next year. And as one works through those questions, it is useful to separate the practical need for recognition from the immaterial appreciation of accomplishment.  Recognition may be beyond our grasp.  Recognition may require work we do not care to do.  But the sense of accomplishment is always nearby.  You may have begun a composition with visions of recognition, but what has sustained you through hours and hours of work is the sense of accomplishment.



Berlioz, Hector. 1948. Treatise on Instrumentation. Enl. and rev. by Richard Strauss. New York: Kalmus.

Gann, Kyle. 1998. “Breaking the Chain Letter: An Essay on Downtown Music.” Kyle Gann.

Ginsburgh, Victor. 2003. “Awards, Success and Aesthetic Quality in the Arts.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives 17 (2) (April 1): 99-111.

Gladwell, Malcolm. 2005. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Little, Brown and Co.

Hartke, Stephen. 2004. “And the Pulitzer Prize for the Best Apple of the Year Goes To—an Orange!” NewMusicBox (July 1).

Kaplan, Fred. 2006. “Sour Note.” Slate, April 19.

Kosman, Joshua. 2004. “VIEW / Pulitzer Board Will Regret Changing Eligibility Rules for Music Prize.” San Francisco Chronicle.

Kozinn, Allan. 1992. “A Pulitzer Dispute: Should Music Prize Be Left to Experts?” New York Times.

Pieslak, Jonathan R. 2005. “The Challenges of Plurality Within Contemporary Composition.” The Musical Times 146 (1890) (April 1): 45-57.

Reich, Steve. 2008. “Comments by Steve Reich, Judge.”

Sandow, Greg. 2004. “Pulitzer Follies.” NewMusicBox (July 1).

Schoenberg, Arnold, and Leonard Stein. 1975. Style and Idea: Selected Writings of Arnold Schoenberg. New York: St. Martins Press.

Shaw, David. 1980. “Generalists Judge the Arts Amid Doubt.” Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File).

Silverman, Adam. 2000. “Keep Your Ears on the Prize: A Hyperhistory of American Composition Awards.” NewMusicBox (June 1).

Suzuki, Dean. 2003. “View From the West: New Hope for the Pulitzer.” NewMusicBox (August 1).

The Pulitzer Prize Board. 2004. “The Pulitzer Prize for Music: It’s Time to Alter and Affirm.”