Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Call & Response (Part 2)

Happy New Year! 

After a longer than anticipated hiatus, I’m back with Part 2 of my thoughts on score calls. In my previous blog post (admittedly uploaded a very long time ago), I listed three pet peeves I have about submissions to composition opportunities. These issues obviously came from a composer’s point of view. As a weird sort of therapy to soothe my wounded ego, having just received a batch of rejections (which, by the way, always seem to come in batches as if to maximize the dramatic effect on my morale), I have decided to now look at things from a presenter’s point of view.  I believe I can speak from this perspective with a bit of authority having issued score calls on many occasions in my career. While, as a composer, I took issue with practices found in many score calls, we composers are far from perfect in our responses to such opportunities. So, to be fair, and given in no particular order, here are three admonitions presenters have for composers:

1. Read the directions carefully then do something revolutionary: follow them! 

Most opportunities list fairly specific criteria for submitted works. Common among these are instrumentation requirements and total duration of submitted compositions. It is also not uncommon for score calls to ask for certain thematic attributes as well. These are not suggestions! Instrumentation requests are usually driven by performer availability and ability to play at a high enough level to tackle often difficult contemporary scores with few rehearsals. Also, whether it be for a festival, conference, or just a single concert, presenters are thinking about programming for an entire event not just a single composer’s work. This is a very important consideration and is an area where the presenter has the opportunity to demonstrate some real creativity. Selecting pieces that work well together and placing them in a particular order is also a very pragmatic exercise. This is what most often drives the 10-minute duration request. It is only composers who reach a certain stature in their respective careers who are relatively free of such constraints. Composers in this group probably did not submit to score calls anyway. They are usually approached individually by a presenter, commissioner, or consortium. These are the composers who are the “featured” artists at conferences, festivals, or symposia with whom less well-known composers share some performance time. 

If a composer has a question about submitting a piece with a deviation from what is listed, it is better to email the presenter and find out whether this deviation will be accepted before simply submitting. Please remember that presenters generally have a small group of people reviewing submitted scores. Often, the number of scores that are submitted is daunting. For example, when I hosted the 2008 Society of Composers, Inc. (SCI) National Conference at the Georgia State University School of Music, we received in excess of 600 scores. Having to consider so many scores, with too few adjudicators, and under often crushing time constraints, it is a purely practical (and sanity preserving) matter to summarily cut from consideration those scores that do not meticulously follow the score call guidelines. 

2. Entry Fees

This was my number two pet peeve with presenters. However, from a presenter’s point of view, there are legitimate reasons why an entry fee for a score call/competition might be necessary. While there are always egregious excesses from time to time, most entry fees average around what most of us pay for one-month of a subscription to Netflix. As mentioned in my previous post, however, charging an entry fee is a practice that seems to draw a lot of ire from composers. Why do so many presenters do it, then? Simply put, it is a good source of revenue. It’s important to consider the fact that most presenters (whether they are ensembles, individual artists, or organizations) operate on razor thin budgets. Entry fees for score calls do not begin to cover the costs for running a group, individual career, or even that large organization. Most of the time, presenters legitimately want to create opportunities for composers. They also want an opportunity to vet work that comes their way because - let’s face it - not every composition is a masterpiece. There also may be a certain artistic aesthetic preferences within a group that a score call can help refine. The submission of scores to groups out of the blue rarely results in success for a composer. Therefore, the curated score call is a better route to go. Most presenter’s use the entry fees collected from a score call in combination with hard-won grants, paying gigs, and donations to cobble together enough funds to mount one single concert. Also, presenters (who are often performers and sometimes composers as well), should be compensated for pouring over the hundreds of scores that are delivered upon their doorsteps. Their time is equally as valuable as a composer’s time. Besides, compared to the hours of work that adjudicating scores entails, the amount of money collected in a score call would amount to a tiny fraction of an hourly minimum wage. 

Of course, there are many other fixed costs that presenters have to consider and that justify attaching an entry fee to a score call. I personally do not harbor any ill-will towards presenters that charge an entry fee. I’ve sat in their shoes and I know what is involved the minute you press the key to upload a score call. At the end of the day, the decision to apply to a call with a fee is a personal one. No one is forcing anyone to apply. Also, as I remind my students, most score calls are free. I usually set a a budget for myself with an amount that I am willing to spend per year on entry fees. Also, this yearly amount I spend on entry fees feels more like a “donation” to new music. I feel like I am contributing a little bit to the larger eco-system of contemporary music and its promotion by performers and presenting groups. But that’s just me. If you are adamantly opposed to paying any fee, just scroll down to the next listed opportunity.

3. Show Up

If a composer is fortunate enough to have a piece selected for performance as a result of a score call, it’s important to attend the concert if possible. This sounds like a no-brainer, but there are sometimes circumstances that prohibit attending a performance. Things come up. This happened to me recently when not one but two of my compositions were selected for performances at a contemporary music festival this past fall. As the time drew near to make my travel plans, a conflict arose and I was forced to make the painful decision to not attend the festival. At the time, I was fully prepared to have my works withdrawn from the festival programming schedule. It is often the policy of festivals to require attendance of composers whose works are performed. It has happened to me in the past. I was extremely fortunate that the presenter of this past fall’s festival still had my music performed despite my absence. This was a very kind gesture for which I was most appreciative.

Another reason to miss a performance can be due to the location. When pieces of mine have been selected for performance outside the United States, it is sometimes not possible to attend due to travel time and/or financial concerns.

Finally, for those composers who regularly receive a great number of performances of their works, it becomes impossible to attend every concert. However, composers who are receiving so many performances of their music per year that attending them all is not feasible are those who probably don’t enter many call for scores anymore. It’s hard to imagine Pulitzer Prize winning composers scouring The Composer’s Site each week for opportunities to have their music performed.

For those of us who do try to take advantage of score calls, and submit compositions fairly regularly, after paying close attention to the submission guidelines, it’s important to see where and when the performance opportunity will take place. At that point, you have to ask yourself a few questions. Am I willing to travel to the festival’s location if  my piece is selected? Can I afford to attend? Does my schedule permit attending? Is there a an attendance requirement attached to the score call? If you are unwilling or unable to attend, think twice before applying to a score call in the first place. It is very important to be present if possible at the performance of your work; especially if the work was selected through peer-review. Not only is it good form, but showing up in person strengthens the bonds between composer and presenter. If the presenter and/or individual performers like the music and enjoyed meeting the composer, future collaborations outside the normal “Call for Scores” process might take place. It’s hard to make meaningful connections in absentia.

It feels good to finally close the loop on this two-part post. I hope to find a better workflow for this blog in the months to come and post a bit more regularly in 2019. If you are interested in finding out more about my own music - please visit my website at Also, please feel free to comment below if you wish to engage in this or any other composition-related topic a bit further.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Call & Response (Part 1)

There is probably no denying that the best way for a composer to get music performed is by developing strong personal relationships and writing music for friends. While well worth it, this approach takes time and much effort. That's why contests and score calls from prestigious organizers and performers can sometimes seem much more alluring. I suppose deep down many of us want to be “award-winning” composers. Winning a competition or having a piece selected as a result of a score call is a great way to boost the fragile creative ego, jump-start a new relationship with performers, and add an important line in a curricular vita. I have been regularly perusing score calls for most of my career as a composer. Every week or so, I check such sites as “SCION” published by the Society of Composers, Inc. (SCI) and the “Composer’s Site” webpage among others. At this point, I continue foraging for opportunities as much out of habit as out of an earnest desire to present my music. I also continue to receive a steady stream of direct email notifications concerning opportunities to submit my work. (When you get rejected by as many presenters as I have over the years, you end up on many email lists.) Given all these resources, I think I am usually up to date on the various opportunities out there for composers at any given time. I’ve also been at this for quite a while and have seen almost every imaginable type of score call.

Recently, I came across an opportunity listing that actually caused me to stop in my virtual tracks and chuckle. When describing the parameters of a particular score call, an organization wrote:

Works must be written for this specific instrumentation:
Soprano, accordion, cello, and clarinet
Soprano and accordion
Soprano and banjo

Of course, I immediately posted a snarky comment about this on my Facebook page and received many equally snarky comments and “likes.” However, this particular score call caused me to think about all the things that drive me crazy as a composer about such calls. To be fair, I have also been a presenter myself and issued my own score calls and am fully aware of many things that drive presenters equally crazy about composers.  So, in no particular order, this blog post and the one to follow will list my Top 3 items that both composers and presenters should think about when issuing and responding to score calls.

In this post, let’s start with Presenters.

1. The Tailor-Made Submission

Once in a while, submitting to an opportunity really pays off.
Just ask Caroline Shaw and Roomful of Teeth! This photo
taken on January 21, 2018 after a performance at
Georgia State University.
In this type of score call, the presenter requires a composer to create a brand-new piece of music tailored specifically for a particular opportunity. Usually, the submitted piece(s) cannot have been premiered in public. This kind of call is an immediate non-starter for me. The nature of competitions (at least in my experience) is that composers have about a 10% chance of success. Why then should a composer expend the energy to write a new piece specifically for a call when the high odds are the work will not be selected? What happens to the piece then? This issue is really exacerbated when the instrumentation called for is non-standard; like a soprano and banjo, for instance.

If an ensemble or presenter is really interested in generating repertoire for themselves, I advise the Verdehr Trio model. This ensemble, founded in 1972 and comprised of Elsa Ludewig-Verdehr, clarinet, Walter Verdehr, violin, and Silvia Roederer, piano, has commissioned over 200 new works. They mostly did this by working directly with composers. No contest necessary. Over the years, the clarinet, violin, piano trio has become a standard medium for composition largely due to the efforts of the Verdehr Trio.

2. Entry Fees

Sometimes, it feels just like gambling when paying a fee to
participate in a call for scores...
Entry fees always cause heated discussions within composer circles. Many composers adamantly dislike the inclusion of such fees in any score call. The presenter should be aware of this animus when contemplating the inclusion of a fee for a planned score call. The higher the fee, the more outrage a presenter may illicit. Nothing causes red flags to go up for a composer more than a high entry fee with the promise of a cash prize for the winner of the contest and a caveat stating that if submission quality is lacking, no prize will be awarded. A composer is left to suspect that the contest was just a funding opportunity for the presenter at the expense of composers anxious to get their music heard. Preying on this type of composer anxiety really doesn’t sit well with many creative artists. Most professional musicians rightly expect to be paid for their services. Why is a composer expected to not only compose a work for free but to actually pay for the 90% probability of receiving a rejection letter?  

Ironically, this will also be my #2 Item on the forthcoming Composers list (Part 2 of this blog post) because I can see another side to this issue…

3. The “Logan’s Run” Syndrome

In the 1976 film, Logan’s Run (based on the book by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson), one of the themes explored is that of youth worship. The story takes place in a future where the remnants of humanity live utopian lives filled with hedonistic pleasures until they reach the age of the 30 and are euthanized. There seems to be a bit of this type of youth worship in many score calls. Opportunities for composers older than 30 are certainly far fewer than for calls aimed at “emerging composers.” It’s as if once a composer reaches 30 (or older), he or she has already had a successful career and should not be afforded many more opportunities. In many professional contact sports, it’s easy to see how a person over the age of 30 can be considered “old.” This line of thinking is far less convincing when applied to creative artists. While I believe it is vitally important to provide meaningful opportunities for young and “emerging” composers, it also strikes me that by tilting too far in the direction of youth and inexperience, we seem to be excluding many gifted, experienced composers over the age of 30 who have simply had the misfortune of not becoming famous fast enough.

While I could toss in a few more, I’ll stop with these “Top 3” issues for now. My colleagues can probably cite others. In my next post I will switch sides and talk to my fellow composers. There are things we should think about in the submission process as well! Until then, it’s time for me to go back online and look for the next opportunity…

Sunday, December 31, 2017

A Creative Paradox - or - How Embracing the Dark Side Made Me a Better Composer

Like so many others during these waning hours of December, I can’t help but briefly pause and reflect on 2017 before charging forward into the new year. In 2017, I was again blessed to compose music, teach, travel, and receive many performances of my music, much as I have in the past. However, two events, oddly related to one another, stand out this year.

From the Georgia State University School of Music
website: the official announcement of the new gig!
The first of these noteworthy events took place back in June. At that time, I was appointed the Interim Director of the Georgia State University School of Music, an institution where I have taught for over 20 years. Sharp readers of this blog may note that this is about the time that my (more or less) regular postings here abruptly ceased. This is probably not surprising. Moving from my position as a long time senior faculty member to what many in my profession refer to as the “Dark Side” (i.e., administration) was very significant and, in many ways, life changing. I have keenly felt a much higher level of responsibility while working through a steep learning curve over the past seven months. I still feel like I am drinking water out of a gushing fire hydrant.

The wonderful contemporary music group,
Unheard-of//Ensemble performing my work, "Frontlash"
at Weill Recital Hall in NYC - 12.18.17
However, I have also found my new role surprisingly exhilarating. After having done the same thing over and over again for over 20 years, perhaps I was ready for a big change. However, despite all of the new responsibilities associated with the administrative position, I was grateful to still be able to continue teaching a bit. Bringing with it exciting new challenges and the ability to maintain my teaching to a degree, this new job seemed to have offered nothing but positives. Nevertheless, despite being generally happy with the new gig, there was one thing that concerned me at the outset: how would this administrative work affect my creative activity? Would I suddenly cease to be an active composer?

I was determined to maintain my compositional output. However, to accomplish this, I soon realized that I needed to change my life even more. In addition to being a full-time 12-month employee (good-bye long summer vacations) and learning a completely new set of skills associated with the new job, I needed to also significantly change my personal work habits. It was readily apparent, even after my first week, that late-night composing would no longer work in my “new normal” schedule. After a full day, I found that my creative energies were nearly non-existent. I therefore made the very painful decision (for me) to become a “morning person.”

Finding time to work despite the new gig and travels.
This Sonata for Violin & Piano was completed in July while
  teaching at the 3rd Summer Music Performance Program
in Thessaloniki, Greece. 
I have never been a fan of the morning. Given my preference, I would sleep late, work from the late morning to the afternoon, take a break for a workout, then dinner, and then proceed to compose until the very wee hours of the morning. That type of schedule didn’t really work well when I was a faculty member and it certainly wasn’t going to work now. So, I made peace with the idea that I would rise very early, get in a brisk workout and then compose before heading into the office every day. At first, I was skeptical that this new work flow would allow me to maintain my past productivity. After all, excluding the weekends, I no longer have large blocks of time to simply compose. Now, I must work every day, at a specific time, and for a very specific duration. As it turns out, I was right. I found that I was not maintaining my past productivity.

I was exceeding it.

In looking back over the year, I am shocked to find that I have composed over twice the amount of music I usually produce in a single year. Moreover, I still compose by hand. I have avoided the temptation to compose directly into the computer, although I know that would save me the step of taking my pencil score and notating it later via computer notation software.

Obligatory photo at Carnegie Hall. Why not?
I don't get a piece performed there everyday!
Somehow, landing the gig as Interim Director of the GSU School of Music has not only reinvigorated my academic career, but has somehow also refocused my creative activity. In a paradoxical twist, having much less time has actually given me the liberty to produce more music. I find that since I do not have any time to waste, I simply try to make good use of the time I have been given. This includes, by the way, carving out time to relax. I’m not a hermit - having closed myself off from everything but university work and composing. I enjoy my family, go to concerts and movies, cook, read, travel, and have been known to binge a show or two on Netflix from time to time. However, having been privileged to take on a bigger role at my university has made me much more purposeful in my use of time.

I mentioned early on in this post that there were two major events that occurred in life during 2017 and that they were related. The second event was the recent performance of my work Frontlash (commissioned by the very talented contemporary music group, Unheard-of//Ensemble) at the Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall in New York City. Having a work performed at Carnegie Hall is a dream that almost every composer has and many have attained. This was my first time and I found myself deeply humbled and honored by the experience. Perhaps more importantly, Frontlash, having been composed after my appointment as Interim Director of the GSU School of Music and a product of my new work flow, is early validation for me. This particular piece and its successful performance indicate that if I continue to use my time wisely, I may be able to achieve success as an administrator and maintain a positive career trajectory as a creative artist.

With that kind of validation as a tailwind, I look forward to 2018!