Performance Restrictions, Ethics, and Calls for Scores

It’s been a busy semester of teaching and grading, rehearsals and more grading, and I’ve found myself composing a little less. This isn’t entirely a surprise—it’s my first full year out of grad school, and I’m trying to commit to not writing on absurd deadlines anymore—but it’s been an interesting change of pace. While I’ve enjoyed having the opportunity to sit back and really think about what I’m putting on the page, I’ve also learned a lot from watching competitions and calls for scores go by.

The side of me that cares very much about ethics isn’t super impressed with those right now.

Before we get too far into it, I’ll freely admit this is colored by my preexisting dislike for most competitions. Some are fine, but anything that costs money to submit to and doesn’t provide transparency about what that money is used for grinds my gears. (My rule of thumb: for existing ensembles, if there isn’t a cash prize involved, regardless of performance opportunities, competitions and calls for scores should be free to submit to.) Further, the motivation behind competitions specifically has always been a little odd to me. How are any of us realistically going to identify the best composer?

Okay. Time to get back on topic. Otherwise, this is going to get unfocused fast. I’m not the biggest fan of competitions, but I’ve run my share of calls for scores, and for the most part, I don’t mind them. They’re a great opportunity for composers and performers to swap scores for recordings (and performances!) without either party losing a lot of money. They’re especially awesome for composers who have scores sitting around and ensembles who wouldn’t have a lot of access to new music otherwise.

That said, I tend to shy away from calls for scores that are billed as “new works” recitals, and tonight, I want to talk about why.

To put it bluntly, calls for scores following this model are essentially asking for commissions without wanting to pay for them. More than that, though, they’re asking for so many commissions that they get to pick and choose which ones they play. This might seem a little extreme, but it’s important to look closely at the wording of these calls for scores. Frequently—in fact, in almost every one of these I’ve seen—pieces must be unpremiered or have only received very limited exposure. That limited exposure bit is ambiguous at best, since most calls don’t specify what that actually means. Does a student recital that was live streamed count? What about a couple performances within a single metro area? What about if it’s going in someone’s thesis/dissertation/other major accomplishment but likely won’t be played outside of that single event?

But even if we’re assuming we have some free rein with the limited exposure category, calls for scores who expect (or strongly encourage) unpremiered works quickly lose my patience. My frustration with this stipulation lies, largely, with timing. Calls and competitions issue deadlines for scores (and recordings, which is another head-scratcher when unpremiered) months in advance of the concert; for major organizations like the International Trumpet Guild, these pieces are expected to sit around collecting dust and remaining unpremiered-or-limited for nearly a year. That’s a long time, especially for composers (like me!) who get in a rhythm of putting a piece out and having its premiere within six months or a year. If a work gets selected, we have to keep it separate from the rest of our output for months. We risk losing out on royalties from other performances, even if they’re just stray lecture recitals scattered across the country. In the end, if we’re going to submit anything for a call like ITG’s, chances are we’re going to have to write it specifically for that call.

That kind of specialized, tailored-to-an-event work is usually called a commission, and it usually costs money.

Calls and competitions that manage this better, in my opinion, are those that ask for proposals rather than already-completed pieces. When you start from a proposal, you know what the composer’s plotting, you can still request work samples so you understand their style and sound, and you retain freedom of choice in both subject matter and piece length/instrumentation. You can ensure all parameters are met, and composers submitting to you aren’t out months of work plus months of sitting on an already-finished piece. Hell, you could even ask for sketches or a brief excerpt of what folks are proposing. That’s fair game. But you’re not asking folks to write you a piece, with no guarantee anything will happen with it, and then sit on it for months on end.

That year-ish of near-exclusivity, by the way, is what happens if you win. If you lose, congratulations! You’ve just spent months of your life on a piece you might not have even lined up a premiere date for. For some composers, especially those with reliable alternate sources of income, that might not be a huge deal, but for folks working almost exclusively on commission (like me! but it’s not a ton of income because of how infrequent second performances are!), it’s a big sacrifice. It’s both the hours of composing (and months of thinking) and the following months—or years—of trying to figure out where and when the hell this piece is going to get its actual premiere.

And institutions and ensembles and folks springing “new works” recitals into existence gobble these scores up, pick a small handful, and put them on—if, of course, the composer is in attendance and has paid for their own travel, flight, and conference registration/show tickets/price of entry. They don’t come with honorariums; they usually cost us money in the long run. And while exposure is maybe still somewhat cool, I (and most composers) can tell you firsthand that exposure doesn’t sell scores. It certainly doesn’t sell enough to cover $400 in plane tickets, $200+ in conference registrations, and $150+ in hotel stays.

In the end, most competitions and calls don’t make sense for me to apply to. They might in a couple years, when John I have cash that can pay for flight/registration/hotel if something does come up, but even if the finances pan out in the not-too-distant future, I’m not sure it’ll ever make sense for me to write something specifically for a conference that hasn’t invited and/or paid me to have that work. I’m lucky that I have ways around that, especially with ITG; as a composer-performer, I can walk in both worlds and focus on building meaningful relationships with performers who matter to me. (Those have a tendency to turn into collaborations and commissions, and they’re really fun!) But not everyone has that privilege or that access, so this is me saying that “unpremiered or limited exposure” is at best poorly-defined and at worst highly manipulative. If you or your organization wants to program exciting new works by living composers, do the leg work. Find us. Pay us. Acknowledge the value of our labor.

And if you can’t, please consider—and really sit with—the amount of work and time you are asking for before you request that we do this for free.

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