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Tuesday, March 01, 2005
Competitive Advantage

Most Composition Competitions are a tool for the promotion of a musical ideology. I don't have a problem with that; in fact I think it's inevitable. Competitions are judged by people, each of whom has a particular taste and ideological alignment, and each of whom was selected as a judge by other people who have a particular taste and ideological alignment. (Bear in mind that "I don't believe in being ideologically driven" is itself an ideology.) These judges pick the pieces that they like and give out awards, and in doing so they reward the composers who adhere to the average preferred ideology of the panel of judges. Again, while these are loaded terms, I don't see anything wrong with the system -- I just wish there were more prizes out to promote my own ideology.

Which leads me to my second point. From the perspective of the savvy composer, competitions are primarily a PR tool. If you can get the endorsement of people with clout and bulk up your resume in the process, you have an edge against the people who have fewer formal endorsements. And it's a competitive marketplace, so go nuts, folks. I would certainly enter more competitions if there were more competitions aligned with my aesthetic; as it is, it's hard to justify the time and money required.

Now the fun part: The very structure of the competitive composition arena is evidence to support my claim that (1) competitions are ideologically driven, and (2) we don't have an objective measure of musical quality, or at least not a precise one. Take football -- everybody pretty much agrees that a reasonable way to determine which team is the best team in a given year is to set up a hierarchical structure where teams have to win a certain number of games to reach the playoffs and then if you win you keep going until there are only two teams left, and then you have a giant playoff game, and the winning team is the best team of the year. I've probably got the details wrong, but you see my point. The criteria for "being a good team" is winning a lot of games, so, ipso facto, the "best" team is the one that can win the most games against the most other teams. If we had an objective criteria for musical greatness, the same piece would win every competition into which it was entered, and the only time a different piece won it would be because the "best" piece wasn't entered. Plus, we'd probably have a tiered structure, and the Pulitzer would be the musical Superbowl. Of course, cheerleaders at new music concerts would be kinda fun. . .


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