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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution
Sometimes the world of nonpop musical composition is a pitiful place. Unable to survive in the commercial realm, this field is larded with residencies, grants and awards from universities, subsidized ensembles, governments, and foundations.
But what most exposes the seamy underbelly of ambition, prejudice, and humiliation in our field are its competitions, tawdry little affairs next to which American Idol appears as high culture.
The rules are byzantine. Two copies, five copies. Names on, names off. Some want the piece already performed, some not, some only by pros, some only by amateurs. Some can be published, some can't. Others want applicants -- never called contestants -- to be of one gender or religion or ethnic group. Some demand that 'winners' travel to premieres on their own nickel. Some want recordings. Some want entry fees (we'll get to that). Whatever the requirements, the bar for submissions is high-as if there could possibly be that much chaff in our nonpop wheat.
Most judges are not slackers. I've been on juries, and last year's international electroacoustic competition asked me to listen to more than 100 compositions -- some ten hours' worth -- as a volunteer. I agreed because the contest was wide open, and did not adopt the most ugly and pervasive discriminations in new nonpop contests: class and age.
In class terms, we've already dealt with the pay-for-play orchestra and recording scheme that received our first Golden Bruce Award in 1998. The university conference and competition domain has its own class system, where results often depend on what faculty is willing to play what kind of music that semester. Some demand composers bring their own performers, and others require attendance to bolster prestige and puff up audiences. Independent composers are cordoned off, their groundbreaking work made invisible and -- irrespective of Internet-based documentation -- excluded from histories of the artform.
Even outside academia, the composer with little cash at hand is excluded by immediate, not merely by potential, expenses. On top of score copies and shipping costs, getting in the door asks that contestants bribe the nonpop parade marshals with fees.
Want to enter some competitions? Consider just a few sponsors who will share our Golden Bruce Award this year: The Witold Lutoslawski Society Composers Competition, €20 (that's $26 these days). The San Francisco Song Festival, $40. The New York Treble Singers, $25. The Gaudeamus Foundation, €25 ($33). Earplay, $25. The Bach Festival of Philadelphia, $25. The International Society for Contemporary Music, $25. The Delta Omicron International Music Fraternity, $25. The European American Musical Alliance, $50.
What do composers get for this? A performance -- who knows of what quality -- and perhaps a recording, maybe a token cash award, and -- most important -- a checkbox for the résumé. So ya gotta do it. But can you?
Let's move from class to age. Don't be fooled. Nonpop competitions push the youth culture as much as pop culture does. No, we're not talking about high school students, but rather a strange barrier after which a composer is either declared successful or declared dead.
Here's a sampling of those who'll share the age award: Miso Music Portugal, under 35. University of Minnesota, Craig and Janet Swan Composer Prize, under 42. Boston University, ALEA III International Composition Prize, under 40. Turner Classic Movies, Film Composers Competition, under 35. Volti Ensemble, San Francisco, under 35. Guild of Temple Musicians, Toronto, under 35. Bach Festival of Philadelphia, under 35. BMI Foundation, Pete Carpenter Film Composers Fellowship, under 35. Queen Elisabeth International Competition for Composers, under 40.
And then there's the H. Robert Reynolds Composition Competition open to any student through graduate school -- age and class.
Be honest. Entry fees claim to defray expenses, but they really relieve contest organizers of commitment. And disguised as opportunity, age-based competitions take advantage of younger composers' hunger for recognition, while obtaining performance material at low cost and currying hipness for the ensembles.
The 2004 Golden Bruce Award -- given belatedly after reviewing a year's worth of contests -- goes to all nonpop competitions that engage in discrimination. At Kalvos & Damian, we call for the immediate end of class and age discrimination.