Composition competitions

May 27, 2007


Daniel Wolf offers up a pair of brave posts on Renewable Music about composition competitions. He, along with David Ocker’s Mixed Meters blog, have joined the front lines of the QUESTION AUTHORITY, ESPECIALLY WHEN IT COMES TO CONTEMPORARY CLASSICAL MUSIC movement. I on the other hand, having become one with the universe, have thrown down my verbal weapons–wuss that I am–and happy that these guys have the balls to question authority: GO DUDES, GO!

The annual BMI Composition Competition winners were announced recently. Mr Wolf comments:

The composition of the jury, however, should be noted:

Chairman of the competition: Milton Babbitt
Jury members: Richard Danielpour, David Dzubay, Christopher Rouse, Gunther Schuller, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.
Preliminary judges: Chester Biscardi, David Leisner, and Bernadette Speach.

This is an East Coast establishment jury with real east coast establishment academic affiliations: Princeton, Julliard, Manhattan School, Curtis Institute, Indiana University, New England Conservatory, Sarah Lawrence; Ellen Taaffe Zwilich teaches at FSU, but could hardly be described as representing a non-establishment voice here; the only member of either jury with even a peripheral connection to the experimental music tradition is Bernadette Speach, who studied with Morton Feldman.

It is often wise to not bite the hand that feeds you and even though I never won a BMI Award (I won two ASCAP awards), I still ended up joining BMI. I was recruited back in my modernist days by James Roy, the predecessor to the current head of Classical Music at BMI, Ralph Jackson. (It is Ralph and Milton who assemble the jury I think.).

When young composers apply for these competitions, I encourage them to make their first few pages filled with notes and complexities that will dazzle the jury. Don’t even THINK about starting a piece with whole notes: BORING. I also urge them NOT to be dissapointed if they don’t win. Many times I know up front that their submissions will not win, knowing who the jury is, but I encourage them to try anyway. It’s like Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown.
Regarding my skepticism about competitions and prizes, retired Boston Globe critic, Richard Dyer actually quoted my sophomoric and flippant remarks in an interview (1982) on a question of how one wins a Pulitzer in music: “Copy any piece by Elliott Carter BACKWARDS, and reorchestrate it for some cool mix of instruments…” Ah… piss and vinegar!

[Photo from Preliminary Judges (l-r): Chester Biscardi, Bernadette Speach, David Leisner, Awards Chairman Milton Babbitt, and Final Judge Ellen Taaffe Zwilch.]


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