Behind Closed Doors
In your opinion, what is the ultimate value of the award process?
Informant A: The value of the award process is first the honor and prestige. And often it’s monetary, so it’s very helpful in that capacity.
Informant B: The obvious is to increase recognition of artistic achievement by singling out works that seem to be or are interesting, provocative, moving, amusing, whatever. It’s also, of course, to encourage people to continue doing what they’re doing and to give them a little spending money, which is not a bad thing.
Informant C: Hopefully it brings attention to people whose music wouldn’t reach audiences without people saying, at least for a little while, “This person won an award, maybe there’s a reason for it that’s worth celebrating.” I don’t think there are a lot of ways to get ahead in this business and anything that even temporarily provides some kind of sanctification for what people do that gets the attention of presenters and performers has a value. And there’s often cash. A lot of people who win these awards are graduate students and unlike graduate students in computer science, they have no lucrative summer weekend employment—they’re just writing pieces. In some basic ways, these awards give people the money they need to sit around and write some more pieces and the value of affirming, in the judges’ view, a good piece or a good composer, means a lot to that composer himself or herself. There is a level of insecurity in what we do which is pretty high and it’s nice to be confident about what one does. When someone on the outside says this is good, that helps you in a fundamental way at times.
Have you personally received awards from panel-judged competitions over the years?
Informant A: Yes, I have.
Informant B: Sure.
Informant C: I have.
Did those awards help you overall in your career?
Informant A: Yes, without question.
Informant B: There’s no question that it’s been very helpful, and sometimes it’s made the difference between being able to carry on and not. I remember once when I sent in a portfolio for something and I had forgotten all about it. Afterwards I was worried about how I was going to survive during the summer and along came this grant. It wasn’t a huge prize, but it was enough to pay the rent for a few months. I think it’s one of the things that brings work to people’s attention but it’s the work that should get the attention not the award. Maybe this sounds a little bit contradictory. The awards are helpful but they’re not the sole means by which works gets out there. I do think there are composers who try too hard in that particular direction and rely too much on it. I’ve been very selective about what I’ve applied for.
Informant C: Some awards in the last two years have provided more financial support than I have gotten from commissions because the money I get from commissions is still so low that it’s hard to make a living on it. And I think because some of them have come in a row, a lot of people are suddenly wondering what my music is like when they wouldn’t even have known my name a couple of years ago.
Do you feel that the process is fair?
Informant A: There needs to be a lot of work done on process no matter what the competition is. The fairest competitions I’ve worked with are the ones that are anonymous, to be honest with you. Also when it comes to listening to performances, there are people who have the opportunity to have or to pay for professional performances and have the finest recording available of their work. It comes off better regardless of its artistic quality and makes it very uneven no matter how you cut it. I would prefer for it to be anonymous and to have the opportunity to listen, but I can’t have the opportunity to listen without putting that financial burden on who’s applying.
Informant B: If it isn’t, I can’t think of another one.
Informant C: Given available resources and the alternatives, yes I do.
If you could change the process in anyway, what would you change?
Informant A: It should only be about the art that’s presented in front of you. That should be made clear to every single panelist. This person might have an unbelievable reputation but that doesn’t mean that the piece that’s in front of you is deserving of an award; it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t deserve an award. The guidelines should be submitted and that’s what the panelists should be dealing with.
Informant B: The geographical issue… Trying to break the stranglehold of the Boston-New York axis and get a little bit more [panelist] participation from the rest of the country. You know, there are cheap airfares. And, like I said, I do wonder sometimes about the preliminary screening, but it’s probably not a bad thing.
Informant C: In an ideal world, we’d have more time to look at these things. More time would be helpful. It would also be helpful if there were some kind of preliminary round. Applications that were poorly made or disqualified themselves and could be redone are not always caught in advance of the panel meeting. But, at some point, panelists have to get back to their lives.