The recent surge of comments over at Sequenza21 prompted by a composition competition (since recalled for revision) being held by the new music ensemble eighth blackbird brought about a host of mostly critical comments. This is to be expected as finding something to raise an eyebrow over with this competition was something like shooting fish in a barrel—the original version of the rules detailed a whopping fifty-dollar entry fee, something that is more in line with application fees for huge fellowships like the Rome Prize and a bit of a shocker for score cattle-calls. Especially since eighth blackbird is an ensemble that is heavily involved in the commissioning of new music through other grants and private donors, the single day of rehearsal allotted made the jackpot of the competition seem like a booby prize.
You’ll find no argument from me to challenge the proposition that these were perhaps not the best entry guidelines, and the ensemble very publicly and laudably admitted as much when they made the decision to postpone the competition until the rules could be revised. All in all, eighth blackbird has shown remarkable sensitivity to what after all was an error of degree: the fee was out of line with comparable calls for scores. But after reading through many of the comments it occurred to me that a large portion of respondents took issue not only with hefty entry fee, but also with the practicing of levying any meaningful fee at all for such competitions.
At this point, it might be helpful to consider the plight of our non-composing instrumentalist brethren. Among several options that are available to them, a position in a professional band or orchestra remains highly coveted. That is because they are one of the few non-academic positions for performers that provide benefits and a typically 1-3 year tenure process that most academics would probably titter at. Thus competition is fierce, and aspiring orchestral players might typically try for two or three job openings in a given year until they are successful or shift attentions elsewhere. Except in very rare cases, the auditioners must foot all of the bill for travel and hotel expenses depending on how long the prelims, semifinals, and finals stretch out across the week. If they play timpani or double bass they can expect to pay an astronomical fee in transporting their instruments.
This is a pretty raw deal—in many ways, much worse than that of the composer’s completely optional competitions and such. It’s a game played under bizarre and often unreasonable rules, and that’s why many performers choose to make their careers elsewhere—in teaching, gigging, concert-promoting, or any number of other rewarding areas. For some, the game may be worth playing; for others, not. But as orchestra auditions are already an expensive ordeal for the hosting organization, the lack of support for auditoners leads to some degree of self-censorship: there’s no point in buying a ticket to take the Cleveland Orchestra’s concertmaster audition if you’ve never had any section experience.
While our jobs as composers certainly aren’t easy, many of the grants or opportunities we sometimes apply for require comparatively less investment than, say, planning and paying for an entire trip and then performing in a series of ever-more-competitive rounds. Considering the challenge we face in trying to create our own opportunities as composers, composer competitions (even nearly-worthless, silly ones) are really icing-on-the-cake freebies—not anything to count on or to pursue with seriousness, but nothing to get indignant about either.
No matter the faults or motivations behind any composer competition, and no matter how many apt criticisms may arise, I’ve always been uneasy to join in the chorus of complaint each time some sketchy or merely poorly-structured opportunity comes under the microscope—not out of any misplaced respect for the completion-holders, but because after a certain basic point I can’t justify putting any energy into griping about a manufactured opportunity not being a better fit for my needs when I might better spend that time putting together a real opportunity built around those same needs—and in doing so cultivate a face-to-face relationship with other musicians right from the start.
Maybe it’s just me, but the last time I checked we composers aren’t entitled to a nice spread of useful, reasonably-priced opportunities. That said, it’s truly surprising how many composer opportunities fitting that description actually exist. I can certainly understand (an in fact, encourage) passing up opportunities that force the composer to take a losing gamble, but it strikes me as more than a bit entitled to expect the external world to provide a stream of convenient opportunities just for us. I’m not suggesting that criticism should be muffled, just that our criticisms of opportunities should be coupled with and balanced by an appreciation of just how complicated and expensive it can be to set one up. Otherwise, it’s a little like finding fault with everyone else’s contribution to a pot-luck dinner without having bothered to bring anything to the table ourselves.