A Model Contest

A Model Contest

Mention the concept of “contests” or “competitions” around composers and the reactions can range from muted enthusiasm to indifference to disgust. The costs of entering and enduring such events can be both emotionally and financially high. Balancing the risk of those costs with the potential gains of winning a contest (or tangential benefits that can occur separate from winning) is an exercise that most composers agonize over often, especially when those gains are impossible to resist. Yesterday a competition was announced that not only takes this delicate cost/gain balance into account for the composers potentially taking part, but demonstrates a well thought-out holistic concept that could be considered as a model for others to follow.

Hilary Hahn is that rare superstar performer who is very attuned to the current generation of composers born after 1960; while her championing of composers such as Jennifer Higdon has been widely covered, her YouTube videos interviewing composers caught the attention of many in the contemporary concert music community as being both genuine and beneficial as well. Hahn is now taking that interest in contemporary works several steps further with her In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores project. Twenty-six composers have already been commissioned to write short encores that Hahn will premiere over the next two years leading up to a CD release of all the encores. The names of the 26 commissioned composers span an immense swath of backgrounds and styles. The entire project so far sounds impressive and important and…and…and so far away from the rest of us mere mortals, which isn’t surprising, since artists of Hahn’s caliber find few opportunities to work outside of the top echelon of the music world for many reasons.

Except for that 27th piece.

In order to find that final work, which she will premiere and record for her project, Hahn has created a contest which, for many reasons, just feels right. The initial details are promising—no age restrictions, simple and direct limitations on instrumentation, duration, and origin of the work (must be written specifically for this project). I’ve judged enough contests myself to have seen many entrants attempt to finesse the rules to shoehorn works that are blatantly beyond the scope of the contest, and after going over the rules of this event I find very little wiggle room. The philosophies the contest has been structured around are clearly stated; as Hahn herself says:

I may have missed terrific composers in the course of my research; there are also many student or amateur composers whose work doesn’t get heard as often as it might deserve. I hope that by encouraging composer initiative in this final encore, I will be pleasantly surprised by some more fantastic encores that I could never have imagined, and I look forward to seeing what kinds of pieces show up.

All of this so far could be considered very positive, but there are several other details that demand attention. First, a “Composer Guide” is included with smart suggestions on length and style as well as a clear, behind-the-scenes description of exactly what will be done with the scores before Hilary looks at them. Second, a message announcing that for every entry submitted, $2 will be donated to the music programs of Dramatic Need—a UK-based organization that sends visual and performing artists to work with underprivileged communities in Rwanda and South Africa. More information is forthcoming on November 15th, which will hopefully let us know whether or not that donation is coming out of an as-yet-unmentioned entry fee or just from the goodwill of the organizers of the contest.

Finally, and most important, up to ten Honorable Mentions will be chosen, publicized, and possibly performed and recorded by Hilary. I really wish more competitions would do this—it doesn’t diminish the winner in any way, but it gives a much larger cross-section of the applicants a chance to be recognized for good work. By limiting the submissions to a ubiquitous chamber instrumentation—violin and piano—Hahn will not only increase the existing encore repertoire for her instrument but give a sizable number of composers who could benefit from the publicity a very public and tangible gift.

Composer contests can be both scary and helpful—my own career choice was made after winning a national competition early on—and if they’re done right, they can serve as a benefit for composers, performers, and the general public. My gut reaction to this particular competition was so visceral this morning that I was driven to write about it, and hopefully it will achieve the lofty goals Ms. Hahn has set forth.

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10 thoughts on “A Model Contest

  1. Jeff Harrington

    Fantastic! It’s inclusive, non-anonymous (I think?) and 10 honorable mentions. Holy moly! But why a MIDI file? She’s going to ‘render’ and listen to the piece herself? Thanks for the heads up, Rob.

    1. Rob Deemer

      Reading the composer guide, each score will have any composer names redacted by assistants before the judge(s) get them, so they will be anonymous. I’m guessing MIDI because they’re A) not performed by anyone else and B) easier to digest rather than just looking at scores.

      1. Lewis Porter

        I think the question was, why not an MP3 rather than a MIDI file?–MIDI files make no sounds on their own, so she/her assistant will have to render the MIDI file in order to create an audio file anyway.

    1. Lewis Porter

      One more question–should one not put the title and composer on the first page of the PDF score? That would make it easier for them to maintain anonymity, but I’d worry what would happen if a score or MIDI file got separated from that composer’s application?

  2. Sean Doyle

    The “Composer’s Guide” is a fine set of points that act as both an effective starting-off point for an apprentice composer, or a good list of reminders for more seasoned competition-goers. For me, the highlight is the last bullet point: “In writing for someone else, do not lose your own expressive voice. It is best to not attempt to guess what Ms. Hahn is looking for. Instead, write what you want to hear Ms. Hahn play, or what you have had in your head for years, or what challenges you as a composer, or what comes naturally.” As contests go, that is a fantastic suggestion – here’s to hoping subsequent composition competitions follow the spirit of that sentiment.

  3. mclaren

    Evidence has long shown that contests and exams and allegedly meritocratic sieving mechanisms represent the worst way to find the best people. W. Edward Deming pointed out fifty years ago that contests destroy creativity, stifle initiative, crush efficiency, and result in the worst rising to the top.

    Now, three mathematicians at the University of Catania in Italy have provided an ironclad mathematical proof that promoting people at random in an organization beats any other strategy. They have demonstrated it is mathematically an optimal strategy.

    “Random promotion may be best, research suggests,” Marc Abrahams, The Guardian, 1 November 2010.

    “Optimal” means “it beats any other strategy.” Merit? Random promotion beats it. Up-or-out (give the person a short time to excel and if they don’t, fire ’em)? Random promotion beats it. Seniority? Random promotion beats it.

    The mathematical proof was completed by Alessandro Pluchino, Andrea Rapisarda, and Cesare Garofalo of the University of Catania, Italy, and demonstrates mathematically that organizations would become more efficient if they promoted people at random.

    REFERENCE: “The Peter Principle Revisited: A Computational Study,” Alessandro Pluchino, Andrea Rapisarda, and Cesare Garofalo, Physica A, vol. 389, no. 3, February 2010, pp. 467-72.

    Their research paper containing the mathematical proof can be downloaded here.

    But of course, this is all merely theoretical, right? We’re talking airy-fairy abstract math here…just more pie-in-the-sky nonsense with no connection to observed reality, right?


    Even more evidence converges on the conclusion that contests and awards prove poisonous, and random selection is actually the most efficient way of getting the best people:

    Steven E Phelan and Zhiang Lin at the University of Texas at Dallas, published [a survey] in the journal Computational and Mathematical Organization Theory.

    Phelan and Lin aimed to see whether, over the long haul, it pays best to promote people on supposed merit (we try, one way or another, to measure how good you are), or on an “up or out” basis (either you get promoted quickly or you get the boot), or by seniority (live long and by that measure alone you will prosper). As a benchmark, a this-is-as-bad-as-it-could-possibly-get alternative, they also looked at what happens when you promote people at random. They got a surprise: random promotion, they admitted, performed better than almost every alternative. Phelan and Lin seemed (at least in my reading of their 25-page-long paper) almost shocked by what they found.

    Download Phelan and Lin’s study here.

    So not only does a mathematical proof demonstrate incontrovertibly that contests are worse than random choices of composers, but a study examining real-world cases also comes to the same conclusion: the optimal strategy is to pick composers (or any other people who are to be selected for promotion) at random.

    We now return to our regularly scheduled invective describing me as “evil” and “a monster” and “a psychopath” and “in need of therapy” and that old standby, “ranting and raving.”


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