Competition Curiosity

Competition Curiosity

While the NMBx commenter community continues to duke it out on last week’s post, I have quietly excused myself, and tiptoed over here to tackle another non-controversial topic: composer competitions.

This week it has been good to see that the Finale National Composition Contest, formerly another thing fraught with drama, has finished round one, picked three finalists and acknowledged a nice long list of runners up for their excellent work. The extra kudos is especially nice to see because entering composition competitions often feels like playing the lottery, and when all is said and done, even if one doesn’t win, it is gratifying to know that one’s hard work got far enough into the process to warrant a serious discussion, or maybe even an arm wrestling match or a food fight! That is something to be proud of!

So I’m curious—are there many composers out there who write music specifically for competitions? I never have, rather choosing to submit existing works that fit the instrumentation—not to mention the aesthetic leanings—of the competition in question. However, I have often heard composers say, “Well I’m writing this *insert instrumentation here* piece to enter into this competition. I really need to make some money!” Although this seems like the scenic route to extra income, I can see how it might work for some, especially if one needs an externally imposed deadline in order to complete a new piece! Nothing wrong with that—we work how we work. But I wonder about competitions that want compositions with unusual instrumentations. A piece written for eighth blackbird could be performed by a number of other groups, but what about that work for tuba, guitar, and accordion? Most composers don’t necessarily have something like that just sitting around (though I’m sure that some of you do!), so would you write a new work just for a competition that called for a motley assortment of instruments? For me the answer is “no way,” because if the piece doesn’t win (and according to some it just won’t), who else on earth is going to play it?! Don’t get me wrong, I adore writing for bizarre instrumental combinations, and some of the best gigs I’ve had have been writing for unusual forces, but they were commissions with performances attached.

Anyway, for those of you who may be experiencing the competition/grant application blues (these things go in cycles and it happens to us all), the link in the paragraph above is a terrific article by composer Eric Whitacre about the pros and cons of entering competitions. The nutshell version is that submitting music to competitions is a really good idea, but not for the reasons one might expect.

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3 thoughts on “Competition Curiosity

  1. jeidson

    Competition-specific pieces
    I spend a good deal of time looking for and entering competitions, but rarely do I write specific works for entry into one contest. While scanning recent postings, I tend to look for contests where I can enter an existing work. I do not like to send MIDI recordings if at all possible, so finishing a new piece a week before the deadline almost assures you will be sending in a MIDI or no recording at all. Another issue is, as you pointed out in your article, who besides the contest ensemble (which might not even choose your work) is going to play your newest masterpiece for piccolo, banjo, and mezzo?

    However, if there is a really interesting posting I might bookmark it and put down “new work?” in my list. Case in point is the recent Butler Symphony competition for orchestral works on the theme of space exploration. I did not have a work like that and was planning on writing a new orchestra piece at the end of 2010 anyway, so this was a perfect fit (plus the inspiration was already provided by the contest – bonus!).

    -Joseph Eidson

  2. Alexandra Gardner

    Joseph, this is a good point! If the work is something that one was planning on doing anyway, or is already in progress, or is a project for school, etc., then by all means get it out there!

  3. jhelliott

    While I have won a few competitions, in no case were the pieces written for that purpose. It was more a question of luck, and in my case, the only competition that called for a specific instrumentation was an orchestral competition for young composers (under age 30) held by a major orchestra. I prefer to write pieces when I know they will be performed, as a piece that languishes in a file (or on a hard drive) just makes me sad, and time is precious.


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