Reaching a Verdict

Frank J. Oteri, Editor
Frank J. Oteri
Photo by Jeffrey Herman

Contemporary music scene-talk always seems saturated with discussions about various composer competitions, whether it’s the young composer awards at ASCAP and BMI or the highest stakes trophies of the Grawemeyer and now the Nemmers Prize. Recently there have been endless arguments, pro and con, about whether the Pulitzer Prize for Music should open its stylistic and aesthetic doors. I have found myself deeply conflicted on this issue. As a listener and a composer, my tastes are a lot broader than the tastes that most prize-nominating committees appear to have, and so I’m frequently frustrated by what seems like a narrow judgment about what the best new piece of music is. At the same time, I find myself collegially allied with many other composers who rightly state that this prize is one of the few ways that newly-composed American symphonic, operatic, or chamber works can reach anything approaching mainstream recognition. (Since the Pulitzer Prizes are by and large journalism prizes, they inevitably get coverage in most papers in the country since the media loves to cover itself!) To paraphrase one of the anonymous posters to our forum last month, does Bob Dylan really need a Pulitzer Prize?

So, if such a prize is indeed to reward and therefore call attention to what is being accomplished in an otherwise isolated and sometimes lonely corner of the musical universe, maybe we are ultimately doing ourselves a disservice by claiming that the prize is for the best piece of “music” without a qualifier. It’s as arrogant as the once ubiquitous monicker “good music” (which implies everything else is bad) or the still-often used “serious” music (as if everything else is silly). While I like the now unfashionable “long hair music” or Ivor Darreg’s term “neoteric” (from the Ancient Greek for “of recent origin”)—both admittedly for narcissistic reasons—I know that language can’t be changed by decree. So maybe it’s better first to look at the potential problems of awards and prizes throughout our field. Maybe our reliance on such accolades as a major way to get the word out about us is the problem.

As a listener and writer about music, I’ve long been a little bit suspicious of critical evaluation of any kind, a position that might seem self-destructive at best for a music journalist. Perhaps the crystallizing moment for me occurred when I was a graduate student in ethnomusicology at Columbia in the late ’80s where what I was taught seemed a direct contradiction of what I had just been told as an undergrad aspiring composer at Columbia only a few years earlier. Being a composer meant knowing right choices from wrong choices, whereas being an ethnomusicologist meant trying to understand those choices, right or wrong, in their cultural contexts.

I still remember my first encounter with William Brooks’ polemical essay “On Being Tasteless” for the then newly-launched academic journal Popular Music in which he persuasively argues against personal taste in musical scholarship. To this day, I treat his essay as Talmudic law and use it as a post-Cagean prism through which I pay attention to and assess all music as well as all music criticism and, ultimately, any judgment call about music, competitions included.

To add to my personal conflicts, over the past few years I’ve been asked on numerous occasions to serve on various evaluative panels. I like to believe that ethnomusicology’s post-Cagean prism has given me the ability to give the widest possible range of music a fair hearing, but ultimately everyone has opinions and consensus building rules the day of evaluative juries just as it is supposed to in democratic government. Though, ultimately, anyone interested in the current state of music in our society might reasonably question whether or not even the construct of an evaluative process is fair and whether the role of these processes in determining the path of our music has ultimately been beneficial or detrimental.

I’ve been in many conversations over the years with other composers where we would joke around about “grant music” (e.g. music written specifically to win prizes or other competitions). Does such a kind of music actually exist? And, if it does, what does it sound like? Since most composition competition panels are secretive, how can we ever know what kinds of things the judges on these panels are actually listening for?

In order to maintain the secrecy of these panels, we’ve culled a series of anonymous interrogations with a group of veteran panelists, all of whom are composers with strong personal opinions, in an effort to better understand the process. We’ve asked music journalist Barbara Jepson, a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal, to objectively investigate how ASCAP and BMI operate their young composer awards, ostensibly set up as the starting gate for any composer entering this field. We’ve included a primer on how a successful grant application should look. We’ve also asked a group of composers whether or not there is such a thing as “grant music” and to explain what it is.

The more I think about this whole process the more I think that maybe we should replace all evaluative competitions with several high profile lotteries open only to composers each year. They could even be very specific (e.g. a lottery for 12-minute sonatas for oboe and piano or a lottery for indeterminate duration interactive multi-media sound environment). We’d discover a lot of really exciting new music that way. I’m half joking of course, but only half. I’ve entered only a handful of composer competitions over the years on the fingers of my two hands and I’ve never played the lottery. But this kind of lottery might even make me enter the fray!

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