There are a few things that every composer my age feels. We all love Ligeti. We also all listen to some kind of indigenous “world” music from somewhere or other and whine about the impossibility of asking classical players to make those sounds, phrases,harmonies, rhythms, ornamentations, etc. And finally, we all don’t like theidea of competitions, but we all, and here is where I really mean we all apply to the ASCAP and BMI Young Composer Awards.
Everyone always says, except the people at ASCAP and BMI, that BMI and ASCAP are exactly the same. And mostly, they are. Come the end of the calendar year, it is time to look back over what you’ve written, pick the best piece, and send it to ASCAP and BMI’s panels of judges for consideration. Each organization has a bucket of cash and a handful of resume gems to doll out. The lineup of judges for both awards shift around each year, each always forming an image of contemporary American composition establishment. It seems that saying that the resemblance ends there would be like saying that the two awards are basically identical—what else is there to it if the judges and prizes are not substantially different from one another?
Well, the resemblance does end there, because there’s more… This year, I sent my piece Fireflies to ASCAP but a different one, Because: Charles Vies, to BMI. That is because of one small detail in the rules, which changes everything. ASCAP encourages a recording of your piece, if you’d like to include it; BMI forbids it! (There is one other significant difference: BMI requires all identifying marks to be removed in place of a pseudonym, whereas ASCAP is fine with knowing your name.) Both asking for and forbidding recordings can each be made to sound quite silly. BMI seems to be promoting that the act of composing music ends on the page. To judge the merits of a piece of music while willingly avoiding sound waves does not seem exactly right, particularly when certain pieces might be easier or harder to create a aural image of in the judge’s head. ASCAP, on the other hand, is unfairly at least somewhat willing to judge a piece by the quality of its performance and recording. How good the players were, how much time they had to rehearse, if there was a recording engineer or it was an iPhone recording all will have an effect on the judges, hardly any of this having to do with “the piece.”
Music’s simple fact of existence is that we’re always dealing exclusively with representations. There is no “authentic text” by which judges could judge except a live performance, as Caroyln Abbate and others have argued (and by now pretty much established). The judges are not judging the students’ pieces, but representations of them. The only fair way to do it would be to hire a bunch of players of equal musical skill on all the different instruments that the students’ pieces called for and give them all equal time to rehearse all the pieces, and perform them live for the judges—even here, the differing levels of difficulty would obscure a fair assessment, not to mention the absurdity and expense of actually doing this.
But what I’m really interested in is not how to make the judging fair, because the idea of judging and ranking these works of art is already so ridden with problems. I’m curious that I instinctively found myself sending different pieces to the two awards, which besides this yes/no recording stipulation are virtually the same. It seems that a piece of composed music is a set of written markings, inseparable from a set of sounds that the markings indicate. But strangely, what I suppose I was intuiting in my choice of which pieces to send was that Fireflies sounded better while Because: Charles Vies looked better.
I showed Fireflies to a professor at Harvard not long ago. He was very observant and had all sorts of interesting comments as he visually picked his way through the score. I gave him a recording and left his office. Next time we met, he said he had listened and that the piece “Really jumped off the page,” which I took as a subtle way of saying (for better or for worse) that it sounded better than it looked. (My recording, after all, was done by a professional engineer, performed by some heavy hitters from the Lake Champlain Chamber Music Festival. Lucky me.)
For the performer, the essential question always at work when encountering a musical score is: is this a set of instructions for me to make sounds or is this a representation of the sounds I am supposed to make? The answer is somewhere in between, depending on pretty much every kind of “context” that could exist, and in the unclear moments, a bit of imagination and guesswork. (Bruce Brubaker talks here about the never-ending problem of whether the two staves in piano music mean right and left hand or not.) For the judge on the BMI committee the binary collapses, however. If it is a set of instructions, the judge must imagine them to be carried out on an instrument, ultimately producing an imagined sound in his head. If it is a representation of sound, then the judge again must imagine the sound in his head. No difference, really.
I suppose a very, very, very sharp reader could pick out the source of imagined sounds his head is getting from the page—simultaneously construct an understanding of how the imagined sounds are being imagined while they’re being imagined. I know from experience, however, that when listening to bad recordings of new pieces, or simply recordings of reading sessions where the players don’t have time to take everything in, it is much easier to see where something was missed or misplayed, whether it was an instruction or a represented sound that was not as indicated in the score, and what it would have sounded like if it were done as written. With all due respect to BMI, these judges are smart enough to know how much meaning to make out of a recording of a student piece. May the waves of sound come crashing down.