I did something last weekend that I suspect I’ll look back on in years to come as one of the most important experiences of my compositional formation: I helped judge scores for the upcoming Spark Festival of Electronic Music and Arts here in Minneapolis. (We received over 600 submissions which were divvied up among a number of juries, including five who dealt only with concert music.) Having been the victim of this kind of adjudication from time to time in the past, I found it fascinating to confront the matter from the perspective of the jury rather than the defendant. I can’t guarantee that my findings are universal, but in any case it was a tremendously enlightening couple of hours. Here are a few things I learned.
1. The impulse to arrive at an opinion about the piece in question within its first 30 seconds is strong, and it has to be consciously resisted. At the very least, a piece that gets off to a lame start is at a serious disadvantage. This is particularly true if several submissions happen to have the same lame start, in which case a sort of “failure genre” is established in the judges’ discourse. You don’t want your piece to end up in that pile.
2. Speaking of tendencies that must be deliberately repressed when plowing through a looming pile of scores and CDs, let’s not forget about stylistic prejudices. My two colleagues and I discovered that we shared some assumptions about what makes interesting music but not others; these asymmetries were usually resolved in favor of whoever was willing to be most strident. Moral of the story: Write music that makes people get strident. In a good way.
3. Sometimes you’ll have to evaluate the music of people you know and like. Sometimes you can give them the score you want to give them, and sometimes you can’t. Being nepotistic helps absolutely no one—not the applicant, nor the audience, nor the judge’s conscience.
4. Never underestimate the appeal of the unexpected. More than once we were charmed by a strange or original idea, and a piece that might otherwise have gone unremarked-upon was given a very favorable score. Certain kinds of risks can pay off by virtue of their very riskiness.
I’m sure that Grawemeyers and Pulitzers aren’t awarded the same way Spark is programmed, but I do hope that the gray eminences in charge of those decisions take at least as much care as we did to be fair, perceptive, and, above all, curious.