Attempting to Iron

A few days ago I flew to Cleveland to compete in this year’s “Iron Composer” competition. The competition is sponsored by Analog Arts and hosted by the Music Department of the Baldwin-Wallace Conservatory. Five composers, selected from a pool of about a hundred applicants, are given an instrumentation, a “secret ingredient,” and five hours to compose a piece, which is then rehearsed that afternoon and performed that evening in front of a live audience, a radio audience and a panel of judges. The judges rate the pieces on originality, use of the secret ingredient, technical mastery and overall presentation; the audience also votes for their favorite. The judges’ choice is named this year’s Iron Composer, but everyone gets at least a little prize money. The other competitors were Can Bilir, Jennifer Jolley, Christoffer Schunk, and Jakub Polaczyk.

This was the third year I’d applied, and I was thrilled to be picked. Interestingly, Joe Drew, who organizes the competition, is very open about how he selects the finalists: he winnows down the field to the most qualified group, and then concentrates on the music and the bios to create a diverse group of musical styles and backgrounds.

The evening before the competition, the five of us gave a symposium for the composition students at the conservatory, a large and equally diverse group who had been told they had to be there, and promised pizza, but who also seemed to be quite interested. Then, after attempting to get a good night’s sleep, we all showed up at nine the next morning to be told what we’d be writing that day.

This year’s competition was for brass trio (including a double-belled trumpet, which none of the five of us had ever seen before), and the secret ingredient was: audience participation. Each of us drew a card with one of five modalities on it that had to be worked into our pieces: humming, whistling, clapping, foot-stomping, and, for me, finger snapping. This took all five of us by surprise; even though it was pretty obvious from past years that they took great pride in coming up with a vast variety of secret ingredients, none of us had seen that coming. (Past secret ingredients had included the four-note theme from The Jetsons; the story of Little Red Riding Hood; an antique music box; a painting; a collection of rocks from a local quarry; and eight seconds of silence.)

We all scurried to the donated faculty offices that were to be our studios for the day, set up our laptops and set to work. I had actually “trained” for the competition a bit, giving myself 90 minutes to write a 90-second piece a couple of times over the prior couple of weeks. So I had some notion of how fast I was going to need to work, although I hadn’t tried to sustain it for five hours. As it turned out, those five hours absolutely flew; when they dropped off lunch halfway through the writing session I was shocked. I was watching the clock so as not to get penalized for going over time, so I wasn’t surprised when Joe knocked on my door and announced “Time!”, but I did have the sensation that those five hours had passed by faster than any equivalent tine period of my life. You could say I was having fun—and I was—but I think I had just experienced five hours of being in what athletes call The Zone.

We each got a half an hour of rehearsal with the trio. It was here I discovered that I hadn’t quite made allowance enough for the minimal rehearsal time; my introduction, a passage of staggered entrances in 7/8, was too hard to coordinate in such a short period. The players asked me to conduct the performance,as they had several of the other composers; even so, that passage turned out a bit ragged.

The concert—broadcast live by Cleveland’s classical radio station, WCLV, and structured accordingly—was a great deal of fun. The composers sat on stage, coming up to introduce our own pieces (and then conduct them). The audience jumped into their role as performers enthusiastically. The music was strikingly diverse, as Joe had intended; the judges took a positive tone even when they had criticisms to offer.

When the points were tallied, I had tied for second, but was awarded third place, as the composer with whom I’d tied had received more points for originality and use of the secret ingredient—I’d scored higher on technical mastery and overall presentation, but the rules specified that the first two categories were to be used to break a tie. This is an interesting bias, and one I’m going to explore more in a further post.

The whole experience was a great deal of fun, and I highly recommend future iterations to any interested composers. The audio from this year’s competition will be posted on the Iron Composer website in a few weeks.

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