Of all the strange and ritualistic gestures required of a composer, perhaps the strangest (and silliest) might be the whole business of recommendation letters. Although it’s certainly possible to get by without ever having needed one, an astounding number of young composers will continue to desire opportunities—both within academia and without—that require such letters on the candidate’s behalf. In some ways the recommendation process for opportunities outside the academy is even more bizarre, as these opportunities often emphasize a candid evaluation of the applicant’s compositional prowess, which is only one important component for academic posts. But any way you slice it, the recommendations process is sure to be absurd, uncomfortable, and excessively bureaucratic for all involved—even the poor souls who have to read the things.
It’s hard to say which is more awkward: requesting a letter, or agreeing to write one. As the requester, you are put in the position of needing something—active, time-consuming involvement—from someone you trust and respect, so you are always feeling sheepish and trying not to overstep with your requests. While beginning as a composer you will have relatively few contacts of the caliber considered to be esteemed enough to do the job, and it’s easy deduce that these people who support you might be up for helping you out with a letter. But having both requested and written countless letters, I have come to appreciate how much time the damn things take. Thus the letter writer is often saddled with a difficult situation, including whether the writer’s estimation of the requester merits a recommendation at all.
Once a composer with whom I had a relationship of mutual admiration suddenly refused to write me a rec letter for an important festival, and I was dumbstruck: she had always helped me out in the past, and the letter wasn’t due for months ahead. Only later I realized that the incident had nothing at all to do with me—my mentor had been aware that the adjudicators of the festival were not a group that would have thought very much of her input, and therefore she had saved me the trouble of being potentially weighed down.
It’s hard to reckon whether the contents of these letters are of utmost importance to the persons who request them, or rather the name and stature of the recommender. It’s even harder to ascertain why a secondary text of opinion should have anything to do with the evaluation of the primary text of the composer’s work—clearly, this is not a tacit confession of incompetence on the part of the requesting persons but rather a way to divine “pedigree”, which is a word most often used to stand in for all kinds of things that shouldn’t have anything to do with honest and impartial evaluation. I can see the value of recommendations for classroom teaching positions, but the practice seems of little value in grant applications; or maybe the main value is to prevent accidental egress by one of the unwashed who can’t drum up three or five Big Names—independent composers unaffiliated with institutions, and those who have the last support from the establishment.
If there’s any good reason for the seemingly unhelpful barrier of the rec letter, I’d love to know of it; I do hold out that someone much wiser than myself just might convince me that what appears to be a wasteful, unhelpful, and potentially repressive practice is actually serving any other interest than expediency.