Competition and Community

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?

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17 thoughts on “Competition and Community

  1. Bill Doerrfeld

    All good until the words “young composers”. In the spirit of inclusion aptly pointed out in this article, lose the word “young”. Age should have nothing to do with opportunity being granted or denied. How would your momma feel about age exclusion if she decided to begin a career in composition after successfully finished raising you? (Just by way of example. I don’t know your momma! :) )

    1. G. Schankler

      I do know his momma, and she would be mortified! Seriously, I think the age limits are less about age than they are about giving opportunity to emerging composers and excluding those who have already made a name for themselves. I’m not sure how you do that, say, with a call for scores, outside of limiting it to young composers. You make a good point, though.

      1. Bill Doerrfeld

        It is odd that age is used to exclude talent from pursuing opportunities in composition. The are so many examples in other disciplines where someone may embark on a new career in their later years. Take for example someone who decides to become a writer in their 40s. Why should there been any obstacles based on age for someone choosing a career path, in particular a path were maturity and experience can bring a lot to the table? The fact is over half the composer opportunities which exist today discriminate based on age. Some set arbitrary age thresholds at 30, 35 or 40. Usually the threshold is somewhere between 30 and 40. Some do this even though the mission of their organization has nothing to do with specifically promoting people based on their age. Some opportunities list no age restriction but discriminate “privately”. Competition adjudicators will tell you that the preference is highly tipped in favor of those under age 30 for certain competitions. (I know this from personal experience.)

        Clearly, if you intend on beginning a career in music composition after age 40 you face a virtually impossible uphill battle. You need name recognition and credentials, but, you are denied being able to apply for those opportunities which offer such simply due to your age.

        Sure, it may be the exception vs the norm for someone to begin a career in composition in their 40s. But, for those whose sacrifices or tragic life events prohibited them from pursuing such a career during their “youth”, why make it more difficult for them? And for growing numbers of people who go through a mid-life crisis, why make it more difficult for them to pursue something which may fill the void?

        I agree that “young” is meant to be used as a way to distinguish “emerging” from “established” composers. But, for reasons mentioned—in addition to a simple ethical question of “why discriminate based on age for anything?” I don’t believe age should be used to determine “emerging” status.

        There are many practical methods a competition may use to limit the scope of applications to emerging talent. They can restrict prior winners. They can limit the number of times the same applicants submits (they may whine about the tracking needed for this, but, it’s really not that difficult to do with software nowadays). They can literally define “emerging” as “not earning a living based on commissions and royalties from composing”. It can also be based on the “honor” system. If a composer feels s/he is emerging they can apply. Would a truly established composer be willing to suffer the embarrassment of winning a composer 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 thru this, but, should we deny them the opportunity to renew?

        I just cannot find a good argument in support of discriminating based on age. So, I prefer to see age discrimination in composer competitions die a quick death.

        Age discrimination wouldn’t be a problem if there was an equal number of competitions to which ONLY composers over age 30-40 would quality. But, I cannot even think of one. Hey, anyone want to launch a series of Senior Composer or Old Composer or Reborn Composer or Old Newcomer Composer competitions? There’s always a market for new things, even for “old” people! :)

        1. Isaac Schankler

          Changing those age restrictions, to me, is kind of a deck chairs/Titanic move, when I’d much rather see less emphasis on competitions overall.

          For better or for worse, these competitions were created and supported by a well-intentioned older generation who saw that, as a field, composing was an old white dude’s game, and wanted to change that by creating some opportunities for younger composers. Maybe it showed some lack of imagination or foresight about what kind of cynical behavior those competitions would engender. But in principle it doesn’t bother me, any more than a competition for women composers, or a competition for a particular genre of music, or whatever.

          Honestly, for me, every time I pass an arbitrary age boundary I feel a little bit of relief, because it’s one more competition I don’t feel vaguely obligated to apply to. Then I can do something more fruitful with that time, like composing music, or posting blog comments, or playing video games, or saying snarky things on Twitter.

  2. Colin Holter

    New music culture’s inability to conceive of an opportunity as anything but a competition is a big problem.

    I couldn’t agree more – and this problem emerges from a more general one that composers have to deal with throughout their careers: We need, and others choose whether or not to give.

    The nature of written music is such that it requires the complicity (and, ideally, passion) of performers in order to become real. The means of production are controlled, in most situations, by other people. Only the most fortunate of professional composers can escape the position of supplication that most of us therefore have to assume. Securing one’s own performance prospects (by starting an ensemble, for instance) is a pretty appealing alternative – but that’s tantamount to taking on a second job, which is a tall order. Given that the market for composers is thoroughly saturated and the demand for contemporary concert music struggles to keep up with the supply, competitions (which, universally, suck) seem like the most meritocratic way to allocate scarce resources. I’m with you, though: There’s got to be a better way.

  3. Jon

    If competitions were the only way for a composer to get his or her music performed, it would be a serious, fundamental problem with the system. But they’re not, not even close. There are so many other ways composers have to get their music performed, from forming their own ensembles, as Colin mentions, to forming relationships with performers who champion their work, to cold-emailing ensembles. I’ve tried all of these techniques, and competitions definitely have the lowest rate of success, at least for me. That said, competitions can serve a useful function of bringing certain talented composers to the attention of performers and presenters who otherwise would be very unlikely to discover them. That’s it. They’re not an official declaration of Quality or Success for the composer selected (though they do often feel that way), they’re simply a way for performers and presenters to find composers that are a good “fit” who would not otherwise be found. I don’t know of any ensembles who rely exclusively on competitions to select pieces to perform; they all also employ some combination of the techniques mentioned above, from commissioning people they already know, to seeking out composers by reputation, to (sometimes) considering composers who contact them out of the blue. It feels frustrating and unfair to the many of us who rarely or never win at the competition game, but nobody’s forcing us to play that game, and it’s entirely possible to have a very successful composing career without ever winning a single competition. Economically, there’s a ridiculous imbalance in our field, with an enormous over-supply of composers relative to the existing demand for new compositions. Thus stiff competition is inevitable. We’d better get used to it.

      1. Jon

        (This is a different Jon coincidentally btw)

        Well as far as I know people like Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Arvo Part, haven’t won competitions and they’re pretty much top of the line in terms of successful contemporary composers. Though technically speaking they’ve won many prizes, but not prizes that were from something that was deemed a competition. But then it also depends on your definition of success, I would consider people like John Luther Adams and Peter Garland to have very successful composition careers, and as far as I know they’ve never won any competitions or even really been a part of that circuit. Correct if I’m wrong about any of that though.

        1. Bill Doerrfeld

          While Glass in particular and the minimalists in general are a great example of how to use alternative approaches to gaining favor and career momentum, to suggest he or they didn’t win competitions is completely false. A very quick browse on Wikipedia proves this. For example: “In 1964, Glass received a Fulbright Scholarship and went to Paris”… The Fulbright Scholarship is a highly competitive prize. One could go on and on listing all the other competitions earned by the names listed above.

          Just sticking to facts here. Bold statements need to be back by facts else they are simply perceived notions and/or wishful thinking.

          I think the burden of proof lies on the person making the claim though so I’m not going to spend the time right now to go thru each name and prove the person won a competition (major or minor) as I’ve just done with Glass.

          To suggest winning a major competition isn’t needed on one’s resume to launch a successful career in composition is not in keeping with reality IMO nor is it based on facts at least as I’ve seen them.

          I’m not suggesting this is either a good or bad thing. Just sticking to facts. And, yes the definition of “successful” can play a role here in how this issue is “quantified”. If “successful” is defined as “earns a reasonably comfortable living via commissions and royalties from composed work” then I think it would be very difficult if not impossible to provide a list of living composers who meet this description and have not won at least one composition competition

          Good, healthy discussion here on reality vs perception as far as I’m concerned. Both are needed else reality never gets any better! :)

          1. Jon

            I assumed the original poster was referring specifically to composition competitions which excludes things like the fulbright. But if you’re including winning anything that is competitive then yeah it’s pretty hard to be successful (money-wise anyways) at anything without winning something.

    1. Isaac Schankler

      I absolutely agree that competitions can have a role in bringing different talented composers to the attention of performers and ensembles, and if this is how they were largely perceived I don’t think we’d have a problem.

      Maybe things have changed, or maybe this is specific to the environments I’ve been in, but this is not how I was told to approach competitions at all. I know I’m not alone in this, because many, many composers I’ve known were also taught to engage in completely absurd, cynical behavior in order to win competitions. Ben Phelps wrote a hilarious post about this recently. Much of what Ben writes seems patently silly, except about half of it is nearly verbatim transcriptions of actual earnest advice I’ve received from various elders and mentors.

      It took me a long time to get out of this dysfunctional way of thinking. I think your attitude is similar to mine now — it’s about forming relationships, groups, and communities — and I just hope that younger composers can get to that perspective sooner than I did.

  4. Chaz

    Thanks for opening the door on an important topic.

    So, what’s the use of a competition? It seems we place the tjis burden on ourselves by placing competitions in such high regard. Competitions give you recognition among composers and performers and open the doors for winning more competitions, getting into this or that school/festival/workshop, obtaining this or that commission, right? But somehow it feels like a cath-22: you gotta win in order to win.

    I suppose that we have done this to ourselves by placing such high value on competitions that seem based upon connections as with your example. It’s not “new music’s” job to change this cultural bias (what ever that means), but our own. So why don’t we boycott competitions and start a bias-free new music collective? If we can’t get new music groups to perform, we’ll do it ourselves, and if we have no one to record, publish, or commercially release it, we’ll do it ourselves. God knows we have the talent. Now THAT’S a tall order (coming from a guy waiting for his BMI student composer awrds rejection letter).

  5. Ted King-Smith

    I think that new music and architecture share some similarities in this area as there are a plethora of competitions and awards (and Xenakis). However, it seems that these opportunities are more well-balanced over the career/age spectrum (or at least to my knowledge). Perhaps this comes from the larger availability of firms where architects can spend years creating and building projects for themselves or customers. While most of us in music must be more self-determined with the absence of that kind of project security. With so many composers competing everyday for performances, it’s hard to escape that mentality. Now with the emphasis on the young or “up-and-coming” composer that ties directly into the American fascination with the underdog.

    The answer to ending the competition mindset? Well, without eliminating a hierarchy in music you really can’t (in my opinion). Names and ensembles carry weight, you can’t avoid that. Perhaps the formation of several more “Lab Ensembles” where they invite composers, regardless of age and experience, to create new works and/or perform existing ones will benefit the new music community more. This would be sort of a step or two above the university experience as this would be in the professional world. Both the composers and performers gain attention for their collaborations, so win-win.

    1. Bill Doerrfeld

      Good points although I would replace “American fascination with the underdog” with “American fascination with thinking greatness is primarily discovered in some young person they’d like to believe is a ‘genius’ but whom after the light of youth burns out they will eventually discard in search of some other ‘genuis'”. A bit more pessimistic but arguably correct in the same way new fads and trends often consume more attention than time-tested and proven “old” ways of doing things. A healthy respect for the wisdom of the old along with the energy of the youth strikes an ideal balance in my estimation.

      And for the record I think it’s great to adopt a mindset of youthfulness and vigor, or better yet freshness and vitality. I just don’t think age needs to dictate who represents these desirable qualities!

  6. Robert Voisey

    So I feel the need to add my “two cents”

    I found this thread while doing a sweep for opportunities for

    For those who don’t know, I have run about about 50 calls for works for various projects and still continue to do so.

    I enjoyed reading this article and discussion; it inspired me to comment.

    I think the Isaac’s hypothesis is incorrect. I would be curious to know how many submissions this “young student ensemble” received and from where. I think the most likely reason for their winner selection is that they didn’t receive many submissions from a diverse pool of applicants. I have found that if you don’t advertise your call for works far and wide, the pool from which to choose from is very shallow. I believe they made the rookie mistake by thinking that if they put out a competition that great composers from all over the world would write for it.

    I doubt they will make this mistake again since they got blasted. Composers are great at blasting their allies.

    This would bring me to my second reason for “weighing in” on this thread.

    I want to start out by saying that I completely agree that “New music culture’s inability to conceive of an opportunity as anything but a competition is a big problem.”

    Competition’s are cliche. But to be honest, competitions are not the problem. If a competition didn’t get composer’s attention (as well as the public, grant funders, etc.) music ensembles and organizations would use something else.

    There are plenty of opportunities out there for composers. And plenty of ways to guide musicians and organizations to present and support music from living composers. All we need to do is support the people we feel help us the most.

    With that said, let me plug my own initiative. I am a composer and I want to change the paradigm.

    For the past 10 years I have been offering opportunities for composers. I don’t believe in competitions. I believe in presenting new music and encoring the works of living composers.
    I think I run one of the few organizations that does this well with very little resources.

    Check out the ongoing call for works for Fifteen Minutes of Fame

    60×60 with 10 annual calls for music and presenting the works of more than 1300 composers in over 30 countries.

    Composer’s Voice concert series celebrates over 100 concerts in New York City presenting hundreds living composers from around the world.

    If I were smart, I would run one or two competitions a year with a submission fee, for young “emerging” artists, offer video recordings and publication for a fee, and advertise how beneficial the competition is.

    I am an idealist; I believe the music community of living composers can thrive. All I ask is for composers to send their works, spread the word, and attend the concerts.

    1. Elaine Fine

      Drat! I somehow missed hearing about the “Bientot” project until today (the 21st). I don’t think it would be physically possible for me to come up with something worthwhile in the minuscule amount of time between now and tomorrows deadline. If there were more people like you, Rob, the new musical world would be a much more welcoming and lively “place.” Bravo for all you do. I’ll make sure to bookmark your site so that I can keep abreast of future collaborative projects.


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