Recently, a young student ensemble held an international composition competition and selected two student composers from the same school as the winners. Understandably, this generated some ill will among the applicants, with some implying that the contest was fixed. A second, more charitable interpretation might be that the two winning composers were actually the most deserving. After all, if they were actually trying to rig a competition, why make it so obvious?
I’d like to propose a third and slightly more complex explanation. I find it plausible that the members of the ensemble sincerely believed that they were selecting the most meritorious composers. I also find it extremely probable that factors other than pure merit entered into the decision, factors involving practical and aesthetic considerations. It makes sense that students from the same school would be more likely to cater to those practical needs and share those aesthetic concerns.
To me, this suggests an inherent flaw in composition competitions that is universal, not specific. (In fact, some applicants seemed less offended by the possibility of foul play than the appearance of foul play.) Composition as a field is so broad and encompassing that it’s not really even possible to judge a piece of music on merit alone.
Nor should it be. As anyone who has tried to program a concert knows, practical and aesthetic considerations are not optional—they are paramount. In fact, if this event wasn’t structured as a competition, it wouldn’t be problematic at all. Sharing the same aesthetic concerns and working together towards a common goal are characteristics of a healthy, functioning artistic community. Turning it into a competition, however, changes this positive impulse into something poisonous, something that excludes rather than includes, something that breeds bitterness and toxicity.
New music culture’s inability to conceive of an opportunity as anything but a competition is a big problem. We need to create more opportunities for young composers that aren’t structured this way, but can we even imagine them? What would they even look like?