How many times have I heard a composition student ask in a seminar something to the tune of “How do I prepare my music for calls for scores?” How many conversations in the cafeteria have orbited around what competitions were being submitted to by whom and who was hearing back what? And conversely, how many emails have I gotten informing me that my piece was not selected from a pool of 500-1000 applications? Why are we all playing this game?
I could talk specifics about the funding of competitions versus the number of composition graduates being churned out every year, but such an angle misses a bigger picture. It simply does not do us good to have every note scrutinized for competitive advantage before it sees the light of day. Such a workflow rewards mechanistic, derivative compositional practices and wears its participants down. Such a workflow moreover misdirects the energies of our overarching career plans. What? Career plans? Do I mean to say that there has to be a better way to spend our creative lives than padding our website bios and hoping to eventually attract serious commission dollars? (Not long ago I would have said “to stand out in the academic job market,” but anecdotally I haven’t seen many colleagues even beginning to take their chances with that market these days.) It would be reasonable to assert that responding to every possible post on the Composer’s Site doesn’t take a huge amount of time, and that it’s eminently possible to keep “shopping our work around” whilst building our musical lives in another plane, but first off, that approach requires a truly outstanding ability to handle rejection without allowing that knowledge to permeate one’s compositional practice — to actually change one’s own creative product in order to appease the big Other of the adjudicator — and secondly, and perhaps more consequentially for our greater creative community, glutting the profession with our happily-offered-up works cheapens not only our works themselves but those of our colleagues. If an ensemble knows that they can easily get 500 free, unperformed scores for the low, low price of writing out competition guidelines, why would they want to commission someone? We will be trapped in this race to the bottom so long as this paradigm remains undisrupted.
A basic part of compositional craft (which our colleagues in the other arts understand much more thoroughly than we do) is the practice of determining what the work is going to be. By this I do not mean determining the form or sound-world; these things are fine and meaningful, but rather, we must cultivate the skill of determining the who, what, where, when, and why of the project. Such basic parameters — is there a specific performer in mind? is there a venue in mind? and such like — contain much more art within themselves than they might seem; the actual musical text, even if it is what we consider to be the heart of our product, has no substance unless it is made into music, which is by no means a peripheral part of the process. I’m sure that every reader has at least entertained workshopping as a part of the compositional process, and at least considered that performer feedback is probably worth listening to, but such inputs are not window dressing, and should not be meant to “perfect the text of the score.” There is no perfect musical text, and when musical texts are judged against one another, such a hypothetical perfection will be inescapable.
It’s not as if this profession is lacking in opportunities to collaborate — but so long as we still have normalized writing music on spec and throwing it onto an ever-growing adjudication pile, that will be what people do. The machine will only stop if we stop feeding it.