Judging Student Composers
This evening I had the thoroughly enjoyable experience of sitting on a panel of judges for a competition at the San Francisco Conservatory. These opportunities to judge come up from time to time, and I’m always glad to do it, not just to help the parties involved, but because it forces me to really listen and to think critically, knowing there’s a lot at stake for the person on the other end. It’s definitely not easy!
In this case, the participants were student composers who had written short works for the Conservatory Chorus, some of whom had never written for voices before. We were given their scores about a week ago, along with a CD of mostly MIDI, but some live performances of the works, and this evening the chorus performed them for an audience.
Sharing the responsibility with me in this little mini-Iowa Caucus were two conductors, both very accomplished and far more knowledgeable about choral music than I. It was interesting that the winning piece was so off-the-charts good that the three of us agreed on it hands-down, and there was very little discussion needed. My congratulations to student composer Ilya Demutsky for his a cappella setting of the Lorca poem “Dance”, which was well thought-out, well written for voices and also just plain entertaining.
Figuring out second and third place was much more tricky. Just about all of the pieces were extremely well crafted and well considered for voices. (Kudos to Professor David Conte for making sure these composers know what they’re doing in that regard.) So we had to look for other elements as a basis for ruling pieces out. (It’s more typically the other way round: the composer has great ideas, but not a clue how to execute them.) Many of these well written pieces were too wrapped up in the craft and lacked emotional content; some were weak in their structural conception; some mishandled the text, and a few chose texts that were inappropriate for musical setting.
Little by little, we were able to winnow it down to the requisite 1st, 2nd and 3rd place winners, plus some honorable mentions. I hope all of the composers involved got something out of it, in any case. It’s an invaluable exercise, and these composers are very lucky for the opportunity.
P.S. – What Are My Criteria?
We were given almost no guidelines for adjudication. My colleagues were both conductors, and so I thought I’d focus less on the practicalities of the choral writing and, instead, on the more composerly concerns.
- Variety (variety of texture, tempo, key, etc.). I don’t prefer four pages of quarter-note music.
- Structure. Is the composer feeling his/her way around, or is the piece built on a sound framework?
- Originality. I normally don’t place very high importance on originality, but when you’re looking at 16 pieces, you like a few surprises. Among the pieces that were gimmicky, some pulled it off well and others had less to show for themselves beneath the gimmicks.
- Sensitivity to Text. Does the composer seem to know what he/she is singing about? More importantly, does he or she care? Is the text setting natural to the language, or are weak syllables on strong beats. (I hate that!!)
- Aesthetics. Quite simply: does it sound good?
- Possibly the most important: Does the piece seem to achieve the composer’s goals, even if it’s not particularly my cup of tea?