Ageism in Composer Opportunities

We're Closed

“Sorry We’re Closed” by Tommy Ironic, on Flickr

“We don’t serve that population.”
“You are ineligible and our policy is non-negotiable.”
“If you look elsewhere, I’m sure you’ll find other opportunities.”

These are words no one wants to hear when applying for an opportunity for which they otherwise qualify except for one thing: they are too old. They are, unfortunately, actual responses I have received from providers of composer opportunities when querying them regarding their age discrimination policy. However, this article is about more than any one composer. It is about a wider industry practice. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate that ageism exists within composer opportunities, to attempt to explain why it exists, and then to propose solutions for operating without age discrimination. We’ll take an empirical approach looking at data related to composer opportunities. We’ll also take a logical approach to examining various arguments for and against ageism. Lastly we’ll look at the issue anecdotally via comments from various composers. The goal of this article is to educate and inspire change for the betterment of the entire new music community.

Discrimination against someone of the “wrong” color, ethnicity, sex, or sexual orientation is generally frowned upon in modern society. Progress has been made on these fronts to change peoples’ thinking and to embrace inclusion. However, progress is still needed in the area of discrimination on the basis of a person’s age. This one is arguably subtler, but it ultimately has the same effect: to exclude someone from pursuing an opportunity for which he or she would otherwise qualify. People usually are not aware that they practice ageism—just as with other forms of discrimination—because their assumptions all point to a certain expectation they believe is true. With respect to composers, said expectation goes something like this: child prodigy enters school already a mature genius; impresses all of his/her professors; then sets the world on fire with his/her youthful vigor, technical wizardry, and creative talent while winning all sorts of competitions; and proceeds to redefine an art form for the betterment of humankind.

There may be examples throughout history where this fairy tale plays out in the likes of wunderkind composers such as Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven; but is this the most accurate representation of a composer’s path? What about Brahms, whose first symphony wasn’t completed until he was 44, or Janáček, who did not make a mark until his early 50s? While the wunderkind may make for a good story, so does the person who fought all stereotypes and began to attain great things at an older age. But, let’s forget about all of these stories and focus on reality. We’ll do this in the context of looking at hard data on age discrimination as it pertains to present day composer opportunities.

Opportunity and Competition

For purposes of this discussion, composer opportunities include anything of a competitive nature which may further a composer’s career. This encompasses juried competitions with prizes including cash awards, commissions, appointments, readings, performances, and/or recordings. While some may argue the efficacy of competitions, the fact remains that they are crucially important for launching a composer’s career in today’s environment. An objective view of the record bears witness to the fact that there are virtually no examples—at least I cannot think of any—whereby a modern composer has attained notoriety without winning a significant composer prize. It’s a dog-eat-dog world highly geared toward recognition gained through competitive means. There’s an underlying assumption that the best always wins and that true talent gets recognized.

Winning competitions puts accomplishments on a composer’s resume which may be weighed at times more heavily than the quality of the music itself, either intentionally or unintentionally. Whether this is good or bad is irrelevant. Organizations need to sell seats to their events and they stand a much better chance of doing this when they can advertise a composer with impressive credentials versus one with zero or few competitions won. It is a complete waste of time and money for composers to submit work to a major musical ensemble for their performance consideration without sufficient credentials to warrant the interest of the organization.

Regardless of whether you agree with the principles behind all of this, the fact is that one must compete—and win—in order to get ahead.

Too Old To Tango

Ageism is very much alive in the emerging composer arena. In short, once you get to a certain age, you’re considered too old to tango. To support this claim, let’s examine composer opportunities as published on ComposersSite.com. After careful research, this site has been identified as containing the most comprehensive listing of opportunities available for composers of classical music. Further, the site is freely available.

There are other sites which list opportunities, including the opportunities page made available to members of the American Composers Forum—which at present has an annual membership fee of $65. The American Composers Forum opportunities listing is well organized and provides a number of good opportunities but they seem to publish fewer opportunities than what is available on ComposersSite.com.

The person behind ComposersSite.com is composer Robert Voisey, who kindly made available the database of opportunities published on his site for this analysis. The following figure shows the types of opportunities listed on March 28, 2013.

Opportunity Listings from ComposersSite.com as of March 28, 2013

For this study, these opportunity types have been further organized as follows:

• Award – monetary award (may also include free pass to important event)
• Performance – no monetary award, just performance
• Position – paid position
• Residency – no monetary award
• Workshops – conferences

For purposes of numerical analysis, I’ll consider the award, performance, position, and workshop opportunities as opportunities which might further a composer’s career. I’ll also break out just the award opportunities.

Closed

“Sorry we’re closed” by xddorox, on Flickr

More than 400 opportunities were reviewed from the ComposersSite.com database as published over a six-month period from November 2012 thru mid April 2013. Many of these opportunities were deemed to be insignificant for purposes of advancing a composer’s career. For example, if the performance opportunity was not offered by a nationally recognized ensemble, it was excluded. Also excluded were opportunities which restricted on the basis of a person’s race, ethnicity, sex, or domicile. Opportunities with application fees of $50 or greater were also excluded on the basis that participation in said opportunities was exorbitantly expensive for most composers. The process of filtering left me with 165 opportunities to examine. For those curious to see the detail behind the filtered and unfiltered lists, they are available for download.

Now for the results. Of these 165 opportunities, 35% are restricted to composers at or below the age of 40. If we filter just the award opportunities, we have 82 total in which 36% are available only to composers at or below the age of 40. Of all the opportunities, there is merely one which is available only to people older than age 40 and that is the Composers Concordance Annual “Generations” Concert and Composition Competition which provides one division for composers over age 65. Noteworthy is that the same competition—which simply provides a performance opportunity—also has a division exclusively for composers under the age of 25. There is not a single opportunity made exclusively available to persons between the ages of 40 and 65.

The moral of this story: in today’s society, you better make it as a composer before you turn 40. Once you pass that milestone, you will need to understand that you are at a competitive disadvantage to younger composers as there are 35-36% fewer opportunities available to you.

Should we be concerned about this disparity? Well, the feminist movement has drawn much attention—and rightly so—to the fact that equally qualified women receive 19% lower pay than men for the same jobs (as has been reported in Time magazine). Our 35-36% numbers are of course much higher, and here the issue is not a difference in pay but whether or not one is even allowed to enter. From this perspective, the 35-36% numbers are huge.

Now that we see who is affected by ageism, the next question is who is responsible. It is very difficult to hold any group or organization accountable since ageism in favor of the young is rampant in so many areas across modern society. However, characterizing the problem as simply a societal issue isn’t a sufficient excuse since, as will be discussed later, ageism hits composers particularly hard.

Arguments Made in Support of Ageism

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“NO ENTRY” by Simon Lieschke, on Flickr

We will now explore the various arguments made in support of ageism using comments I have personally received via direct email correspondence, phone conversations, and online forum discussions with fellow composers, opportunity sponsors, and leading industry professionals. Quoted assertions in this section represent actual statements made in response to the questions “Why does your opportunity discriminate based on age?” and “Is it not possible for someone over a certain age to be a student of composition?”

Provide More Chances to the Young

“The limit of 39 years of age is set in order to give more chances to the young generation of composers.”

This may have been needed during a time when opportunities were disproportionately offered to composers of an older age. However, the numbers clearly show that today it is the younger composers who receive far more opportunity. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to argue younger composers need more chances when they already have more chances over older composers.

Favor Those with Less Experience

“There are those younger students who by virtue of their age have had less experience in the world. Are they always going to be up against those that may have had the opportunities and time to learn and progress much more?”

The assumption in this argument is that favor should be granted those who, by virtue of their age, have not attained the same level of experience as older people. If an older person wants to begin a new career as a composer, they enter with the same set of skills and experience as the younger person. Should we deny a 60-year- old grandmother the opportunity to start a career in composition due to her age? And if she bravely attempts such a feat, should we insult her chances at success by discriminating against her by virtue of the number of opportunities for which she qualifies to further her career?

One might argue that grandma is wise in her ways by virtue of those 60 years of experience and therefore has a competitive advantage. But what lessons might she have learned in those 60 years which will now help her when she is already restricted from applying to 35-36% of the opportunities? What life lesson can she use to convince people to give her a chance? How does experience help if doors are closed to being with?

Numbers Don’t Justify Helping Latecomers

“For composers, how many people really are we talking about who begin a career or study later in life?”

That seems like a reasonable argument and the number of latecomers are likely dismally low—although we’ll hear from some latecomers later in this article. Latecomer composers appear to be a minority group. The question then is simply whether or not we should ignore this minority group because they are insignificant, or if we should do the opposite and help this group grow. Discriminating against minority groups is generally shunned in democratic societies. If the number of older composers just starting off is low, maybe more, not less, opportunity should be made available to them. For those who contend that the 60-year-old grandma making a go at a career in composition is an unlikely scenario and therefore doesn’t deserve attention, well, maybe there aren’t many of these cases specifically as a result of the current discriminatory practices and cultural thinking which makes such an endeavor virtually impossible.

Older Composers Already Had Their Chance

Another argument put forth somewhat related to the “experience” argument is an assumption that older folks have already had their chance. This one can really strike at the heart of the issue in a manner which can be quite hurtful to older composers who really never did get their chance. Take for example the composer who, due to life events, was not able to pursue a career in composition until after the age of 40, or the person who just simply decided to make a career change later in life. Is it correct to assume that an older person indeed has been given a fair shot in any given field and therefore should not be offered the same opportunity as a younger person?

Young is More Interesting

In many ways there’s a culture of youth driving the marketplace. At play here is thinking that there’s something more sexy, appealing, or exciting about young talent which can make for a better sell in the brochure, on stage, at the donor’s reception, or in the grant proposal, thereby making the sponsoring organization look more vital—and, in some less philanthropic endeavors, helps make more money. I think it’s wonderful that society places so much interest in maintaining appearances of vitality, but I think it’s wrong to associate those characteristics with age. Age need not—and often does not—have anything to do with it. In fact, sometimes less experienced or younger artists—or those still in the process of developing their voice—may find it necessary to utilize stylistic fads and trends to fulfill the image expected of them. Often these attempts die as quickly as they are born. Maybe there should be more of a focus on just the character of the music and less on the age of the person behind it?

Same Old Horse

“Older composers submit older and outdated stuff. Younger people submit newer and fresher material. People are more interested in new, fresh material thus there’s more interest in works from younger people.”

I believe this argument is just plain wrong on various levels. Yes, at times innovation may occur within the younger groups of society. But, as already discussed, sometimes fads and non-lasting expressions also flourish within younger groups. The fact is there are plenty of examples across multiple disciplines, including musical composition, where innovation is attained in older years. Beethoven, Brahms, Stravinsky and countless other recognized composers continued to innovate their art past the age of 40.

On the point of focusing just on newly composed work, the age of the composer need not factor into determining this criteria. The competition rules can easily restrict submission to works created, premiered, or recorded within the last x years. I see no valid reason which suggests one needs to target young composers in order to ensure the submitted work is actually new. I further find spurious the notion that the best or most interesting work is that which was created recently.

Limit Submissions Due to Purported Resource Limitations

“Unfortunately, there has to be a limit. Every day we get around three applications. If there is no limit, we are not able to devote [our attention to] all applications.”

This argument suggests that the organization sponsoring the opportunity doesn’t have sufficient resources to accept applications from everyone, therefore it only accepts submissions from people under a certain age. I find this argument extremely weak, as it says nothing about why they choose a narrow age range as their filter. They just as easily could limit submissions to people over versus under a certain age. Or, if they really want to restrict their workload, they could limit submissions to composers between the ages of 45-50 or some other silly, arbitrary threshold. This is but one example of how phony excuses are used to justify or deflect away from an underlying prejudice.

Cater to the Young Even Though Not Required Under Organization’s Mission Statement

There are various examples of 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organizations who accept tax-deductible donations and who discriminate based on age even when it is not within their organizational mission statement to do so. For example, one organization sponsoring a composer opportunity states their mission as follows: “Our mission is to enrich the cultural vitality of the region and to offer a unique experience to exceptionally talented musicians.” However, they limit composer submissions to those under the age of 35. Looking at their mission statement, one has to ponder whether or not it is possible for an older emerging composer to “enrich the vitality” of the community. This is but one example of a disconnect between an organization’s mission and their policies, and one which I believe hampers musical progress.

More a Problem for Composers than Others

Ageism most definitely exists in other professions and in some it makes perfect sense. This is why you don’t see many professional baseball players over age 40. But in arts and letters, ageism really doesn’t make sense, even though it is rampant across virtually all music disciplines. One might argue that ageism has the same impact in other occupations and thus there’s nothing special about how it plays out in the emerging composer field. The only problem with this line of thinking is that the way in which a composer establishes his or her career is completely different than the manner in which a person pursuing almost any other occupation establishes his or her career. In most fields someone has a job and is hired by a company which is bound to follow federal employee hiring laws which explicitly disallow age discrimination. The same laws also protect musicians, but only for actual employment opportunities and not for the competitions, performances, recordings, and other opportunities which are the methods by which a composer launches his or her career.

Unless a composer has a full-time position as an employee at a university, he or she generally functions as a freelancer seeking commissions or—in most cases pay-to-maybe-win—opportunities. Working as freelancers and going after the typical freelance opportunities means that composers receive no legal form of protection against age discrimination.

There are numerous examples in other disciplines where someone may embark on a new career in their later years and not face the degree of ageism experienced by composers. Why should there be any obstacles based on age for someone choosing a career path, in particular a path where maturity and experience can bring a lot to the table, such as with music composition?

Beginning or renewing a career in composition after age 40 should not be any more difficult from an opportunity perspective than a career change in other industries. It may be equally challenging from a career training perspective, but there should not be the additional burden of ageism.

Young vs. Emerging

I think that most opportunities seek to identify and assist emerging talent but many use age as their criteria. I believe this is a flawed method due to the unethical and exclusionary issues associated with ageism. I don’t believe age should or needs to be used to determine emerging status.

There are many practical methods a competition or opportunity may use to restrict the scope of applications to just emerging talent without resorting to ageism. An opportunity can prevent prior winners from participating or can limit the number of times the same applicant submits—opportunity organizers may complain about the tracking needed for this, but it’s really not that difficult with modern software. An opportunity can literally define emerging as “not earning a living based on teaching, commissions, or royalties from composing.” It can also be based on the honor system. If composers feel they are emerging, they can apply. Would truly established composers be willing to suffer the embarrassment of winning a competition specifically designated for emerging talent? That’s tantamount to them admitting in public that they don’t believe they are established. They would be shunned and laughed at. But, who knows, maybe even a former big name talent might try to apply to help get their career kick-started again, or maybe even to make a little money to help pay the rent. It may be disheartening to them and to others to see them go through this, but should we deny them the opportunity to renew their career?

Hidden Discrimination

Blinds

“Blinds” by reway2007, on Flickr

Some opportunities list no age restriction but discriminate in private. This speaks directly to the point made earlier that ageism is a subtler form of discrimination. At least one highly sought after and respected composer and contest adjudicator recently shared with me that preference is highly tipped in favor of younger applicants for at least one prominent opportunity, even when no age limit is officially listed. Knowing this, why even bother if you’re considered too old to tango? Why pay the application fee and take on the costs for postage and score duplication if you will not be treated equally?

One significant opportunity for composers to have their works read by an accomplished orchestra announced the winners as “the nation’s top young composers” even though age was not a published criteria for said opportunity. An inquiry as to why their announcement made reference to “young” composers when the opportunity was specifically offered to “emerging” composers was met with no response. Are “young” and “emerging” synonymous?

Then there are the mixed messages, such as those which advertise a student or emerging composer award but also set an arbitrary age threshold—generally somewhere under 30 or 35. Or the competition that doesn’t have the words “young” or “emerging” anywhere in its title or in the mission statement of the sponsoring organization, yet somewhere in the fine print the opportunity-seeking 40-something-year-old discovers s/he doesn’t qualify because s/he is too old. What a letdown.

What is “Young” Anyway?

Then there’s the question of just what is young anyway. Is the 50-year-old person who eats well, exercises, and maintains an active lifestyle and positive mental outlook more of a “young” and vital person than the overweight, junk-food-eating, negatively charged, emotionally distressed 25-year-old? Have you ever been wrong on guessing people’s ages based on their looks and behavior?

I contend that youth and vitality are a state of mind to which any person, regardless of age, may represent a glowing example. Setting an arbitrary age threshold of 30, 35, 40, or whatever for determining the age at which one is no longer considered “young” is a futile exercise and prohibits from participating those who may in actuality possess more vitality in their spirit and art than those far younger in years.

Accordingly, I’d like to see these arbitrary age thresholds die a quick death and for ageism to no longer exist within composer opportunities.

Older Newcomers on The Rise

“I didn’t start at composition in a concentrated way until I was 48 or so. Up until then I was busy playing, arranging, and orchestrating other people’s music. I believe anyone should be granted equal opportunity when pursuing a career change in their later years.” —Phil Orem

“I composed a lot as a teenager then built a career as a performing musician. When I recently turned 40 I decided to pursue composition in a serious manner and am actively writing new work.” —Andy Skaggs

“While I am totally supportive of opportunities aimed specifically at student composers, I question arbitrary age limits; i.e., under 30 or 35. These seem targeted more at keeping mature composers out than welcoming in new talent. Beethoven, Brahms, Verdi, and Wagner wrote some of their greatest works past age 40. Is there something about veteran composers that makes managers and conductors uncomfortable?” —Stanley Friedman

We're Open

“We’re open” by enricod, on Flickr

I’ve run into a number of people over the age of 40 who decided to enter the field of composition after many years as professional performers. I applaud this career shift and believe people entering composition this way deserve just as many opportunities for success as those entering at a younger age.

Composer Jim Stephenson is a perfect example of someone who was a working musician for 17 years before deciding to pursue composition as a career. In Jim’s case, he was about 38 years of age. While writing this article and already having pondered the question of why there aren’t any competitions just for older composers, I saw Jim post the following lighthearted status update on Facebook: “So tempted to start a competition for composers OVER 40. Would be interesting, I think.”

Then there are recognized composers such as Joan Tower who didn’t receive an orchestra commission until her mid 40s. Clearly, people are recognizing the need for “older newcomers” to be granted more opportunity in classical music composition.

Goodies from Oldies

Besides the effect on composers’ careers, ageism inhibits diversity and arguably prohibits great art from having a chance to be heard. Remember that guy Brahms who completed his first symphony when he was 44? Now just imagine that composer out there today who is in his or her 40s and who just completed what may be considered an incredible work but who can’t get it heard because a large percentage of opportunities discriminate against people his/her age? It’s not just composers who suffer under ageism; the whole industry suffers.

Ageism wouldn’t be a problem if there were a representative number of competitions to which only composers over age 40 would qualify. But sadly this is not the case. Anyone want to launch a series of Senior Composer, Old Composer, Reborn Composer, Old Newcomer Composer, Gray Newcomer or Goodies From Oldies competitions? There’s always a market for new things, even for “old” people!

The tenets of a democratic society shun inequality and embrace the concepts of inclusion and fair treatment for all. I would like to see these same concepts applied to the emerging composer industry for the benefit of composers as well as the betterment of music in general. I invite opportunity sponsors to re-evaluate their position on ageism, and I encourage all composers to insist upon fair and equal treatment.

***

Bill Doerrfeld

Bill Doerrfeld

Bill Doerrfeld is a composer and pianist of classical and jazz music. For more info on Bill’s music and his writings please visit www.billdoerrfeld.com.

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104 thoughts on “Ageism in Composer Opportunities

  1. Mark Francis

    You can also add geography. If you live in certain parts of the country you can just forget it.

    Reply
    1. Lawrence Eckerling

      A violin prodigy (or any performer) has their visual element as part of the performance (whether we like it or not). There is no visual element whatsoever in terms of the composer. It is all about their sound (unless the composer IS the performer). I think commissions, call for scores, and contests in composition should have no criteria based on age. None. That would seal it.

      Reply
  2. Daniel Felsenfeld

    Thanks for such an empirical and straightforward examination of what is an industry-wide problem.

    Reply
  3. Liza

    BRAVO! Good points, and well argued.

    So if 35-36% of the competitions have age limits, does that mean the rest do not and can therefore cater to older composers?

    I will be blogging about something similar and will put a link to this article.

    Reply
  4. Brighton

    If your goal is to serve musicians and listeners rather than self-promotion, age is never a problem.

    Reply
  5. Kyle Gann

    Amen, and brilliantly well done. Even among those who compose at an early age, some just never bloom until their 40s and 50s. Giacinto Scelsi hit his stride at age 54. It is indeed painful and retrogressive that the new-music world refuses to acknowledge this.

    Reply
    1. James Maxwell

      Yes, and although certainly established at an earlier age, it wasn’t until in his 60s that Lutoslawski really hit his stride and wrote some of the greatest music of the late 20th century – I’m thinking particularly of the 3rd symphony.
      Tippett also, in my opinion, didn’t do anything really interesting and innovative until he was in his 70s! (I’m thinking here of pieces like hist 4th quartet, Concerto for Orchestra, and Triple Concerto.) Again, he had already established a career, but nevertheless it’s important to realize that innovation in music really has nothing to do with youth. Generally speaking, quite the opposite. In my experience, young composers are too preoccupied with trailblazing, and fall victim to various cliches of avant-gardism. And I don’t think this is an accident. The fact is that as history piles up at our backs, there is always more to hear, more to know, more to understand, so that contemporary composers often have very little to say about it all until they’re older and more experienced.
      And I think there’s also a genuine danger here, in that too many audiences are hearing immature works and considering these as representative of contemporary music. But it’s a distortion. Just my 2¢.

      Reply
  6. Dr.Matt

    Very interesting.

    Another category of composers missed by most “emerging composer” opportunities in the USA today are those who have been steadily working and improving themselves but who, due to random circumstances, have never had access to performances or publicity. Maybe there just wasn’t an influential person to take them under wing and introduce them to the leaders of the performance community; maybe personal obligations thrust upon them prevented them from attending parties where professional connections might have been made; maybe academe overlooked them while reserving its performance opportunities for faculty members. While many of the composers in this category may be women whose publicity opportunities were stifled by our society’s sexist approach to child-rearing, not all of them are, so opportunities aimed exclusively at women do not completely even out the playing field.

    I think the article has pretty much the right tone. It is not a whine about getting excluded: We already know that there is no right to win a contest. The topic instead is about the lost opportunity to enrich everybody with the potentially-wonderful but little-known creations of people over 35 years old.

    Reply
  7. Charles

    Isn’t there a positive side to having opportunities specifically for young composers? This article makes some very good points, but somebody who is older than 40 is far more likely to already have a career of some sort and is able to support themselves financially while they venture into the world of composition. Not to mention full time professorships and similar jobs tend to go to older composers. As someone who decided to go into school for composition at age 19, composing is all that I really have in terms of career choices, besides working at McDonald’s for the rest of my life or going back to school. I think it is a wonderful thing if somebody older than 40, or even 65 wants to get into composing – but they’re doing it from a position of privilege, where they likely already have a stable financial situation attained through other means.

    Reply
    1. Sugar Vendil

      A lot of musicians have other jobs before they’re making a living doing their passion 100% full time. Don’t worry, you’ll have other options besides working at McDonald’s and will likely need to explore those options until you become more established.

      Reply
    2. Julie Cleveland

      “…support themselves financially”? “…doing it from a position of privilege”? “…stable financial situation attained through other means”?

      I am 51, I went to Bard College, apprenticed with Joan Tower, then went to New England Conservatory and worked with Malcolm Peyton, W.T. McKinley, Bob Cogan. I have struggled for 26 years as a piano teacher trying to find the time to compose. Let’s add that I am a woman (composition is a man’s world, let’s face it). I had to laugh at “position of privilege.” I’m living with two roommates in a 2 bedroom—my room is the front hallway—and teach piano out of a 10 by 10 foot room. I have never worked at McDonald’s—I have worked as a musician for my entire working life, and this is where I’m at. I have sacrificed having a husband and kids to constantly pursue making money as a pianist, instructor, and composer.
      And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
      But I sure wish I could enter a lot more contests; I get pretty discouraged when it is always “must be 35 and under” etc. etc. Believe me, Charles, getting old sucks, and this doesn’t help.
      Glad for the article, but what’s going to be done about it?

      Reply
  8. Dr.Matt

    Charles, that’s just the thing. Those of us who have been randomly passed over are not operating from a position of privilege at all.

    Reply
    1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

      Charles, my friend Matt is absolutely right. Some of us have been steadily composing for a long time — for me, that’s almost 50 years — and have had to work hard for every opportunity to be heard.

      Consider that I, as with many independent composers, organized my own performances. Before a single composition was played by anyone other than under my direction, I was 37 years old and had composed several hundred works.

      Most of my composition now is quietly done on small commissions. I’ve never received a composition award and won only one competition (a weekend to compose a flute-sax duo with no actual prize), and my one visible profile was written by Kyle Gann in Chamber Music Magazine a few years ago. You’ve yet to see the diversity of my work profiled here on NMBx, for example, or any publication devoted to either the young or the ‘successful’.

      This is not a position of privilege.

      Reply
  9. Rob Deemer

    Charles,

    Of course there is a positive side to having opportunities specifically for young (18+) composers…in the same way that having opportunities that cater to any specific group of people with a certain characteristic that they cannot change (gender/race/creed/sexual preference/etc.), but that positive side does not balance out the negative side.

    You state “someone over 40 is far more likely to have a career of some sort and is able to support themselves financially while they venture forth into the world of composition.” The availability of composition opportunities – competitions, readings, etc. – should not have anything to do with the financial stability of the composers entering them. They are not there to give you or anyone else that financial stability – they are there (or should be there) to allow good music to percolate to the surface and allow performers to discover new works and new composers. What happens after that is up to the individuals in question.

    As an aside, full-time professorships go to people who earn them, no matter their age – they’ve spent time learning not only how to be both composers and musicians but educators as well, and age legally cannot be a factor in the hiring process. I’ve seen some damn good professors get hired in their late 20s and others not till they were over 40.

    “As someone who decided to go into school for composition at age 19, composing is all that I really have in terms of career choices, besides working at McDonald’s for the rest of my life or going back to school.” You could not be further from the truth. You did make a conscious decision to major in composition for your undergraduate studies, but there are few of us who succeed in life with only an undergraduate degree, so you’re probably going “back to school” at some point anyways. You are only limited by your own creativity and openness to find appropriate career opportunities…and as I mentioned, those competitions are not going to help you in that arena much anyways.

    “I think it is a wonderful thing if somebody older than 40, or even 65 wants to get into composing – but they’re doing it from a position of privilege, where they likely already have a stable financial situation attained through other means.” Ignoring the slightly condescending tone of this statement, I cannot see any solid ground here. There are plenty of folks who are in their 20’s who have very stable financial situations who do not need to work at McD’s or anywhere else while they’re in school…and others in their 30’s and 40’s who are not. If a person is talented and has something to say, they should not be held back by their birthdate or their paycheck.

    Having a “career” is not a binary – you either have it or you don’t – but rather it is a fluid and shifting state that such opportunities can help to move along from time to time. Bill’s point is spot on and to say that one composer should have more opportunity in the long run because of the age at which they discover their calling is literally saying that one group is more deserving of success than others…we’re still trying to eradicate that mentality in our daily lives and if we can shine light on this little slice of it, then so much the better.

    Reply
    1. Bill Doerrfeld

      Thanks Rob for chiming in to say exactly what I would say in response to the “privilege” and “financial stability” comments. I’d add that there’s another side to finances called debt, and nowadays that has a dramatic negative affect on the financial stability of many people, arguably mostly older people. I believe it would be a fair assumption to conclude that people in the 30+ age group have considerably more financial obligations and associated debt than younger folks. With rising costs of living and lack of commensurate increases in wealth attainment for the middle class, age in no way guarantees greater financial stability. There has been an immense surge in bankruptcies in the USA over the past few years. I would think it a fair assumption that the vast majority of these bankruptcies affect people over age 30.

      With age also comes risks both in terms of health and often times finances. Not all older folks are financially stable. Many are struggling just to get by. Much of the problem I believe is due to our debt based monetary system which only thrives when people are in debt. But, that’s a topic for an entirely separate article.

      The last 30 years has seen very little change to the wealth of the middle class in America. By making it through those years one is not guaranteed any privileges of wealth or even financial stability.

      And as mentioned in the article life experience doesn’t help when the door is already closed due to one’s age.

      Thanks all for chiming in to share your thoughts on this article.

      Reply
  10. Mary Jane Leach

    Charles, I too found some of your remarks condescending. However, one word that you used a couple of times sticks out – “career.” There is a tendency among younger composers these days who emphasize careerism, looking at composing as a way to make a living, without perhaps the primary emphasis on writing music first, finding your voice, and then perhaps a career.

    Reply
    1. Matthew Peterson

      Mary Jane, IS there a tendency among younger composers to “emphasize careerism?” What do you mean by this and how do you justify this statement? This isn’t the first time a composer has accused my generation of being “careerist”, and I’m tired of it. I’ve never seen/read/heard this qualified.

      Please enlighten me, because I highly doubt ANY of my peers in my generation of composers (18-30 year olds) views composing first-and-foremost as their way to make a living. There are manifold easier ways to make a living. I have yet to meet a single composer in my generation who doesn’t place their own artistry, craft, voice, etc, first.

      If the youngest generation of composers is media-savvy and apt to use social media to share their music with others, that’s not being careerist. If we are doing our best to support ourselves primarily on composition, that’s not careerist. If we enjoy building networks of performers, conductors, and composers in order to share our work and create new works, that’s not careerist. And what composer wouldn’t want to be able to write music for a living? As Rob Deemer posted above, having a career in composition is not a binary. There are many types of careers, and there are many types of personalities.

      Reply
  11. Stanley Friedman

    Fine essay, Bill. I would be very interested in reading theories as to WHY so many composing ops are age-restricted. This restriction is rampant across the music biz and is unlikely to be accidental. Why are young composers preferred?

    Reply
    1. Bill Doerrfeld

      It’s likely an instinctual lust for youthful vitality which one might argue is a good thing similar to the quest to stay alive.

      One might also argue that people like to live vicariously thru others and the idea of being a wunderkind is a fascinating tale of interest to many. Maybe someone can invent a virtual reality experience for people to immerse themselves within to soothe this particular need vs resorting to ageism. RockStar be damned! It’s time for ComposerStar!

      One must respect instinct and emotion. However, hopefully reason and wisdom gained with age gets an opportunity to be experienced and appreciated as well.

      Reply
  12. Judith Lang Zaimont

    Good to see this essay – it was overdue.

    While I might offer many observations, I’ll give just three here.

    = Since I’ve been a composer for more than 50 years, I was ‘emerging’ at precisely the moment when younger composers were emphatically not favored — and have lived into a productive maturity at precisely the moment when favor has now swung emphatically to the young. One adjusts.

    = In his 2006 book, Old Masters and Young Geniuses, economist David Galenson proposed two contrasting models for the flowering of an artist’s life. One career trajectory spotlights artists who produce a truly conceptual breakthrough usually early in their careers; this work goes on to form the basis of much else they will produce. The second model is that of a creator who is at heart an experimenter, with the experiments coming forward increment by increment, playing out pretty much across the artist’s entire life’s work (the “Old Master”). For creators of this second type, the final works they produce may in fact be their most significant.
    Music must have room enough, and encouragement enough, for composers of both types.

    = Because composers can be ‘emerging’ at really any age, some years back I instituted and still continue to fund the Judith Lang Zaimont Prize through IAWM, awarded annually for an extended instrumental composition by a composer over 30 whose music has not yet been commercially recorded or published.
    More recently, IAWM began offering the annual Miriam Gideon Prize for works for solo voice and one to five instruments written by a composer over 50. These two are among a number of annual IAWM prizes, tailored either according to genre or by age.

    Reply
    1. Coin Eatock

      I think this is the best post here, among many insightful comments. There should be a place for young and old; for those who start early or late; for those who dash ahead like hares and those who plod methodically forward like turtles. (And let’s not forget who won that race!)

      Reply
  13. Cathy Applegate

    It is crazy to suggest that we do not get better at creative, innovative pursuits as we get older. Not only have we accumulated more life experience that inspires, but we also accumulate hours of practise. Like anything else, a composer needs to practise their art to achieve true mastery. The same applies to writing and visual arts.

    Reply
  14. Pingback: Article on Ageism in Composer Opportunities » Bill Doerrfeld

  15. Alexandra Sweeton

    Actually this is also an issue with opera singers. Many young artist programs age out at 32. Most voices don’t mature until mid to late 30s and anyone with a larger voice (Wagnerian soprano for instance) will not be even close to mature until 40. So they are knocked out from the get go by sole virtue of biology.

    Reply
  16. Stephen Ferre

    In another response to Charles’ comment … yes, we may have careers that put us on better financial footing, but in many cases, it gets in the way of being able to compose. I teach “part-time” (i.e. full-time work with part-time pay) at a university and a run a business as a music engraver. I find myself working 70+ hour weeks, and that is before I can even think about composing.

    Before the age of 30, I had loads of time to compose, even while working a full-time job. In my case in particular, I was just starting to become known in Chicago before I moved to England, where, because I was a foreigner, I had to make my own opportunities. Eventually, they ran out of steam, and the longer I was there, the less there was for me. I was respected as a composer, but there were no commissions and progressively fewer performances. By the time I returned to the US, my only performances were my arrangements (for publishers) of other composers’ music.

    Now I’m back, and in a university environment my 1991 Sax concerto will receive its first (full) performance in Feb. I’ve had some recent broadcasts as well, and there are a few other performances in the pipeline. All this, at the age of 52. In this respect, I’m one of the lucky ones, but it is still at the cost of having little time to compose anything substantial, as I don’t have any recent contest wins to kick-start the process, or commissions that would enable me to cut down on other work. Yes, I have contacts, but even they are caught in the ageism black hole. As their contemporaries, I am in competition with them, and they are usually charged with finding the next big thing, i.e. the superstar of the next generation.

    I’m looking forward to my first BMI royalty statement in about 10 years (one intervening year of reporting was lost in the mail), which might amount to $15, but hey, it’s a start. It won’t allow me to quit the day job, though, or even cut down my hours, where winning a contest might lead to a significant performance or even a commission, which might lead to others, and that might make my workload more manageable.

    Reply
  17. chris s

    Excellent article and more of the type of writing and solid exploration of a topic within the restraints of a blog that I would like to see more of at NMB.

    Only one small criticism, the focus of your “late bloomer” composers is on performers and arrangers switching to composition. What about those who are “part-time” musicians as the American Guild of Organist (AGO) refer to the many musicians who staff their music department? I think New Music Box would benefit from talking to this association to find composers who are organists and whose main source of income is in such far-flung fields as information technology, medical sciences, marketing, finance, non-profits outside the arts. Many of these part-time or “amateur ” musicians are quite well-versed in improvisation, sight-reading, sensitively accompanying plainchant, chorl literature and more operatic style solos, and need to be acquainted with a broad range of musical styles spanning over 400 years. Finally the AGO and some other organizations offer certification programs that are quite rigorous. Just check some of the certificate programs at the AGO.

    Pardon the slight tangent but my point is to refer to organizations where many composers flourish starting in their late 30’s and even well into 70’s because they belong to excellent organizations which support their musical practice and growth. A good deal of them are not degreed in music and have not won any prizes but get works performed. A few are published and their works are in high demand – even as they are reaching their peak compositional output later in their life.

    PS. And to Charles and the younger composers who responded, promoting your work is fine but to do it well takes commitment. Some musicians are not interested in many of the aspects of a full-time musician’s life. Working outside music and gaining respect for abilities in these non-music does hav the benefit of 1) having a self-esteem and fortitude gained from knowing there many things which you can do well and be paid for them and 2)having more room to pick and choose composition projects to pursue and organizations to join. For example, I prefer earning income as a writer and secretary rather than take on sufficient amount of private students to pay for necessities or be an accompanist for an off-off-Broadway show where I may have to work to get engaged with music I do not find very satisfying.

    Reply
  18. Nickitas Demos

    Bill –
    Outstanding article. I especially appreciate the empirical approach. This is an issue that affects me acutely. I recently turned 50 this year and the full weight of ageism in terms of opportunities has reached a head. I should have felt it as soon as I turned 40 but now I can’t help but feel as I have missed the boat.
    I agree with all the responses to Charles’ comments. I would only add this: Other reasons a composer may enter (or in my case, re-enter) the competition circuit are due to academic obligations. Securing a tenure track position, getting tenured and ultimately earning the position of Full Professor is a very time consuming endeavor. Because I chose to have a family, securing a day gig at a University seemed the best course of action for me.
    However, I am most definitely NOT in a “privileged” position. I worked extremely hard to earn this position. Nothing is handed to any of us in the academy. Even after rising to the rank of Full Professor, the pay is awful; especially when compared to other colleagues in different disciplines holding the same rank, education and experience. I also sacrificed a lot; in particular, those crucial years of 30 – 40 for the sake of a career that would provide at least a steady and reliable source of income for my family.
    Don’t get me wrong. I do not regret any decisions I have made. Yet, why should I now be penalized with respect to opportunities to present my music? Middle age in the 21st Century is not the same as it was at the dawn of the last century. There is much that I and my colleagues can contribute. As composers, we all face many challenges. Ageism within our own field shouldn’t be one of them.
    Thank you for a wonderful article. I will be sharing this on my blog and with all my colleagues and students!

    Reply
    1. James

      Great article! It took me 50 years of study, performance, listening, pondering, and experiencing to warm up to the task of attempting composition in earnest. If I ever emerge as a composer, it would likely be well into retirement from my non-musical day gig. (So what am I, chopped liver?) Thanks for speaking up, Bill.

      Reply
  19. Donald Wheelock

    As someone who has composed music for around 50 years and considers himself neither fully emerged (from what — obscurity? innocence? underground? and into what — fame? establishment? a lack of opportunity?) I enjoyed your article. Delighted there was someone looking out for me, I clicked on ComposersSite.com embedded in your article. Alas, it was a dead end. What do I make of that?

    Reply
  20. Miguel Frasconi

    Excellent and timely article. When I was younger, I was pleased to have chosen a career in which people in their 40s were still called “young composers.” Obviously that is no longer the case. I have long been annoyed by the term “emerging.” Not only for it’s ageist implications but because I believe it does a disservice to the younger generation of composers. The term of course implies that there is a creative landscape from which someone is emerging, but, more significantly, it implies there is a stable creative and economic landscape to emerge to. As most mid and late career composers know, this is not usually the case. Being a working composer in this country is extremely difficult, and young composers should be given encouragement and exposure. But to give people the impression that there is a stable career waiting for them when they have finished “emerging” is misleading.

    Yes, there should continue to be grants based on one’s heritage, location and age, but, overall, it’s the quality of the work that should be the primary focus of most granting bodies.

    Reply
  21. Robert A. Baker

    Great article, and nice reminders of some famous composers’ ages and developments.

    If I may add another name to the already convincing ‘non-young composer’ list that is growing on this thread, Schoenberg was 38 when he composed Pierrot, and nearly 50 (… was it 47? Sorry if I’m off a year or two.) when he composed his first 12-tone piece (I’m thinking of the Waltz in Op. 23).

    I enjoy thinking of this as it excites me to think that I, and many of my composer friends, can still get better throughout our 40s, 50s and perhaps 60s, regardless of any perceived privileged life situation. As I’m sure is true for many readers, my compsoer friends are in many different circumstances (professors, computer programmers, elementary school teachers, general bohemians, etc.). But will we be able to enter those future pieces into many ‘opportunities’ …? Let’s hope!

    RB

    Reply
  22. Phil Kelly

    Although this well researched article mainly addresses the issues facing the academic /classical field, I can tell you from experience that those of us in the comercial field of film /advertising and media music face similar difficulties.

    Many of those in hiring positions at networks, ad agencies etc tend to be younger these days and prefer working with members of their own generation
    over working with older musicians with longer track records and a wider range of experience. It’s somehow also felt that the younger composers are more on the “cutting edge” wheras the older composer has often been exposed and become familiar with a wide range of styles and technical developments over his career span .i.e music styles, electronics, etc.

    ( In full disclosure: I don’t feel my comments are based on “sour grapes” because I’ve had a pretty good run and although not a household name, I’ve managed to make a comfortable living for most of my 40 + year working career and have had the opportunities to write a lot of different music for varying groups during that time -unfortunately, others have not had my experience in their career, and I’m glad the subject has been addressed. )

    Reply
  23. Lance Hulme

    Bill Doerrfeld was a fantastic composer when an undergrad at Eastman (Naked Man Music!!!!!). I can see no reason for his mature music not to be even more astonishing. Age matters because we grow as artists and master our craft.

    Reply
    1. Bill Doerrfeld

      Lance! Hello and thanks. However, I must correct the Naked Man Music reference. The piece was actually entitled Naked Men Music. I was not alone in this feat and and accompanied by three others including fellow composer/friend Kamran Ince. In the spirit of this thread I am now considering composing a sequel (in a couple decades) entitled Crazy Old Naked Men Music. It may be difficult to convince the original quartet to participate. So, old newcomers may be needed. :)

      Reply
  24. Jan-Bas Bollen

    Thanks for this essay, Bill. As Mary Jane comments, the word career is mentioned quite often. Composition as a profession has become a highly inflated (or should I say ‘deflated’?) occupation. Today, anyone who creates music, be it original or not, at any quality level, can call him/herself a ‘composer’. The term rings a status bell, even if inappropriately used for highly respected but quite different disciplines that are related but require another set of specific qualities, such as pop songwriting. If I look around me, I see plenty of people dealing with their status first, then maybe craft – and artistry comes last. Age does not seem to be a discriminating factor there.
    Combining the pursuit of an artistic life with running a career always carries an element of contradiction in itself, no matter at what age. However, many art music composers find their voice only at a relatively later stage of their lives due to the complicated nature of the art form. That there is often a media hype in favour of ‘young composers” might be too bad for the elderly but we can not take the yearning of the press for pretty front pages too seriously.
    If we are talking institutional jobs, like teaching composition at an academic level, experience is often an advantage. In Europe, anyway. As for competition, I am convinced that in the art of composition but also in other art forms, there is no room for contention. Championship is just a side product of the human quest for identity and survival, it has very little to do with art. Neither does ageism.

    Reply
  25. Pingback: Rollercoaster | Nicholas O'Neill

  26. Mark N. Grant

    Let’s not forget that the ageism inherent in American culture is part of the problem. We are not a culture that reveres elder wisdom or prizes slow organic growth. The instant coffee Madison Avenue paradigm creeps into even the rarefied world of the composer, if only in subliminal ways.

    Unless you become a star. Stardom trumps ageism; a celebrity composer (a Stravinsky, Elliott Carter, or even a Steve Reich), far from suffering ageism, enjoys public celebrations of each advancing major birthday milestone. Most good artists (and most fine composers) never become stars. Creating good art has nothing to do with stardom. American culture loves stars and even the more responsible press tends to define the arts for the public in terms of who are the stars.

    Some artists do achieve stardom late. An outstanding example was the sculptor Louise Nevelson, totally obscure until her 60s, then within a few years rich and famous. The delayed success twisted her personality, making her arrogant and driving her to recreate herself in her well-photographed public persona of facial makeup (false eyelashes and heavy eyeliner, no lipstick). It is often said that the same kind of delayed recognition embittered the poet Robert Frost.

    In the 1980s, when I was writing record reviews for Ovation magazine, I interviewed a Soviet Russian colleague of Sofia Gubaidulina, who at that time of Glasnost had just crossed over to the West and was enjoying heightened attention– commissions, performances, recordings– and recognition for the first time as a great individual voice. She was already in her mid-50s, and her friend from Russia told me that after all her years of drudgery, film scoring, and suppression in the Soviet Union he thought it was too late for the delayed recognition and creative freedom to warm her soul. (She’s had enduring recognition since and I must emphasize that I have no idea what Gubaidulina actually thought then, or now, but the gentleman knew her personally and spoke his mind.)

    Reply
  27. NSW

    This seems like a similar discussion to the questions about affirmative action.

    Affirmative action was initially intended to balance the years of prejudice against a specific race that had been enslaved for centuries and then denied opportunities for a further century after granting them freedom.

    Yet, with the inclusion of other races (i.e. hispanics), while excluding races who had done better yet were given an equally difficult welcome into this country (specifically the defacto enslavement of the Chinese in California during the 19th century), it became a way to “promote diversity.” Yet this system does not approach an African American who grew up with high-net-worth parents differently from those who grew up in poverty. The argument has been made that for affirmative action to be effective in creating diversity and accounting for the lost opportunities of the lower class, affirmative action should be based on socio-economic status and blind to race.

    How does this tie into Mr. Doerrfeld’s article? What his statistics fail to consider are the plethora of commissions that are simply offered to established composers. Logically, age will give composers a greater chance of becoming established and thus more likely to receive one of these invitations (when I think of the premieres that I have seen in NYC in the last year, the vast majority were offered by invitation and not the result of awards).

    If there were a way to consider a starting point in a person’s career – or alternatively, stating that a composer can only apply to any given competition X number of times in their life – it could create a system with more equal opportunity – but this article is based on incomplete research.

    Reply
    1. Bill Doerrfeld

      “Logically, age will give composers a greater chance of becoming established”

      What logic is being used here and what assumptions are being used to support said purported logic? It appears the guiding assumption is that which is already addressed in the article. That is, that older folks have more experience and have had more chances to succeed. That may be true in some cases, but, as discussed in the article, there are examples where it is not true.

      “What his statistics fail to consider are the plethora of commissions that are simply offered to established composers”

      Where is your evidence to support this claim? Any empirical study and/or assertion boldly claimed to be true should be backed by solid evidence.

      “but this article is based on incomplete research.”

      Always open here to constructive criticism. Not open here to speculative assumptions devoid of empirical evidence. That’s called uninformed opinion, not research. What empirical research would you demand is necessary to make the research behind this project more complete? Do you want to take on the dozens of additional hours to engage in said research for the benefit of educating the community? What methodology will you apply? What will be your sources?

      It’s very easy to make assertion based on “belief.” It’s an entirely different matter to have them backed by solid empirical data.

      Reply
      1. NSW

        You only factored in open calls.

        Have you considered the “composer in residence” positions at most major and minor orchestra in the country?

        Additionally, have you considered every single commission offered to specific composers?

        I don’t have the numbers on every single one – but I didn’t write an article claiming to have statistics on it… Living in NYC, I know that the NY Phil has a composer in residence. The Brooklyn Phil commissioned several works. Alarm Will Sound premieres various works every year. As do the Knights. The performance space at Montclair State University has commissioned several new works this season – none of them open call.

        It is easy to “factor out” a number of variables and then show a “definitive pattern.”

        Reply
        1. Bill Doerrfeld

          “What his statistics fail to consider are the plethora of commissions that are simply offered to established composers”

          The article is about opportunities for emerging composers who are trying to establish their careers. It’s not about opportunities provided specifically to established composers.

          “I don’t have the numbers on every single one – but I didn’t write an article claiming to have statistics on it”

          The article makes no claim that every single opportunity available has been analyzed. The article very clearly presents the source for its analysis.

          There are non-open calls which are specifically made available to established composers as well as those which specifically cater to young or emerging composers (i.e. Young Composer-In-Residence).

          You’re acting on the assumption that all non-open call composer opportunities are awarded to established composers. I’m wondering how empirical of a study has been performed to arrive at that conclusion. Non-open calls are also awarded to the young and emerging often for the same reasons discussed in the article.

          Reply
    2. Stephen Ferre

      I, too, am interested in this plethora of commissions. In my experience there is a plethora of commissions that don’t pay real money. I just had a commission canceled that paid only costs – that is, photocopying costs, not setting costs. That was after having written 2/3 of a piano concerto. They decided that it was too difficult, and didn’t give me the chance to simplify it, even though it wasn’t due for another 6 months.

      I don’t buy it. Commissions that pay real money are just as likely to go to the next big thing – a 20-year-old that has won a contest – as to an older composer, less likely if that composer isn’t “established.” Of course, many of these prizes ARE commissions.

      Reply
  28. DrMatt

    Look. Caroline Shaw is established. I’m decades years older than her and have been working steadily at composing all my life, but I’m not established. I cannot even compete for the Pulitzer, far less any of these fabled commissions, until some of my substantial works get performed. Back before the economy tanked, Minnesota Orchestra read a movement of mine–but the recording is subject to triple-damages waiver and cannot be used to advertise me.
    Bit by bit I’m getting known in Taiwan and Armenia, but, like many of the older composers commenting on this thread, I’ve made all my own opportunities.
    I don’t claim an intrinisic right to be heard, but point out that the hypothesis “older=has had more opportunities” isn’t supported by fact, so those who use it as a filter are impoverishing the diversity and quality of our musical scene.

    Reply
    1. para4

      You can compete for a Pulitzer. All you have to do is submit your latest work that premiered in America, and pay the $50 fee. I don’t think I would have called Caroline Shaw “established” until about 2 months ago. The piece she won the Prize for was basically written for her own a cappella group. It’s not as though she has been getting steady commissions from all the major symphonies and professional choirs, if you want to use that as a benchmark for “established.”

      Reply
      1. chris s

        True you can but when was the last time the Pulitzer was awarded to a composer who started later in their life and went after their education in composition later than someone who compelted their education by their late 20’s or early 30’s? Pulitzer’s are usually awarded to extremely established or , at minimum mid-career, composers. It is a bad example as it is an award with a prejudiced against composers who are emerging – MOST of the time.

        I do think all the comments show this topic requires a much larger series of articles as empirical data is needed along with anecdotal.

        Queens Council of Arts in New York City I believe has done a great report based on anecdotal and some limited empirical evidence of th needs and state of mid-career artists. Something along these lines would be nice to see come from composers associations.

        Reply
  29. Mary Jane Leach

    Yes, Matthew Peterson, I do think that there is a lot of careeerism in younger composers, or perhaps they are just more upfront about it. Also, why is this so bad and why do you think being labeled as such is bad? I was merely trying to figure out priorities, and the peripherals to writing seemed to be mentioned more than composing. I would question, and I think you should too, why you seemingly took this so personally, and why you chose to address my remarks directly, when others were bringing up the same issue, since up to that point I was the only woman and perhaps the oldest composer responding.

    I would also question your assumption that I am not media-savvy, don’t know how to use social media, and/or have networks. Isn’t that at least ageist if not sexist?

    Reply
    1. Matthew Peterson

      Hi Mary Jane,

      I wasn’t making any assumptions. Since you shared your opinion without qualifying it in any way (as you do again here), I was left asking questions to try and figure it out, hence my mention of social-media.

      No one made the statement that you did: “There is a tendency among younger composers these days who emphasize careerism.” This is “bad” because it is unqualified, not to mention that “careerist” is very often used as a pejorative in artistic pursuits. To take it a step further, you declare that we prioritize “careerism”. before our craft and voice. How can I not take that as a blanket insult to my generation?

      I replied to you because your comment isn’t helpful, and it’s one I’ve heard in several venues. I frustrated me that, in a thread concerned with bias and prejudice against older composers, I see prejudice from older composers against younger composers. I don’t think your comment brings anything of substance to the debate. I fought back when I heard similar opinions from my professors, and I do the same here, so I can promise the intent was not to pick on you.

      Reply
  30. para4

    I think there’s an issue here with the definition of terms.

    The problem here is not necessarily age; when a commission is offered to composers under 30, it’s usually a proxy for saying “we are supporting an emerging composer or a new voice” not necessarily “we are supporting a 20-something composer.” The assumption is that emerging = young. Plus, young composers often have just been through a sequence of studies, student prizes, and small commissions that can easily be used as benchmarks for “emerging.” And everybody wants to find the “hot new thing” whether or not it’s young.

    I really don’t think these commissioners are specifically choosing to deny opportunities to older composers. They really believe they are helping develop new voices. If you are 50 and have been a composer but not yet found success or established yourself in your career, yeah a commission would be great but you aren’t “emerging” or a “new voice” if you’ve been working at it for 25 years already. So a commissioner who wants a “new voice” won’t be interested in you.

    Can you think of a specific way to support “emerging” composers who are not “under 30″? I really don’t think the answer is have commissions for “over 50″ composers, because again, age isn’t specifically the issue for the commissioner. What stops Christopher Rouse from applying for that award if he felt like it?

    So how do you target truly “emerging” composers who are 50 years old?

    Or, is this really all just about age? Because if that’s the case, I think you are misreading the intentions of the commissioners you’re talking about and you’re identifying a problem without a real solution.

    Reply
    1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

      Yes, it is about age.

      I don’t want to contribute to the somewhat excessive victimhood here, but I would like to mention something very surprising about age, something I could not possibly have noticed until I actually got old: younger people do not look at or acknowledge old people, they quietly mock them, walk past them, and generally avoid them.

      And I have been shocked. When my hair thinned and whitened and wrinkles appeared, my presence was a discomfort.

      This rejection is particularly aimed at my generation, the despised baby boomers. Recently I did a guest appearance on a radio show and, as I often say, I can’t wait until our generation of listeners and performers is gone because they have always been a dead weight on new music. After this two-hour interview, a 30-ish person passed by me and said how glad he, too, would be when my generation was dead and it was the only good thing I’d said on the show.

      So maybe — we can hope — the ageist approach will in fact disappear when the fear of my particular aging, snaggletoothed, bad-breath, foul-smelling generation also disappears.

      But younger artists, think about it: Do you welcome the company of those two generations your senior as we feel we welcome you? Or do you sense the same antipathy from us and so put an age limit on competitions?

      Reply
      1. para4

        I’m sorry but this just smacks of grievance and self-pity. My generation is despised, nobody likes me, my kids never call, etc. It hardly even relates to the topic at hand.

        If commissioners and ensembles were so prejudiced against useless wrinkled older composers, you’d think they would stop commissioning all those well-established composers with a track record of success and great connections in the business. Why did the NY Philharmonic pick crusty old Chris Rouse as its composer in residence? Why does anybody care about James MacMillan anymore, he’s so old! Why do people still commission [insert any name]?

        I hate to say it, but I think there are composers (and authors, and all kinds of artists) who simply haven’t managed to “establish” themselves at the forefront of their fields. So they don’t get the call from Boosey when someone wants to commission them, because the world at large doesn’t know or care about their work. I get it – this hurts, and it’s hard. But the last thing that’s going to help you is demanding that people stop offering commissions and awards to young composers for whom this IS the chance to start establishing themselves, and start creating opportunities for you specifically because of your age range (as opposed to your place in your career, or god forbid your prior record of success).

        If some organization wants to hold a contest or start a series of commissions explicitly for composers aged 40-60, then fine. Let them see what shakes out.

        The only exception I can see here is for composers who truly have come to the field later in life, kind of like how internships ought to be open to people switching careers in mid-life and not just to young college students. It would be interesting to address that. But making it all hinge purely on your age and then blaming “society” for not valuing old people is awfully silly.

        And PS – just want to point out that we’re talking about 35% of opportunities. Is it really so galling that 1/3 of opportunities might be offered exclusively to people looking to begin their careers?

        Reply
        1. Mark N. Grant

          Am I alone in finding the above comment gratuitously nasty and inappropriately ad hominem in tone for this forum? Dennis raised legitimate issues that are directly related to this discussion.

          Reply
          1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

            It’s okay, Mark, and thanks. I was just trying to relate a different and personal perspective on ageism, one that is very uncomfortable to discuss. Folks who know me are aware of my tendency to poke at the tender bits.

            Reply
          2. Mary Jane Leach

            No, Mark, you are not alone. At first I thought it must be a parody of a nasty response.

            btw – I heard that crusty old composer Christopher Rouse’s (who’s the same age as me) piano concerto “Seeing” last week, and it is an incredible work, and most likely not one that could have been written when young.

            Reply
        2. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

          A little thought experiment. Imagine that I’m not talking about old people. Imagine that I’m talking about people of a different race or ethnicity or gender. Plug that in. Re-read your response.

          “Is it really so galling that 1/3 of opportunities might be offered exclusively to…”

          Does the hard reality of ageism make more sense now?

          Reply
          1. NSW

            Bad premise. Race is something you are born into and cannot change. This particular comment involved a persons lack of ability to establish themselves as a composer within a given period of time on this earth. And @Mary Jane – you did misread those comments. Para4 was pointing out that any number of “elder statesmen” get a variety of lucrative commissions… The hyperboles were exactly that.

            It was certainly aggressive – but the vast majority of the comments on this thread have been a commiseration about how life is unfair and people aren’t appreciated.

            Most artists are not (commercially) appreciated. Do it because you love it. I look to Ives as the example of someone who realized that it was entirely unfeasible to support himself composing the music he enjoyed writing, and made a good life for himself both professionally (in business) and creatively (in music).

            What I find most surprising is this notion that people should/can make a living in the arts… Sure it is possible. When I was in undergrad, my teacher was pulling in almost $200k between his orchestra job and teaching. Yet could any of his students expect to make the same – no. If they do, it is great. But just because your teacher/peer/student is making $x or getting x,y,z prizes doesn’t mean that you should as well. Going back to my previous comment – having a lifetime restriction on the number of applications to a specific competition might be the best way to solve this “ageist” issue – but let’s all call a spade a spade here. Some people’s music just isn’t very interesting.

            Reply
            1. Mark N. Grant

              Let’s be fair. If you’re going to issue a blanket statement like “Some people’s music just isn’t very interesting,” you must include “younger composers” as well as “older composers” among “some people.”

  31. Elaine Fine

    I didn’t even start writing seriously until I was 40. Before that I simply wasn’t ready. It’s about time somebody spoke out about this issue. Thank you.

    Reply
  32. Lawrence Eckerling

    I can think of no area in music which requires more experience prior to beginning in a field than musical composition, and particularly ensemble composition such as writing for orchestra, band or chorus. Starting out as a performer on an instrument, with a thorough music education is a necessity prior to being able to actually compose. Unless you are a Mozart or a Beethoven (and really, how many people today are Mozart and Beethoven?),you are not going to develop until later in life. Because you must gain experience as a composer first before being good. A “young instrumentalist” competition? Sure…prodigies. A “young COMPOSER” competition? Simply ridiculous.

    Reply
  33. Phil Fried

    We would like to think that there is a guiding hand, or perhaps a cabal, that controls or is in charge of the American music scene. Not the case.
    No one is the “person behind the curtain.” Things are as they are because we let them. Many administrators, or those who act in that capacity, pretend they built the ring we all skate in. In that way power is projected that does not in fact exist.

    Choosing youth is easy because Youth is America’s oldest tradition.

    Reply
  34. Kyle Gann

    You know, this isn’t really an argument between young composers and old composers. It’s between early bloomers and late bloomers. As we’ve established, history offers many examples of great composers in both categories. The current system of music awards is set up, for no convincing logical reason, to favor early bloomers. Some of the (presumably) young composers protesting here may bloom later in life, watch opportunities vanish before they could fully take advantage of them, and come to agree with Mr. Doerrfeld.

    Reply
    1. DrMatt

      More than early and late bloomers, the current system is set up to create further establishment for those who become somewhat established in their early years. Somebody wrote that one can enter any work in the Pulitzer, for instance, and that’s simply not true: only works which have been performed qualify, and that is just part of the way we create feedback loops that favor cascades of further performances for some, and a closed door for others. Quality frankly doesn’t enter into it much.

      Reply
  35. Alex Shapiro

    I hear, respect, and agree with many of the observations Bill has carefully made about a specific aspect of our composing field: opportunities that are competitive, and often skewed to a very specific demographic.

    But before we allow angry protests of injustice to furrow our brows and ruin a perfectly good writing day, let’s take a breath, and remember that composers of any age who are fortunate enough to have a computer and an internet connection, have more control over their music and their careers than any composer who has ever existed before them.

    Rather than apply for “opportunities” created and adjudicated by others, we are now able to create our own, true, opportunities by spending our time fostering relationships, instead of filling out application forms. It can feel much better to devise one’s own rules and blaze one’s own path, than to draw inside some mysterious, unspoken lines in order to abide by rules set by others.

    Only if a composer’s definition of success is a bio filled with impressive awards and the names of famous institutions, do these competitions and their imbalances matter. There certainly is nothing bad at all about such a bio, and I do not discount the frustrations inherent in obtaining one. But I want to assure everyone that such a bio is most definitely not needed in order to have a happy, creative, income-producing, steady career as a contemporary music composer. I promise you this, and I may write an essay soon that delves into the details of being as creative with our lives and with our approach to our profession, as we are with the music we compose. Take heart! There are more options than may be evident, and they can be quite wonderful.

    Reply
    1. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

      Alex, you are absolutely right about the opportunities and how to create them.

      Even so, injustices are not righted by being silent. Solving an opportunity problem is not nearly as difficult as ending the prejudice that engendered it in the first place. I hope that the prejudice that is now visible in all its stark reality, right here, can begin the process of ending it.

      Reply
      1. Alex Shapiro

        I absolutely agree with you, Dennis. I am not suggesting for an instant that this discussion about the injustices of ageism– whether with regard to awards, or to our profession in general– is anything other than essential, and it’s heartening to see so many colleagues raising their voices in all these comments.

        Bill’s essay focuses on competitions and other juried opportunities, and thus my two cents offered above are aimed solely at that specific topic, suggesting that it’s far better for a composer of ANY age to take control and act proactively, rather than fling oneself upon the whims and moods of a judging panel.

        Reply
        1. Bill Doerrfeld

          Hi Alex:

          Thanks much for chiming in to offer your upbeat, positive and informed commentary. I’ve seen other colleagues adopt your approach to create their own opportunities and/or to be an active self-promoter where relationships get built which inspire new work and performances. I think an article or two on this approach would be very much welcome and appreciated by the New Music community. One might argue that this approach represents a new way to get things done in a capitalist, democratic, modern society—although more on that later. One might also argue that the aggressive self promoter is something contrary to the true mission of an artist who at his/her best is only concerned with delivering the best possible art. Dan Visconti’s recent article on what it is to “glom” warns of the dangers of a certain type of in-your-face self promotion. The inference is that one should be careful not to push too hard but patiently or respectfully wait for opportunities to be presented to one or wait to be asked what one is up to, and then of course be ready to respond with a long list of interesting projects. But being in a position of being asked or approached of course never happens unless people know about one’s capabilities. And one can’t really move forward patiently waiting around for that call from people who have never heard your work. One of my standing jokes is that I only wish my creditors were as patient as I’m expected to be… :)

          I also think that aggressive self promotion really only works with certain personality types. Some colleagues adept at this refer to the process in their own words as “hustling” which requires incessantly contacting a “list” of prospects to entice/encourage them to perform/commission their work. There DEFINITELY is a right way and the wrong way to go about this activity. You do it wrong and you glom and/or annoy. It requires considerable skill and business savvy to accomplish self promotion in a manner which presses just enough but not too much. One may argue the aggressive self promotion approach and relationship building can become more about the person or personality than the music itself. Works get commissioned/performed because the composer is known or liked for who they are as a person, not necessarily for their music. Being a likable person who everyone knows then becomes the critical component necessary to attaining success. Yep, that requires a ton of time to build and maintain all those relationships. Lots of social media interaction. Lots of emails. Lots of phone calls. Lots of conferences and parties to attend. Yep, it’s all networking. And, once again, it really only works for certain personality types. I do believe in the laws of attraction and I do believe most people prefer to associate themselves with positive, upbeat, forward moving people. People who demonstrate these attributes will likely fair better in the relationship building and self promotion arena than those who keep to themselves.

          But, what about the artistic soul whose life has been a roller coaster ride of ups and downs and who in so doing has collected such a wide range of life experiences which arguably have spawned music that is truly deep and meaningful possibly in different ways than those who have not been on as wild a roller coaster ride? They may possess sufficient self control to keep it together in order to scribble down onto score their incredible journey. But, expecting them to be a positive, upbeat, good self promoter in order to make it—or even to pay the rent—is arguably casting them into a mold which is foreign to who they are at their innermost core. One might argue that many of our greatest composers and artists were challenged souls. I hate to think that such a lot on life is required in order to generate truly great art as the process is at times almost unbearable for said souls to endure. And, of course there are many examples throughout history of level headed artists who create great art. But, again, I really do believe that not every artist can be a successful self promoter. It’s just not in their DNA. And, the barrage of info put out there telling artists to act this way IMO ignores a very important aspect of what it means to be an artist. Do we want the successful artists to be just those who reflect a certain personality type or do we want ALL types represented? How robust and deep of an artistic expression do we want conveyed in our society? Do we really want those masters of career building to be heard more than those with zero interest in career building but whose interest lies exclusively with music building? (Yeah I know a certain degree of attention toward career building is required in order to elevate the music making to higher standards of realization.)

          Alex you very aptly point out that one of the cons of emerging composers focusing on competitive opportunities is that one flings “oneself upon the whims and moods of a judging panel” further arguing that “it’s far better for a composer of ANY age to take control and act proactively.” These are wise words. On the flip side one might argue that open call opportunities are a way to get your work heard by people of influence and by people who WANT to listen. You don’t have to go through the stage of first creating the desire for someone to listen which the self promoter must go through. But, if in the process of creating the desire the self promoter controls the process and builds a relationship that ends up inspiring a more sincere and thoughtful listen of the presented work, then, arguably that approach is far more practical.

          For this essay I chose to focus on the world of open opportunities out of a strong desire to retain an empirical approach of how an emerging composer builds his/her career. That way statistics could be applied and a number derived. The websites which list composer opportunities may be compared to the classified want ads. Both the composer opportunities websites and “real” job classified want ads are competitive, juried processes. One’s work/resume/accomplishments/experience are compared with all other applicants and a decision is made as to who gets selected. Arguably this is the method by which the majority of “real” jobs are attained in addition to opportunities for emerging composers. Yes, people get “real” jobs sometimes based on who they know. But, to combat cronyism, nepotism, racism, sexism and other “isms”, modern society generally has adopted the open call process for providing opportunity. So, from that perspective it would appear a study on emerging composer opportunities viewed from the open call lens is appropriate.

          I can see both sides of the arguments on the pros/cons of blind, juried competitions vs self promotion via relationship building and marketing. I think they both have their place. I think it would be great to get ageism OUT of juried opportunities so that those whose nature is not one to self promote have a better shot at fair and equal treatment.

          Again, I HIGHLY encourage you to author a New Music Box article on the merits of your self promotion techniques. Your words are filled with positive energy and practical experience which can be of benefit to many. Thanks again Alex for chiming in!

          Best,

          Bill Doerrfeld
          Composer and Pianist
          “Battered” soul embracing practicality, fairness and openness with upbeat, friendly smile and willingness to laugh it all away… :)

          Reply
          1. Alex Shapiro

            Bill, your response is really terrific! You raise so many excellent ancillary points. It was inevitable that once I said, “jes’ ferget about them-there damned awards!”, that the corollary (Be. Social.) would cause a new ball to immediately be put into play. You are absolutely correct in stating that not all composers (and quite possibly not most) are well suited to the demands now placed upon us in this still-new era of self-EVERYTHING.

            I’ve been pondering this challenging aspect of the new digital-age paradigm for quite some time, and I do want to attempt to address it in an essay; thank you so much for your encouragement. I do not at all think that the choices are either/or, competitions vs. entrepreneurship; there’s a balance to be obtained. I’m going to use your thoughtful response as a guide for my outline.

            Reply
            1. Bill Doerrfeld

              Excellent. There are many ways we can help one another. I very much like the direction you’ve taken the commentary on this article. Thanks again for sharing your insight Alex!

              Best,

              Bill
              (With appreciation for the upbeat, positive self-help direction along with deep respect for the solemn, introspective, self-deprecating, thoughtful artist in need of help perspective)

  36. Judith Shatin

    Dear Bill,

    Thank you for bringing this important topic to the fore, and for your analysis of particular instances. And an interesting discussion that followed.

    On the one hand, it is of course great that there are more opportunities than there were. On the other, ageism is indeed thriving. Many people, especially women, come into the profession at a later chronological age. And, one issue that no one has mentioned is that many of opportunities under discussion did not even exist at the time that many of us were coming into the profession.

    That, coupled with the fetishizing of the premiere, and the disinclination by many ensembles to perform new work, has indeed closed the door on many meritorious composers. Many competitions require that a work not have been premiered in order to be considered. Maybe there are many composers who have time to create new compositions on spec, but I’m confident that many do not. Why exclude compositions that have been heard a couple or even a few times but are unlikely to have wide currency?

    And let’s not forget presenters. I am sure that I am no alone in having presenters tell performers who want to play my music, in both the US and abroad, that they want no contemporary music or they will cancel the program. In my own case, on several occasions this has meant no music after Mussorgsky, or no music after 1920!

    Yes, we have more tools to disseminate our work today, while yes, there are more composers than every vying to have their voices heard. And yes, we are working in a time when the pop-industrial complex dwarfs the non-pop monoplex. Still, the opening up of opportunities, including competitive ones, to a broader spectrum of participants is something that those running competitions should act on. Various women-in-music organizations have done so, either offering consideration for ‘emerging’ composers, or for older composers. The International Alliance of Women in Music (http://iawm.org/competitions/search-for-new-music/search-for-new-music-guidelines/) does indeed have several such competitions. While not generously funded, they bring attention to the work of women composers, many of whom have dealt with/deal with sexism in their work, in age groups often excluded from other score calls.

    While these are in some ways intractable problems, there are some steps to take:
    1. Make score calls/competitions anonymous
    2. If you are involved in designing competitions, work on other criteria that are more inclusive, such as number of previous performances
    3. For those of us who teach, broaden the range of contemporary composers that we include and that we suggest to our colleagues and friends for performance

    I’m sure many out there can come up with additional suggestions, and I look forward to hearing them.

    Regards,
    Judith

    Reply
  37. Composer

    Judith,
    I agree a lot with your point of view.

    At some point I also wrote an article (in Spanish) about the same topic. My main conclusion is that “selection on the base of a feature of the music piece, is ‘natural selection’ and is OK. But selection on the base of a characteristic of the composer, of the person, is discrimination”.

    Warmly
    Juan María Solare
    composer & pianist
    Album Tango Monologues
    Radio Tango Nuevo

    Reply
  38. Eleonor Sandresky

    As both a composer over 50 and a late bloomer, and a founder of the Mata Festival, one of the first organizations to focus on young, under-served composers, I think the lesson for an artist of any age is that there will always be inequality or an -ism of some kind to contend with. Obstruction is everywhere, if we choose to look for it. Those of us who are dealing with this particular set of circumstances should, in my view, use those creative juices to circumvent the status quo. Forget about all these “opportunities” and find what works for you individually. In my experience, this frees up your mind (and pocketbook) for more creative thinking and composing, and in my case has put me directly in touch with an audience I had no idea existed for my music. I don’t get lots of press or accolades for that work, but that’s not why I’m doing this anyway. There is a real opportunity here that I hope you can all see, and that is that by not relying on those published opportunities that others create for us, we have the possibility to build a country of new music lovers through our own initiatives. The audience is out there, they just don’t want to go to the places where the big opportunities are: symphony orchestras, performing arts centers, etc. They want the music to meet them on their turf, in their environments. And this is especially true outside NYC, I think. At least, this is my experience currently.
    The ageism conversation is an important one to have and one that needs to continue, but I hope that we can also look to other ways of making our way as composers and artists in the world, and in ways that are beneficial not just to ourselves but to the wider world too. After all, we do this not just because we love it, but because other people need it too.

    Reply
    1. Bill Doerrfeld

      Ageism hits particularly hard when orchestras engage in it or big name ensembles put out an “under age xx” project/call as it’s a bit expensive to put together your own orchestra and/or wave a magic wand and create a big name ensemble.

      The research done for this report derives conclusions which contest the notion that attention is required for “young, under-served composers” over other age groups.

      Reply
      1. Composer

        I still keep a letter by György Ligeti in which he strongly suggested the organizers of a certain competition for orchestral music (where he has been a jury) that they change the age limit from 35 to at least 40, since in his opinion it is very improbable that a composer today is artistically mature enough at 35. He also argued that he heard his first composition for orchestra at 38.

        Certainly there are lots of opportunities for composers nowadays. Maybe more than, say, 25 years ago. But it doesn’t mean that selection on the base of age is good. Implied is “you had your chance and you didn’t make use of it, now leave room, since the queue is long”. I cannot agree with this criteria, it is unnecessarily rude.

        Juan María

        Reply
      2. Phil Fried

        The Minnesota Orchestra awarded me, twice, to their reading program and I was no spring chicken. Thanks for their vision. Sadly missed.

        The conversation is an illusion.
        “Conversation” implies an end result and equality.
        Can the have nots talk their way into being haves?

        Reply
  39. Jon

    This is an interesting topic and the author makes good points, but I do think he vastly overestimates the value of entering competitions in the first place. The percentage of composers of any age who actually win the competitions they enter is vanishingly small. It can certainly be a career boost to the lucky few who do win, but it is far from the only way or the best way to make a life as a composer. Aiming to get a career started by entering composition competitions is like aiming to get rich by spinning the roulette wheel in Vegas. You might get lucky, but it’s hardly an effective career strategy. The author’s claim that “An objective view of the record bears witness to the fact that there are virtually no examples—at least I cannot think of any—whereby a modern composer has attained notoriety without winning a significant composer prize” does not ring true to me at all (at least, assuming he means winning prizes BEFORE they were already well-known, rather than after), though maybe I’m wrong — it would be interesting to see some data on it.

    I think a far more serious problem for composers trying to start out at a more advanced age is their lack of professional connections. This after all is where I am certain the vast majority of composers get the vast majority of their opportunities — this is the case at least for myself and pretty much every other composer I know. When you go to schools and summer festivals with other composers and performers, and stay in touch over the years, as your cohort gets more known and established, more opportunities naturally come your way. But if you lose touch with them by moving in a different career direction, or if you came to composing later in life and never had the opportunity to form those relationships in the first place, you are at a distinct disadvantage. This is not meant in any way to counter the author’s point about the unfairness of age-restricted competitions, but simply to say that a more effective way to address the issue of lack of opportunity for older composers might be to work on developing these sorts of professional connection opportunities. I’m really not sure how one might accomplish this — any good ideas out there?

    Reply
    1. Alexandra Gardner

      Hi Jon!

      You’ve really nailed it here – I absolutely agree that for composers getting a late start, the biggest stumbling block is lack of professional connections. Not only is it really difficult to begin making them past the standard grad school age range, but it can also become challenging to keep them up as “life” creeps into the mix, adding children, home ownership, job responsibilities, and more, to the mix. While ageism certainly is an issue to be addressed (and thank you Bill for your hard work on this article!), I think that the need to be part of a musical community trumps winning awards by far, for composers of any age.

      Reply
  40. J. Permo

    This is a market phenomena: American taste is for the brash, the youthful, so the competitions are designed to get that kind of sound. Music written by 50 year old composers (like myself) cannot rightfully mimic the sound of the youngster brimming with that ‘newness’ and emergent quality that American culture consumers desire.
    It’s about being in a New Land with little history. A French composer writing music in Paris need only look at Notre Dame and Perotin stares back at him, from eight centuries ago. The ages past, the elders, they get respect, because it validates the tradition to which the young person wishes to aspire to. Here in the U.S., it’s the ‘Vogue of the New’. Out West, past the Rockies (where the Continent still feels new), there is hardly any call for this sort of music at all, kind of the way the the Eastern seaboard was in late 19C, early 20C. Americans were busy being a new country, a new economy, they could not care less about polytonality or Futurism. Now the east is gettting some age to it. The young ones now go to Brooklyn, to be on the edge of the Continent closest to where music composition really calls home. As for myself, I reside on the opposite edge, the Pacific side, the ocean of forgetfulness, not minding history.

    Reply
  41. Pingback: On ageism in composition

  42. Mike Milnarik

    I apologize in advance if I’m duplicating what others have already said. It took a lot of effort to read this all the way through, but I wanted to do that before I responded, and I just didn’t read any of the comments.

    I also want to start with – I am VERY MUCH in support of new music and great composers! I have a brass group that 50-70% of our programs are exclusive compositions that only my group performs. I am always looking for new music for my group – HOWEVER – it has to work with my audience or I can’t use it.

    That being said…

    Win your audience and stop trying to win judges.

    Dictionary.com says:

    Business – the purchase and sale of goods in an attempt to make a profit.

    The first rule of business is – you need to sell something that people want. The more people that want it, the more money you will make and a better standard of living is possible. The hardest part is – I assume you like your music and feel it’s great. It SHOULD be that way or you would compose something else. The problem is – do you have a large audience that likes your music? Is there a large audience that even knows your music?

    Your comment about Joan Tower toward the end…

    “Then there are recognized composers such as Joan Tower who didn’t receive an orchestra commission until her mid 40s. Clearly, people are recognizing the need for “older newcomers” to be granted more opportunity in classical music composition.”

    Do you actually think someone sat and thought “Hmmm, let’s commission an older composer!” I bet someone liked Joan Tower’s music and commissioned her based on that AND she just happened to be over 40!

    You keep referring to Brahms, Beethoven and Stravinsky. Yes, they composed after 40. I’d be curious to see a modern day tax return of their’s (if it were possible) from when they were alive to see how much money they made at composition. As we all know – when Stravinsky’s music was beginning people hated it. I know a lot of people think about this and say – “that’s the problem with my music” It took a while for this music to “catch on” because the audience that was contemporary to Stravinsky had different tastes. As young musicians continued to be taught about various styles of compositions they began understanding the music more, it got MORE EXPOSURE, and people had informed opinions about it. I like A LOT of Stravinsky’s music! Can I say that Stravinsky’s contemporary audience was wrong? Different time – different understanding.

    If there is age discrimination against composers why are orchestras playing music that is hundreds of years old?

    Even in pop music – there are people that (for better or worse) “compose music.” The majority of them go no where. A small percentage make it through based on an A & R person’s opinion about what will sell to their target audience. Some “pop” MOST “flop.”

    Why is this different in “classical” music? People have developed tastes for a whole bunch of reasons – including education – which is another mess.

    Friends of ours asked me to watch their kids one day. They told me about a couple of their favorite television shows. I sat there while they watched these shows. All of the music was hip hop and pop. Honestly, I’m not trying to get into a debate about what music is legit and what isn’t – but I will say this – THAT is what they are exposed to on a daily basis. When it comes time for them to make decisions about what music they will buy, listen to, or possibly play – I bet it will lean more to these styles, unless they get more exposure in other areas, as well.

    In business there are inventions all the time that pop up. Some have been created out of necessity… “Necessity is the mother of invention.” These are things that if they truly make someone’s life easier because it solves a problem, that A LOT of people already have, it will probably sell a ton! If it is a brand new product that can benefit people, but people don’t understand that benefit – it takes a lot of time, effort and – especially – money to market that product so that enough people begin seeing it, understanding what it does and then buy it. Investor’s like to invest in a “sure thing” not something that may not take off.

    Music is a business (if you want to make a living at it) and it works the same way. People have developed tastes. Younger audiences are developing tastes. Young people like young people. Older people like young people. In Pop music there are so many bands that sound alike because those developing tastes are getting more of what they already like or are exposed to. Those same people are developing their tastes along the way and the record companies are beating people over the head so much with the same stuff that it creates a habit for that style. Most of my friends that are similar in age don’t like a lot of the new pop music that emerges. I am a bit different. I have varied tastes and like a lot of new/different things. Most people have their favorite band or composers from when they were young. When a Journey tune comes on the radio – those my age and a bit older can remember where they were when this tune played. It brings back memories. It’s all about marketing, developing tastes in those that are still developing and making money – to the business world. For better or for worse.

    Are Brahms, Beethoven and Stravinsky just popular amongst academics? Absolutely not. Many people in the general public love these, and other composers. Why then, are you working so hard to ONLY win the hearts of judges on a panel that are most likely made up of academics? Nothing wrong with academics, please don’t misunderstand me. But they are only a TINY portion of a potentially ENORMOUS audience that has NO IDEA who you are or what your music sounds like. AND those judges are basing their decisions on criteria that the general public (the masses) can care less about, or have no idea about. Otherwise – those judges are basing their decisions on their own personal tastes – just as the general public would. Most likely you are being judged on compositional style, etc. Do the masses care about this?

    I am not a kid arguing this. If I heard a piece of great music that will work with one of the groups I run – I’m pumped! The thought of how old the composer is – NEVER enters my mind. Good music is good music. Period. Actually I’ve played music many times by living composers that I’ve never seen a picture of and have NO IDEA how old they are. Most of the time I – for whatever reason – assume they are older or (oddly) dead! When I see a picture of one of these people I am usually surprised at what they look like. With the internet ANYONE can write/perform ANY style of music they want. They can be any shape, size, gender, age, etc. If people hear their music, never seeing the composer or musician, they will base their like or dislike of this music simply on what they hear. OF COURSE, we all want to get credit for our hard work – so we put up pictures of ourselves and write bios that reflect our “distinguished careers.” Now someone can be prejudice – if they want to be.

    Spend more time writing things to win over your audience and less time trying to win over judges.

    Reply
    1. Elaine Fine

      For some people music is not a business. It’s a way of
      life. And writing music is not making something to sell. It’s
      making something people can play with. If there is money involved,
      the person writing the music feels a sense of dignity. If there’s
      not money involved, people who live and breathe music will write it
      anyway, because it is what they do. We live in a world of
      automation, and if all goes as the money-oriented entities within
      the works of music would like it to go, money will continue to be
      made for the people who control the gates with devices,
      music-streaming services, and a popular music that is much more
      about the video and the arrangement for the star performing it than
      it is about melody, harmony, counterpoint, and texture. I find this
      sad and frustrating, particularly when I hear (or read) arguments
      about the changing values being something to embrace. Older
      composers have lived through musical worlds that involve more than
      the few minimalist tricks that have taken over pop music
      (everything seems to be related in some way to the big song in
      Titanic), and melodies that involve more than the repeated
      ascending fourth or fifth. People really do sing differently now
      because they try to emulate the breathy voices they hear on music
      videos. Cellos and violins are hip. Balkan music has made its way
      into the western mainstream, and the people who introduced those
      additions to the new “canons” of popular music are old and
      outdated.

      Reply
      1. Mike Milnarik

        Elaine,

        I understand where you are coming from. I think that anything someone is passionate about – money isn’t the motivating factor. I remember being in undergrad and having people say – “How are you going to make a living as a performer?” My response always was “I’m not in it for the money. I love music!” Well, the same still holds true. I LOVE music. I LOVE what I do. THEN, reality set in. I moved to Boston for graduate school. I have to pay rent, utilities, car insurance, health insurance, STUDENT LOANS, and lots of other expenses that we all have to deal with. It then became – I LOVE music, but I NEED to make a living at this if I want to continue. Some people call it “selling out” but I think that has more to do with doing something that you REALLY don’t want to do, or love to do just to make money. I tried finding more paths to doing what I LOVE to do, what I would do anyway without compensation – but to make sure I was getting paid for it.

        Many performers want nothing to do with the business end of things either. However, if you want to make a living at something there is business involved – whether you deal with the business end of things or someone else deals with it for you (which is better in some instances – depending on a number of factors.)

        Whatever we do in life to – make a living – is business. Whether it’s working down at the corner convenience store, performing music or anything else that a service is being exchange for money. If no money is being exchanged – we can keep doing it if we love it – but the bills don’t stop and we still need to have a source of income – which, again, involves business.

        Again, I agree with many of the points you make (especially the breathy singing one!) ;)

        Mike

        Reply
        1. Composer

          Hi Mike, I agree and I defend ‘militantly’ that a good
          professional composer should be able to make a
          living from his profession, exactly as any other professional. And,
          as any other professional, having an intrinsic motivation
          (aka love) does NOT mean that we are
          automatically going to work for free.
          A pediatrician
          loves his work (I assume) but this doesn’t imply he’s going to work
          for free. Money is not a language that we have chosen – it came
          with the world, but we are obliged to speak in that ‘language’ if
          we don’t want to be socially handicapped. Anway, the main subject
          here was whether there should be an age limit or not for composers
          competitions… In this sense, competitions don’t guarantee that
          one is going to be able to pay the bills. Generally speaking, I do
          not like competitions in art. But if there are
          competitions, I would like them to be fair, what means not
          excluding somebody’s work on the base of a feature of the
          person, not of the piece. rel="nofollow">Juan María

          Reply
        2. Elaine Fine

          I do make money from writing music, and advocate the
          practice of doing so, but making a living from it (a
          mortgage-paying, put your kids through college kind of living) is
          far from a reality in the 21st century unless you hit it big in the
          ever-dwindling pop music field, or you are a composer who has
          achieved a kind of celebrity status (sometimes even as a result of
          age and experience). Doing other things in order to make money is
          not selling out, and though it does diminish your time to work, it
          is not something to be ashamed of. Most of the conservatory
          graduates I know who are performing musicians have day jobs.
          Automation has put too many musicians out of business. So has the
          business of music.

          Reply
    2. Liza Figueroa Kravinsky

      Mike, I agree 200% with all you are saying. Write for the people, not the judges. I spent my youth in the pop music field and became quite familiar with pop and hip hop. Now in my fifties, I am returning to the classical music scene composing music that incorporates these influences. Had I not spent my youth outside the classical music bubble, I couldn’t have composed this genre bending music I just composed. But now I am too old to enter my stuff into these emerging composer competitions. So this is an example of how ageism limits the innovation in classical music.

      I don’t care about these contests, because this music won’t fit at all in these competitions. It won’t be considered “serious” enough. Well, I say it’s time for what I call “post serious music.” I will just do my own thing – see http://www.gogosymphony.com.

      On the other hand, many composers don’t think like me and want to enter these competitions. There are many other reasons people enter or re-enter classical composition at a later age. Why LIMIT the pool of entries in an arbitrary way?

      Reply
      1. Mike Milnarik

        Hi Liza,

        Before you posted this I was reading some of the comments above. I clicked your name to go to your website. Am I missing a link for audio? Would love to hear your music, but couldn’t find any. Cool pics though! :) Lead me to what you do – I’d like to hear it!

        My philosophy, and it may be as far fetched as training audiences to like something they don’t understand or haven’t heard before, is that each performing group should have their own composer, or composers – including orchestras. From what I do – more pecifically – I feel this way about brass quintets. Check out this link http://www.innovatabrass.com/group.html for my explanation. In short, there are so many groups trying to make a living playing the same music – and a lot of GREAT music! But if groups had their own composers that wrote EXCLUSIVELY for them, composer deals/compensation were worked out (depending on how much of the program is attributed to a given composer), then each performing group would have something unique to offer. In other words an audience could have ten favorite groups with the exact same instrumentation because they all perform something unique and you’d like this group for their own music. Much the same way pop music works. There are tons of groups out there that have guitar, bass, drums and vocals – but they don’t all play the same music or different arrangements of the same music. They start out with the hits (covers) but they keep throwing their originals in until they gain a bigger following and get known for that music.

        I think that this would have more performing groups and composers working regularly. My group – INNOVATA (brass and percussion) – performs 13 original pieces on our concerts that no other brass group on the planet performs. It’s some of the most popular music we perform. http://www.innovatabrass.com

        Liza – Would love to hear your music! :)

        Mike

        Reply
        1. Liza Figueroa Kravinsky

          Hi Mike, Sorry for the late reply, but I’ve had a number of
          gigs this week for 4th of July stuff. But I totally agree with your
          philosophy! You have to be different to be noticed. We don’t have
          anything recorded yet. I wanted to gig a few times before we
          record, because I believe it is important to play in front of an
          audience before you record. Playing live affects your performance.
          We did a multitrack recording of our first gig and will be mixing
          that and posting soon. But I love your music! I love the variety
          and the players are excellent! And again, I agree with your
          philosophy that each ensemble should have its unique sound, just
          like pop bands do. It only makes sense.

          Reply
  43. Pingback: Why now? | A Composer/Performer's Life

  44. John Sparks

    As an established UK composer I’d like to make 3 points.
    -Firstly I know NO composers (of serious, non-commercial music) who
    survive on composition alone. It’s simply not possible without
    subsidising it with teaching, playing, or other work. -secondly, if
    music (and indeed all art) is supposed to be about quality, then
    surely any attempt at disuading one person from producing work over
    another for ANY other reason is undermining art itself? Most
    creative artists who have been working for long enough to call
    themselves ‘established’ will say that what they were producing
    when they were younger was of generally poorer quality than what
    they are producing now, rawer maybe, more ephemeral, less mature,
    less refined…….yes, immaturity could be interpreted as
    ‘exciting’ (and that’s what the more commercial bodies who wish to
    exploit serious music making for commercial gain, will have you
    thnk), BUT, would the world realy benefit from feeding off the work
    of the young, given this fact? Nice article, thanks.

    Reply
  45. Pingback: Ageism in Composer Opportunities | jeroenspeakblog

  46. Jeffrey Mumford

    I applaud this very timely article. Of course composers of African descent have been dealing with subtle and overt unjust limitations and hideously useless pre-suppositions, for years. It is easy to cry “sour grapes” but the reality is that there ARE more opportunities for younger composers than when many of us were coming up. As well, due to technology, there are SO MANY ways to market one’s work that didn’t even exist when many of us were younger. BRAVO for this but we DO need to transcend the notion among some in our business, that if someone you hasn’t “made it”: by 40 (or whatever age) you are a failure. Many stories of later bloomers of all sort put a lie to this notion (including the late Claus Adam, who came to the ‘cello later in life than many so-called “prodigies” and composition, later still). Brahms, Scelsi and those we don’t even know are also compelling examples. How history will regard any of us is uncertain and should not be our concern (hard as that may be to realize, as we of course want our voices heard and want to make our respective “marks”). Rather better to try to create art that is as meaningful as possible, within a landscape of ever widening opportunity so that ALL of us prosper. Remember this at a time when art is under attack and funds cut, such that we are all fighting for our lives.

    Reply

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