If you haven’t read Randy Nordschow’s piece on composer bios, read it right away (then come back here immediately). It’s great—so great that I couldn’t resist ganking his subject for further exploration.
My impression is that grad students’ bios tend to be written extensions of the elaborate, agonistic rituals we sometimes perform upon meeting one another in person; in order to quickly establish who’s better, we try to weave our resumes into what is supposed to be introductory small talk. This behavior is so ingrained as to be almost reflexive when confronted with a peer who might be more successful. Of course, neither the names we drop nor our rate of names dropped per minute has anything to do with our actual music per se: I had such a conversation with a colleague from the University of Michigan a few months ago, and after maybe half an hour of talking ostensibly about music, all we’d really done was to draft a sort of pecking order. (I’m not the best composer at the University of Illinois, but I am without a doubt the name-droppingest. And this Michigan composer name dropped me under the table. It was humbling.) Moreover, I’m sure onlookers find it embarrassingly transparent. For all I know, however, more experienced composers may take part in a subtler version of the same practice.
At any rate, as Randy points out, our text bios are often limited to this kind of credential plumage. It’s one thing to talk about mounting a coup, though, and another to actually refashion one’s bio along less conventional, more meaningful lines. Who wants to be the only composer on the program whose bio doesn’t read like Res Gestae? I propose, then, that composers might undertake this project in groups. If you belong to a circle of like-minded composers who are familiar with your aesthetic concerns, ask one of them to write your bio for you (and offer to write his or hers in return). Note prizes and teachers and degrees if necessary, but emphasize the features of your colleague’s musical and biographical background that are especially interesting or germane—now that’s something that listeners might find useful in unpacking a new piece.
Frankly, I don’t particularly care if you won a Kranichsteiner Musikpreis, and I, unlike most audience members, enjoy the advantage of knowing what a Kranichsteiner Musikpreis is. But if I can read your bio and ascertain a few characteristics of your music and why they’re important to you, I’ll be situated much better to appreciate what you do.