Thursday, May 24, 2007

Stacking the Deck

More talk about prizes: The annual BMI awards for student composers have been announced. I can't comment on the selected works as all are unfamiliar to me, but will note that all of the selected works are for conventional ensembles and also note that the academic affiliations of the winners include Indiana U. (Clint Needham, Bryan Christian, Matthew Peterson), Curtis (Sebastian Chang), USC (Eric Gunivan, who is also a IU alum), RAM (Aaron Holloway-Nahum, a Northwestern alum), SUNY Buffalo (Otto Muller), NEC (Nathan Shields) and Peabody (Roger Zare, also a USC alum).

The composition of the jury, however, should be noted:

Chairman of the competition: Milton Babbitt
Jury members: Richard Danielpour, David Dzubay, Christopher Rouse, Gunther Schuller, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich.
Preliminary judges: Chester Biscardi, David Leisner, and Bernadette Speach.

This is an East Coast establishment jury with real east coast establishment academic affiliations: Princeton, Julliard, Manhattan School, Curtis Institute, Indiana University, New England Conservatory, Sarah Lawrence; Ellen Taaffe Zwilich teaches at FSU, but could hardly be described as representing a non-establishment voice here; the only member of either jury with even a peripheral connection to the experimental music tradition is Bernadette Speach, who studied with Morton Feldman.

Again, I do not know any of the selected works, but given the jury composition and the affiliations of the winners listed above, I think it's safe to say that a young composer with an experimental approach to music, or a composer of electronic music (let's not even talk about circuit benders or hardware hackers or installation composers!), or a composer with a world music orientation would have had a very difficult time with this jury.

To be fair to young composers, especially for the many of them for whom the entry fee can be a hardship, competitions like this should announce the jury membership in advance so that a potential contestant can better judge the chances that his or her work would be taken seriously by the jurors.


Adam Baratz said...

BMI does not have an entry fee. They allow you to enter pieces in non-traditional notation, as well as recordings of pieces where the recording is the "notation." They don't list jurors, but their entry form tells you who adjudicated last year. Not perfect, but a lot better than most.


I can't remember which competition this was (pretty sure either BMI or ASCAP), but I remember someone recently won with a piece for player piano tuned in something other than 12TET.

Without knowing much about who enters the contests (are they mostly people at big east coast schools to begin with?) and the selection process (BMI tells you about criteria, but that's not the same as sitting in the room with the jurors), it's hard to say exactly how "unfair" they are.

Daniel Wolf said...

It's good to know that there is no entry fee. I can't recall if there was a fee in my day, but I do recall that the application materials twice arrived at my college weeks after the entry deadline and that the "officially secret" entry requirement was to have your score printed by ozalid process. (For the record, I never entered a BMI competition; in fact, the only competition I have ever entered was one sponsored by the local music teachers' association while I was in High School).

Yes, there was a very good piece last year by Jacob Barton, a student at Rice; aside from the fact that it moves through a series of equal temperaments, necessitating an electronic realization, it is conservative in idiom, essentially a set of variations. But even if we call Barton's piece experimental, this is an example that proves the rule -- it's easy to guess which jury member last year stood up for the piece last year (hint: which jury member had a connection to Nancarrow?), just like Lou Harrison, many years ago, being able to stand up for one west coastish composer. The point is, unless you know that some representative of these alternative traditions will be on the panel, why bother entering?

It is not unreasonable to assume that, even with anonymized entries, having an IU faculty member on the panel this year was helpful to the four composers with IU affiliations. I can't object to this, as a jury member will inevitably have his or her or taste reflected in their decisions, and favoring the local style or interests is probably unavoidable. My objection is to not identifying the jurors up front.

David Toub said...

The reality is that most such competitions (if not all of them) tend to favor the status quo, which is still perceived to revolve around the major conservatories. They aren't called "conservatories" for nothing, mind you.

I personally do not enter composition contests. If people want to, that's their right, but I have always had problems with the concept, even back in high school. Who's to say that one piece is better than another? It's all subjective. It encourages conformism, just as multiple choice (multiple guess?) tests encourage teaching to the test, but not necessarily real education.

There are many works of music I love that I suspect would have been laughed at had they been submitted to a composition competition. At the same time, there are also works I love that have indeed won awards, such as some music by Yehudi Wyner. But I think that's more the exception than the rule, and in some cases, the music is great in spite of its having won some competition.

Anonymous said...

I have participated in judging some competitions, and I agree both that it would be helpful to know the composition of a jury when deciding whether to enter, and that a more diverse jury is likely to be fairer. However, it's worth noting that a juror's own compositional style is not a completely reliable predictor of how they will respond to specific pieces. Some jurors are more critical of works close to their own style -- "I know how to do that better" -- while giving more credit where "I never would have thought of that." Some people can appreciate a wide range of styles even if their own work doesn't show it. It's more about the personalities of the jurors than about the music they write. Some people are open-mined and some people aren't, and you can't predict that from their music.

Anonymous said...

I cannot believe I am just running across this blog entry. I apologize for the late entry, hopefully it will be read.

I want to keep myself annonomous because I assist in the administration of BMI division of classical music. I want everyone to know that I witnessed David Dzubay sit absolutely silent as everyone reviewed and voted for the pieces. He spoke up for some pieces from other schools, but for each IU student he did not say a word. He did not sway the rest of the panel. The other judges did the same for pieces from their school. There are ethical standards for the BMI judging panel and it is part of my job to make sure they are met. Also, before you make snap judgements about pieces that have won awards, you should get a hold of the recording and score first. For example, Clint Needham's piece "Earth and Green" can be found on his myspace page. This piece won the Schumann Prize from BMI as well as several other awards (and other judging panels) such as the New York Youth Symphony Competition, ASCAP Morton Gould Award, and the 2007 American Composers Orchestra $15,000 commission. So please, do your research before you state your opinion. Also, if you personally don't think your compositional style will not win any awards because it doesn't match the compositional style of the judging panel, you need to submit your works before you make that kind of statement. As others have posted, the composers that have been on the BMI panels have no preference to style. They do however have preference to works of high quality.

Anonymous said...

Dear Anonymous --

There is, by definition, no such thing as a composer without a preference as to style; the composer's job is to make choices, and that is the very definition of a style.

There are many ways to influence a jury decision, and silence is often one of the best. Simply by being silent about pieces from his on school is a conspicuous act, the sudden silence an indication that one is more than familiar with supposedly anonymous entries.

The most efficient way, however, to game the system is simply to create an atmosphere in which pieces outside of competitions stylistic range just are not entered. There are a number of important composition schools in the US in which students understand that their work will not be seriously considered and judges are seldom chosen from these schools.

Daniel is a good voice on this topic because he has no self-interest -- he never entered the competition himself, is now to old to enter, and, having made his career outside of the US, is not a member of either BMI or ASCAP.