I probably don’t send out as many scores to open calls and competitions as I should, but I try to get my work out there to the extent that my free time allows. If a piece with a comfortable place in my catalog would fit, I’ll send it in; if not (and especially if there’s a cash award) I might even write a piece very quickly just to meet the terms of the opportunity. Some of these pieces, by the way, have turned out to be among the most celebrated in my modest little stable.
Given the simple arithmetic of these cattle calls—many scores will be sent, only one chosen—rejection is par for the course. It never bothers me, though: I reason that even though there are plenty of criteria a panel of judges might consider in choosing a selection, it’s very difficult for someone who is grossly incompetent to come out on top; if it doesn’t go my way, the person who did snag the performance, commission, or prize probably won it fair and square. It’s not a referendum on how bad my piece is but rather on how great someone else’s is, and that’s fine by me. And maybe even if they don’t find something to swoon over in my music, maybe no other applicants will have brought their A games. Why not my piece? They have to give the prize to someone, right?
Apparently not. The judges of a competition I recently went out for have chosen not to choose a winner.
I’d heard of such things happening, but I’d never been stung by it personally. The notification was brief; it gave the impression of hushed embarrassment, as if the writer and reader should both be mortified at having this conversation. My own reaction was to laugh out loud, mostly in surprise: I never expected to long for such a mealymouthed sentiment as “we received a record number of exceptional entries this year, so it was doubly difficult to arrive at a decision,” which was nowhere to be found.
“Someone built a better mouse trap” I can handle; “eff all y’all” is harder to swallow. Without denying that organizations have the right to handle their competitions however they want and can withhold the prize with no legal liability, I’m going to come right out and say it: Awarding no prize is a bitch move. Are you telling me that out of the 30, 50, 100 or more entries, not one was suitable? The judges had no choice but to grab their ball and go home? Maybe some weird situation arose with the adjudication that would squeeze some sympathy out of me if I ever got the full story; none of us ever will, of course. Although I wonder what went wrong with the process in the conference room where they reviewed the submissions, I know precisely what’s wrong with the verdict: If (as the notification suggests) we composers should all be ashamed of ourselves, then so should the judges, who couldn’t even look at a bunch of music sent to them in good faith and decide which score they hated least.