Composition competitions vary enormously. Some are well run, with good communication, clear guidelines and excellent support. Some are not. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to tell which is which until it is too late because previous winners do not want to criticise their benefactors and previous losers do not want to admit that they failed to win!

In this review blog, I only post about competitions that I have entered myself. But this is not about who won or who should have won; it is to inform other composers about some of the issues involved in placing their music within these competitions. 

Entries appear A-Z. Comments are moderated and email contact is preferred for questions.

Wednesday
Jun292016

15 Minutes of Fame

This is an interesting scheme that connects performers and composers. It works in the following way: performers advertise what type of music they want to play / sing and a pool of composers tries to fulfill the brief; the performers choose 15 winners and perform their works in concert. 

It is called "15 Minutes of Fame" since each composition is only 1 minute in length. This has the advantage that a composer is not laying out too much work speculatively. (Although, it could be argued that once the first minute of a piece is written, so much has been determined that it is easier to carry on than begin again!) But there is an inherent challenge in writing something good that lasts one minute. We could play one minute of an already famous piece and say, "See what you can do in one minute!" but that is to ignore the wealth of memory and associations we have with an already iconic work. It is the musical equivalent of having one minute per person at speed-dating. It will favour people who impress on a superficial level and know how to capture attention.

That said, I entered twice and found the organisation quite satisfactory. My first entry played to my idiomatic strengths and was chosen. My second entry (for voice and piano) was not. "Success" in this competition is merely the selection by an ordinary aspiring performer. They may choose what they can play over what they can't, what they think will sound challenging over what they like. It will vary. And in the end they have concert pieces that are dedicated to them but too short to perform elsewhere and you, the composer, have compsitions (and potentially a recording) that are not really suitable for any concert. 

It would be curious if the roles were reversed - what if composers could apply for performers who would like a chance of recording their music? Each performer has a go and composers then choose the one who did it best! It would sound like something for nothing and exploitation of performers by composers, but no one complains the other way round. Composers are supposed to be grateful for any opportunity to work and be validated, although it would take far less time for a performer to record a 1 minute work than for a composer to write it!

It is worth exploring the technique involved in saying anything within one minute of music but, in my opinion, it is too limiting to become more than a novelty stage. It gives composers a tiny avenue, for the glory of a concert performance on the other side of the world, by people and before people who are strangers. Contacts could be made and it could turn into a good networking opportunity, but that will depend so much upon the individuals involved and whether or not they actually communicate directly.

 

Entered Winter 2013/4

Thursday
Jun302016

Elysian Singers

The patron of the Elysian Singers is the composer James MacMillan. As part of the Elysian Singer's 30th anniversary celebration of singing through all 150 Psalms ("Psalmfest"), they advertised a competition. The task was to discover settings for three Psalms that had not yet been placed in their concert programme: Psalm 53, Psalm 56 and Psalm 83. Composers were instructed to write for unaccompanied S.A.T.B. and keep the work below 5 minutes. I entered a setting of each Psalm.

Over 100 works were submitted from around the world. Twelve were chosen by half the judging team, from which a final three would be selected by the full judging group. The twelve composers, in this case, were all male. More strangely, 9 of them had written Psalm 56 and 3 Psalm 53. What about Psalm 83?

I questioned the absence of Psalm 83 with the competition administrator, on the basis that the competition had been put forward as a way to plug a programming gap and that gap was now still open. Although communication had been fair throughout the competition, in this case it did not answer the point beyond the assertion that I was wrong - that the rules had never promised to choose one of each Psalm. One wonders then why have three finalists?

It is a strange pheonomenon that while the Church rejects Psalm-singing it is such a habit with musicians. Often Psalm texts set to music are diluted or else made so complex (through polyphony or a foreign language) that the meaning cannot be discerned. Such a dilution is possible with Psalm 56, by extracting a few "non-judgmental" phrases and allowing them to drop into our post-Christian, politically correct culture. Psalm 53 would be more difficult to (mis)handle in this way. Psalm 83 would be impossible. It is a Psalm that calls for God to judge us as a society. Even in Latin, its sense is too strong for a sleeping humanistic world. The Psalm was a magnificent challenge to set and, as a fervent Psalm-singer and Protestant, I regret its omission. But I am not surprised by it.

Entered Winter 2016

Wednesday
Jun292016

GMPMVC and Cantare Choral Composition Competition

Greater Manchester Police Male Voice Choir (GMPMVC) and Cantare Ladies Choir invited submissions from composers aged under 30. The opportunity was to be commissioned to write a new choral work to fit into an existing concert. Applicants had to submit examples of their compositional style, alongside a brief for the work that they would produce for this project.

Two problems arose from this. The first is what previous compositions are suitable for illustration? Since the brief is for a choral work, is it vital to demonstrate word-setting? should the examples be a choral work for SATB? Cannot a chamber or orchestral work demonstrate skills which could be applied to a choir composition? In the final analysis, unsuccessful applicants were advised by facilitator Michael Betteridge that in the future they should give examples which most closely resemble the project brief. This is not always an option for composers with a smaller portfolio of experience - it would necessitate composing a work to illustrate that a second work can be achieved!

The second problem was in the nature of the text. What words can be sung by a large body of men and women today? What do people have in common? What binds society together enough to sing about it? Two hundred years ago, when the religious anthem was brought back into England by Novello, the words had a common currency amongst a Christian nation. But what religion now? And is it deemed acceptable to make people sing words they do not believe - conversely is it not blasphemy to put such words into their mouths? So what poem is true for all? What experience is common? What is truth in an age without faith?

I wrestled for some time and my choice was based on the intended choral groups in the project. I selected a poem by James Montgomery about a widow holding her baby by her husband's grave. During the poem she goes from despair at her loss to hope in the person of new life in her arms. I thought it would be suitable for the female choir's empathy and the Police force choir, as their work brings them close to mortality. The winner described his text as follows: 

"Jointly commissioned by the Greater Manchester Police Male Voice Choir and Cantare, 'Visions of Paradise' uses the 'In Paradisum' movement of Faure's Requiem as a starting point and takes us on a journey through various incarnations of the idea of paradise; from heavenly afterlife, to peaceful solitude, all the way to the all-inclusive, Lambrini-fuelled 'Package Holiday Paradise'. of the penultimate movement. Although each movement explores very different images of Paradise, a common harmonic thread runs through the piece, and the recurring fragments from Milton's 'Paradise Lost' provide continuity and moments to reflect on the true meaning of Paradise." 

He unwittingly illustrates the moral question in terms of content suitable for choral music. The modern solution is to borrow something old and available (Milton), extract it from its original context and parachute it into modernity. Such an action cannot help being subversive of cultural heritage, even if in an apparently comic mockery by juxtaposing Paradise Lost with a package holiday. 
Entered Summer 2014
Wednesday
Dec072016

New Cambridge Singers

This competition offered free choice for text and music, but specifics with regard to the performers: one choir (SATB), a five-piece Renaissance brass consort and a chorus for the audience to learn within a few rehearsals. The competition was open internationally with no entry fee and the prospect of a financial prize for the winner. After a busy year in competitions, I decided to enter this one by the thought of such a quick turn around in judging the entries: submission in August, the result in September.

During September, an email was sent to all entrants advising that the competition had received more entries than expected and one of the judges would be away for a month, so judging would not be concluded until November. At this stage I wanted to contact the administrators to protest this change of the rules. After all, the entrants to this competition had to sign a contract regarding their compliance with the rules of the contest. The same document laid out the rules, including the period of announcing results. Surely if it is binding on one party, it is binding on the other?

I did not complain, on the all too familiar basis that I might waste all the effort I had so far put into the competition, if I marked myself as a "trouble-maker". Such is the world of music competitions that you are vulnerable to the whim of competition organisers. And another whim appeared on 8th October, when I received email notification that the shortlist had been produced.

There had been no warning that a shortlist would even be made. The last communication had said to wait until November, so where had this come from? At this stage, not having made the final 13, I decided to give a little feedback to the administrators about the unprofessional sense of time-keeping. I explained that, having worked for weeks on a composition, it is healthy to anticipate the announcement of a judgment rather than to discover it accidentally over coffee, in between the mundane tasks of the day. The response from New Cambridge Singers - polite and offended - was essentially that the choir is amateur and they are doing the best they can.

My first impressions of this competition were much more favourable. I had enquired about the idiomatic requirements for the five-piece Renaissance brass consort and received detailed advice. But the rest has left me shaking my head - not least the fact that I have still not received any communication that a winner has been picked, although it is on the New Cambridge Singers website (in December). It is very convenient for any group of musicians to plead amateur when they are on the back foot and strike a pose as professional when they are promoting themselves hard.

There were 50 entries, which - rather ironically - led to the selection of a music student in Cambridge University. The winner is already on a $200,000 bursary so the £500 prize money from New Cambridge Singers is a drop in the ocean. His work ("Then the angel showed me the river…") is based on a descriptive excerpt of the New Jerusalem in the Book of Revelation, which is a curious choice for a work with a chorus. Participants in the competition were advised to make sure the chorus was accessible to non-trained singers. However, the winner was praised by the judges for writing a chorus that was unique among the entries, "involving some aleatoric (randomly performed) chanted sections".1

Like so many competitions within the world of modern music, an apparently broad stage cannot disguise for long the prejudice that is endemic. Winners are usually well placed within the system already - not to imply that there is favouritism based on identity. No, nothing so deliberate. But when established hands in the world of music see the pupils of other equally established hands, they will be drawn towards a standard that they themselves can recognise because it is the only one they know. It produces a vicious circle in which every ambitious composer will only achieve success by forging alliances and connections within the system. A case in point would be that the youngest finalist alongside me at the St Andrews Voice Festival workshop last year, won the younger prize from The Gesualdo Six competition and was then commissioned to compose a work to be performed during the Voice Festival this year. Groups of musicians are validated by showing connections to other musicians who are already validated. The actual compositions produced are usually unintelligible, pretentious and - frankly - boring in their avant-garde earnestness: young people, adopting the musical voice of their teacher, to be accepted by a long line of other music teachers.

It is called progress, but that is often as much a misnomer as calling new concert works music.

 

1. http://www.newcambridgesingers.org.uk/competition.html

Thursday
Jun302016

Soundiff

This group of Classical musicians in Italy advertised for solo works, maximum 3 minutes, for violin, flute, piano, cello and female voice to be included in their new CD. While their English far surpassed my Italian, communication was often a little fractured and it is worth considering the language barrier before submitting to foreign competitions. (Ask a question before starting your submission to find out whether communication is straight forward.)

One of my two submitted works was chosen by Soundiff. The flute recording sent for my approval was not quite what I expected. The intonation varied considerably and was lost completely on some notes. Given the language problems, I resorted to highlighting specific notes on a version of the score, indicating whether they should be sharper or flatter. These were willingly corrected for the final version, but by tuning correction rather than re-recording. It left me with the impression that perhaps each work had received one performance in the recording studio?

No remuneration was possible. I tried to gain information about the CD's label but this gave more questions than answers. After sending money for postage I did receive a free copy of their CD, which revealed many pieces far above the 3 minute boundary. The choice of works was diverse, with some in a style of acute avant-garde and others adopting a more accessible style. This made the CD a showpiece for performers but not a coherent listen for the sake of the music itself.

While it appears an essential step in a composer's development to have performers record works and to allow them to be distributed seems good publicity, not all options are equal.

Entered Spring 2014

Tuesday
Mar072017

Sounds of Silences

This competition has several obvious advantages: (1) composers submit existing samples of work, so are put to no effort upfront; (2) three composers are paid to score a silent film, from which one composer is the overall winner.

I submitted samples of scoring last year and was not selected. So on receiving the advertisement this week, I revisited the competition's website in the hope of watching last year's films. I could not find them, only the names of the winners - mainly Italian names in this Italian international competition.

I contacted the competition organisers, requesting a link to the winning films. I did not regard this as an unusual request, since most competitions are only too anxious to promote themselves by showing previous triumphs. So I was surprised that, by way of reply, I was sent the email addresses for two of the three winners, with the recommendation that I ask them. Not shy of communication, I was not enthusiastic about this way of proceeding. An unsolicited request from an email address I should never have been given? I answered with a request to be dropped off the mailing list, indicating that I didn't think it was right for the competition organisers to give me the email addresses. Their reply - as ever from a nameless person, who never heralds with Dear / Hi and never signs with any like professional endearments - was that they thought equally badly of my suggestion that the music of winners should be given to total strangers!

I suspect that here we have a difference in presuppositions. I assume that any competition that is paying composers to write music will in the future use those compositions to promote the composers and the competition. This competition does not. Perhaps they do not have permission to publicly share the films used in the scoring competition? Perhaps the composers retain all music rights exclusively. But if that is the case, it is a strange competition that produces scores we cannot hear for films we cannot watch. 

Entered Spring 2016

Thursday
Jun302016

St Edmundsbury Cathedral

This competition asked composers to set words about St. Edmund for a choir performance. It was entered by around 50 composers. Communication was fair. The Dean of the Cathedral had adapted an existing text about St. Edmund. The end result was not altogether successful. It is not unusual for composers to set texts which are more prose than poetry (by which I mean that they lack the rhyme and regular rhythm that invites a strophic musical solution). But this text had other complications. The lines were very fragmented and the stress of the word-setting did not have an inherent beauty. It felt rather undesigned, as though a passage of prose had been broken up and the words been left wherever they fell. Stresses do not need to be regular, but the more thought that has gone into the words, the more a composer can draw out in the music.

The text concerned the martyrdom of Edmund at the hands of Hingwar (in itself a difficult name to set happily!). I was troubled by the inconsistency and irony of the text - it invited us to celebrate a man for dying for his faith in Jesus Christ. I included the following note with my entry:

"Since Edmund was willing to die for Christ, I saw it as fitting and essential that Christ rather than Edmund should be the focus of the work. The text allows this by presenting the simple conflict between submitting to Hingwar and submitting to Christ. At certain points I superimpose the names of Hingwar and Christ, to underline the point at issue. The name of Christ does not overpower by being sung more loudly or beautifully. It overpowers because Christ is victor. I hope that by focusing on the aspect of why Edmund was willing to die more than on the manner of his death, the work may be an anthem for contemporary Christian martyrs too."

The effort involved in trying to enhance an aspect of a text, as it were to correct what could be perceived as an error of deficiency, tends to be counterproductive. The music becomes an unequal partner towards a new goal and the text will therefore too often pull in the opposite direction.

Entered Winter 2013

Thursday
Jun302016

St Mary at Hill

This competition for a Christmas carol sought to marry a schoolgirl's prize-winning poem with the best musical setting. The work of writing the words had been done with a free, youthful hand. But what is applauded by English teachers can prove to be a trouble for composers. After all, the final poem unwittingly combined starry-eyed sentimentalism about Christmas with the theological anomaly of a Christmas carol referring to Jesus Christ by the Easter term "Paschal Lamb". It combined into a confusing, watery text, with the obstacle for the stress of the words changing throughout. Since a carol is supposed to be strophic and easy to sing, this was actually a major issue. When a composer has to adjust the music to make the words sound well-written, it makes the task much more difficult than is necessary.

This is not to be mean-spirited about an amateur's efforts, but simply to raise the question of why composers are so often asked to produce their best music with what amounts to a child's poem? When will we commission poets to produce a text?

Entered Winter 2015

Wednesday
Jun292016

St. Andrews Voice Festival

This competition presented 4 text options for choral setting. The prize was a Voces 8 workshop in the St. Andrews Voice Festival. 

Communication was consistently good during submission. There was some delay during adjudication and the announcement of the results left a small window to arrange travel and accommodation, but it was perfectly possible and all four chosen composers (myself included) were able to attend.

The workshop was led by the competition’s judge, but he was only available via Skype from the U.S.A. This presented technical difficulties, although Voces 8 were able to maintain the flow with or without his supervision.

The selection of composers was intriguing. I understood that there had not been too many entries due to the number of similar competitions at that season. The judge admitted that my selection had been to have one work in 4 rather than 8 parts. One finalist was still at school, one was a St. Andrews student who had just taken up composition. The fourth was a little older and had more musical and choral background, although she too was new to composition.

Thirteen years ago I stared at the prospect of a potential compositional fail and produced an A Level Compositional Portfolio that did not lose one mark - 100%. Ten years ago, I was about to graduate BA Hons First Class in Music. I had faced another threat of failure (this time for style rather than immaturity). I went through the mill for writing pieces that my tutors did not like. I conformed at first, listening to every word as though it had come from an almighty being who knew best. I found that blindly following advice produced compositions that I could not understand myself, let alone ask anyone else to admire. 

In St. Andrews I had the surreal experience of being back in my undergraduate class, populated by those new enoguh to composition to think that the game can be played and won, to think that they are being innovative and original while following someone else's plan. My own tonal composition was critiqued by an entirely different standard to the 3 atonal works. While they were encouraged to try colouring a chord differently or pronouncing a syllable with more hiss, my parellel fifths came under scrutiny. 

In no way do I regret this experience. It was well-managed. Voces 8 were a pleasure. The admin team generously covered my expenses in full. It was an enjoyable and useful event. But it should not be made into a tremendous victory for the finalists, as though being selected was recognition of compositional excellence. To my three fellow finalists it was a step on the road, a road they have by their own admission barely begun. For myself, it was a great opportunity to hear performers' feedback and have a work sung. It was also a good reference point of contact with modern music - both where I am and where I am not going. I would, in short, be delighted to return to this festival and would have no hesitation in encouraging others to apply.

Entered Autumn 2015

Saturday
Jul022016

The Bach Choir

To celebrate 140 years since they began, the Bach Choir announced a competition to tell Browning's story of The Pied Piper. There were parameters of instruments: flute/piccolo, piano, percussion and double bass. It had to be 15 to 20 minutes long, for S.A.T.B. and Children's Choir.

For a text that concerns a musician getting his revenge for not being paid, it was ironic that this competition offered no prize beyond the honour of performance. But whereas so many texts do not appeal (and often a composer does not match the criteria: US only, under 22 ...) this text was an old friend.

This submission required a considerable investment of time. Ten minutes of music is a lot. 15 to 20 is unusual unless a paid commission has been initiated. No style was demanded, although I enquired and was advised not to over-work the children. I am more than pleased with the end result. The text was tricky. It had already been edited down (not always smoothly). Some lengthy verses lost their meaning if set over too long a time. Clarity could only be maintained with care. I gave the children their most intensive passage near the beginning, while they would be fresh, and kept them doubled for support.

The announcement of the winner was delayed. A new date was set and then ignored. As a heads-up to all competition organisers, this is not very fair. If a composer knows that a result is due on a certain date then he/she will approach checking email that day with a sense of anticipation. Instead of which, The Bach Choir result landed 5 days earlier than the second set results date, in the middle of business and without warning. All a composer reads under such circumstances is the word "Unfortunately". 

When I re-read the email some hours later, it stated that the winner had been chosen in part because his work best suited the resources and budget. I asked for more information, since the guidelines had been specific enough. What more had the winner done? Even if only by fluke, what criteria had he achieved that others had not? 

After good communication, the answer to that question was less than helpful - the judges had made their decision and that was that. I was disappointed by such an attitude. It is less about one competition and one disappointment - it is that composers are so often treated badly. We have no right even to the knowledge of what could help us approach a competition better the next time and any criticism (or question) is perceived as sour grapes from a loser. It is not - it is a request for the sort of respect such people are more than happy to sing about, taking the moral high ground, in The Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Entered Spring 2016

Wednesday
Jun292016

The Ear

This competition, the brain-child of Alf Bishai in New York, advertised as renewing an older standard of Classical music by making the audience the judge. It aimed to produce and promote music that people would want to hear again and again.

The number of interested enquiries from outside the New York area convinced Bishai to make it explicitly international (the original ad had not stated New York only). During the first months of the project it appeared that in addition to composers signing up to write works, people would also sign up to become "listeners". These "listeners" would provide a worldwide audience to sit in judgment on new compositions and verify which pieces they wanted to hear again and again. (For this reason, composers submitting work had to provide not only a full piece with score but also the first minute of audio as a soundbite to entice the "listeners".)

This scheme was later clarified. Bishai affirmed that the judges would not allow any great compositions to be overlooked, even if they did not score highly with the "listeners". In time this shifted a stage further. The judges sifted the entries and only these works were entered into competition. Final adjudication took place at a new music soiree in New York, where the winning composition was selected by receiving the loudest applause.

From the perspective of the composer, this continual movement of the terms of the competition was worrying. After all, the initially planned online adjudication by "listeners" could have played to broader sensibilities than those who choose to attend a new music concert in New York. Besides which, the idea of preselecting which compositions were to be performed undermines the stated aim of the competition. It ceases to be a populist vote of ordinary listeners and is instead restricted to which pieces the judges like. But who are the judges? The first competition (solo piano works) gave no information beyond Bishai himself. 

Future competitions from this organisation have included a bizarre game (that would frankly appeal to school age music students) and writing for a double bass group (open to all but you have to be able to attend the concert in New York). With the best will in the world, a large number of double basses is hardly conforming to Classical standards!

In the space of a year or so, The Ear has shrunk from world-changing aspirations down to the size of yet another project that promises composers a lot but does not deliver. For instance, it was a marketing ploy throughout the first competition that 600 signed up composers could force the compositions onto the radio. Such contacts and sponsorship deals have know doubt been discussed, but for whose benefit? The entrants whose music was never selected or even heard by anonymous "listeners"? The winner? Or Bishai himself?

Alongside his other hats, Bishai is a composer and his name was even included in a recent finalist list for his own competition. That is either a sign that there were too few entrants or that it was his aim all along to invent a competition which would allow his own type of music to win.

This was a missed opportunity and I suspect it is already too late to restore good will. Had The Ear offered a simple X-Factor style format for trained composers who need more exposure, it might well have succeeded. As things stood submissions could only be made with the inclusion of written declarations from the composer's friends, declaring that they had heard the pieces 3 times and given feedback. (The same was supposed to be provided by a music professional, but I asked for this to be waived and it was.) Considering that Beethoven is Bishai's featured icon of the project, I have to ask whether the bad-tempered maestro himself could have found 3 friends to endorse his work.

We cannot turn the clock back. Bishai has demonstrated that. What many people (myself included) may have assumed was an attempt to overturn the avant-garde dominance in modern concert music has only confirmed that the solution does not lie in this direction. The premise of the competition is flawed. I had hoped - for the sake of Bishai - that it might have taken a little longer to show.

http://www.theearclassical.com

Entered Summer 2015

Wednesday
Jun292016

Transatlantyk

This is an established film competition based in Poland. The immediate factor involved is cost. The entry fee of £40 was increased further by the transfer fees for a foreign currency - only enter if you can afford to lose!

The films when I entered were one animation and one subtitled foreign language film. To be honest, the style / quality of the animation did not appeal and I had to overcome my initial dislike. I found the silent film story-telling thin and the entertainment value rather obscure. On a trivial level, it urked to have a major competition using a film which included title credits including the composer. The sense of futility in rescoring a finished project had to be overcome. I chose to do so for the second film. Again, it was not ideal.

In the context of a real film, this scene would feed off musical ideas which had been set up previously. The thematic richness of other scenes would allow economy, short-hand of motifs and musical references. But none of this is possible when a scene is extracted in isolation. The question then posed was should it be scored as minimally as if the music had to work around sound or should it be scored as though a silent film with subtitles? How far should real scoring be suspended in a competition environment, to produce better concert music but worse film music?

In the final analysis, I never discovered answers to these questions with regard to Transatlantyk. The finalists were chosen and, not unusually in film scoring, they were all male. A winner was selected. My only correspondence was a reminder / order not to use the videos. Not even after paying over £40 for the pleasure of losing? Communication could have been better.

Entered Summer 2015

Wednesday
Jun292016

Waterloo Film Scoring Competition

This competition is run by St. John's Church. Each year (for the last three) they have produced a new video. This is made available to entrants, who have a choice of scoring for Classical instruments or electronic. The final work receives a live performance, so the Classical instruments must conform to the group they have available that year. In my case it was a string group with oboe.

The films are rarely straight-forward. They adopt an "artistic" tone that at some point becomes surreal. They use sound (if at all) in the same way, for effect. In other words, these are "art" films. This raises the question as to whether such a film should be scored like a feature (dramatically underscoring) or like a concert work set to picture. From the choice of previous winners, the latter seems strongly suggested. 

It is an unusual project because it does not really promote film scoring practice, unless you count the technique of using SMPTE code! It has more in common with old silent films, in terms of how prominently the music will be heard and how necessary it is to make sense of the images in the absence of sound.

Contact with the competition has always been fantastic and all entrants have free access to use the films for their own promotion. If the film takes your fancy, it is a good opportunity for the experience alone.

http://www.stjohnswaterloo.org/page/253/waterloo-festival-film-score-competition

Entered Spring / Summer 2014