Composer Emerging

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Over coffee with a composer pal last week, we got onto the topic of commissioning, and my friend expressed bewilderment towards the actions of an ensemble for which he has been composing a new work. The group has initiated a new project focused on commissioning work from emerging composers, and he was not included among those composers. Being part of that group would have meant receiving a bit more financial compensation for his efforts. When he pointed this out to a member of the ensemble, the response was, “But you’re not an emerging composer.”

This is a topic I’ve been thinking about for a long time. There is most certainly more than one definition for the label, since I also assumed that my friend would be considered “emerging.”

I have been under the impression that “emerging composer” refers to someone who is in the early to middle stages of a composing “snowball.” That is, the person has some solid compositions that have received a number of solid performances, has perhaps received some awards and/or grants, and for both of those reasons is being paid increasing attention in the press/outside world. The snowball has formed and is rolling along, starting to grow larger. Although I am well aware that age is a factor, I don’t think it should be—an emerging composer could be 23, 33, 63, whatever. Snowballs form on all manner of timelines.

And how does an “emerging composer” turn into a straight up “composer”? By finishing a doctoral degree? With a tenure track teaching position or other substantial music-related gig? Upon receiving a commission from a major orchestra or signing with a major publisher? A big award such as a Guggenheim fellowship or Rome Prize? I have no idea!

4 thoughts on “Composer Emerging

  1. ndemos

    This is a wonderful post. There is certainly some confusion as to what the term emerging may mean. I personally think that most commissioning agents view the term as an indication of age. However, I wholeheartedly agree with the statement that “Snowballs form on all manner of timelines.” (Love the snowball analogy as it pertains to an emerging status!)

    For me, two barometers that signal a composer has crossed from “emerging” to “arrived” status are the number of significant commissions and performances a composer garners. Awards are a third – and, for me, somewhat unreliable – barometer. Consistently being asked to write new works for well-established performers and/or ensembles coupled with premieres and continued performances of older pieces (no small trick) are good indications to me that a composer has “emerged.” In fact, having older works performed often may be the best indicator that a composer has “arrived.”

    I urge those performers and ensembles considering commissioning new works to keep an open mind with respect to the term “emerging composer.” I would also ask performers to consider exploring the catalog of a composer who has “won” a particular score call or competition. Perform older works by that composer. At the very least keep the “winning” piece in your repertoire and perform it again on later seasons. Everyone wants to discover a new wunderkind or jump on the band wagon once one has been identified. Yet it’s important to note that we all “emerge” at different points in our lives. It’s just as gratifying to help a 65 year old composer finally arrive as it is to discover a 20 year old!

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  2. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    I’ve been watching the emergence of ‘emerging’ for a while, and it has felt to me like a cover term for ‘young’ that avoids actual agism. Have we seen many older ‘emerging’ composers being selected in these calls/commissions?

    Might it be that older ‘emerging’ composers are making the metamorphosis of young->emerge->fail, and that’s why groups don’t commission them? Being associated with an unknown older composer feels creepy?

    Certainly I get a creepy feeling on the back of my neck, as I don’t meet any of the criteria outlined above. No composition awards, 180+ commissions but none for major groups, occasional but not steady follow-up performances, and older works just being discovered. Yet that’s not uncommon for composers, is it? Have we been pre-emerged for our whole lives?

    But back to the point: I think ‘emerging’ is a way of acting on ‘young’ without actually having to set an age limit.

    Dennis
    Bathory Opera still fundraising!

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  3. jhelliott

    emerging composers
    I have also been perplexed by this term. It seems more sensible to look at career stages more simply: the composer starting out, just beginning to get performances; the composer at mid-career, with pieces performed, commissions coming in, and some stature whether through prizes, grants or fellowships; and the mature composer, established, with recordings, performances not only of new pieces but of older works, and peer recognition. “Emerging” has always seemed vaguely insulting to me.

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  4. Celaya

    As one of the composers still waiting to emerge, it strikes me that what we need is new category. Those of us who have plodded along for a long time and have not emerged should now be labeled “Submerged Composers.” I think we need a festival just for SCs. There can be whole concerts for SCs. Perhaps we can get the funding entities to create a new category of grants.

    As the song in Gypsy proclaims “Ya gotta have a gimmick!”

    Reply

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