Sunday, April 9, 2017


Recently a poet friend was explaining to me some of her experiences in the literary world.  She told me she doesn't enter competitions.  It's too much of a gamble; the committee who will judge the submissions is usually unfamiliar, and there's no way to know what kinds of work they prefer.  If they happen to like styles of work different from hers, it's a waste of time to send her work to them, and their collective opinion won't be important to her artistically.

This conversation has made me think about my own position.  I've entered some competitions, but not a lot, and usually not with good results.  Recently, I tend to avoid them; I'm too old for many, and I don't have repertoire appropriate for the rest.

For instance, say that you belong to a chamber ensemble consisting of left handed sewer flute (tip of the hat to Peter Schickele), tenor crumhorn, and guqin.  You would like to expand the repertoire for your group.  So you announce a composition contest.  No cash prize, but you'll include the winning work(s) in a recording you'll be releasing, and take the appropriate steps to make sure that, if it goes platinum, the composer will be appropriately paid.  You'll be drawing the repertoire for your upcoming concert tour mainly from the contest entries, so even for those who don't "win", there's the chance of some exposure.  For the ensemble, it makes perfect sense.  You get a number of pieces to play; you'll choose the best ones, and fulfill your obligation by recording them.  The composers, at least the ones whose work you choose, get a resume line, a recording, performances, and some publicity.

From a composer's point of view, however, there are some issues.  For one thing, the left handed sewer flute is not a standard orchestral instrument.  You won't find information about it in your orchestration textbook.  Hopefully the player will have foreseen this, and provided some information on the instrument and its capabilities, perhaps even a recording or video demonstrating them, and maybe some hints on the preferred notation for any extended techniques.  If not, you'll just have to guess what might work. 

Let's say you've decided to enter this competition, and you want to create your best possible work.  But a substantial chamber work (ten to fifteen minutes) takes you a year to write.  The announcement for the contest came out six months before the deadline.  You can create in this situation, but you're going to be under some pressure.  You'll carefully follow the submission guidelines, including the unwritten ones (no 8.5" x 11" paper!).  You'll package the score and parts, and send them off with plenty of time to reach the organizers by the deadline.  Then what?

Suppose they don't pick your piece.  You'll receive a notification, or at least find a post on the group's web site/social media page/news feed telling you the names of the winners.  You'll look at the list, not find your name, and conclude, better luck next time.

But will there be a next time?  How many ensembles of left handed sewer flute, tenor crumhorn, and guqin do you know?  You can, of course, rewrite the piece for a more standard instrumentation, but even then, it might be awhile before you happen on a group that would play it.  You can hope the original ensemble will perform the piece at some later time; after all, part of the reason for having the competition in the first place was to encourage the creation of new works.  But the next year, they have another competition, and the year after that, the ensemble disbands.

Congratulations.  You've just wasted six months of composing time.

This is not to discourage either holding competitions, or entering them; the foregoing is just an explanation of the reasons why, for me, the calculations don't work at this point.

To me, better than entering any competition is providing a piece to a friend who has asked for it, and the best prize is when they actually play it.  Whatever the instrument they play, whatever the instruments in the ensemble, the important thing is the joy of writing for someone I know.