Behind Closed Doors
Do you tend to gravitate toward applicants whose music is stylistically similar to yours or contrapositively do you tend to gravitate toward music that is not at all like yours?
Informant A: Either way, no. I think we all come to a point—otherwise we shouldn’t be on a panel as artists (or a lot of other places either)—where we know the difference between something we don’t like and something that just isn’t good art. But there’s absolutely no equation for that.
Informant B: I try to make it a non-issue. I don’t think I’m there to judge the music against a template of my own music. I’m there to judge the music on its own merits. Recently I was talking to somebody and I was saying that I really don’t like Dvorak, but I recognize that he’s a great composer. But if I never hear another note of Dvorak’s music again, I don’t care.
Informant C: I think that I have gone out of my way to understand and support music that is different from mine. I don’t know whether I carry a bias against it. I know more of the music that is stylistically similar to mine than the music that is stylistically different.
Are there any other aesthetic criteria that you use to determine whether something is a winner?
Informant A: It all goes into what makes good art. It could be creativity, spontaneity, excellent structure, anything involved with the elements of music—or not—any combination of those things. I’m not trying to be vague. I really don’t think it can be answered. There’ve been many situations where people haven’t received grants or awards because people on the panel did not like them [personally] or because the applicant was on another panel that did not give the panelist an award. It does happen and more frequently than people want to say.
Informant B: What I’m looking for in a work is risk taking, and that can be in any direction. It can describe any kind of compositional technical aspect. I certainly have felt that pieces I have been in a position to pick have been of that technical level whether I like the music or not.
Informant C: I go out of my way to try to evaluate and support music that in my view is at the edges of the genre: music that is not notated but is inherently concert music. I am interested in being inclusive, because not just on panels but in the field, music on the edges gets dismissed in certain circles. At times I feel I lack the resources to evaluate the music, a problem which in more recent panels seems to have been addressed by getting an even wider diversity of panelists.
Generally, what do you think the most important element to a proposal or application is?
Informant A: This is so individually based, but generally everything should be legible and clear and really reflect what you do as an artist. That’s as common as I can be without being specific to any competition.
Informant B: If a score is in bad shape, or if it’s been printed out in a poor way, it can affect your judgment. But a lot of us, the older ones who remember hand copying, sometimes we enjoy seeing a hand copied score for a change because it does reveal personality and because we know that a lot of the computer-generated notation programs, especially Sibelius and Finale, cover up a multitude of sins by filling in gaps in a composer’s knowledge about how a score is supposed to be presented. So if you’re looking at an orchestral score with incredibly tiny staves with a separate line for every string instrument but then the bar lines don’t go through every system, you know you’re dealing with somebody who really doesn’t have a clue. Even so, Beethoven’s manuscripts didn’t look particularly impressive either. So I do feel, and this is my personal feeling, you have to try to get past those issues because you might be dealing with someone who didn’t have the chance or who doesn’t have the eye or the capacity to do that sort of thing. I know that some people have groused at competitions like BMI that neatness counts. In my experience, that wasn’t really the case.
Informant C: One question that comes up frequently is: How will a grant for this piece or this residency help you? I think that thoughtful responses to this can be extremely helpful because the applications are read—it’s not just the samples. This is important for established composers too, for whom particular commissions or residencies can be helpful, who don’t have a particular type of work in their catalog are who are looking to do something in that vein. Shirking that question is a mistake and responding generically is a mistake. Thinking about why what you’re applying for is unique for your development is really important.
How long do you typically spend on each proposal?
Informant A: That’s also very specific to each competition. Each one of them, generally speaking, has an amount of time that’s supposed to be given to each application. Within their process it’s established, whether it’s one or two or three rounds or more, or whether you’re given materials ahead of time or you have to go somewhere specific to spend that time. Anywhere between five and ten minutes. With scores, I read every page of every manuscript. I probably spend more time than most. Some don’t think they need to review them ahead of time even when they’re told to.
There are situations where materials are played; they’re played for just a certain amount of time so you don’t have the opportunity to hear the whole piece. I would particularly like to see that abolished. I know it would take forever to go through all the applications in certain cases, but I would rather have the opportunity to listen to an entire piece of music.
Informant B: It depends on the nature of the award and the number of submissions. Certainly, on the Pulitzer panel, you have to give every piece a fair share no matter what, and that can be anything from a huge opera to a patriotic song by a postal worker which we got one year. You give everything a try and then you have to narrow it down. If it was a piece that seemed compelling enough and had a shot, how can you judge it if you don’t take in its totality? When I was judging 150 scores that were sent to my house in boxes, I tried to go through each score twice. I’d pick up every score a second time. Then the ones that seemed the most intriguing, and there’d be quite a number, I would actually sit and play.
Informant C: Only once have I gotten listening examples in advance of a panel meeting. I usually spend about five to ten minutes on an application if I’ve received materials before hand. When I come in, I find that the panel knows pretty well most of the applications. Sometimes panelists are assigned to present specific applications to the other people who nevertheless have also looked at the materials. I think the amount of listening time has boiled down to five minutes max per application, sometimes a lot less.