What are Composers Made Of?

I found out a few days ago that I’ve been selected to compete in this year’s Iron Composer competition (sponsored by Analog Arts at Baldwin-Wallace College).

“What the heck is that?” I can hear you asking. It’s like this: the five of us who were selected will travel to Cleveland, Ohio on September 5th. There will be an orientation that afternoon and a symposium about our work that evening. Then the next morning at 9:30 am we will be given an instrumentation and a “secret ingredient.” We will then have five hours to compose a piece of music. At 3:00 pm the performers(s) will start rehearsing; at 8 pm there’s a concert, with a live radio broadcast and web simulcast. The pieces will be judged by a panel on originality, technical command, overall presentation and use of the Secret Ingredient, and the composer whose piece scores the highest will be named Iron Composer 2013.

This is by analogy with the Iron Chef TV show, of course. I haven’t seen any of the previous competitions, so I don’t know yet how far they’re going to milk that connection, but the choice of Secret Ingredients from past years seems to indicate a healthy sense of humor about the whole thing: they’ve used

  • The theme from The Jetsons
  • Pebbles and rocks from a local quarry
  • Antique music boxes
  • Eight seconds of silence.
  • Monet’s painting of a sunrise

The performers have included a woodwind quintet, a piano trio, flute and cello duo, an organist, and a trio of prepared piano, tuba and clarinet.

I’m totally stoked about the whole thing. I went to school in Cleveland (the Cleveland Institute of Music), and so while it’s not my home town, I lived there during some of my formative years. Since the other competitors hail from Delaware, California, Turkey and Poland, I’ve decided until notified otherwise that I’m a hometown favorite.

How hard is writing a piece in five hours going to be? In general I compose pretty quickly, and actually, I’ve done it before; the West Point Woodwind Quintet, who have already played a couple of pieces of mine, had posted a call for scores commemorating the sesquicentennial of the Civil War while I was in the middle of writing something else. I wanted to submit a piece, but I didn’t want to seriously derail what I was working on. The solution (yes, inspired by the notion of the Iron Composer competition) was to give myself those same five hours start to finish to write the piece and extract the parts. That worked just fine—I’m a shoo-in to win this thing! Except they didn’t choose my piece—so there’s no way I’ll ever be able to win here either!

I can’t say I’m that worked up about where I come in the ranking, actually. Even the fifth-place finisher gets a small cash prize; the folks at Analog Arts seem to have decided that a winner-take-all model isn’t appropriate for the kind of celebration of composing that they are after. (They refer to all the selected competitors as “finalists.”) This strikes me as wise. The whole notion of competition in the arts is inherently a little odd, since art actually happens in the interaction between performer and audience member. Everyone who hears a piece of music hears it differently; everyone who hears a concert with five pieces of music will hear them all differently.

Still, competitions and contests and calls for scores are part of life for musicians and composers. I expect to enjoy this one immensely, which means I’ve already won, yes?

One Response to “ What are Composers Made Of? ”

  1. Elaine Fine says:

    You know, of course, that the Iron Chef people come prepared with all kinds of possibilities of “protein” possibilities, and use combinations that can work with all sorts of flavor profiles. I would think that there are lots of thematic and harmonic ideas that you could prepare ahead of time, and then you could use the secret ingredient as a stimulation rather than as a puzzle. Have fun. Winning doesn’t matter. The fun is in the play. I would love to do this some day.

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