We Reserve the Right to Define “Emerging”

A little while back, I got the results from a contest for emerging composers that I had entered. It did not have an age limit, and I had work that met the guidelines, so of course I had to take advantage of the opportunity. The rejection email I received was the worst I have ever received. Most of these rejection emails I get are impersonal form letters that begin with “Dear Composer,” but this one didn’t even include a greeting. “You are receiving this email because you entered the emerging composer’s competition”, it said, and then went on to say that the winner had recently been announced and the people receiving the email did not win. “We want to recognize your effort and interest in making an application to the competition” (note, we recognize your application, not your work), and “it was a privilege to choose a winner from the many extraordinary works submitted” (am I the only one that finds this wording strange?)

The first thing that puzzled me was that the winner had already been announced…and was not named in the email. Most competition results are sent with the email, or recipients are told where and when to be able to find the results. This email contained neither. My skeptic alarm went off immediately, and I went to work sleuthing on the internet to find out who won. I first went to the organization’s website. For such a big competition with a nice $$ tag connected to a commission, I expected this announcement to make the front page. It didn’t. Huh. I poked around on every page and every link on that website, even on pages I knew had no real chance of containing the information, such as the personnel page. I could not find anything about this competition. Since I designed and manage my own website, I know how easy it is to make a new page and where to put it, especially when such a large organization would have a webmaster devoted to managing the site. Huh.

The next strategy was a Google search. Bingo. I found the page, but the page was not linked to any other page of the organization’s website. There was no big announcement. Rather, the first paragraph explained that the competition was over and that scores were no longer being accepted. Embedded within the second paragraph was the winner’s name. If I was the winner, I’d be wondering why the organization wasn’t highlighting this exciting news. So I looked him up.

The organization had said they reserved the right to define emerging. I understood that, especially when age is not the limiting factor. It would be difficult to know in advance which competing composer’s background would best be defined as “emerging.” This was their definition: the winner was young (25), but seemingly a prodigy since his work has already been performed all over the world. He has earned ASCAP awards, collaborated with the New York City Ballet, and has even been featured on National Geographic. His bio goes on from there. I guess age ended up being the determining factor, after all, since his experience doesn’t sound like “emerging” to me. Huh.

No wonder they appreciated my “effort and interest in applying.” It seems that my effort (and that of others who entered) was necessary for this organization to jump through the hoops of setting up a competition in order to make it look like they fairly chose someone they already knew they wanted to work with. This is not unlike universities that create job descriptions that fit only the person they want to hire, or government proposals designed for only one contractor. This group got around that, and around age discrimination, by saying “we reserve the right to define the term ’emerging.'”

I knew all along that my $20 donation/entry fee would help fund the commission. They got about $2,000 out the almost-100 poor emerging composers who never had a chance. Today I returned to the webpage which contained the announcement. It was blocked to all but members of the organization.

Declaring One’s Self

The term “declaring one’s self” often refers to making a pledge of commitment and support. It can also mean stating strongly one’s opinion or revealing one’s true character or identity.  In short, it’s about owning up to a position, saying “this is where I stand.”

Composition is an exercise of “declaring one’s self.” During the writing phase, I sort out my ideas, clarify and refine them. But once a piece is completed, I own it. I chose all the notes, all the voicing, all the instrumentation. I have declared myself to this piece. I stand behind it, taking full responsibility for it. I have said, in no uncertain terms, “this is what I want.”

It is at once empowering and terrifying. I feel like this every time I get on a roller coaster or when I am halfway through a mountain trail and find myself in a difficult spot. On the one hand, I am quite satisfied with myself for having the guts to get on the ride or start the hike. I didn’t chicken out. But once in the midst of it, I sometimes wonder what I have gotten myself into. There’s no getting off the ride, there’s no going back. There is only one way to go, and it is forward, come what may.

To me, writing a piece of music and presenting it is a bit like laying out my heart in front of the entire world. I painstakingly ripped it out of my soul and laid it bare.  It cannot  return to the depths from which it came. It has seen light and has been exposed, all of it: the good, the bad, and the ugly. At that point, all I can do is see what happens. Will it get performed? Will it be well received? Will it be found lacking? Will my friends encourage me or will even they have nothing to say, finding nothing to praise? I feel accomplished, having finished a project. But I also feel extremely vulnerable. My inner thoughts, shown in the choices I made to create the piece, are on public display.

Declaring one’s self can be a dangerous activity. Some people will not like what you have to say or who you are. The practice of saying “this is what I want” clearly and firmly is an important discipline. So many times we are hesitant to reveal our inner desires out of fear they will be rejected or scorned. But pretending that our own desires don’t exist or are unimportant is a refusal to stand by our own selves and a form of self-rejection that says we are worthy of being dismissed or ignored. I’m not saying that every single desire we have is a good one that should be “published”, but too many times we hide ourselves for no reason other than simply being afraid.

However, the skill of declaring one’s self can be developed with practice. It does get easier. The first hill on the roller coaster is the scariest. One hike up a mountain gives confidence to do the next one.  As the saying goes, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. What is the worst that can happen? A rejection? Someone gets angry? I am embarrassed? Those things will not destroy me. I may get knocked back a little. I may hesitate. I may need to recover. But I pick myself up and write again, with a little more strength, confidence, and determination.