Recently, I’ve been asked to consider the reasons why I participate in composition competitions. I really wanted to address some of the problems with competitions, but instead I’ve just rambled positively about one of my favourite projects in the hope that other festivals will run something similar in the future (and hire us to play, obviously). So I’m going to ramble, and then I’m going to speculate, and then I’m going to ask some questions. I do hope you (yes you, composer in the back) manage to read that far, as I do what your answers!
In essence, my ensemble takes on concerts that involve competitions because we are sometimes asked to do concerts that involve competitions.
We have never started one ourselves, and competitions as a strategy for repertoire building or promotion were never part of our original mission statement. That said, the ones we have done so far have resulted in some of our most culturally, geographically and musically diverse programmes. It is not all we do, but it is a part of our work together that I relish. And as many of you have already read, I have a great deal to relish.
My competition-love mostly stems from our participation in the Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik, so I’d like to describe our participation in this festival in some detail, as it seems to me to be a fairly ideal situation for all involved.
I suppose the idea is that the competition offers the ensemble the opportunity to engage with composers it might not otherwise have the chance to engage with, and that this process should develop a kind of global community for contemporary music.
Is it naive of me to think that it offers the composers something similar? (I mean, besides the stress, fear, uncertainty and annoying deadlines that they also offer you.)
One of my favourite projects, which we’ve been invited to participate in twice, is the Newcomers Concert at the Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik, a weekend-long festival of new chamber music that takes place in the charming township (erm, ah…) of Witten. [Personally, as far as the towns go, I'd take Huddersfield over Witten any day. But if someone can find a Witten equivalent of the Noodle Bar, or a really good curry, I may have to reassess. As far as festivals go... both are excellent!]
Composers (I don’t think age matters, but they must be registered students) of any nationality, living in any part of the world, submit a previously written work of up to 10 minutes. The competition is free of charge to enter, but there is no prize money. You receive some travel/hotel expenses, a performance in the festival (we generally have had 100-200 people present) and the live recording of your work will subsequently be presented on the WDR (West German Radio). There’s also a chance your piece will be included on the Witten festival CDs. They don’t include our whole programme, but two pieces in 2012 were included, such as Tim McCormack’s Apparatus.
from the Witten photo archive; here I am demonstrating how great Tim’s score looks on the iPad
Participating in this competition have been composers from Israel, Japan, Chile, Finland, Sweden, the USA, and of course Germany. Most have them were able to attend and most came early to rehearse with us in Cologne. Many of them have since had their pieces included in our repertoire. Sivan Cohen Elias’ Lachatz Avir/Air Pressure has been performed twice since it’s appearance in the 2012 festival, and will be performed again in Harvard as part of our residency in March 2014. Pedro Alvarez’ Two Surfaces will be performed again in Vienna in early October (all the linked recordings so far are live performances from the festival!).
These composers are all part of our community. I always hope that these composers feel that such projects are just as good an opportunity for them as they are for us. [They get a flashy gig. We get a flashy gig. Everyone works hard. We have a beer. Everyone goes home happy. Right?] I never had the feeling that things were competitive (at least, once the pieces had been chosen), as a lot of the composers were coming to each other’s rehearsals.
We have so far never participated in a competition in which the composer had to send money in order to participate. (Do such things even happen in Germany?)
We have, however, just recently finished a call for brand new works for a festival with a very specific theme. While our instrumentation is fairly common, the specificness of the theme may mean that some of these composers never see their works leave the shelf. I find this slightly uncomfortable. In sending the call around, I felt both guilty and yet, desperate, hoping that we’d have a good concert of new pieces to play.
What I can understand is concern that the jury will be biased. Because they will be. Whether it’s because they favour their own students (anonymous submissions unfortunately do not help here), their own taste, or because they are trying to build a consistent concert programme (or all three!), you will come across some kind of bias. As far as I can tell, this is part of the risk element. It’s also part of your get out clause if your piece isn’t accepted. You complain that the jury didn’t understand you and you toss your hair dramatically.
But I’d like to hear from the composers on this one: what about a call for works makes you want to submit a work? What makes you hesitate? What makes you run away screaming? How can festivals or ensembles encourage you to submit? Under what conditions might you think it acceptable to pay a fee to enter a competition? What kind of prize would you expect or like to see offered in both situations in which you have paid and those in which you haven’t? Having described the situation at the Witten festival, does that sound like something you would be interested in, or advise your students to submit pieces for?
This post may be ‘part one’ in a series that investigates the composition competition from the inside, as the ensemble will play two competitions with other festivals this autumn! Don’t fear, eager readers: I’ll disguise myself as a clarinetist and get the inside scoop!
I suppose now that I am writing with some regularity on hand werk projects, the opinions stated here are my own and do not necessarily reflect my colleagues’ views. They also do not represent the views of the Wittener Tage. But I’m sure they’d be happy to agree with the “they’re awesome, be more like them” aspects to this bit of writing.