Thursday, May 23, 2013

How can we stop him? His glamour increases!

I have just been doing a familiar yearly task, except responsibly.

But lemme splain. Two steps forward, three steps back. Then, seven steps forward, six steps sideways, you put your left foot in, three steps back. Yahtzee!

I have been playing the part of Glamour Boy. How glamourous is it? Why, it's the continental spelling, with the extra "u", of glamour! And it's because I have a composer in residence title. Or maybe it's Composer In Residence, or Composer-In-Residence. They all function the same, except in spell checkers and Yahtzee.

As they say, I am the Composer in Residence for the smallest orchestra in the United States that has such a thing. Or, uh, such a person. Now there's a distinction. And boy, does it come with glamour, a word I promise to use a lot less.

Starting now.

First and foremost, it's a title once held by Andy Vores, Mike Gandolfi, and Peter Child, among others. That means something already. Hey, one of those guys has two names that are five letters each. I'll never have that distinction, except maybe some evenings when I've had too much to drink, and a taco.

And the pay? Less than one mortgage payment. Even our new shrunken mortgage payment since the refi. But there is the, you know, g-word. I have a title.

The coolest thing about the job is that I can write a piece a year for the orchestra, they will perform it, and I will get a very good recording. Since they've played several of my pieces already, I know they are very good, and I know where the strengths are. And since it is a community orchestra, I get to write stuff that maybe other orchestras will play. I haven't written a nested tuplet in many, many years — this is not where I'd start doing that again.

And indeed, I chose to write a piece with the working title Dance Episodes for next season. It's programmed for May 3, 2014. And not a note of it exists yet.

There will be thrown bows. That's an expression.

Why Dance Episodes? One of these days I'd like to write a full-length ballet. With intermission, and everything (I presume popcorn sales will fund the commission). This will be an opportunity to get ten or fifteen minutes of my feet wet for such an endeavour. Note the continental extra "u", and the really awkward mixing of metaphors there.

Better yet. Whenever I write for the orchestra, I get remunerated to the tune of two mortgage payments, with a little leftover for popcorn. Even at movie theater prices.

That's in addition to my usual stipend. And what do I do for that stipend? I use the title, and I do the prestigious call for scores.

Yes, that's another very cool thing about the orchestra. They have a yearly call for scores, and one of the submissions is chosen to be on a regular program the following season. It's a very, very nice opportunity, and the performances are always very good. The winning composer gets a nice line on the resumé, an orchestral royalty, and a free bag of popcorn.

I made that last part up. I'm going with themes, you see.

An excellent opportunity like this call for scores looks, to young composers, like one in a long list of many opportunities. Yes, there's a ton of opportunities for composers, and all of said composers are advised two things: take advantage of as many of them as possible, and steel yourself for rejection. It's one of very few instances where it's proper to use steel as a verb. The homonym used there would sillify the sentence greatly.

Having done these opportunities myself, back when I shaved regularly, I know how much work it is to put the entries into these opportunities together. And now that I shave less regularly, I give a lot of advice over e-mail to students, former students, and former former students on what to include in such a packet, and what kind of presentation to make. Surprisingly, every answer is different. Because, duh, every student and former student has written different pieces. It's my job to know those pieces. But secretly.

Is the past tense of steel stool? As in, I stool myself for rejection? But I kid.

Or do I?

Being on the entrant end of such things carries with it all kinds of anxiety, into which going will not be done by me here. Any composer reading this will know that of which speaking is done by me. Plus, it's pretty expensive.

Being on the other side of the process, though. I've served on plenty of panels, and it's a responsibility I take very seriously. I don't play favorites, I recuse myself from conflicts of interest when possible, and I always let everybody have popcorn before I take any. And most of these panels have been administered by an entity far greater than I, who can afford an administrative layer that can deal with the complexities of a call for scores (or a prize, or a commission, or a bag of really expensive popcorn).

To wit, one of the opportunities on whose panels I served had a whole layer of administration, from paid staff to multiple interns to do the grunt work. Submissions arrived and were logged and classified, materials were numerically organized, interns did the playback during the judging, and after the decisions were made, all the materials magically disappeared, as if by fairy dust. And the judges went out for an expensive meal.

And given that that opportunity has such vast outreach, not to mention reputation, the ratio of applicants to winners is very, very high. That's a lot of rejection letters to produce.

I didn't care. I was at the expensive meal, and boarding a plane the next day. I really liked the way they mixed the salad dressing right in front of you. Later, I got a reimbursement check for my incidentals, such as parking at the airport, etc.

And there is the call for scores that Composer In Residence guy (moi) does once a year. All those layers of administrative help? Not to be found. Free meals? Nope. A high altitude hike? Nope, stuck at 330 feet above sea level here.

And here's how it really went.

Oh wait. First an interruption. There's been a lot of unremitting text here. So here's a cat in a laundry hamper.

First, soon after it was announced that the orchestra had me as the CIR (I'm abbreviating now, rather a long word for such a thing), I got an e-mail from a former student asking if he/she should apply for the opportunity. I said, using nothing but truth, I don't play favorites for these things, and you wouldn't get any special preference. You'd be on a level playing field with the entire applicant pool. That said, if yours really was the best submission and was declared the winner, how much of those first two sentences would anyone else in the world believe? I did not see an entry from this composer. Relief.

And then there is the actual doing of stuff. Yes, that's what composition is about. Doing stuff. And so is a call for scores. Stuff that must be done by me when there's no administrative layers or interns.

The submissions went to a PO Box and were collected by the orchestra's manager. He has a full-time job at BU in addition to this managing gig, so he brought them all to his office. He logged in maybe half the submissions and removed the entry fee checks, but given that he has a full-time gig ...

And how did I get the submissions? Did they magically appear on my doorstep? Yes! Except that they were never on my doorstep, and I had to drive to BU (and back, duh) to pick them up — that's 55 minutes each way, much of it spent sandwiched around and between Boston drivers, who are notoriously the worst. The applications filled the trunk of my car. It was three trips to bring them from my car into my living room. And this may be a coincidence, but it was while I was doing this whole task that I aggravated an existing hernia, culminating in surgery just about ten days ago.

I'll go with the coincidence.

I spent two full days with the submissions. Two full days. During my April vacation. When I could have been writing music. When I should have been writing music. Also, I had to pull out the entry fee checks from a little more than half the applications and file them, to make sure that eventually someone would get them.

Did all the entry fees add up to a figure that would pay my CIR stipend? Nope. It turns out that this isn't an opportunity funded by the entry fee.

And while I'm at it, I always advise against entering anything with an entry fee. Especially this one. Because next year that would be less work for me.

And also. This year's application pool was 1.7 times as large as last year's. Just sayin'.

So I did my usual oohing and aahing over two days about how few kinds of beginnings that composers writing for orchestra think of, at the professionality of so many of them, at the quality of many of the recordings, and all. At the end of my part of the process, I had four that I liked the best.

In a perfect world, a world with unlimited interns, all the scores and packets would have magically disappeared right around then. Somehow, they didn't. Instead, the nonwinners were all packed up and stuck ... in our side porch. The only place we have with space for them where they wouldn't get moldy. My wife has commented many, many times on how nice it would be to have them out of there.

Then the glamour increased some more. I took just the scores and recordings of the four finalists out of the packages, being sure to keep the documentation with contact information. And what did I do with them? I packaged them in a mailing bag that I myself had bought, walked it to the post office, and mailed it to the conductor using money that just happened to be resident in my wallet at that moment. Several days later he and I had a long phone conversation about those four pieces, and it was clear he knew them all encyclopedically. And we decided on a winner.

Still, the packets did not magically disappear.

I know, dear reader, that you'd like something else to break up the text. So here's some rosemary chicken just as I started to grill it.

The rosemary came from my own garden. I rule.

Finally, after school finished, I had that operation, etc., and it came time for the time of notification to those who did not win (I could have said those who lost, but there are no losers here. You can't win if you don't play. Then again, you don't lose if you don't play. Etc.).

Davy the Intern is what I became. And notification involved three kinds of things: applicants who sent mailing bags and postage for return of materials (the dreaded SASE); applicants who sent e-mail addresses; and applicants who sent only postal addresses. So already, three kinds of ways of responding.

First, I asked the orchestra manager to set up an e-mail account for my official capacity as CIR. Which he did. So I have yet another gmail account. And this one is notification only. Or at least I say it is. Because, you know, not one hundred percent of nonwinners are gracious nonwinners. Some will dislike me intensely but generically, and some will want to know specifically why they didn't win, what they did wrong. The correct and truthful answer I don't remember your application usually would not suffice.

And I spent an entire morning generating gracious but terse letters — using the name of the applicant and of the applicant's piece — and packaging materials into the SASEs. But that was only part of it. Because then there was the trip to the post office. It's not straightforward, you see.

The first time I was ever involved in a call for scores was the early 90s when I taught at Columbia and was living in rural Massachusetts, and the Griffin Music Ensemble had such a thing. When it was over, I did that packaging of stuff into the SASEs and brought it to the local rural post office to be sent out. Which prompted the postmaster of said post office to invite me into his office to give me a gentle but stern talking to about how these things should have been packaged, how this stuff is supposed to go in a perfect postal world, just so I would know that next time. There's not going to be a next time didn't seem to faze said postmaster. The lecture continued while I waited for the iPod to be invented.

So I was going to the post office with a pile of what a bunch of different composers thought the standards were for SASEs, and, true to form, of all the counter help at the local post office, I got Attitude Guy. Attitude Guy don't take no guff, because he doesn't know what guff is. He's been waiting for guff, man.

Here are my cats enjoying the blanket under which I recovered for the first week after the operation.

My opening gambit, given my experience with such things, was to identify these as packages done by others, but in more words than that. His response: Excuse me?

So ... package by package, he went through, guffless. When he said This should be stamped MEDIA MAIL I said I don't care. To which he said I can just give these all back to you right now and I won't send any of them out. Apparently I don't care qualifies as guff. Man.

So I stood there silently as he went through package by package, stamping MEDIA MAIL on some of them. The last one was 25 cents short on postage. I paid that 25 cents out of the goodness of my own heart.

Oh, by the way, composers. When you send an SASE, it'd be nice if you'd include at least as much postage on the package as is required. You don't want to see me wasting my time on silly comebackers like Show them no quarter, do you?

So then there were the rest of the applications. Of which there were a lot. Using a mixture of e-mails and letters stuffed into envelopes -- did I mention I copied the orchestra's logo off the webpage and used it, cleverly so, to create an official envelope? I rule. -- I spent another entire morning printing letters, printing envelopes, and sending e-mails. Then, another trip to the post office, a book of stamps bought on my own dime (it was more than that), and four international postage stamps.

Glamour, I tell you. Remind me not to pursue a career as an intern.

But then again, I am writing ballet music.

Meanwhile, all those applications. Still on the porch.