Ensemble Talk: Calling for Scores (and Dealing With It)

In the interim between the end of Phantom’s fall call for scores and the beginning of our winter round, I’ve received a few questions about running a call for scores as an ensemble, what exactly it entails, and how we did it. As I’ve been taking point in our hunt for new, fresh-off-the-press-if-we-can-get-it music, I decided to compile a few of the most important parts of the call for scores process into the following post to serve as a preliminary guide for anyone else with a new group who wants some new material.

  • Know what you’re asking for. Before you start writing or posting anything, talk to your group. Do you want music written before (or after) the year 2000? Are composers welcome to submit pieces for subsets of your instrumentation? Is anyone willing to double? How much music are you looking for? Will it all be programmed on the same concert, or are you looking for pieces that can also mesh well with your existing repertoire? Answering these questions will make writing your call for scores exponentially easier.
  • Take stock of what you have to give. If you’re going to issue a call, ideally you’ll have something to give your winning composers in return. It doesn’t have to be money—plenty of composers are more than happy to get a good recording of their piece, particularly those who aren’t currently attached to an academic institution or whose schools don’t have players who excel at your instruments. For Phantom’s call, we promised one performance and a recording of said performance, and that was good enough to get us eighty submissions this past fall. Additionally, if you’re going to charge a submission fee, cool, but consider giving some of it back to your winning composer(s).
  • Craft your call. If you haven’t done the above, this can be almost impossible, but if you’ve talked to your group and you know what you’re going for, it practically writes itself. There are a few things you have to include—eligibility, instrumentation, suggested or required duration (for Phantom, that meant nothing over ten minutes), the format you’d like to receive (are you okay with MIDI mock-ups?), a contact email (or address/PO box, if that’s your thing) for composers to submit their work to, the prize (money, recording, whatever), a clear deadline (if you include the time, even better—for example, ours said 11:59PM Pacific Standard Time on November 15, 2017), and, if you can, some idea of when they’ll hear back from you. Our first time around, we gave ourselves a month and a half (a January 1 notify date), and we needed all that time despite starting to look at scores before the call closed. Err on the side of caution and give yourself a little more time than you think you need.
  • Have someone proofread. Preferably, someone outside your ensemble. For Phantom’s call, I turned to Cameron Robello, a good friend and fellow ASU composition alum with whom I’ve crafted calls before. A fresh set of eyes can help you make the call look professional and efficient before you post it.
  • Make it public. Don’t just share it on your Facebook or personal website. Hit up your peers, schools, forums, and just about anyone else who might want to spread the word or submit work. We found our composers through my website, Facebook and Twitter (tweet the bot @callforscores and you’ll get a retweet in minutes), listservs at ASU and CalArts (many thanks to Roxane in the music office for helping us out), and a couple composer forums online. Next time, we’ll be expanding to the SCI forums as well.
  • Organize, organize, organize. Some days you’ll get one email. Some days you’ll get ten. If you can, use an email address that is not your own (after the sheer volume of correspondence this fall, I created an email address for Phantom so I could sort our emails without flooding my school inbox). Regardless of how you’re getting scores, make sure you stay current on sorting them. Separate them from the emails and get them into labeled folders either on your machine or in the cloud (this second option is ideal if you want your fellow performers to participate in adjudication). The last thing you want to do is lose someone’s submission.
  • Send emails. When people send you things, be cool and send them your version of the “we got it, we’ll let you know, thanks for considering us” email. A lot of composers will appreciate it, and you’ll seem more like people and less like some entity they’re blindly submitting to.
  • Divide up your entries. As we started going through scores, we realized our individual preferences would lead us astray if we let them—one of us liked old forms, one of us liked programmatic music, and if we weren’t careful we’d end up with an entire concert of neo-Baroque pieces when in reality we wanted a much more diverse program. To solve this issue, I grouped similar pieces into folders—fast music, ballads, multi-movement works, and text and graphic scores were just a few of our categories. As we began comparing in earnest, it was much easier to rank within each category and take one or two per folder to consider for the final selections.
  • Spreadsheets are your friend. I’ve never loved Google Sheets quite so much (and no, this post isn’t sponsored, but if you’re watching, Google, that’d be cool). When you’re ranking pieces, you have to find somewhere to put them, and if you’re okay with your fellow adjudicators seeing everyone else’s scores, just dump them all in a spreadsheet. We ranked pieces numerically, with 1 going to our favorite of a category and the largest number (depending on how many scores were in the folder) being assigned to our least favorite. Once all the scores were in, I had Google compute the averages of each line, and we looked at both the averages and our individual preferences to determine our handful out of each folder. Then, for our final selections, I made a smaller spreadsheet, no longer separating by category (but still labeling where each piece had come from) and asking my peers to rank all of those pieces against each other. Ultimately, we took multiple pieces from some categories and none from others, but that flexibility allowed us to craft a program we enjoyed.
  • Limit yourself. Going in, we were expecting to take four to six pieces; in the end, we took ten, with some of those being slated for other performances. Beyond the concert we’re planning for this spring, some of these pieces will also be featured on my mid-residency recital and a noon concert at CalArts we’re hoping to hijack. Despite our increased take, though, we still didn’t get everything we would’ve liked. There was one score we desperately wanted, but one of our criterion for our final selection was efficiency of rehearsal, and based on where we’re all at as musicians, we weren’t ready to take it on.
  • Consider the diversity of your program. This isn’t something I paid much attention to until we had already chosen our final handful, but once we did, the four of us had a discussion about how we might be able to achieve a fairly diverse program based on the pieces we already liked. In the end, our thirteen contenders included two composers of color, two female composers, one nonbinary composer, one LGBTQ composer, two students (one under the age of eighteen), and one disabled composer. Though the program was ultimately decided without using these qualities as tiebreakers, we’re very excited that most of these individuals were selected. Sure, it’s cool to have a female composers concert or a composers of color concert or things like that, but ultimately we want them all to have space on programs along with straight, white, able-bodied men (who are also represented in our selections, in case you were curious).
  • Afterward, follow up. Send your rejection letters and your acceptance letters, but also commit to working with these composers as you prepare their work. Even if they’re across the country or around the world and won’t ever see you in person, you can send them audio of rehearsals and ask for their feedback. Allowing the creators of this work to be part of your process will make them feel welcome and leave them with positive experiences as a result of working with your group.
  • Critique yourself before you do it again. We’re about to launch our winter call for scores at Phantom, and I’ve got a lengthy Google Doc going about how to better execute the call this time around. We’re reaching out to new people, slightly modifying our selection process, and considering a new category or two for this summer. Ideally, we’ll always be improving our call, because the more quality work we have to perform, the more composers we’ll be able to reach out to.

For now, at least, that’s the list! Any other questions or things you’re itching to know? Leave ’em in the comments below. (And, if you’re compositionally-inclined, watch for our winter call next week!) ♦