Friday, May 21, 2010

Art imitates life:The winners get the losers money

Is art a competitive sport? Or, why music composition competitions can be unhealthy and unfair.

Well, my title certainly tells part one of this blog entry- since when did art have to become a competition? And what are the motivations for competitions and what positive and negative messages do they send us?

Let’s look at this from each side of the equation:

Party of the first part, the composition competition creator:

I think there can be two motivating factors in play here- one would be a simple desire to find new heroic talent by throwing competitors into the Coliseum pit and see who emerges bloodied yet triumphant. Okay, I guess that could work. But for every single “winner” there are far more losers and some of these may be folks whose fragile artistic, sensitive egos may be totally shredded by not winning. So is having one glorious winner worth all this? And, anyway, can we really judge art objectively enough to warrant this kind of general abuse of all the entrants?

Motivation number two for the organizers- lots of public relations attention, a new angle for selling tickets, maybe some cash profit.

Let’s look at the entrants’ motivation:

Well, to win may be prestigious, and the winner probably hopes that wining one or two of these things will build a reputation, open doors, look good on a resume, etc. But once again, do composers need to be judged in this manner, in hand to hand battle with each other? It just seems so unhealthy. And honestly, from my perspective, winning some of these competitions does not really enhance ones career much at all. In the long run, your reputation as a composer will be based (and justifiably so) on your work over a period of time, say at the very least ten or twenty years filled with successful compositions, successful collaborations with great directors and quality publishers, and so on.

Here’s my own history in this area- having not composed for a long time, I felt the need to catch up to some of my age peers who hadn’t stopped composing. So I entered some competitions and won two of them awhile back. After awhile, though, I did see that despite the fact that they looked good on my resume they really weren’t opening too many important doors, and I did start disliking and disapproving this competitiveness in the arts. So I stopped competing in these things and concentrated on only positive things, like writing good music and finding cool people to work with.

So… here is where I am going next: recently a very talented composer and teacher who you may know, Paul Crabtree, felt outraged by details a of a composition competition. The gist of the details was this: the choir’s website plainly stated that all the entry fees from the composers entering (ie, the sweet income pile of cash coming from composers) would be pooled and 50% of that money would be awarded to the “winner”. Paul was outraged that this was stated out loud so blatantly, and when he told this group how he felt, their response was that they thought it was a good thing that this (possibly) big pile of moolah could grow and grow and the happy winning composer would have a great windfall. Apparently the group made no effort on their own part to raise any money to fund a prize! AND this also begs AT LEAST one question… what is the group doing with the other 50% of the money? And in Paul Crabtree’s mind, isn’t this just becoming a lottery of sorts? And doesn’t it seem patently unfair to fund the “winner”’ on the backs of the losers?

In fact, let’s look at the math of a typical choral composition competition:

One Grand Prize: $1,000
Composer entry fee: $25
Break-even point for organization: 40 entries

My example shows that once there are over forty entries there are actually two winners- the organization and the grand prize winner, and 39 losers who are funding the lucky ones. Isn’t there something wrong with this picture?

And truthfully, there are a number of these competitions where the prize is only $300 or $500, not $1,000 or over, and where the winner is expected to find their own way to finance attending the premiere. And here is a real kick in the teeth, and this one is so offensive I am happy to name names: the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA) holds a composition competition which encourages entrants as young as five years old, the entry fee is $100(!) AND if you win and cannot attend the premiere performance your prize is rescinded (gee thanks MTNA for treating children like this). Let’s look at the math there:

MTNA Elementary Composition Competition (5-10 year olds)
First prize $500, second prize $250
Entry fee: $100
break-even point for MTNA: 8 entrants!

Now what would some of these organization say in defense of their competitions and their entry fees? They would probably cite the clerical time/expense involved with the event, or perhaps the hiring of experts to judge the entries. But really, does a group doling out a modest $300 prize really need to hire people to adjudicate the entries-- why not trust that your own musical staff or some volunteer judges could do a good job?

Do I think there should be an entry fee for these competitions? Honestly, I think not. But I think someone could argue that a small fee is not totally out of line, something like $10, just to help defray expenses a bit. But I certainly don’t think that composer entry fees should ever be expected to fund the winner's prize. It just isn’t right and I think is abusive to turn a group a profit from the composers, none of whom, I am sure, are rolling in cash.

I will now cite some great examples of groups and individuals who are supporting new music in a big way and without expecting composers entry fees to fund these prizes:The Cambridge Chamber Singers based in Cambridge, MA run a competition yearly. I won that competition in 2003, the first year that they threw out their entry fee and were bombarded with hundred of entries from around the world. The folks there, including director Ray Fahrner, a great supporter of composers, were thrilled with that massive response, and sifted through all those scores gladly. They made no money off of the composers and have continued to this day in running this event without a composer entry fee, bravo, Ray!

A very large competition, the Barlow Prize, awards a $12,000 prize and a number of $7,000 commissions as well. There is no entry fee.

The New York composer/conductor group C4 is currently holding a competition with healthy prizes and no entry fee. You read about it here recently in a guest blog by C4 member Jon David.

Here is my bottom line opinion, followed by an alternate to the competition and composer fee mentality:if you want to run one of these composer competitions for your musical group, please stop and truly examine your motivations. Is this really about finding new talent and nurturing it, or is it about the PR and entry fee money you are hoping to bring to your group? And how will you feel as a group or a board of directors if your winner can’t afford to get to your city for the premiere? Will you find a way to get them there or will you penalize them? And don’t be so crass as to fund your “prize” on the backs of losing composers . Almost anyone’s gut feeling is that this is just not right.

Here is my alternative: find money to fund a no entry fee competition, or even better, do some homework and find a worthy composer, young or old, and commission them to write a piece for your choir. This is a far more respectful way to treat a creative artist and make them feel valued and wanted, and not just an athlete with a number on their back.

If this blog post changes any group’s mind about their approach to composer competitions, commissions and the like and helps them move toward a healthier approach, I will be pretty happy with my lil’ ole self.

[UPDATE from since I first started drafting this blog: the competition which Paul Crabtree found offensive announced a winner, and also brags that there were over 100 entrants. They also have told me that the 50% of the composer's money they pocketed went into their general operating funds and they do not agree with Mr. Crabtree and myself that this is in any way unethical or "not right". So, there you go composers-- you just funded a choir whether you knew it or not, gave them plenty of PR, and all you got out of it was some more rejection of your art- what a pretty picture, eh? Maybe your entry fee could be written off as a charitable donation?]

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Premiere of Endless Worlds- May 14

Back on April 14th I ranted a bit about the narrow expectations of publishers and their desire for all newly composed choral music to fit into their model of accessibility. That blog got some positive response from some fellow composers and directors. Tonight I’m going to blog about a wonderful group who purposely did not want that “make it easy for me” music when they commissioned me to write for them.

The group is the Goldenaires from HD Jacobs High School in Algonquin, Illinois, a highly skilled auditioned chamber choir directed by a very talented young conductor named Andrew Collins. For the 15th anniversary of the groups founding, Andrew wanted to commemorate the event with a commissioned work. When he first inquired about my interest I was struck with his seriousness and high artistic standards. Andrew did the opposite of what many high school directors would have done- he purposely asked for an a cappella piece and welcomed (virtually insisted actually!) that there be divisi writing at times. In other words, Andrew wanted nothing dumbed down for this piece- he wanted a challenging piece, sans piano help, that his singers could do some serious work on.

Well of course as a composer this was a delight to hear. So Andrew and his wife Polly joined Sherri and me for dinner and an evening of text discussion between Christmas and New Year’s. Prior to the evening we had already agreed on using some of the poetry from Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali, so the evening was all about trying to find the specific poems within the massive 103 that comprise Gitanjali that Andrew thought he liked. We leafed through a bunch of them and Andrew found ten he liked a lot. After a week or two, I was able to find a way to link three of these poems with a fourth that really appealed to me, thus creating a four movement work. I was happy that I had found something which could function as an underlying linking element to the piece- an introductory poem (and music) that talks about singing and the joy of singing about creation and humanity, an apt choice for a commission celebrating the founding of a choir. Set as an introduction, the rest of the poems relate in some way to the first poem, as well as giving a taste of the other main elements of the vast Gitanjali collection. This was important to me—to pay homage to Tagore’s lyrical brilliance by creating a multi-movement work which musically distills some of his main themes. I did not want to write just a 3 or 4 minute piece because I felt that it would just be too lightweight and not really impart what Gitanjali is about.

With this introduction plus three form I was off and running with the composing all though the cold month of January, writing virtually every night. I also decided to try something new for me-- I took the poem with the most raw passion, and even though that would be movement three, I decided to write it first and link musical motifs and keys from it as I composed the other movements. Thus the center of the piece, not the beginning, is literally the germinal music, an idea I wanted to try at least just as a compositional process for myself, whether it matters or not to a listener. Actually, I think this idea worked quite well since the emotional content of this poem is quite breathtaking and using it as the starting point creatively actually does make the piece quite interesting musically.

I also kept in mind Andrew’s desire for musical/choral challenges, and of course I didn’t purposely set out to write anything difficult, I just knew that if I ventured (and I did) into extended harmonic regions, dissonances, divisi, etc that he had welcomed that.

Once the piece was done I was pretty pleased with it and I sent it off to Andrew. This is always a “keep your fingers crossed” moment for any commissioned composer. Does the director like it or hate it, does the choir like it or hate it? You just hope to hear back something good at this point. I did hear back that everyone was digging the piece (yay!) as they started in on one movement at a time. Andrew set up some Monday evening two hour rehearsals for me to attend. When I did so I was very pleased-- the students were singing their hearts out, they “got” the texts on many levels and enjoyed the variety and connection across the four texts, and were proud of what they were doing. We also took some time out during a couple of these rehearsals for them to ask me questions about composing, music careers, etc and I was happy to share my opinions about a number of things, especially in regard to some of their questions about majoring in music in college.

The premiere is tomorrow night and I am going to be very pleased to attend and cheer on this fine young choir and their amazing director. They will have the Tagore texts printed in the program as well as my program notes, and I will share all that here with you as well now below.

Finally, a word about some of the links across the movements, the architecture which unites the music and the text on a few different levels: probably the most important link is a chorale in movement three; the text being a song about love lost morphing into love of the universe. The chorale signifies spirituality/connection to the divine on a deep level. The music there is a rich F Major and sounds kind of like good ole J Brahms, who I think liked F major a lot (yes, I know F major doesn’t tune well for singers, but I am not going to avoid it always). The chorale theme appears momentarily in other movements as well to signify similar emotions (I seem to write these chorales a lot lately; I’ll blog more about the chorale significance sometime soon). There are also other motifs and keys which span across movements and unify the four movements of the piece. This is all very standard structural stuff, but discovering these structures is not necessarily easy, mind you. And I say discover them, because you can’t force these things to happen, it’s more like starting with some very basic material and then letting the material discover its form while you watch it and nurture it. This is a crazy part of the creative process that many composers and other artists talk about a lot- the fact that often the music starts writing itself and you are just there shaping it as it develops. I have a few philosopher friends with IQ’s double mine that I intend to talk to soon about what this all means and how the universe makes these things happen!

So, time to wrap up this very gabby blog-here are the texts to Endless Worlds and my program notes. And for any of you directors (especially university directors, since this piece is really university difficulty level) who have read this far, send me an e-mail if you would like to see a perusal score of the piece. Meanwhile I look forward to the premiere tomorrow night by Andrew and his young, very skilled and inspiring singers.

Program Notes

In the early years of the twentieth century, Rabindranath Tagore (1861- 1941) took the western literary world by storm with the publication of Gitanjali (Song Offerings). This collection of 103 poems speaking of god, nature, spiritual journeys and meditation, translated from earlier Bengali versions into English by the author himself, was published in 1912. Such was its immediate popularity that it won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913. The introduction to the book by W.B, Yeats distills the essence of Gitanjali; here are a few quotes from Yeats’ introduction:

[The poems come from]… a tradition where poetry and religion are the same thing…gathered from learned and unlearned metaphor and emotion.

Tagore has been content to discover the soul and surrender himself to its spontaneity. Tagore is so abundant, so spontaneous, so daring in his passion, so full of surprise.

We are moved… because we have met our own image…our voice as in a dream.

Yeats’ introduction is worth reading in its entirety, which may be found along with the complete Gitanjali (now in public domain) at

When Andrew Collins asked me to write a commissioned piece for his amazing choir, we talked about a few different authors, but eventfully landed in Gitanjali territory. This is obviously a deep treasure trove of very lyrical, metaphysical, pantheistic poetry, and I eventually felt that I needed to at least imply, via multiple movements, the depth of the collection yet not wind up with a two hour piece of music. I eventually found a way to present many of the core textual elements of Gitanjali by constructing a four movement work.

The first movement speaks of music, and specifically about singing-- of Tagore’s belief in the spiritual intersection of singing with god or the absolute. The second movement speaks of the duality of humankind and of nature—while children play in a serene seascape there is also the knowledge that nature can be fierce. Dualities abound in Gitanjali, just as they do in Eastern thought. Here they are readily accepted as yin and yang, as opposed to the way that duality is often a battleground in western thought. The third movement is reminiscent of themes in Sor Juana and St. John of the Cross— the pang of earthly love transforms into love of god, and acknowledgment of the vastness of the cosmos. The fourth movement is in praise of the kaleidoscope of nature and time, and reaches an electric ecstasy. I have tried to capture the energy this poem implies -- yet all along one could imagine Tagore, with no difficulty, peacefully meditating with a slight samadhi smile on his face through all this busyness of the universe and this particular music!

Musical Elements

All the movements are linked by a tonal center of C, and often there is use of modes- Dorian, Phrygian, etc. F major sections in movement one and three are almost chorale-like, echo each other, and are tied to the textual beauty of those moments. F major (historically a pastoral key) appears as well in the playful uptempo sections of movement two. There are also some juxtapositions of the tonal center C with its seemingly most opposite tone center, F sharp. Some of these are very subtle, but the most obvious one is the “tempest music” in movement 2, starting at m. 63.

Melodically I of course wanted the music to be extremely lyrical. There is quite often a rising element in most of the melodies, as if envisioning Tagore reaching his hands to the skies for communion and inspiration. To also imply the otherworldly beauty of Tagore’s poetry, some of my voice spacing is purposely unusual. There are also hints of the odd dissonances often heard in Aarvo Part’s music, probably most noticeable in movement three, which was actually the first movement composed and really is the expressive crux of the whole piece.


Introduction: The Light of your Music

The light of your music illumines the world,
I ever listen in silent amazement.
When you command me to sing
it seems that my heart would break with pride;
I look to your face, and tears come to my eyes.
I know you take pleasure in my singing.
I know that only as a singer, I come before you, before your presence.

On the Seashore of Endless Worlds

On the seashore of endless worlds children meet.
The infinite sky is motionless overhead
and the restless water is boisterous.
On the seashore of endless worlds the children meet with shouts and dances.
They build their houses with sand and play with empty shells.
The sea plays with children, and pale gleams the smile of the sea

Tempests roam in the pathless sky,
ships get wrecked in the trackless water, death is abroad---
yet children play, children play with shouts and dances.

In Desperate Hope

In desperate hope I go and search for her in all corners of my room; I find her not.
My house is small and what once has gone from it can never be regained.

But infinite is your mansion, my lord, and seeking her I have come to your door.
I stand under the golden canopy of your evening sky and I lift my eager eyes to your face.
I have come to the brink of eternity from which nothing can vanish---
no hope, no happiness, no vision of a face seen through tears.
Oh, dip my emptied life into that ocean, plunge it into the deepest fullness.
Let me for once feel that lost sweet touch in the allness of the universe.

The Abounding Joy

Thy sunbeam comes upon this earth of mine with arms outstretched.
All things rush on, they stop not, they look not behind,
no power can hold them back, they rush on.
Keeping step with that restless, rapid music, seasons come dancing and pass away---
colours, tunes, and perfumes pour in endless cascades in the abounding joy.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Guest blog by C4 composer Jonathan David

Hi folks! Today I have a guest blog by cool composer/conductor Jonathan David, a founding member of the choir "C4" based in NYC. Jonathan is a gifted composer and a good friend. I am happy to help spread the word about C4's composer competition, especially as it has no entry fee and some great awards (I will blog soon about the myriad choirs holding low prize competitions funded by composer's entry fees- a really yucky scene,in my opinion, wherein a choir can turn a profit on composer's entry fees). Here is what Jon has to say about C4 and their new activities:

C4 was founded in November 2005 by a small cadre of veterans of New York City's choral scene, including myself, who sought a chance to explore new directions for themselves and for choral music in a collaborative, artist-friendly environment. The world's first Choral Composer/Conductor Collective, C4 is a unique vocal ensemble in New York City dedicated to performing music of our time. It functions not only as a presenting ensemble in its own right, with a three-program concert season, but also as an ongoing workshop and recital chorus for the emerging composers and conductors who form the core of the group.

C4's repertoire consists entirely of music written in the last twenty-five years, with a pretty even balance between works by composer members of the chorus and works by non-members. Including its upcoming May concert (works for chorus and electronic media), C4 will have performed, in less than five full seasons, 49 world premieres and 24 New York City, East Coast, or North American premieres.
Conductor members of the group divide the repertoire among each other and work closely with each composer to achieve a collaborative interpretative approach. (Composers may not conduct their own works.) For those used to concerts with a single conductor a C4 performance is quite singular, each piece rotating to a new conductor.

I’m really excited about our upcoming commission competition (details below—note May 15 postmark deadline!). There were several goals we kept in mind when designing the competition: To maximize the opportunities we will award a relatively large number of finalists (5); in addition to performance, there are substantial prize dollar amounts; there is no entry fee; there is no limit on age or nationality; all judging is blind (anonymous scores only).

C4 (the Choral Composer/Conductor Collective) Commissioning Competition 2010
Postmark deadline: May 15, 2010

The C4 Commissioning Competition will give five finalists the opportunity to compose new
works for C4: the Choral Composer/Conductor Collective, and to participate in the rehearsal process. All five new works will be premiered on March 3 and 5, 2011, in New York City. First prize is $2,000, second prize is $800. The remaining three finalists will receive honorable mention prizes of $400. C4 is the only chorus that is collectively run by its composer and conductor members, and one of the few choruses in America dedicated exclusively to performing contemporary music, programming only music that has been composed in the past twenty-five years. This competition is made possible by grants from The David and Minnie Berk Foundation and the Yale School of Music Alumni Ventures program.

A panel of judges consisting of C4 board members will select approximately twenty semi-finalists. From among these a second panel consisting of James Bassi, Clara Longstreth and Steven Stucky will select five finalists, who will be notified in late August, 2010. The finalists will compose new 3-6 minute a cappella works for C4, to be completed by November 15, 2010. As the performance nears, C4 will record the new works. The outside judges will then select first and second place winners before the premiere, the remaining finalists receiving honorable mentions.

Both concerts will be recorded. All finalists are strongly encouraged to attend one of the performances. A travel stipend of up to $300 per composer will defray the cost of travel for the winning composers; all additional travel costs are the responsibility of the composer. Accommodations with C4 members will be provided as needed.

Any composer may apply, regardless of age, career level, or nationality. Current and former C4 members are not eligible. Please see the complete guidelines at for information on how to apply. Email questions to

Jonathan David has been described as “an important emerging musical voice” in the worlds of choral music, music-theatre, and art song. He has served as Composer-in-Residence for The Greenwich Village Singers, Music Director for the Morningside Heights-based chorus, Howl!, and is a core member of New York’s pioneering new music group, C4, the Choral Composer/Conductor Collective. Recent choral premieres include Titania’s Garage Sale by C4 and Flocks Feed by Darkness, a commission from Glass Menagerie. Upcoming premieres include Even in Darkness, a commission from the Packer Collegiate Concert Chorus. Past commissions have come from the New York Treble Singers, and the Thanks-Giving Foundation. His choral music has also been performed by the Princeton Singers, the Glen Ellyn Children's Chorus, and Cerddorion Vocal Ensemble, among others. Current projects include a large-scale song cycle, Winter Birds, for countertenor Phillip Cheah, to texts by poet David Brendan Hopes. Stage works include Bronx Express, which ran to critical acclaim at the 2005 New York International Fringe Festival. His music has received awards from ASCAP, the Americas Vocal Ensemble, and the Global Network of Conservatories. A graduate of Wesleyan University, he studied with John Bavicchi and Don McDonnell at the Berklee College of Music. He is published by Oxford University Press. (February, 2010)