competitions: some ramblings and a few questions

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!]

IMG_1272the band looking snazzy during the general rehearsal of our 2012 appearance

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.

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6 Responses to competitions: some ramblings and a few questions

  1. Edd Caine says:

    Hey there,

    Speaking for myself, those things you mentioned are by far the best outcomes of competitions. It’s fantastic working with performers and composers. So long as there is no competitive element hanging over our heads, I feel that I can learn a lot from watching other composers’ workshops and as you say, flashy concert, good company, beer afterwards. So long as the workshop ‘goes well’ (by which I mean socially at least as much as musically) then it’s by far one of my favourite things to do.

    In re: the two main aspects of competitions you bring up:

    1. Money
    A difficult one to reconcile with the idea of competition and reward. Given that there is definitely bias as you say then charging an already largely unpaid creative just to look at the composition is a dicey area. I tend to avoid such competitions unless I’m confident of being in with a good chance, and the ‘prize’ (read in this case either monetary or prestigious performance) is worth it.

    2. Writing to competition specifications.
    Another difficult area. I much prefer ‘submit ideas for the work’ type opportunities and generally just send things off to your type of competition if I happen to have something, which is rare (as are my lineups).

    Not sure if that answers your question but it’s my genuine response at least :)


  2. Edd Caine says:

    Sorry, did a terrible job there looking back – hopefully a clearer answer:

    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?

    It fits with what I’m already doing or have always wanted to do but not had the performers. Sometimes a lineup or ethos will inspire me to want to take part.

    What makes you hesitate?

    Competition, time investment and prioritising one application over another

    What makes you run away screaming?

    Wording which includes aspirations of your abilities ‘best of the best composers needed!’, defines nature of composition ‘tonality required!’ or in my case requires you to run educational workshops (pour quel j’ai peur). I also tend to stay away from ‘anthem’ type competitions.

    How can festivals or ensembles encourage you to submit?

    No encouragement necessary

    Under what conditions might you think it acceptable to pay a fee to enter a competition?

    See previous answer

    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?

    Ideally 2 good performances, an opportunity to workshop and rehearse the piece, travel and accommodation paid. For a competition in which I’ve paid to enter, probably some kind of cash prize.

    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?

    Yes, again though only if I or a student already has a piece which fits the bill.


  3. Peter Nagle says:

    I have very mixed feelings about competitions generally, which are a lot to do with the notion (drummed into me as a teenager by a cherished teacher) that the very idea of a competition is utterly opposed to what music should be about, and of course nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that I never win the damn things. Nevertheless, I’ve entered a number of them over the years. This is partly as it’s just one of those things you do, but it’s also because I suffer from anxiety, and it sometimes seems like a way of getting my scores out into the world in a way that keeps things at arm’s length, in some way, and makes it feel less like ACTUAL PEOPLE are JUDGING my music. As I’ve got older and lost most of my enthusiasm for the idea of career-building, these occasions have become fewer. Strangely, last month I put in for five or six competitions/calls. This was simply because I happened to see a lot that seemed like they might be interesting for one reason or another, or happened to be asking for pieces written for a lineup I’d already written for, or just seemed to fit in one way or another with an idea I already had at the back of my mind. So far I’ve had three outright rejections, one promising but noncommittal response, and deafening silence from the rest (probably because the deadlines are not reached or only just gone).

    So with that in mind, and apologies for the length of this reply (I’m struggling to stay awake through this, god knows you just be losing the will to live), here are some answers to your questions:

    “what about a call for works makes you want to submit a work?”
    Generally, an opportunity that fits in with whatever my interests are at the time, or fits a piece I’ve already written or have half written or have in mind, or features musicians who I think might be sympathetic to what I’m trying to do, or just sounds like it might be interesting.

    “What makes you hesitate? What makes you run away screaming?”
    Deadline! It amazing how often I find out about something about two weeks before the deadline. Maybe that’s just me though. These days I’m less inclined to submit unless I can do so online; frankly it costs money that I don’t have to print scores. I’m not so keen on the idea of writing for an obscure instrumentation (unless it’s a really interesting one), as it’s a lot of time to spend on something that may not have any use beyond the specific competition; remember, I never win these damn things. Fees (see below); I know a lot of groups, festivals etc. are short of money. But so am I!

    “How can festivals or ensembles encourage you to submit?”
    I’ve done the “turn up at a rehearsal, do a workshop, get a recording” thing, and while it’s not entirely without its merits, these days what I really want to do is work with people who are interested in what I’m doing and might be interested in more than a one-night stand. So I guess anything that sounds like I won’t just be rep fodder would attract my attention more.

    “Under what conditions might you think it acceptable to pay a fee to enter a competition?”
    Generally, never. I have entered competitions where a fee was payable in the past. I look back at those as money I might as well have burned.

    “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?”
    All I really want from these things is a performance, the opportunity to work with some sympathetic musicians who’ll take the music and the aesthetic seriously and be helpful of technicalities and forgiving of my misjudgments, and ideally a connection with some musicians who I might want to work more with (and vice versa of course). Depending on how far away the event is, travel and accommodation expenses are probably a necessity.

    “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?”
    Yes it does, and I did! But as I say, I never win these damn things, and so must add that to my ever expanding collection of rejection emails. C’est la vie. I console myself with the satisfaction of having gotten a working piece written in only a couple of weeks; I actually think it’s one of my favourite things I’ve written for a while, so I hope it’ll get a chance somewhere else.

  4. Michael Park says:

    I think there’s an important distinction to be made here, between a call for scores/works and a competition. For both, there is an understanding that there’s no guarantee; there will be many other submissions, and rejection is generally expected. I think the difference is in what the ‘winners’ can expect.

    With Calls for Scores, it’s understood that it’s equally self-serving for both performers (building repertoire) and composers (opportunity to get their works performed). Depending on how standard the instrumentation is, picking pre-written pieces to submit might be the luxury of more experienced composers. Especially if you are targeting a student market, there will undoubtedly be composers who write new pieces for the specific call – it can be a helpful way to decide what to write next based on what opportunities are out there.

    With competitions, the focus becomes self-centred for the composer. Whether or not a composer will or should pay to enter depends on the prize. These should be significantly ‘better’ than what one expects from a call for scores (the difference between being one of many ‘world premieres’ from a call for scores, versus a highlighted piece amongst standard repertoire, for example).

    It gets a little iffy when you ask for a freshly composed piece, or one that’s never been performed, getting into ‘should-be-commission’ territory. You have to ask whether the performers’ desire to have flashy new pieces to benefit their position as supporters of new music is equal or greater to the benefit for the winning composers combined with the unused labour of the composers who don’t get selected.

    From the sounds of it, your ensemble seems to have a very good balance. Bottom line, this is a tricky issue and I think you’re doing an amazing thing by opening this up for discussion! At least, here in Canada, money for new pieces is harder to come by, and we need to come together as a community to see how we can work together to create and present new works!

    • heatherroche says:


      Your comments are very fine and much appreciated!

      I agree with you completely. I hadn’t considered the distinction between these two things, or rather, because Witten was labeled as a competition I hadn’t considered the possibility that perhaps it wasn’t one. Perhaps the distinction isn’t really made in German? Not sure. We also operate in a system where competitions and premieres are ways for festivals to check boxes. So I’m sure they’ll continue to call it that.

      And I for one would love to see a Canadian festival do a project like this. Especially if they invite us to do it ;)

  5. dp says:

    Here’s some research relating to composer competitions:

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