Point of ViewThe following is a slightly altered reprint of my column from the Winter '97-98 bulletin of Composer/USA. -- AB
How to Keep Your Compositions Off the Programby Al Benner
Before I begin, I would first like to apologize to any concert organizer for whom I have unknowingly created difficulties when I submitted scores. Having hosted, organized, and presented concerts both in Baton Rouge (Louisiana) and here in Green Bay; and I found that even the best intentions to provide opportunities for composers to be played sometimes go awry. Not infrequently, that's because those who offer works for performance fail to do all they can to make their submissions usable and appropriate.
In my role as a concert organizer, I have had composers accuse me of a variety of misdeeds, from not wanting to play their pieces to being prejudice about their particular style of music. From what I have read in various composers newsletters and journals over the past number of years, I conclude that the latter is the typical excuse of composers whose pieces were not picked for performance. While it is certain that there have been instances in which such excuses have had validity, my own experience tells me that such instances in no way account for the majority of program rejections.
A lot goes into planning a successful concert--from the initial call for scores, to finding a location, committing a date, getting performers, providing public relations, making programs, scheduling time for rehearsals, and juggling this with all of one's everyday activities. Then, after all the careful planning, there is the need for flexibility. There are always outside distractions, performers who back out, last minute changes, and other considerations that somehow appear.
The first reason that a work is not chosen is that the composer does not abide by the guidelines in the call for scores. I realize sometimes these guidelines are vague, but for the most part, an organizer tries to plan for the instrumentation and performing groups he or she will have available. Although it seems obvious, if a call for score says there will be only woodwinds and you submit a piece for strings, it will not be picked. That is an extreme example, but in a recent concert the call said it would be an amateur choral group with very little time for rehearsals. The request was for music that was basically homophonic and could be easily rehearsed. Many scores appeared that would give the Dale Warland Singers difficulty with multiple contrapuntal lines and rapidly changing meters. Now those submitted were probably all good pieces, but they could not be prepared or easily performed by the group I had. Consequently they were dismissed. Other mistakes are not abiding by the time limits as given. Again on a recent concert I wanted to program as many composers as possible (ultimately there were 14 composers on the concert). The time limit was five minutes or less. I received scores that were nine minutes, fifteen minutes, etc. In this case, one 15 minute piece meant that I would have to eliminate two other composers. This is the reason those pieces were not chosen.
The second common reason for a composition's rejection is one that until recently was not a consideration. In the past, almost every score was hand-written and performers had some experience reading such scores. Now with the computer and engraving programs, it is a disadvantage to submit a hand-written score. I realize that some hand-written scores are clearer and more easily read than some computerized scores, but this is becoming a rarer and rarer exception. Of course, the cleaner, clearer, and more mistake free your score is, the better chance it will be chosen. Especially with volunteer performers, it is extremely difficult now-a-days to get them to play anything but an engraved score. But whether it is engraved or hand-written, if it is difficult to read, then for the most part it is hard for a host to get a performer who is willing to take the time to try to figure out your manuscript. I have learned over the years for the most part not even to ask a performer because 99 per cent of the time the answer is no. It seems like a simple statement, but the more "professional" you can get your score to appear, the better chances you have for a performance.
The composer is in control of making sure his or her composition is responsive to the needs of the program and that the submitted manuscript is in good physical form. There is, though, a third hurdle to overcome that is often beyond the composer's ability to influence. In my concert experiences, this has been the biggest factor in the non-playing of certain pieces. Since performers are generally non-paid, a concert depends on the good will of such performers. It is a delicate balance as to what can be "demanded" from a performer. One is always at the mercy of such performers and many times what was initially promised the host, who in turn projects that promise in the call for scores, is sometimes broken when the time comes. Then the host has to scramble to find other performers--many times at the last minute. A lot of times no other performers can be found. Thus what was first intended to be played, now has to be eliminated. And the composer in turn, not knowing the events, assumes it is because of prejudice or stylistic bias. In my cases, I try to notify the composer and see if he or she have an alternative. This is why composers who can provide their own performers are a concert organizer's best friend--and probably get more performances in the long run.
There are many other factors that go into choosing works for a concert, some legitimate, some not. You can't control the politics or name recognition that are factors in certain concerts; nor can you control the sheer volume of scores certain concerts receive (making your piece just one of a multitude); nor can you control those concerts where musical style or prejudice play a part. However, if you can make sure your work meets the program's needs and that your manuscript is of a good physical quality, your odds of being chosen for a performance will greatly increase. Unfortunately you usually cannot control the complexities introduced by the availability and wishes of performers. If, however, you are in a position to provide them, your composition's odds for performance get very good indeed.
WAC Newsletter, February 1998
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