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Storming the Battlements:
The Composer's Guide to Knocking On Doors

Itinerant Composer

This article appeared in the April 1997 issue of 20th-Century Music.

It’s estimated that 250,000 movie scripts are floating around Hollywood at any given time. The major studios and independents distribute a relative handful of films each year, yet a persistent cadre of accountants, taxi drivers, grandmothers and other Joe Esterhasz wanna-be’s churn out reams of 120-page screenplays in hopes of cashing in on Tinseltown gold.

Somewhere this minute, a never-published writer labors over his next novel - this at a time when American literacy has never been lower and the supermarket racks are stocked with junk magazines enough to keep the most ambitious hack busy hammering out pulp 18 hours a day. Somehow, the gossamer dream of that published novel obscures the gray reality of a wastebasket of rejection slips.

The Yellow Pages have a list of recording studios whose business depends on doughty pop musicians who hope that the right three or four chords, the right groove and the right tortured lyric will turn them into the next Alanis Morissette or the next Babyface Edmonds.

Then there’s the American composer. The doorsteps of orchestras and other performing organizations are awash in hundreds of unsolicited scores and tapes that arrive each year, sent in by composers who have invested a lifetime of study for the promise of one or two minutes of polite applause. The odds of success in the other fields may be more daunting, but never has a group of so overeducated people pined so mightily for something that brings so little in the way of financial reward or public acclaim.

The view from the outside is always frustrating, especially when the doors of opportunity seem to be guarded by people predisposed to saying, “No.” But every now and then, we bump into someone who says, “Yes.” Ann Callaway is one of the lucky ones for whom the doors opened, if only for a brief 15 minutes. “Amethyst,” the score she wrote to fulfill her DMA at Columbia University and whose running time is exactly a Warholian quarter-hour, was one of those scores sent out “cold” to several orchestras around the country back in 1991. It was premiered by the St. Louis Symphony in late March of this year.

The six-year wait didn’t bother Callaway, who says the experience taught her a thing or two about the glacial pace of orchestra programming. Not only was it the ultimate vindication of writing for an unusual ensemble that included soprano, piccolo trumpet, and large orchestra. As a direct result of those blind mailings, she made new friends and professional contacts, received encouraging feedback from several quarters and gained the confidence to keep knocking on doors (a bass clarinet concerto she wrote and sent out unsolicited was also performed by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony). “I’m tremendously gratified because this WAS a cold submission,” she says. “I know it’s not done because somebody had to pay me back a favor. My music was being chosen on its own merits.”

For a composer, a performance by a major symphony orchestra is a pinnacle of achievement. But few ever enjoy the view from that summit. In the five years since Callaway sent “Amethyst” out for performance consideration, the St. Louis Symphony received 1,582 unsolicited compositions. Of these, it has performed 15 orchestral scores - and though it only represents about one per every hundred submittals, that’s still a very impressive performance record by normal standards. In addition, the orchestra has done 24 chamber scores on its Discovery Series, or a total of 39 unsolicited works sent in by their composers.

It’s no secret that American orchestras are hardly premiere factories, ushering in the latest hot manuscripts to an anxious public that hungers for new music. At the beginning of this century and the end of the last one, new works from Europe were indeed a hot commodity, and conductors went to extraordinary lengths to snatch first performance rights away from rivals. The 1930s and ‘40s brought an explosion in the number of symphonic premieres in America. It was a period of extraordinary fecundity unmatched at any time before or since - and, not incidentally, it paralleled the blossoming of the American composer as a potent musical force. But immediately after World War II there was equally dramatic decline in the presentation of new symphonic scores. Table 1, which shows numbers of first performances by selected American orchestras since their formation, does not reflect those temporal variations in performance frequency. But assuming lifetime average as a gross metric, major American orchestras play about 2 or 3 world premieres per season:

Table 1. Number of World & US Premieres by American Orchestras (through 1995)
OrchestraYear FoundedWorld PremieresUS Premieres
Atlanta Symphony1945425
Baltimore Symphony191688?
Chicago Symphony1891301266
Cleveland Orchestra191810580
Houston Symphony19138017
Indianapolis Symphony193017527
Louisville Orchestra1937131?
Minnesota Orchestra1903212120
New York Philharmonic1842443405
Philadelphia Orchestra1900183103
Pittsburgh Symphony189510538
(Sources: Orchestra archives)

The climate for contemporary symphonic music changed in the 1980s. Partly the result of evolving musical styles and partly influenced by Meet The Composer’s Orchestra Residencies Program, new music gained a higher profile in the symphony hall. Having a full- or part-time composer on the premises meant that orchestras could issue calls for scores, relying on a trained eye to pore over the incoming manuscripts and pick out the gems. Between 1982 and 1992, Meet The Composer supported 33 composer residencies with 21 orchestras. During that time, some 15,000 scores were reviewed, of which 3,000 were recommended for performance. Because of the constraints of symphony programming, however, a far fewer number actually received performances. Table 2 shows premiere statistics for ten of the participating orchestras during that decade with comparative figures for the two previous decades:

Table 2. World Premieres of Original Works by Living Composers*
Atlanta Symphony3321 (6)
Baltimore Symphony81825 (5)
Chicago Symphony262729 (2)
Houston Symphony51135 (5)
Indianapolis Symphony94321 (1)
Minnesota Orchestra222239 (4)
New York Philharmonic514240 (10)
Philadelphia Orchestra342418 (2)
Pittsburgh Symphony13821 (3)
St. Louis Symphony?1426 (10)
*Includes only composers who were living during the season in which the work was performed; does not include arrangements of pre-existing works
**Number in parentheses shows years of participation in Meet The Composer residency program in 1982-91
(Sources: Orchestra archives & Meet The Composer)

The Orchestra Residencies Program for major orchestras ended in 1992, although an active second tier residency program has continued at organizations like Chanticleer and the Women’s Philharmonic. A few more years of data are required before any definitive statements can be made about the lasting impact of the residencies program on the major orchestras’ programming. But aside from competitions and occasional calls for scores, there are still few mechanisms that can offer composers a public airing of their music. Consequently, many have little option but to make blanket submittals to performing arts organizations in nearly vain hopes of attracting attention. Do orchestra conductors receive many unsolicited scores from composers, and more to the point, does anyone ever look at them?

JoAnn Falletta “Yes!” says JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Long Beach Symphony and the Virginia Symphony. “On an average, I receive 75 to 100 scores annually. I look at all the scores myself.” An acknowledged champion of American music, Falletta has performed over 60 world premieres of American works. And because she takes such a personal interest in composers and their music, she understandably puts a high premium on the personal touch when it comes to the unsolicited manuscripts she gets. “If scores are sent to me and not to ‘orchestra conductor’ or ‘to whom it may concern,’ I always respond with a note after looking at them, usually with brief comments. Scores are returned if a self-addressed envelope is provided. I offer referrals if I have reason to believe that a particular conductor or orchestra might have a special interest in the piece,” she says, noting that several performances have resulted from her receipt of unsolicited scores.

Kent Nagano, who gets 150 to 200 scores a year, regards them as a public duty. “I try to be as responsible as I can because there’s no other real natural outlet for a composer to turn to except for a symphony orchestra,” he says. “It is the symphony orchestra’s responsibility to serve the community - and certainly composers are a part of that community - so it is only natural that they would want to submit their scores to the music director or to the symphony. Because of that, I do try to peruse as many of them as I possibly can. Unfortunately, there never is enough time, and I have to rely these days on people to help me and work through the vast number of scores to really give them the look that they should have.”

Leonard Slatkin An informal survey of music directors around the country found that most conductors get an average of 100 unsolicited appeals a year. Among them, the undisputed champion for sheer volume of scores received is Leonard Slatkin. As music director of the St. Louis Symphony, he averaged over 300 manuscripts per year. And since his move to the National Symphony Orchestra at the beginning of the current season, he reports having found a backlog of 600 scores waiting for him!

“He has the reputation,” says Claude Baker, the St. Louis Symphony’s composer-in-residence, about his former boss. “He’s a very curious person. He wants to look at these scores. He wants to see what’s new. He wants to make discoveries.” In the meantime, submittals to the St. Louis Symphony have dropped off significantly since Slatkin’s departure and the arrival of Hans Vonk as music director. Baker estimates than the number of scores received, previously around 30 a month, had fallen to fewer than 30 during the first six months of Slatkin’s absence. He says that’s “because composers don’t yet know anything about Mr. Vonk. I don’t know that much about Mr. Vonk yet. And I think that everybody is saying, ‘Oh well, Leonard Slatkin is now at the National Symphony. Let’s send our scores there.’ ”

Claude Baker Baker’s own experience ought to embolden the legions who send in manuscripts in airy hopes of having their music performed by a major orchestra. He was the beneficiary of such an “over-the-transom” submittal to Leonard Slatkin in 1984, a bit of serendipity that he credits with ultimately landing him in his present position as resident composer. “At that time I was teaching at the University of Louisville,” he recalls, “and I’d written a piece for the Louisville Orchestra called ‘The Glass Bead Game.’ I submitted a score and tape blind to the St. Louis Symphony as well as a number of other orchestras for performance consideration. This was in the early days of the Meet The Composer residency program. Joe Schwantner was the composer-in-residence there at the time. A year passed and I hadn’t heard anything, so I wrote a letter saying, ‘Did you receive my score?’ There was no response, and I sort of wrote it off. When I happened to see Joe Schwantner in the spring of ‘86, I asked if he ever saw my score? Well by that time, his residency had ended, but he said he left it in a box for Leonard Slatkin with about 50 other scores. Several months later, I received a call from the manager of the orchestra saying that indeed Mr. Slatkin had selected the score for performance, and it was going to be done in the spring of ‘87.”

That may seem like a long wait, but since becoming composer-in-residence in 1991, Baker found that three years from score submittal to performance was par for the course in St. Louis. “Mr. Slatkin and I had a very rigorous routine. Several times a year, we would meet in the winter and spring and review the scores that came in. Sometimes, I would take as many as 50 or 60 scores in in a session, and he would spend the entire afternoon looking at these scores. And then he’d weed it down to those he was interested in. Then we would meet in the fall. He would narrow those down to, oh, six to eight scores from which he would select pieces to be performed during the following year. So you can see there’s a three-year time lag between the time a piece is submitted to the time it would be performed or a decision be made on it.”

Review procedures vary from orchestra to orchestra, resulting in some widely different turnaround times. At the Los Angeles Philharmonic, new music advisor Steven Stucky and music director Esa-Pekka Salonen hit on a more fluid process that integrates the review of new scores with concert programming. “I don’t simply give him a stack of scores as a matter of course,” says Stucky. “This whole process interfaces with the scheduling of real concerts and with finding real slots to put things. It’s more like a committee of four who are almost never in the same room at the same time - the executive director, the artistic administrator, the music director and me. It very often is a matter of having programs in which we want to put new music and finding the right piece for that program rather than just making a stack of pieces that I like and hope he’ll like and then finding places for them. That tends to make it harder to make nice programs. One of the obligations to the audience is to make good programs.”

In some cases, the time elapsed from submittal to performance has been as short as a year. One case in point was Stucky himself who, like Claude Baker, submitted a score in 1986 to L.A.’s then-composer-in-residence, John Harbison; not long afterward, Andre Previn phoned to tell him that his work had been selected for performance during the following year. More recently, Stucky tells of a Berkeley student named Ketty Nez who submitted a chamber score last year. He and Salonen thought it looked so promising that they commissioned her to write a new piece which was performed by the Philharmonic New Music Group on March 3rd of this year. “In her case, she did come with a recommendation,” he says. “It happens that Harry Birtwistle was here last spring, and he had just been up to Berkeley and had met her. He saw the same piece we did and mentioned it to us, which helped us speed up the process of getting people to look at it. But I’m not sure it wouldn’t have turned out about the same anyway because she’s quite an interesting case. In that case, we needed a California composer for Esa-Pekka to use some prize money he had won to do a commission. And so she was in the right place at the right time. But she was in that place because she had sent an unsolicited score to us.”

Kent Nagano In recent years, many of the major orchestras that supported composer residencies during the 1980s and early ‘90s have left the program. Only the orchestras in St. Louis, Chicago, Los Angeles and Baltimore have retained either a resident composer or a new music advisor. In the meantime, other organizations like the Berkeley Symphony have set up mechanisms for reviewing new scores to offer performance opportunities for their composers. “We’re attempting to address the problem in Berkeley,” says Kent Nagano, “where I’ve created a series solely dedicated to compositions of composers who happen to live and work in the immediate area. We are lucky in the San Francisco area to be a center or a crucible of an awful lot of really great talent. And somehow, not to have a proper outlet for their music bothered us a lot, so we started a series open only to Bay area composers. We get hundreds of scores - probably between 100 and 200 scores - sent in for perusal. We can only select a few every year, but at least this is an attempt to address the problem locally.”

The Cleveland Orchestra didn’t have a composer residency program in the 1980s, but music director Christoph von Dohnanyi’s well known affinity for 20th century music has made him a natural magnet for new scores. Like most orchestras today, Cleveland doesn’t have a formal review process to deal with the 100 or so unsolicited manuscripts that come in each year. But that shouldn’t discourage composers from sending their music, says artistic administrator Ed Yim, who envisions forming a panel of established composers with ties to Cleveland who can assist with identifying the most promising submittals.

“Maestro Dohnanyi has so little time to examine unsolicited scores that he really relies on his conducting staff and me to recommend only those which have been screened first,” says Yim. “I try to listen to as many tapes and distribute as many scores to our staff conductors as possible. We try to keep up, but as there is already an enormous amount of scores that DO come with high recommendations from world-class orchestras, composers, soloists and publishers, it is very difficult to keep up in addition to scores that come in blind. Perhaps the biggest mistake composers make in submitting scores is that they send them in cold with no follow up call or recommendation. The last point is very important, because we will pay much more attention to a score if it comes with a recommendation from a performer, composer, conductor whom we know; i.e. somebody who has performed regularly with us.”

Yim’s comments underscore an important point about submitting manuscripts under the door. Though the likelihood of attracting a performance by a major symphony orchestra is still quite small, there are many things that composers can do to increase their chances of success. And based on the experiences of those on the receiving end, there are equally many things that composers can do wrong.

“One of the most common errors made by aspiring composers in submitting their scores is that the pieces are inappropriate for what the conductor is known to do,” says Leonard Slatkin. “The piece is from a genre which the conductor does not perform.” Several of the orchestras and conductors surveyed for this article reported the same. Kent Nagano, who was interviewed prior to his departure from the Lyon Opera, said that a disproportionately large number of scores he received in France were American operas. “Even though we do do some American opera there, I couldn’t possibly do as many as I am sent, so I oftentimes will refer them to other people that I think might be interested in that composer.” “Do your homework!” Slatkin advises. “If someone is known for a particular type of work, don’t send that person a score depicting another genre.”

And in an era when the average piece of new music programmed at symphony lasts between 5 and 15 minutes, it’s a mistake of epic proportions to send an epic-scaled masterpiece or several opuses at once. “It is usually better, in my opinion, to send a smaller rather than a larger number of scores,” JoAnn Falletta suggests. “One or two orchestral scores that might be of interest to a conductor are better received than five or six scores of chamber music. Long - and extremely large - pieces are difficult to program. Chorus, children’s chorus, etc. also add difficulties in some situations.”

Marin Alsop Colorado Symphony director Marin Alsop has a few practical suggestions of ways for young composers to get a foot in the door. “Try to get a teacher or mentor to vouch for your work and represent you to a conductor that he or she knows. And look into writing pieces for specific needs - youth concerts, holiday concerts and short openers.” Most orchestras today perform extensive community service - in many cases, sponsoring outreach and educational activities whose scope exceeds that of regular subscription concert series. Writing occasional music for these outings not only keeps the creative juices flowing, it also builds goodwill with orchestras and conductors and can lead to other opportunities down the road.

Professional etiquette is another important element that can leave a strongly positive or negative impression. Alsop, who receives 50 to 70 unsolicited scores per year, says she tries to look at everything that comes in and will often return the materials with a personal reply (as long as they are accompanied by a SASE). But she and several others find it annoying when composers call back months or even years later requesting the return of unsolicited materials. While many conductors are willing to oblige return requests, some like Leonard Slatkin receive such a high volume of mail that it becomes impractical to respond to every submittal. A composer’s best policy, short of contacting the orchestra administration to inquire about its review and return practices, is to send out copies of the music and assume they will never be seen again. JoAnn Falletta says, “If composers would like the scores returned, they should include an envelope, addressed and stamped, to facilitate that. Always include a personal note to the conductor or artistic administrator - whoever you think will be reviewing the scores. Some composers write first asking if they might send a score. I find their courtesy in doing this very impressive.”

David Zinman And what about the actual contents of the scores? As several respondents noted, a surprising number of them are simply not ready professionally. Nagano is almost comical in his diplomacy: “Some composers -it’s clear that they should really discipline their talent with further education or further study.” Leonard Slatkin puts it more bluntly. His number one complaint is sloppiness. “Make sure the score is legible,” he admonishes. His point is seconded by several others, including outgoing Baltimore Symphony director David Zinman, who gets about 50 unsolicited scores a year. “Manuscripts and scores need to be more professional,” he says. “Some are too long. (Also) the inclusion of a tape would be a great help.”

Though “professional” can imply many things about a composer’s technical skill and sophistication, the primary context here is “presentation.” Neatness and legibility not only make a good impression but also save the busy reviewers precious time. “If it’s stapled in the upper left hand corner, separate pages, Mr. Slatkin’s not gonna look at it,” says Claude Baker. “He doesn’t have time to deal with something like that. If the score is presented in that bad a fashion, what must the parts be? It must be a nightmare for performance!” Baker also notes that the common practice of scoring music with computer software like Encore or Finale isn’t enough to raise the standard of a poorly crafted score. “Many composers think that because they put something on a computer, that it looks professional. It can be as amateurish and dilettantish with the computer as it can in manuscript.”

But Steven Stucky insists that composers shouldn’t be paranoid if their scores don’t look 100 percent professional. In the final analysis, what he and others look for is music of high quality. A good presentation simply allows that quality (or lack thereof) to show through. “I think we and probably most orchestras are very tolerant of all kinds of difficulties that young composers have, such as sending in a MIDI tape of a piece that they haven’t been able to get played. I don’t mind that at all. I don’t mind that they don’t have a professional copyist. I was there. We’ve all been there.”

Both Stucky and Baker agree that their role as resident composer is one which permits them to act as an advocate for composers. “I’m simply reviewing the scores for technical competence,” says Baker. “I don’t make any aesthetic decisions. If the score was obviously done by a competent professional composer and had a unique voice, something to say, then I took the score to Mr. Slatkin.” There were many times when Baker liked a certain piece of music, but Slatkin rejected it outright - sometimes on aesthetic grounds, sometimes on cold hard technical points. Their working sessions could offer an object lesson to many aspiring composers.

“Mr. Slatkin would take a score, open it to the first page - the instrumentation and title page - and he would begin looking, first of all, for a level of technical competence. There was one piece, for example, that was submitted by a very talented composer. The piece was sort of in a manuscript form. It had not been premiered yet. I could see that the opening section came back later in the piece in a modified fashion in a certain tempo. And it was obvious that the composer had erased the tempo at the beginning of the score because he’d changed his mind as he wrote the piece but did not have the good proofreading skills to go back and put the tempo marking at the beginning. Well, Mr. Slatkin simply opened the first score page, saw the tempo marking was missing, and closed it back and said, ‘Next.’ I said, ‘Well, look. It’s obvious that this is what he wants because he has over here - ’ And he said, ‘I don’t care! He left it off the score. What kind of composer would do something like that?’ ”

Steven Stucky Sometimes a young composer may show obvious promise but not yet be ready for a professional performance. “One of my standards is that I don’t want to put anything in front of a great orchestra that’s not worthy of their talent,” Stucky says. “In some cases, that means that a young composer who seems to have some spark needs to be encouraged, but not by playing his music in its present form.” At the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which has an active commissioning program, an effort is made to identify those individuals and nurture their talents. It often happens, Stucky says, that the orchestra takes an interest in such a composer, eventually performing a work different from the one submitted - sometimes even commissioning a new piece. But both Stucky and Baker are a little fuzzy when it comes to defining what it is that gives one score an obvious “star quality” over another.

“It’s pretty hard to describe, but ‘spark’ is it,” says Stucky. “That’s absolutely it. I’m looking for a real presence, a personality. Not merely technical correctness. Our philosophy is that it’s not just a duty to play new music, it’s what an orchestra does. It’s what we do. But we’re allergic to the idea that you play a certain amount of it out of obligation. In the end, Salonen only programs and only approves what he absolutely believes in. He is the music director. He’s getting a big salary and a lot of attention because he has an artistic vision. And the programming of new music as well as old music is driven by his passion. So we find stuff that he can be passionate about.”

Baker says that Leonard Slatkin “looks for something that has a unique voice, something that will grab him, that will reach off the page, leap off immediately and capture his interest. It could be handling of material. It could be orchestration. Any number of things. There were many pieces that were very well crafted and very professionally presented. And he would go, ‘Well, this is nothing new. This is very good, but where’s the voice?’ ”

The voice of creative insight may be a hard thing to find, but one has no trouble hearing the voice of frustration. On almost any given night, you can log onto the Internet’s message boards, chat groups or websites and read the war stories of dejected composers. Some tell of music scores submitted to orchestras that were either rejected outright or, more commonly, not acknowledged at all. Some of those voices emerge with bitterness and hostility. Others are quieter and wistful like that of one young man who works a day job at Discovery Zone, then fritters his evenings away with America Online instead of pursuing his writing.

After earning her doctorate, Ann Callaway re-tooled her skills as an organist and choir director and was hired by a local church. She considers herself very lucky to be working in music, even for a quarter-time position. And though she supplements her income teaching piano and organ, she’s wary lest it eat into her composing hours. She gets an occasional commission now and then - currently, she’s completing work on a piece under an NEA grant. “I like very much what I’m doing,” says Callaway. “I wish there were more of it, and I wish there were more compositions and less of the scrambling all the time. But I’m sure that’s the experience of many composers, and I’m right in there with ‘em.”

“It’s an incredibly frustrating profession,” Steven Stucky admits, “and you shouldn’t go into it unless you have the thickest skin in the world and you’re prepared to weather a lot of rejection. It just is that way. It’s not only the professional musical institutions. The whole society doesn’t care what we’re doing. We’d better be doing this for love because we’re not gonna be doing this for very much public approval or money.”

What it all comes down to, he says, is that a composer needs to be true to himself and the art. And if he could give composers a single piece of advice, it’s that they must write music to please themselves.

“Don’t try and second-guess the process,” Stucky says. “Don’t write what you think a publisher wants to publish or you think an orchestra wants to play because that’s the surest way to write crap. You have to write the music you believe in, the music that you want to hear, that you’d like to go to a concert and hear yourself. Your dream piece. Then send it out and be prepared that 99 out of 100 orchestras are not going to be able to do anything with it. But keep trying. The batting average is going to be very low, but you’ve gotta be prepared to go through the process. It’s a tough profession, and that’s the way you have to do it.”

Stucky’s assessment is anything but overly gloomy, yet it still holds out one tiny ray of hope. The odds of having one’s music played by the major orchestras in St. Louis, Los Angeles, Seattle, Baltimore, Chicago or even New York may be only 1 out of 100 - but that’s still far better than the chances of selling an action-adventure script to Universal, publishing a literary novel with St. Martin’s Press, cutting an album with A&M, or winning the lottery. And the outlook is even brighter for composers who know the difference between making a good “pitch” and a wrong one.

So on those bleak days when the world seems distracted and you feel that no one wants or is interested in your work, it might help to remember David Zinman’s breezy but nonetheless earnest plea to composers everywhere: “Keep sending good music!”

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