Behind Closed Doors
In general, are you disappointed or impressed by most of the applicants?
Informant A: Over the years in general, I have been very pleased with the art I’ve had to deal with. It really depends on where you are, in what part of the country. I’ve been in some places where there wasn’t enough talent to give all the money away. But more often, I’ve been in the reverse situation where it was just amazingly developed.
Informant B: I would say that the picture you usually form is one of a healthy artistic climate. I’m sometimes surprised at the kind of work that gets submitted. I feel there are some people who could submit who aren’t doing it. I don’t know what the reason for that might be other than a fear on their part that there’s a stylistic bent to a given award and they’re just not going to get past the main hurdle.
Informant C: I’m often a little disappointed at the thought that has gone into the application. People often don’t take the time to understand what the grant or the award is for. They don’t know how to tailor an application or they think that general merit is the only criterion for receiving the grant or the award. That’s often not the case. People don’t often communicate with words what they should in a grant application.
Do you think there are too many applications or that not enough people apply?
Informant A: That depends on the panel. In previous years, if there weren’t enough applicants it was probably because they weren’t aware of it. And it has everything to do with the region.
Informant B: I don’t know, I think that question is like asking Abraham Lincoln how long a man’s legs should be. They should be long enough to reach the ground… That’s my answer. I suppose that if you’re dealing with a competition like Masterprize that gets 1,500 scores, it’s a problem. But [in general] the number has seemed reasonable. It could be more, but I think it’s a healthy amount.
Informant C: It’s difficult. There are often more than enough grant applications for the amount of money that has to be dispersed. I suspect if there was more money to be dispersed, there’d be even more applications.
Do you feel that the applicants who submit are from a wide cross-section of our society or a much narrower one?
Informant A: If it’s an anonymous competition, I don’t know when I’m in the middle of it. In fact, I wouldn’t know until after they’re selected. Other than that, I have no idea.
I want to say, however, that I think just adding judges to a panel because of race, sex, color, anything having to do with diversity, just for the sake of itself, is tokenism, and I feel that it’s horrible. That’s just giving in to making liberals feel better. Panelists should be selected based on what a particular competition is about. Serving on panels is one of the most difficult things to do, but it’s when I feel most responsible as a person and a representative of the new music culture. People should really be attentive to that. Often panelists feel that it is an honor in and of itself, but it’s the responsibility that they should be paying attention to.
Informant B: A lot of times you just don’t know. People don’t put that kind of thing on resumes anymore. And you can’t tell from a name, sometimes even gender. I don’t think it’s relevant because it’s a self-selecting population. You either submit or you don’t. There’s no screening process. I think there are probably people who avoid sending things because they feel they don’t have a chance. I’ve certainly encountered students of mine who need to be encouraged to keep track of these things. When you don’t live as close to where the judging is done, it’s not a big enough blip on the radar.
Informant C: Among the people that apply, I see diversity. Often I don’t know the ethnic, racial, or sexual orientation of applicants if I don’t know them [personally]. Among those who apply, it’s getting better gender-wise and ethnic-wise, at least if you can evaluate ethnicity based on last names which is suspect anyway. It seems to be a wider range if you can evaluate ethnicity based on some of the projects which are often quite explicit about saying, “I am looking to incorporate music of my homeland.” I think it’s become pretty stylistically diverse, impressively so.
As for geographic diversity, I have very mixed feelings. At times I react negatively towards the idea that there’s a disproportionate number of successful composers who come from the Northeast corridor, from the Bay Area, from Minnesota, and people who went to graduate school in Michigan. Those seem to be it. The people who may be quite worthy but have gone to other schools or the people who live in other parts of the country just don’t do as well. If you look at the numbers, it’s clearly the case. It’s easy to say that’s not fair. Then you think about the enormous gravitation of people who originally came from these other places to New York, to San Francisco, to other cities which are well represented. There is an escape of talent from these other cities, and you have to wonder about how that affects things.
I feel bad about saying this, but there are times when I’ve looked at applications from people who come from parts of the country that are not often represented and specifically their concert music seems behind the times. It seems that they are not as up on current trends and so, good or bad, their music seems a little old. I have found that to be the case in the Mid-West and in the South. There are exceptions. There are people who do really interesting things who apply from those regions, but you find a kind of American, often fugal, contrapuntal school which is writing music that sounds a generation old to me. Sometimes it can be very good and you can support it, but I think there’s a negative bias because it doesn’t sound cutting edge. I don’t know how to address that because I want there to be geographical diversity in how things are represented and then sometimes I have an honest reaction that some of this music is falling short. Not because [the composer] is less talented, but because [the music] seems less informed.
Can you make any kind of generalizations about the kinds of works that get submitted and the works that ultimately win?
Informant A: Not in any that I’ve been on. But I would have to say all too often there are those who win because their name is involved and therefore people recognize their name and say: “Their work is always good, therefore they should get an award.” That’s what’s wonderful about anonymous competitions…
Informant B: I think at the moment that pieces that are still built on the 1960s aesthetic inheritance of either serialism or aleatorism tend to be non-starters. But if the work is good, I’ve had no problem in recommending it. I think if you’re dealing with something like a reading—and I’ve had to judge those a few times—picking a certain score of that level of complexity to organize for a reading is probably not going to happen.
Lately, in the kinds of things I’ve been asked to look at, which has involved a fair amount of orchestral music, I do get a sense that there are people who are trying to write the upbeat, 8-minute orchestral opener in an inoffensive post-modernist idiom or a resuscitative Americana idiom. The music speaks to a stylistic shift that I see in the work of my own students. A lot of them are just not interested in the heritage of modernism, so perhaps I shouldn’t wonder that we tend to get these things. But a lot of times there are people, and I know because I’ve had some as students, who want to write that surefire piece and sometimes write a piece that’s maybe a little bit insincere.
Informant C: I think regardless of stylistic camps, pieces that rhythmically have a strong profile seem to make people respond more quickly than music that has other virtues: something which is very colorful, something which is actually very melodious or contrapuntally intricate, music that sets text extremely well. You don’t often have a lot of time to listen and something which is rhythmically interesting and secure gives people a sense very quickly. I find that there’s a lot of really high quality music that is serious in nature, if not depressing, and it’s very hard for that music to shine though in a panel. Just like there’s a lot of high quality music that makes people squirm in the concert hall, people in a panel have a very difficult time relating to works that are like that. What it leads to is that there are plenty of composers who write pieces like that who just don’t submit them for these kinds of things.
I have a friend from graduate school who had threatened to write a piece called “Competition Winner” or “Big Prize Piece” and I think that there are a lot of people who are aware in some sense that a piece that is flashy on some level, at least one such piece, is a kind of necessary part of the catalog if you’re going to be successful in this game. There are people who just write flashy pieces and I don’t think that’s healthy. On the other hand, I have found it to be an interesting exercise. I think what is not healthy is a self-conscious attempt to write a competition-winning piece. I found it appalling years ago when I watched people do it. It doesn’t tend to impress me when I’m on panels, but I cannot say that is generally the case.
Are there any other styles/approaches that are under-represented or not represented at all in the applicant pool?
Informant A: I don’t think there’s enough attention given or competitions that would invite those particular applications that involve a more creative approach to representing music, and by that I mean alternative ways of notation. Improvisation, because that’s such a difficult thing to describe, you have to have a product to represent it—there has to be a recording. People who are involved in improvisational music can have a sense from the page of what it’s going to be like, but more often than not with improvisation, it’s the performer’s participation and interpretation that makes it what it’s going to be. If it’s supposed to be about composition then it should be about composition. If it’s about performance, then call it a performance award! In certain panels, it’s more about the performance than the composition. And there’s nothing more annoying than that.
Informant B: Yes, probably there are. But, as I said before, it’s a self-selecting pool. It’s really up to those people. I feel that the sort of Bang on a Can school, that particular school of harder-edged writing wasn’t particularly well represented in some of the orchestral things that I’ve looked at but maybe those people don’t write much orchestral music, I don’t know. The sort of music that springs from the post-Cage tradition is also not particularly well represented.
Informant C: I think there’s a definite lack of a particular kind of collaboration: music and dance collaborations. Those collaborations often seem hastily thrown together, the product of not enough composers and choreographers knowing each other’s work. Beyond that, it’s very difficult to say what seems under-represented as things are more removed from what years ago was thought of as traditional concert music are the subject of applications you kind of evaluate it as they come; it’s difficult for me to say otherwise.