One of our most spiritedly discussed posts in recent memory raised the issues of composition competitions and application fees.

While a wide range of opinions were expressed, one consistent issue raised was the necessity for composers to invest their resources wisely in profile-building activities. Here in the forum, let’s talk shop about this. Which activities are most important for composers to pursue: competitions, festivals, recordings, publications, etc.?

10 Responses to “Profile-building: Competitions, festivals, recordings, publications”
  1. I’m afraid the answer is all of them, with the possible exception of “publications” (if by that commercially available scores is what you mean). Though I can think of a lot of great composers who never won a single competition, they are nevertheless a necessary evil in our world. One omission: a composer ought always to be pursuing performances of their work, regardless of the profile. At least that’s how I see it.

  2. Agreed on “all.” When trying to get your name out, there should be few limits. I generally don’t send in to anything with an application fee unless I feel very strongly about my materials and level of the competition (no Grawemeyer or Pulitzer apps for me).

    I also look for things that carry a sense of community. Many conferences/festivals are just about the performances. Workshops or things that let you meet other people with differing points of view are critically important. You make a network of people sympathetic to the cause and working with that network can help get everyone’s stuff out there.

    So, if you can swing the time and expense, do a summer workshop or residency every so often. You’ll meet composers and performers and build a community.

  3. Christian says:

    Yes, I left out performances because I always think of them as the goal of any profile-building. :)

  4. Not all of them for me.

    First, about performance. Since I also work in electroacoustics, many of my pieces are for recording only. So performance is not always the goal, especially as most of my electroacoustic stuff is free for download.

    My pursuit has always been via collective visibility — actually making festivals and concerts and radio and on-line programs, writing to people, proselytizing, and trying always to keep new nonpop out of the avoidance niche (or ghetto). This has abeen a general approach, not personal “profile-building”, as Christian calls it.

    Apparently an academic network matters. I’m not part of any academic network, having run screaming from academia in 1970. Only later in life have I learned that, though distasteful to me, academic networking is a big part of how people get performances. Frankly, a lot of really weak music gets performances because of this student-student or student-teacher relationship. It can be dreadful stuff, and I think Steve Reich has a point that one can concentrate on composing well or teaching well, but rarely both. (I’m teaching for the first time this semester, and realize how right he is.)

    Competitions and grants are almost meaningless to me. I do send material to calls for scores or workshops and have been selected now and again, but in total have received one residency and three grants and no prizes in 46 years of composing. My projects tend to be off-center and not viewed favorably by largely conservative prize-making juries, and the younger organizations have no interest in an older composer.

    Now it is true that I’m both a bad marketer and a child of a time when cooperation rather than competition was stronger. From that came my desire to create festivals — Delaware Valley Avant-Garde Festivals in the 1970s (, the Ought-One Festival in 2001 (, Vermont Composers Festivals since 1988 (, and audacious projects like “We Are All Mozart” ( Composers and performers were introduced to each other and to many different kinds of music and performance.

    Publication is a different matter. I began my publication company Westleaf Edition ( in 1969, and have published all my own work under that name, along with the work of David Gunn, Lydia Busler-Blais and the late Gilles Yves Bonneau. It’s a lot of work, but it’s forced me to create legible scores and parts, and provided an opportunity to transfer it all on-line beginning in 1995. My on-line publication presence has become the heart of my ‘career’, such as it is.

    Finally, there’s the importance of being in touch with and working with performers. From 1965 to 1985, the only people who performed my music were those in my own ensemble. It gave me a good sense of how to work in performance situations, and also a great sense of audience. Now matter how challenging my work is (or isn’t, depending on context), I’ve never had a dissatisfied audience. When others started performing my work in 1985, that experience carried over. I stopped performing my own work by the early 1990s, and today work only on commission.

    It’s not easy, and as a economic career, mine has been marginal. As art, though, it’s been rich and varied and often satisfying.


  5. Two URLs that didn’t come out right above:
    We Are All Mozart

  6. Christian says:

    Dennis and group,

    When you mention working only on commission, I’m curious as to whether you would be willing enlighten young composers a bit about the process of securing commissions.

    This is the #1 question I’m asked by emerging composers. I think they’re nervous about charging money for their work. In my case, I’ve often erred on the side of securing performances instead of funded commissions.

    I know it’s certainly a sliding scale and by no means am I prying into numbers. I’m more wondering how you get the conversation started and fund-seeking process going.

  7. Commissions. I still use the word even though I really think of it as offering a contracted service. Plus my situation is probably a little unusual because I don’t look for capital-c commissions exclamation-point.

    My work is good — skilled, challenging, inventive and coherent. I worked on it for all those 20 years in which no one actually played my music except my own ensembles. I worked on it while driving a truck, raking stones out of soil for a landscaper, sorting dusty government documents, and running a printing press.

    That’s a lot of practice.

    My first commission was a last-minute set of pieces for a theater production. The money was enough to pay the players in my group. My third was a learning experience: I accepted the commission from a local group without getting any assurance of pay or play. They didn’t do either.

    Our little ensemble played everything. Gradually I built up a personal library of scores and recordings. I met people and played my stuff for them, offered to write pieces or accompany poets on a performing synthesizer (in the early 1970s, a novelty). I also organized concerts and festivals so artists of all new genres could be seen & heard.

    Until a few weeks ago, I never held any academic job, never had an academic network, and never had the idea that I even deserved such a thing as a commission, enjoying no sense of entitlement whatsoever. At the State Museum in New Jersey, I worked as a graphics artist for a while — and wrote a performance piece for their Dada show, and a chamber opera for their new performance series. Both were paid for — commissions once again enough to pay the performers and for materials. Likewise, I performed at the annual Avant-Garde Festivals in New York, helping Charlotte Moorman fold posters and mail fliers.

    And then I moved to Vermont. It was seven years before I was asked to write anything at all — and it was a piece broadcast on Vermont Public Radio on a little-listened-to program where the host helped sponsor the expenses for a new piece. The option to write another little theatrical score came along, and then a small chamber piece. I organized more concerts, met more musicians, and eventually did (with my longtime colleague David Gunn) many unusual concert events including one that premiered a piece for small orchestra, six percussionists, two pianos, chorus and descant soprano. People heard that, and a few commissions (small money, large pieces) came from it. Then some anniversary music, some cable tv music, and even a commission from a rather famous violinist who lived in town (no, he never played it — he threw off that part of his drug-ridden life). Then chamber and a few orchestral pieces.

    And overnight — 25 years overnight — I was writing when people asked me, and paid for it. I was never involved in what you called “the fund-seeking process” … if they wanted me to compose, that was their job.

    Thoughout I continued to do other work — repairman, secretary, founder of a computer company (it went bankrupt), author.

    Then came “We Are All Mozart” in 2007 (mentioned above) and that’s where I am today. I still write (words, that is) and do very lovely score notation for a small roster of clients, have a one-semester teaching job, and compose when I’m asked. My fees have gone up and I enjoy the occasional royalty check as well.

    So in too many words I’ve explained that I really can’t enlighten young composers about securing commissions. I didn’t get them. Rather, I found opportunities and fit my work into ‘mental’ places where people hadn’t ever thought of using new music — like a salesperson giving a deal on the first bread display. Now, 992 compositions, 182 commissions, and 280 North American, European, Australian and Asian premieres and installations later, I’ve still not accomplished half of what I’d set out to do when I was 20.


  8. mclaren says:

    Questions like this point out how clearly and how weirdly the serious contemporary music has disconnected itself from observed reality.

    Out here in the real world, the internet offers by far the single most important means of building a profile. Out here in the real world, essentially the entire population of America has zero chance to attend any concert of new music in New York. Out here in the real world, essentially all the new music that gets heard comes in the form of either CDs or downloadable files of some kind (FLAC, mp3).

    Competitions prove meaningless. All the best contemporary composers have been systematically ignored by every major new music competition in America. William Schottstaedt surely qualifies as America’s greatest living composer. He remains completely invisible to any and all competitions, in part because he produces computer music, and in part because he composes music far outside the conventional Western musical tuning. How many competitions has Ben Johnston won? He’s a non-person, erased from public consciousness. Where are the shelves of awards Tom Johnson has racked up? Every time I run down the list of all the best contemporary American composers, none of ‘em has won any kind of significant award.

    Indeed, winning a new music competition today offers an excellent indication that the composer in question has no musical talent.

    So much for concerts and competitions. Kyle Gann has recently discussed the bizarre way in which music publishers strive to make scores as inaccessible as possible. Getting a score published means automatically making it unavailable, so having a score published effectively walls that score off from anyone and everyone who would want to study it. Students, casual lovers of new music, other composers…you name it: publishing a score today is equivalent to dousing it kersone and setting it on fire. Poof! It’s gone. No one can ever see it.

    As for print publications, surely you jest. Magazines are dying, along with newspapers and all the other print media. Newspaper advertising plummeted 11% just in the last quarter alone. The very idea of getting a feature on your music published in a print magazine is so hilarious and so wildly outdated it’s right up there with the notion that you can publicize yourself as a composer by offering free buggy whips with your music. Why not offer to re-shoe the audience’s horses? Maybe that would help publicize new music. Or possibly you could offer to re-band their tophats…

    Seriously. What time machine have you people emerged from?

  9. Terence O'Grady says:

    mclaren makes a number of points that are hard to argue with, e.g., the value of the internet in building a profile, but I have a little difficulty accepting the proposition that “winning a new music competition today offers an excellent indication that the composer in question has no musical talent.” I’ve never won a real “new music competition” and don’t expect that I ever would for a number of reasons (and I never enter competitions that require an entrance fee) but I’ve no reason to think that the composers who do win are devoid of talent. It’s probably true that when decisions are made by committees, composers who are thought of as “extreme” in one way or another may be sifted out through the sort of compromises that often characterize committee dynamics. But even if some such dynamic is in play, I don’t see how one can conclude that the winners of competitions have “no musical talent.”