How Many Hoops?

I faithfully check the “opportunities” pages at a few websites every couple of weeks to see if there are any new competitions or calls for scores to which I can send a piece. There are far more listed than I can possibly enter, and that is mostly due to the laundry list of entrance requirements. Most of these requirements have nothing to do with music. The other day, I was hopeful about one call for scores until I came to the last requirement on the list: “the piece must have been written less than five years ago.” Seriously? It’s frustrating. Sometimes it seems the world of new music is meant to exclude more than include. I understand that making a call for scores broad can create an overwhelming amount of work for an ensemble, but most of the time all the “ands” in the fine print make it sound like the ensemble already has the composer(s) and the piece(s) picked out…not unlike the way government contracts often work. The bidding is a ruse.

I decided to write a list of requirements I regularly come across. I’ve come up with sixteen so far. If I come across more, I will add them at a later date. As you will see, most of these requirements have nothing to do with the piece itself. Many of them smack of elitism because they require a great deal of privilege: access to capital in resources of either money or people who can help a composer. Other requirements involve things that a composer cannot change about themselves.

In no particular order, here’s the list:

  1. Age: Usually, age restrictions involve an upper limit. Lately, that cut-off has often been age forty, unless the competition is specifically for teenagers. I don’t understand why forty is considered young, but forty-five is not. I personally do not feel any different than I did five years ago other than that I’ve lived through a few more hard knocks.
  2. Gender/Gender Identity/Sexual Orientation: Occasionally, there are competitions open only to those who identify as women, but more and more I have seen competitions open only to those who are part of the LGBTQIA+ community. I have not tracked this (and maybe I should), but my guess is that in 2021 I have seen five competitions for the LGBTQIA+ community for each competition for women only.
  3. Race: Some competitions are open only to those who are people of color. Occasionally, these are race-specific. Occasionally, they are culture-specific, a requirement which seems less restricting, but more confusing (to me, anyway.) I saw a call for scores that was focused on the “Mexican-American experience.” I wasn’t sure if that meant that only Mexican-American composers could write about that topic or if it was open to anyone. Yet, if one is not Mexican-American, can one compose authentically about the Mexican-American experience? See, confusing. I didn’t have anything that matched the musical requirements, anyway, so I didn’t bother asking.
  4. Level of Professional Development: Various categories include: “emerging,” “professional,” “amateur,” “student” (with sub-categories of high-school, undergraduate, and graduate.) Some get specific about whether or not you are majoring in music as a college student, or whether your income comes from composing only, music in general with some composing, or not from music.
  5. Specific Experience: I’ve come across competitions that expect the composer to show they can “write for the ensemble.” Sometimes they want the exact same instrumentation. Sure, just last week I wrote a piece for double bass, bassoon, and gong.
  6. Geographical Location: Do you live in the right place? Many competitions and calls for scores are focused on promoting the music of composers from a particular place. That might be a city, a state, a region of the United States, or a country. If I lived in New York City or in Minnesota, I could enter many more competitions and calls for scores. It almost makes me want to move. Almost. But not to NYC.
  7. Age of Piece: When was the piece written? How “old” is it? I have often come across a limit of twenty years, which seems somewhat reasonable to me for something to be considered “new music.” As I mentioned above, I came across a requirement that a piece be less than five years old. Later, I will talk about a competition that requires a piece be less than two years old.
  8. Performance History: Some ensembles want to world-premiere a piece. Others want to premiere a piece in their locale. Premiering pieces gives a boon to the ensemble and increases cred.
  9. Travel to Performance: Many times, the selected composers are required to travel to the performance…at their own expense. Ensembles often try to soften this by saying, “We can provide a letter you can use in applying for travel grants.” I personally have not built up grant-writing skills, and I don’t even know where to find travel grants to apply for. But sure, in my “free time”(haha) I will do that. Until then, if I can’t afford to go to the performance, I can’t afford to win.
  10. Fees. To keep the theme of money going…am I willing and able to pay the fee for the competition or call for scores? Some fees are outrageous, some are modest. Recently, there has been a push to reduce or eliminate entrance fees. Some ensembles are joining this movement, but it is certainly not universal.
  11. Recording: Some competitions require a recording. A real, live recording. Not a MIDI mock-up. A real, live recording. One that requires either 1) a performance, or 2) the capital of people a composer can call on to do a reading as a favor, or 3) the capital of money to hire musicians to do a reading, plus the space and/or money to do such a recording. The larger the piece is, in length or in forces, the more difficult this becomes.
  12. State of Publishing: Is the piece published or unpublished? Or is it self-published? Many times, if that piece is available for sale to the public – even if it has never been performed – it is disqualified.
  13. Length of piece: Most competitions include a time limit. Unfortunately, that excludes any piece that is just a couple of minutes too long and can’t be shortened.
  14. Style: Sometimes competitions call for pieces to be written in a specific manner to honor a past composer, or to use specific world instruments, or incorporate extended techniques.
  15. Difficulty of piece: Sometimes, the difficulty level is specified, depending on who will be playing the piece. This is especially true if a school or youth ensemble will be performing it.
  16. Instrumentation: Do the instruments and/or voices used in the piece match the ensemble that will perform it? This is an obvious question. Occasionally, this is open-ended, but most ensembles also have their own limitations.

Only the last four requirements have anything to do with the piece itself, and only the last two have anything to do with the actual ability of the ensemble to execute a performance.

I had hoped to enter a call for scores coming up in December, but for various reasons I was not able to finish my project in time. That means I’m out of luck. I will never be able to enter my piece in the annual competition because, after this year, the first song in my song cycle will have been written prior to the two-year age limit for the piece. In addition to the two-year limit, this competition also requires a live recording. This is why I can’t enter it – I cannot finish it in a reasonable time to give it to performers to learn, then record, then polish a recording if needed before the deadline. The competition also has an entrance fee. The time, expense, and effort involved in such a project is immense. Maybe this competition is not really worth it.

I have long wanted to form an ensemble myself, in part to address some of these hurdles to composers. I would love to have a competition that is tailor-made for people like me. How about a competition for moms over the age of thirty-five?

I can certainly understand why an ensemble might want to promote the music of certain composers, and I understand that ensembles might want to focus on specific styles of music. I understand that time limits allow ensembles to include more pieces, and feature more composers, in their concerts. (However, these time limits could affect the overall development of music – I mean in a historical fashion!)

Perhaps ensembles should explain why they must have a premiere, why they have chosen an arbitrary age limit, why they require composers to attend performances at their own expense, why a piece must not have been published, or why a piece needs to be less than two years old. Needless requirements that have nothing to do with music narrow the search for good new music too much and may cause quality pieces to fall through the cracks.

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A professional recording of my piece for string orchestra, Daughter of the Stars, is now available. It can be found here.

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