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…