Keep Your Ears on the Prize: A Hyperhistory of American Composition Awards

Many of today’s best-known composers initiated their careers winning student awards from BMI and ASCAP, two of America’s performing-rights organizations. More than any other awards, these endorsements have acted as impressive indicators of potential for success. Of course many active composers never win these awards, and many who win them are never heard from again, but the ASCAP and BMI award rosters contain many of the world’s most distinguished composers, all recognized by these organizations before the age of 30.

Student composer awards can be among the most valued by professional composers. Aaron Jay Kernis, who won student awards from both ASCAP and BMI, values the encouragement they provide at this crucial point in one’s career. He remembers that winning these prizes gave him his “first sense that being a composer had some meaning and resonance.” He felt that winning these awards made him aware of the musical community, which mitigates the solitary aspects of composing.

The BMI Student Composer Awards

Identifying the talents of composers under the age of 26, the BMI Student Composer Awards have been the first international recognition for many of the most active and prominent composers today. Composers like Kernis, George Crumb, John Harbison, Christopher Rouse, Philip Glass, Charles Wuorinen, Mario Davidovsky, and William Bolcom all received BMI Student Composer Awards before their 26th birthdays.

Entrants are required to apply using a pseudonym; the composer’s name must be found nowhere on the musical score, and the pseudonym is only associated with the actual name after the award’s selection. Although the award is given primarily for musical merit, the prize for compositions deemed equally worthy goes to the younger composer.

The BMI Awards Chairman is Milton Babbitt, who has served in that capacity for over a decade. While he chairs the selection, he does not vote. Two rotating groups of judges, a preliminary group of three and a final jury of five assume that responsibility.

Judges are given scores and are told the age of the composer. The preliminary panel, which often includes composers Chester Biscardi, David Leisner and Bernadette Speach, spend 40 to 60 hours examining each work individually. Since no tapes are submitted, works are judged from the manuscript alone. The first panel then meets for one full day to narrow approximately 400 manuscripts down to about 35 to 50 which are sent to the final jury. The final jury’s membership changes from year to year, but it is typically made up composers from New York and around the Northeast. The 1999 jury members were Robert Beaser, Steven Mackey, Donald Martino, Tobias Picker and Gunther Schuller. They also meet for a full day and determine winners.

In addition to Award Chairman Milton Babbitt, BMI Concert Music Director Ralph Jackson coordinates the BMI Student Composer Awards. Jackson’s own composing experience gives him a special perspective on this job: he was a BMI Student Award winner.

“Actually, when I won the Student Composer Awards for the first time in 1976,” Jackson recalls, “my taxi from the airport ran into a bus somewhere between Newark and Manhattan and I broke my ankle. I was so excited to be in New York for the first time and to win the award that I didn’t realize it was broken until 3 days later when I returned home to Texas!” Since the award includes an all-expense-paid trip to New York to attend the awards ceremonies, this is the first visit to New York City for many young composers.

When asked how the BMI prize benefits composers, Jackson frankly replied that “no prize makes or breaks a career. However, these prizes have often given encouragement at a very early age, and I think that has been important, financially and emotionally, to many of our winners. Often, our winners comment that previously unsupportive family members have come to value their plans to pursue study and careers in music after they’ve won a BMI Award.”

The ASCAP Foundation / Morton Gould Young Composer Awards

One of several awards offered by ASCAP, the Morton Gould Young Composer Award distributes $20,000 amongst about 20 composers. With an application pool of approximately 500 scores, this award shares many of the same applicants with that of BMI, and ASCAP stipulates that works which have previously won awards may not receive theirs.

The age of eligibility for ASCAP winners extends up to 30, and they have many very young applicants. Frances Richard, ASCAP’s Director of Concert Music, is passionately concerned about the integrity of this award, and works to make the most out of the selection process. For young applicants who show great promise but lack the technical finesse to win the award, she has contacted parents to help arrange instruction and advice for career development.

Like BMI’s Student Composer Awards, the Morton Gould Awards are pre-screened (“three long, grueling days,” says Richard) to reduce the pool by about one-fifth. The composers of the remaining 100 scores are deemed “finalists,” and are notified as being such when their materials are returned. The final jury meets for two days. Not only are they given the scores, but they also receive the original list of 500 works, and can ask to see any scores that had previously been rejected.

Unlike BMI, The Morton Gould Awards do not use pseudonyms to shield the composer’s identities from the judges. Richard insists, however, that the judging is completely fair, and that ASCAP only chooses judges who will act impartially. She was equally passionate about not corrupting the prize by attempting to determine the best way to win it. Every effort is made to collect a jury which shuns nepotism, understands musical concerns, and is unbiased by stylistic preference.

ASCAP/SEAMUS Commission and Recording Prize for Young Composers

One of the few awards earmarked for electronic-music composers is the ASCAP/SEAMUS Commission and Recording Prize for Young Composers, which ASCAP presents in cooperation with SEAMUS, the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States. For composers who are “on the cutting edge of electronic technology,” this prize includes a modest honorarium for a new electro-acoustic composition, a stipend for copying and material costs, a plaque, a performance at the next SEAMUS National Conference, and a guaranteed recording on the SEAMUS Compact Disc Series.