GUEST composer FAIL #1

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Wait, what is this you ask? A GUEST composer fail! (I mean, I’m assuming I’m not the only one receiving these, right? RIGHT?)

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Ahem. Anyway, this guest composer FAIL was written by my dear friend Jamie Leigh Sampson. (Editorial comments will be employed by gifs only.) Enjoy!


The best artists, in my opinion, have two things in common: vision and a vast collection of failures.

Technique, style, and medium…these things mean nothing without the vision to say something that will endure and the trial and error it takes to find the best possible method to communicate your message.

I have a modest collection of failures, which grows every single month. In the past six months alone I’ve had some of my grandest self-inflicted failures. These are not simple rejections where I don’t fit a call for scores, or meetings I was late to…or missed entirely; these are paralyzing, relationship-altering failures.

They were so intense that 10 years into this career called composing, I wanted to quit… daily. I had a very difficult time composing through it all, but I didn’t quit. As a result, I have made some huge changes. I even restructured my Entrepreneurship for Composers class that I’ll be teaching this fall.

If you look at my previous syllabus, you’ll see many lessons for how to succeed in a music composition career. Essentially, you supply the vision and I’ll supply some practical advice for getting it out there into the world, with all the legal and financial information I have learned in a decade of dedicated research and practice. Now though, especially after the Failure Panel Discussion at this year’s New Music Gathering, I’m feeling the need to go beyond the facts, finances, and legalities. We need to cover what happens when things fall apart. Really fall apart, because failure is inevitable. Outside influences act upon our plans. We can’t foresee everything. We should talk about this!

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In fact, that’s how my class will start this year. Everything I teach will not prevent failure, but if anything, it will help to train student composers to fail more gracefully, so they can move through this career with a few less bumps and bruises than the rest of us… or at the very least, the knowledge that they will survive each blunder, as long as they don’t go ape-shit on social media about it.

I say all of this so you know that I live with failure. I teach failure. I accept it.

So it was really odd that this week I had a very strong, gut reaction to a rejection, and I broke my own personal rule about posting it on social media.

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The post earned me a few little angry faces [SOLIDARITY!], started some good discussions, and of course landed me a guest spot on Jenn’s blog!

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Don’t get me wrong. As I write this I am sitting on a balcony in Northern Italy, so I’m just fine! Really! I am the Executive Director for an amazing festival here, I have several commissions coming, and I’m about to announce a really spectacular residency with a group who’s mission is near and dear to my heart…but I’m also human…and it was my second rejection in a week. The first one was for a fellowship that I was desperate for. It would have been amazing, but it didn’t happen. I was just about over it when I get this little oddity…

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Now, I get that we’ve all just been through months of social media hostility and an ongoing political shitstorm. We’re not sure if we’re going to have health insurance next month, year, etc. Maybe this ensemble had a really rough adjudication process, but honestly…if you expect me to come back and submit something again [Let’s point out here that I did pay for this submission, because I haven’t totally written off the practice yet.], you could at least fake a good, “We’re so lucky to get so many submissions, yours was great, but these are our winners and we love them.” I consider faking a good mood in an email far easier than faking…well, you decide where you want that to go, but let’s just say a great many things.

So let’s take this point-by-point. Aside from the tone of this email being somewhere between awkward and dismissive, it is also condescending. We know that call-for-score winners fit the rest of your season…in general that’s the function of a call-for-scores, infusing some new blood into a preexisting aesthetic or program. I’m going to forgive that sentence…or at least I would…but then you go on to say, “For those of you who submitted multiple pieces,” [Again me. Yes, I paid twice for this.], “please be assured that we did review all of your scores and recordings.” TRANSLATION: Please don’t email us…we don’t want to have to spell this out for you twice.

It seems like I’ve been uninvited to the whole party; good thing I won’t need a ticket to their event. Wait…sorry, they might perform a different work with permission…but consider permission REVOKED, because the worst is yet to come…they ATTACHED the winning scores.

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Why attach the winning scores?

First of all, if you simply list the winners, we’ll understand you were going for something just shy of New Complexity (the composition community is not that large…we all know each other). Second…how much (extra) money did you make having a general call for scores, when you had very specific aesthetics in mind? This seems slightly unethical. Third, flaunting the winning works to other “competitors” is just salt in the wound…I feel like that deserves a $50 in Schmidt’s Douchebag Jar. There I said it.

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Have I gotten to the point where I’m a bit jaded about rejections? I don’t think so, but maybe… here I am over 900 words into my reaction.

Those of us in the arts are responsible for the environment we keep. I try to be gentle with others. Maybe I’m foolish to expect the same courtesy. I don’t need a rose garden rejection, but I won’t accept a minefield either. All that creates is a blog post where I shred your rejection email a sentence at a time in public. I’m sure that doesn’t feel good…but you also made me feel strongly enough to send this to my husband:

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I don’t use flamethrowers lightly. Even in sticker form.

Maybe, in this whole debacle I should adhere to the, “if you can’t be kind, be quiet,” mantra, but then again…I would be even angrier if one of my students received this email. So I hope this post affects some manner of discussion about the ethical treatment of our fellow artists. Try not to dismiss it as the ranting of a bossy, loser, lady composer, as you continue to the next spectacle in our current circus. Our friendly festival cat in Italy sticks his tongue out to that idea.

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One thought on “GUEST composer FAIL #1

  1. Disagree about attaching the winners. The composition field may be small, but we sure DON’T know everyone in it, or how all of those everyones write in every piece–some composers vary widely in style piece to piece. I think it’s very helpful to understand what a competition’s aesthetic is–in fact, I wish competitions would be upfront about this in the call for scores, so that we wouldn’t waste our time and postage submitting something that will never have even a chance of winning. As far as salt being rubbed in your wounds about someone else’s success? If you didn’t realize that you not being picked meant that someone else was, you’ve not thought about the process enough. But of course none of this means that your piece is worse or theirs is better–in this polystylistic age, that’s a fairly nonsensical claim. It really just means that you weren’t picked and someone else was. Maybe next time…

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