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12 Mar  

Last year I spent a couple of days at the Leeds Conductor’s Competition: Britain’s leading competition of this type, which happens every 2-3 years. I was there because an orchestral work of mine was being used as the modern test piece at a stage in the event in which there were only six contestants left. Each competitor had a slot to rehearse some Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, and my own piece. It was a fascinating experience on so many levels, not least in that it gave me the opportunity to hear my own music interpreted by six different conductors!

Since then I’ve spent some time musing over the nature of competitions, and come to the conclusion that there are basically three main types;

1) The Dead Certain. This is the sort of competition you get in sport; clear winners, and losers. Whoever runs faster than everyone else/jumps higher/scores more points or goals.

2) The Somewhat Hazy. Here the framework of winning and losing is more complex. I’d put arts based competitions in this category; the Turner Prize, Booker Prize, the Leeds Piano Competition (as well as the conducting one), and so on. Within this context a panel of judges may well take differing views on the quality of the artistic creations they have to appraise, and how to rank them, but they still have access to what they asses; they can read books, see works of art, and listen to performances.

3) The Downright Dubious. There’s only one candidate for this category; composition competitions. Here’s a typical scenario - one hundred and fifty composers submit orchestral works which are up to 20 minutes long, they are scrutinised by a panel, and the winning composition gets a cash prize and performance. At no point in this process do the judges get to hear the pieces in question! Given this situation one wonders how on earth it is possible to make a critical assessment of as much as fifty hours of dense and difficult music without even hearing a note performed (and forget midi playbacks, they’re a waste of time for orchestral works, and everything else really).
Instead of these random lucky-dip composition competitions wouldn’t it be wonderful for composers (especially younger ones) if every orchestra was to set aside a couple of sessions a year in which they’d read through and record previously unperformed orchestral works. Not an ‘open to the public’ workshop (these often seem to waste time with meaningless discussions that involve the audience), but simply a chance for a composer to hear his or her piece, get feedback from the orchestra, and take home a good quality recording.

No prizes, winners or losers: just a chance for composers to listen and learn in a sympathetic environment. I know that this is a crazy idea, given the scarcity of rehearsal time for most orchestras, but it’s a nice thought.

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 jwildridge commenting on Competitions:
12 March 2010 at 20:47

I think you're absolutely right. Like you I enjoyed having a piece used as a trial for the up and coming conductors at the Leeds Competition. I learned a lot. However, there are a substantial quantity of your category three competitions that may even require a category four: The Already Decided! Perhaps I'm being a little cynical, but it is unremarkable how year on year one hears the same names winning the more prestigious prizes in the field of composition. It would be highly reassuring to all striving composers if professional Orchestras were able to do as you suggest. Some of these sessions do come through the SPNM, but they are infrequent and not always as beneficial to those who take part. In the end I suspect it remains a question of time and funding for the orchestras and a great deal of networking for composers.

 Graham Lynch commenting on Competitions:
12 March 2010 at 21:12

You could be right Justin, perhaps I should have included the fourth category you mention! And what also bothers me about the sort of competitions I'm describing is that decisions will probably be made on the 'look' of the score; which can perhaps mean how many contemporary 'techniques' are scattered around the music, regardless of how it sounds or what it communicates.

 Nicolas Tzortzis commenting on Competitions:
12 March 2010 at 23:50

most composition competitions are not like that though.
the vast majority has the panel select 5-6 finalists,then have a concert,and then decide on who gets the prize.and then usually the best piece is the winning piece.
maybe you should include that category too,probably a "less hazy" one.
it must be extremely rare (I don't know any) for a competition for ORCHESTRA to have only the winning work performed.
and as for your suggestion goes,it would be nice,but then again,someone (or somehow),would have to select the composers whose work would be workshoped.what would the criteria be?the score?the CV? the academic achievements?because there are more composers than orchestras around,right?so someone would have to be left aside.and that would cause more discussion on the "why" the "who" etc was played.
and what about the winner?isn't great that some lucky composers get to hear their music played,get some money out of it,and often get commissions out of them?
don't get me wrong,I do agree on your suggestion (with slight changes),but why take away something that actually helps composers,if they know how to use it right?

 Graham Lynch commenting on Competitions:
13 March 2010 at 11:14

Yes Nicolas, I was being slightly contentious in my ‘typical scenario’! And in order to keep the blog fairly short I skipped past the very valid points that you raise, although they had been in my mind. Having skimmed down the current list of competitions on this site it is interesting though that the majority do not appear to have any sort of performance until after the pieces are judged.

I agree that my idea that orchestras should all try to read through new works from time to time would involve some degree of selection in respect of the pieces, but because it would yield many more opportunities any good piece would be sure to find a play through at some point; I think that it’s easy for high quality works to be overlooked in the normal competition format.

Also, I’m not advocating the demise of the competition as a format, but I feel that there may be other approaches that could go alongside this and that would profit composers better. And ‘workshop’ situations can turn out to be box ticking exercises for arts organisations that need the funding, rather than genuine learning experiences for composers.

Tippett, if I recall correctly, refused to judge composition competitions, but on one occasion at a festival he agreed to examine in a competition for solo violin works provided he was given a room with a piano so he could play through them.

Even for small chamber pieces no judge is going to normally sit at a piano and work through each piece methodically – would we expect Booker Prize submissions to be assessed on the basis of the book’s cover and a rough synopsis of the plot?

 nickscott commenting on Competitions:
20 March 2010 at 00:11

Though I do agree with your suggestion, there are courses similar to the format you've suggested, though these too have a similar degree of selection involved, especially the orchestral ones.

I also often worry about competitions being based on the look of the score. Especially since my scores look so simple!

Why is it, then, that conservatoires who do not need to pay their musicians, do not run a similarly themed day, running through final year/postgraduate student works? As far as I'm aware, most conservatoires have a poor record of performing student orchestral works, and none (I believe) have a read-through day the likes of which you suggest.

I think with most orchestras it comes down to money, resources and lack of interest. Amateur orchestras, however, have a much smaller overhead, and though their players are less technically gifted and less experienced with contemporary techniques than the pros, I've found amateur players to be far more open-minded to new music, having less preconceptions.

 Graham Lynch commenting on Competitions:
21 March 2010 at 00:00

It's a neat idea Nick, conservatoire orchestras playing through pieces. It seems a shame that these institutions can't link up their conductors, composers, and performers, for the benefit of all.

And yes...I reckon that simple looking scores are more likely to miss the prizes in compositions, sadly.

 scott_good commenting on Competitions:
25 March 2010 at 17:21

I've had a wide variety of experiences with orchestras reading works.

Best was at Eastman. There, an entire week was devoted to the exercise - 2 rehearsals and a mini concert. All recorded.

At U of Toronto, we had one session per year of readings. It was a meat grinder, but at least something.

I also had a couple of pieces read by the Toronto Symphony. That was a great experience. They were very competitive, so, only about 4 composers would be accepted. But the good aspect of this is they could spend some time rehearsing the music.

Here in Vancouver, we just had a reading session with 7 composers over 3 hours. We also included a 2 hour seminar with the librarian on part preparation, I offered private lessons ahead as a composer, and after, we gathered as a group and had a 3 hour seminar on the experience. It was fantastic.

Most orchestras around here do readings. From what I am gathering, this is not the case on the other side of the pond...this is absurd. How in the world is a composer supposed to learn and become better if they don't have these kinds of opportunities. Also, in the situation of the school, there is great benefit for the performers, both in terms of technical demands, and developing a wider sense of what modern music is. Not to mention helping grow stronger bonds between composers and performers.

Also, for a professional orchestra, it can be research into future composers to work with.

All senior composers should take this problem on. Just go right to the orchestra and discuss this issue. It is not that hard for an orchestra to find one service devoted to nurturing creativity in orchestral composition - especially if they receive public funding!

 Graham Lynch commenting on Competitions:
25 March 2010 at 18:08

Hi Scott - that's really fascinating, and sounds wonderful!! You're quite right - the sort of thing you're describing doesn't normally go on over this side of the pond. The seminar on part preparation is also a great idea.

Most composers receive their training through universities, and these are more concerned with the academic side of the creative process; the conceptual and analytic. What young composers hardly ever get is practical advice! How to prepare parts that are sympathetic to the needs of a player/what you need to do to join your country's collection society/how to go about finding funding and commissions. Even things like 'composer etiquette' in rehearsals (...knowing when NOT to intervene) can be useful. Somehow we all find out along the way, but I certainly wish I'd had more advice on some of these matters.

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