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.