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10 Jun  


Patrick Gazard has got in touch with us about an article he is writing for UK-based Classical Music magazine with regard to age limits on composition competitions and would love to hear people's thoughts about this topic, both composers and organisations who run competitions. Many competitions have an age-limit of 35 or 40. With composers like Elliot Carter still writing for 60+ years beyond that, is it really fair to limit competitions in this way?

Are you an organisation that runs a competition like this - if so what is the logic behind limiting the entries to a particular age? Are you a composer with experiences to tell, please give us your views. Please only post if you are happy for Patrick to quote you in the article. I will kick off with my own experiences in the comments section.

(comments for possible inclusion in Patrick's article need to be in by 21st June)

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 David Bruce commenting on Composition Competitions - last bastion of ageism?:
10 June 2010 at 09:46

I was rather lucky to have squeezed through the system in a way, because I qualified for a competition - which literally changed my career and led to many of the commissions I have today - with just 2 weeks to spare. Things would have been a lot different for me now if I was born 2 weeks earlier.

Personally, I understand the logic of, say, an under 18s competition, or possibly even a 'still in studies' related competition but I do feel that much of the age limit system in composition competitions seems arbitrary, bordering on discriminatory. There is the sense that it is a default setting rather than something the organisers have actually thought about - in most cases, especially those run by performing musicians, it's an interesting new piece that they really want, so why limit the age-range to the category you could argue is least likely to produce one? Is it time for someone to launch a competition where you can only enter if you are over 40?!

My favourite story about this is the reason Ligeti was alledged to have given behind his not awarding a prize in the 1998 Takemitsu Competition for orchestral music - that the entries for the award had confirmed what he had always believed, that it was impossible to write a good orchestral piece before the age of 35! I think he made a lot of older composers very happy with that statement.

 Andrew Cusworth commenting on Composition Competitions - last bastion of ageism?:
10 June 2010 at 12:48

This is a tricky question! At 26 I still feel "young" for a composer, I am still trying to settle my "voice", I entered a competition for the first time only a few weeks ago, and am at the very beginning of my career - in reality, it has not yet begun...

Perhaps I am prejudiced in saying that I can see the point of competitions that draw a line at 30-35. At this age I feel that there is still a good chance of discovering someone absolutely new, unheard of previously - someone entering a competition for the first time, for example, having spent several years working to reach that level.

However, I also feel there should be fewer age restrictions in general. I am painfully aware that if I don't manage to get past certain markers over the next two to three years, my life as a musician will become even more difficult - there will be very few structures left to support me in furthering my career. That is a worrying thought to say the least!

Beyond that, people rarely write their best music when they are young, and it seems terrible not to have awards for great music simply because the composer is older... By all means encourage younger composers to develop their writing with competitions, but also reward those who have finely polished skills yet who may not yet have achieved recognition.

So yes, have some competitions looking for new voices, up to 30/35. For the rest, let people enter whatever their age!

 jwildridge commenting on Composition Competitions - last bastion of ageism?:
10 June 2010 at 16:03

It will be interesting if this thread receives any comment from those organisers of competitions who choose to set age limits. Like David, I can see the reasoning for even an under 25 competition, but the cap at 40 does seem totally arbitrary. Many composers like Gorecki weren't 'discovered' until way past their 40th and I'm sure Michael Tippett also wasn't fully 'recognised' until post 40.
Perhaps, there's a feeling that if you've not 'made it' by 40 then you're unlikely to have anything exciting to offer or maybe you're simply too old to market easily? I certainly don't subscribe the the premise that past 40 a composer can't be a new voice, and certainly the music I write now is secure, confident and able to excite! It may not have been the case when I was 20, but perhaps people are more 'forgiving' when one is at that stage of a career.
Maybe we should initiate a competition for the post 40's, as after all if you can't beat them.....

 Elena Langer commenting on Composition Competitions - last bastion of ageism?:
10 June 2010 at 19:19

OK – competitions have age limits, but isn’t that logical? Usually, they ask you to submit a piece ‘previously unpublished and unperformed’. That means you have to write something especially for that particular competition. The requirements are very specific. They suggest parameters like duration, orchestration, theme, sometimes even text. Writing a new work might take a month or two. At the age of 35 or 40 most people have families, children and other duties. I don’t believe there are that many professional composers over 35 willing to spend all that time and effort on a piece without any guarantee of a performance. It is a completely different story when you are younger – it is good for you to write many pieces and it is good for you to take risks. And, by the way, there are some competitions which are only open to Irish composers, Iceland residents, US students and so on – should they be also considered discriminative?

On the other hand, suppose Ligeti was right and you can’t possible come up with anything intelligent for a symphony orchestra before the age of 35… (but what about Schubert?!). Then, perhaps there should be more orchestral competitions for older composers? Let me know about them - I am all ripened and ready!

 Elizabeth Winters commenting on Composition Competitions - last bastion of ageism?:
10 June 2010 at 20:32

I’m so glad that someone is writing an article about this! As a composer who didn’t even begin writing until I was 25 (I was a viola player before that) I am constantly finding competitions which I am now too old to enter at the grand old age of 31! Many UK based competitions have age limits of 30 or even younger – for example the prestigious Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize (composers must be under 29 to enter). I do get the feeling that, here in the UK, there is a slight bias towards ‘doing everything before you are 30’, which isn’t the case abroad. I can definitely see the point of competitions exclusively for very young composers, but why have age limits at all for the others? If the organisers wanted to discourage more established composers from entering then why not specify that the composer should not have received a professional commission for the genre in question, for example in an orchestral competition. Alternatively, competitions specifically aimed at newly emerging composers could simply be worded ‘for composers in the first 10-15 years of their career’ - although this would naturally be hard to quantify.

Having said all that, I have entered (and been successful in) several competitions which have helped my career enormously – but, like most emerging composers, I still need all the opportunities I can get! I must just mention that there are some UK organisations which run opportunities/competitions for composers which don’t have age limits at all, for example the Sound and Music shortlist and the John Armitage Memorial. When I was on the shortlist, the age range of the composers ranged from 20-60! And interestingly, the LSO Discovery Panufnik Young Composers Scheme, which I am currently participating in, had a foot note to say that composers should not normally be over the age of 45 as it formed part of the LSO’s Young Talent programme. This suggests that they have a more flexible and open approach, which is great. So, maybe it’s just a case of rough guidelines instead of rigid age limits?

 scott_good commenting on Composition Competitions - last bastion of ageism?:
10 June 2010 at 23:35

At my orchestra, we just finished a 5 year long competition that was open to "emerging composer's", but, had no age restrictions.

In general, this meant no professional orchestral commissions to date (readings ok), but they could have had other commissions for smaller groups. It was very successful, and resulted in 25 short commissions (5 per year) - ages from 20-50.

I detest the competitions that require un-performed music! This is a guarantee to bring down the standards. I have yet to understand this requirement.

 Graham Lynch commenting on Composition Competitions - last bastion of ageism?:
11 June 2010 at 17:29

Although it was common in the more distant past for composers to write mature works quite early, the fragmentation of the collective musical language in the 20th century meant that many composers only found their own voice in their 30s/40s, or even beyond. Lutoslawski, Ligeti, and Carter are some examples (and closer to home; Delius, Tippett, Elgar, Vaughan Williams). For any composer who takes time to reach a more personal idiom or style the constant age cap on composition competitions is a frustration, especially in relation to orchestral opportunities. There are many literary competitions, and these seem to mostly be open to any age. If one can start to write good poetry at the age of 60 why not good music? From my personal experience my breakthrough orchestral work, which resulted in many commissions and changed my composing life, was written post the age of 35, and first performed and recorded in a competition that was open all ages. Without that opportunity things may have been very different for me.

 christopheradler commenting on Composition Competitions - last bastion of ageism?:
12 June 2010 at 04:20

As a composer, I've felt the frustration of the various restrictions in competitions and calls for scores. So when my chamber group decided to open an annual call for scores for our soundON Festival of Modern Music, we decided to do it the way we felt it should be done: we accept anything and there is no fee. The bottom line is that we program compositions, not composers, so it doesn't matter how old they are. We want music which is new and exciting and that has proven to come from composers young and old. We prefer that people will check out our repertoire on our website and exercise some discretion as to what to submit, or whether to submit, but in the end we review everything that we receive; even if the instrumentation doesn't conform to our call.

 carlswanholm commenting on Composition Competitions - last bastion of ageism?:
12 June 2010 at 20:55

101 goin' on 102!! [XUnusual as a Creative]

 carlswanholm commenting on Composition Competitions - last bastion of ageism?:
12 June 2010 at 21:00

..although Composers most often get better..

 iassersohn commenting on Composition Competitions - last bastion of ageism?:
13 June 2010 at 21:36

Thanks for raising the topic. When I was in my early 20s I began to earn money as a composer but it was never enough to support my young family so, for purely financial reasons, I switched to IT . Now, 25 years later, my family are growing up or grown, and for the first time in my life I have the time to write, and the maturity and experience to know what I want to write and how to do it. But almost no competitions will accept an entry from me. I'll get there somehow but it's made much harder for me by these arbitrary and unfair age limits.

 Misuc commenting on Composition Competitions - last bastion of ageism?:
27 June 2010 at 14:50

I am ancient. Well past qualifying for any age-limited competitions.I have raised this as an issue before.

I get ideas very quickly but I am not at all good at finishing things.

What bothers me most about the competitions announced on his website, are the absurd deadlines:

Today is Sunday; New competitions have been announced today (though yesterday's date is given):

1] a piece for solo alto saxophone by next Wednesday? That would be soon enough for me to sketch something out and send it off necxt post. [Any longer and it would never get done]

2] a work for 20-30-piece concert band also by next Wednesday? Not even Bach could enter that competition, I don't think.

3 ]a piece for chamber ensemble on a folk theme by Monday week?

4]a piano trio by Friday?

Not much time for precomposition here is there, Scott?

 Misuc commenting on Composition Competitions - last bastion of ageism?:
05 July 2010 at 19:01

PS And this is not helped by the spate of new competition announcements coming along today but back-dated a week! Is it not possible to get more timely notice from the competion-givers?

 J Saragoza commenting on Composition Competitions - last bastion of ageism?:
17 August 2011 at 04:03

I feel I need to chime here on this topic. I think it may be the case that organizers may be under the misconception that past a certain age, a composer has had enough time to become established or just bail out of writing. I can't believe it's a quality issue. A bit about myself. I used to enter competitions quite a bit when I was younger, and this shouldn't be taken as complaining, but I never did win a competition. I've had the time to "establish" myself since I'm 58 now, but I never quite merged into the network properly, and for 40 years performances by others have been few and far between. I have continued to write and decided to enter a few competitions just to see what the arena is like these days, and maybe get some needed cash having been in garbage jobs since I can remember to support music. I was disappointed to find that anyone 58 is left out of the running by 28 years (30 seems to be the magic nmber here). Sometimes the limit is 60.

It's understandable that there should be a will to support younger composer trying to get their footing in this business (yes it's a business), but all these composers must grow old also.

So, if there are an abundance of composers constantly being trained, constantly writing, year after year, then many will never win or establish themselves. So in the final analysis, the future is one of more older composers not getting played and much like poor old Bach, their music being used to graft trees in some orchard.

Not speaking of myself on this next statement but that's a pretty pitiful way to treat some old unknown musical genius out there. Such is modern life.

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