This week a mysterious package showed up outside of my apartment, very overstuffed and secured with no less than three discernable kinds of tape. Contraband? But no, a glance at the return address reminds me that I’ve agreed to look over some entries for a student composition prize, and soon the scores are spilling all over the desk and onto the floor.
Although the adjudication process is blind, I do know that these are all students aged 14 to 20, competing for a state-wide first prize of $500—a pretty fair sum, even more so for the under-twenty crowd. I’m supposed to write comments and then somehow numerically rank each work’s merits according to isolated criteria that are rarely isolated in practice: melody, harmony, form, etc. Already I’m skeptical: what a damn fool way to evaluate a composition. So I focus mainly on the written comments, only grudgingly pausing to decide whether what might be someone’s very first attempt deserves a 6 or a 7 for “style”; then my raw data will be averaged in with data from the other judges, who I haven’t met.
How to go about this in a sensible way? Very quickly I’m able to separate the scores into a few main groups: loosely “neoromantic” works; pieces that seem to be in love with being “weird”; and things that sound like Corelli with bass lines that descend stepwise to the dominant. This last category, specific as it is, ends up being the largest; interestingly, I find neither minimalism nor any kind of serialized technique—something I might have expected with a slightly younger crowd, but it puzzled me in this case since I suspect the entries contained more than a few college freshmen.
With everything fitting so neatly into these three camps (not even one dark horse!), it became a lot easier to evaluate the entries. I played through some really nice pieces and boring ones, some corner-stapled, some bound with more care, some fairly well-notated and some clearly printed off Digital Performer (no, Virginia, “Strings” is not a valid staff name in an orchestra score). In one of these transcribed performances everything gets off by a 32nd note early on and it’s just a long, hot, slog to hell from there. It was the one piece I literally couldn’t read; had its author known about quantization settings, things may have turned out very differently.
Finally I’m able to reconcile my inner curmudgeon with the part of me that genuinely wants to help. Fortunately for my limited reasoning skills, the score with the highest numerical marks also happens to stand out the most. Playing through all these scores has reminded me just how easy it is to write vaguely sad, angsty-sounding music; this high-ranking piece stood out mainly for expressing a genuine sense of tingling, quiet joy, and expressing it in a way that was clear and assured.
All in all, wallowing in other people’s music can be a great way to spend the time away from one’s own. And after last week especially, it felt good to be in touch with the way I used to compose when I just did it for fun and everything was basically in the style of Rachmaninoff (don’t ask). More so than our later efforts, perhaps, our earliest compositions tell a story-about what kind of things we find meaningful and what kind of person we really want to become. It’s not that mature compositions can’t sometimes do just the same thing; they’re just so much more effective at smoothing over the seams. For the beginning composer there’s a sense in which every choice is a monumental one, because these choices are the first chance we get to start figuring out who we are as composers.
It would be interesting to do something like what filmmaker Michael Apted has done with his excellent “Seven Up” documentary series, in which he interviews the same individuals every seven years to try and understand how humans develop. I wonder how much each of these composers will veer from their initial efforts; will the Corelli-heads discover Stravinsky and find that their pieces are becoming more neo-baroque? And what of the authors of those pieces which seemed calculated to be as strange as possible—will these composers keep pushing this even farther, or will they hit some kind of impasse?
Also, more than few beginning composers took it upon themselves to sign their names next to the double bar-line. I found this touching; may they always look at the piece they’ve just finished and proudly claim ownership.