Point of View
Anonymous versus Named Submissionsby Al Benner
This is a slightly altered reprint of my column from the Summer 1998 bulletin of Composer/USA.
A recent controversial topic appearing on several composers' discussion groups on the web has been that of anonymous submissions--specifically, anonymous submission of works to be considered for inclusion on concert programs. For competitions, such as the ASCAP Nissan Award, having cash prizes, anonymous submission is typical, the perception being that it creates a level playing field where the lesser known composer has an equal chance with one who is better known. Generally, anonymous submission probably does work well for the "unknown" composer in these situations.
This, however, does not seem to be the type situation under consideration by the discussion groups. Rather, there has been a call for anonymous submission to be extended to works seeking selection for concert programs. In my judgment, anonymous submission in this type of circumstance is a misguided proposal. True, it might reduce, maybe even eliminate, one source of bias affecting the selection of works for a concert. But in my experience, that kind of bias is rarely of much significance. On the other hand, anonymous submission would create new problems while leaving entirely unaddressed the real difficulties associated with selecting works for a concert.
Earlier columns have spoken about correct submission procedures and other factors that really do influence the final selection of works for a program--the general condition and readability of the manuscript, adherence to the guidelines set forth in the request for submission, the "playability" of the work and the performers available, the work's length, the need for diversification in the program, etc., etc. The list could be extended, but the point is that these criteria have nothing to do with whether the composer is or is not identified at the time the work is being considered.
For most organizations that sponsor concerts and events for which compositions are invited, it is a major task to persuade someone to undertake the responsibility of being host. The reason for that is obvious--hosting is a big, time consuming job that entails logistical coordination and finding and selecting musicians as well as assembling, organizing and evaluating manuscripts. To add to these functions one of devising and operating a system for first keeping a composer's identity hidden, then repairing it with his or her submission, would bring more complexity to an already difficult assignment. Of course it could be done, but one likes to feel there is a clear-cut benefit before adding to the responsibilities of the concert hosts of the world.
A more important flaw, I think, in the anonymous submission idea is that it ignores the world in which we live. No reasonable person would argue that a really bad composition should be selected in place of a really good one simply because the composer of the bad piece is well known. But the concert host rarely has the luxury of choosing between a really good and a really bad work. The selection is almost always from among a group of pieces, each of which has good and less good qualities. Sometimes, after all objective measures have been applied, it is still unclear as to which of two or more is really the better composition. It becomes a matter for subjective judgment. In such cases, is it not appropriate that the composers' accomplishments in addition to the specific work under consideration be taken into account? In every organization, there are people who participate in positive ways to the group objectives. Is it unfair to award him or her a few extra "points" in appreciation when such judgments are being made? How about the composer who almost but not quite made the cut last year? Maybe in a perfect world there would be a perfect system for unerringly finding the best composition. But in this less than perfect world, let's take advantage of our opportunities to apply a little "English" in constructive ways.
My vote, then, goes to staying with the straight forward, fully identified submission. As the saying goes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
WAC Newsletter, December 1998
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