If you are a composer who regularly trolls through score call listings for contests, festivals or conference submissions, the following sentence (or one very much like it) will be very familiar:
“The [name of sponsor] is pleased to announce the [name of opportunity], designed to support the creation and premiere of new works by emerging composers.”
When I come upon this phrase, I usually pass on by without reading the remainder of the score call. In this particular context – a score call – I am well aware of what “emerging” means: 35 or younger; preferably younger. Now this is fine, of course. Commissioning groups are well within their rights to qualify the parameters of their score calls. And to be fair, groups do not limit calls on the basis of age in all instances. Often, contests or other opportunities may be restricted by geographical location, gender or ethnicity. Also, just to stem the wave of sympathy now being directed my way, there are plenty of opportunities out there with absolutely no restrictions. So, no worries; I’m not left weeping in my studio, destitute of opportunities. My issue, then, is not with qualifying factors placed on score calls. It is, rather, with the specific term “emerging.”
I’ve been thinking about this for a few weeks now; ever since reading the wonderful blog post by composer Alexandra Gardner in the American Music Center webzine, NewMusicBox entitled “Composer Emerging.” In her post, Gardner asks, “…how does an "emerging composer" turn into a straight up "composer"? By finishing a doctoral degree? With a tenure track teaching position or other substantial music-related gig? Upon receiving a commission from a major orchestra or signing with a major publisher? A big award such as a Guggenheim fellowship or Rome Prize? I have no idea!”
I don’t think anyone has a clear idea. If you ask ten different composers what “emerging” status means, I suspect you will get at least eleven different answers. For me, the answer is a bit fuzzy as well. I believe most composers are in a state where they have emerged, are emerging and hope someday to emerge. This fuzzy area can be flanked, however, with two pretty clear endpoints: at one end is someone (age is irrelevant) who has either never completed a piece or, having written a work, never had the composition performed in front of an audience.
On the far end, we have the “famous” composer (age, again, irrelevant). To my way of thinking, these “famous” composers share at least five attributes. First, they have garnered significant recognition in the field. This recognition is at a high level as demonstrated by big time commissions by big time ensembles (i.e., major symphony orchestras or well-known chamber groups such as eighth blackbird or the Kronos Quartet). These commissions are usually accompanied with big time grants and awards such as those Gardner lists: a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Rome Prize – I’ll throw in a Grawemeyer Award and, of course, the Holy Grail, a Pulitzer Prize. Second, “famous” composers often have older works continually performed. This is a huge distinction from most rank and file composers. As hard as it is to get just a single premiere, it is exponentially more difficult to get second or third performances of a piece. (And really, anything over three performances of the same work is just crazy talk.) Third, I have no way of knowing this for sure, but I imagine “famous” composers do not usually troll through score call listings for contests, festivals or conference submissions. They are probably too busy with the aforementioned commissions several years out to bother entering most contests. If they attend a festival or conference, it is usually not because they had a single piece selected through an adjudicated process. Rather, they were selected to be the distinguished composer-in-residence for the event. Fourth, “famous” composers probably earn a significant income from commissions, royalties, sales of recorded music and sales of physical music. Some may even live completely off of these revenue streams. Finally, I’m guessing every composer I would identify as “famous,” would point to someone else who they feel is more accomplished.
So where does that leave the rest of us? In that great fuzzy middle of having emerged, in the process of emerging and hoping to emerge. My answer to Gardner’s question of how an "emerging composer" turns into a straight up "composer" is simple: we are ALL straight up composers. We have varying degrees of experience, academic credentials, recognition and, yes, age. However, once we put pencil to paper (or for my younger colleagues, pixels to computer screens); once we create our first electronic piece, devoid of traditional notes but full of passion; once we sit horrified or enraptured as our music is performed in public; once we hear applause and stand in the audience as performers recognize us from the stage; once we send off that first piece and get that first rejection letter; once we have done any of those things - we have emerged. After that, we should just relax about our status. We’re all emerging composers; even the “famous” ones.