by Aiden Feltkamp, ACO Emerging Composers & Diversity Director
As ACO’s Emerging Composers and Diversity Director, I consult for ensembles who wish to create a more inclusive call for scores. I often hear the same questions: How can we be clear that we want to include composers from diverse backgrounds? What causes people to self-select out and not apply? What are barriers to entry for composers? How can I increase and diversify my application pool?
These are great questions! They’re also the questions we ask ourselves at ACO as we continually tweak our EarShot application. For us, there is not an end to our learning. Each season, we review and adjust our guidelines, eligibility and application to reflect new ideas and feedback from composers.
EarShot is an orchestral reading program that features composers who have had no more than one work performed by professional orchestras. It began as the Whitaker readings 30 years ago, continued as the Underwood Readings, and has since expanded to include four readings per season: three with partner orchestras around the US and one in New York City with ACO. The EarShot readings have expanded internationally to Beijing, China and Aguascalientes, Mexico.
Through implementing successful inclusion research from other fields, interviewing prospective applicants from marginalized communities and analyzing the efficacy of our attempts, we’ve made many changes to our application process over the years. Explore those changes below, along with detailed explanations, and let us know your thoughts on this approach.
We’re writing about this subject in the hopes of creating, and sharing, an application process with fewer barriers to those from marginalized communities. We’d like for this to be the beginning of a larger conversation. If you have questions or suggestions based on anything written here, please feel free to write in the comment section. We’re always learning, and welcome the opportunity to hear from you.
Leveling the Field by Removing Requirements
Letters of Recommendation
Recommendation letters reenforce systemic biases, as Michelle Iwen explains here. They double down on unconscious biases, as well as provide an unnecessary impediment to applicants from outside the traditional conservatory and music school circuit. Like all industries, networking and “who you know” greatly impacts a composer’s access to opportunity and advancement within the field. A marginalized composer may not have a mentor they can ask for a recommendation letter, or they may feel that they’re over-burdening the mentors they have in asking for letters. If we’re looking to cast a wider net and diversify our application pool, we need to find those outside our expected set of applicants.
Another reason we removed recommendation letters came from surveying emerging composers regarding our application. We asked, “What’s a reason you might not submit to this opportunity?” and we were told multiple times that several aspects of our application made it seem that we cared more about the “professionalism” of the submitted work than the content of it. The ask for recommendation letters was one of those signifiers.
Much like recommendation letters, resumes are used to gatekeep and were flagged for reenforcing a priority on “professionalism.” Since our review process focuses on the scores submitted, we realized that the resumes were unnecessary. A composer’s previous accomplishments, outside those that determine eligibility for the readings, don’t play into the selection process.
Live recordings of any quality can be prohibitively expensive. When recordings aren’t available, many composers lean on MIDI renderings. While MIDI renderings have their use, they aren’t always helpful in hearing the potential of an orchestral work. Therefore, those who are able to submit a recording are at a distinct advantage over those who need to use MIDI. And those who don’t submit either are at even more of a disadvantage. By eliminating the option, we level the playing field. This decision requires a review and selection panel of people who can read a score and imagine the outcome without the use of a recording, but in the end, it makes for a more equitable process.
Composer Nina Shekhar in her interview with I Care If You Listen describes the phenomenon of “professionalism” in classical music in this way: “One of the main criticisms people make about promoting diversity is that somehow the quality is diminished–that we should pick the ‘best’ pieces regardless of who writes them. The problem with this statement is that the standards by which we judge ‘quality’ are inherently skewed. We judge things based on white, male-centered standards. Encouraging diversity doesn’t mean diminishing quality, it means rethinking what we value in each other’s work from different perspectives.”
When we implemented these changes, we saw a 28% increase in applications from Black composers, Indigenous composers, and composers of color (BIPOC), and a 7% increase from women, transgender, and nonbinary composers.
Encouraging Diversity by Expanding Eligibility
Re-submission of Scores
Previously, we didn’t accept re-submissions of a piece that had been submitted for an EarShot call and not chosen for a reading. This meant that strong scores were passed over, then exempted from consideration for reasons not always related to quality (such as programming needs, personal preference of the reviewer or partner orchestra Music Director, etc.). We’ve amended this to accepting re-submissions, via invitations made to composers whose works were ranked by the review panel in the top 15% of the scores. Since we receive around 150-300 new scores each call, that means that around 20-45 scores are invited for re-submission.
According to our survey of composers submitting to our call for scores, orchestral works that are submitted to an EarShot call for scores are almost always written “on spec.” In other words, the composer has not been compensated for the time they spent writing the piece. Since it’s financially prohibitive to spend time working unpaid, asking for multiple works “on spec” is a huge barrier to entry for composers.
On the programming side, it’s in our best interest to invite re-submissions. Each EarShot call is highly competitive, so some compelling works are passed over because spots are limited, not because the composer is unqualified to participate. Anyone who’s been in artistic planning knows that small details and other considerations decide which works will be read or performed. Giving those works that were passed over another chance is in the orchestra’s best interest.
From research in other fields, we know that unconscious biases have a profound effect on review processes. Therefore, an important aspect of inviting re-submission is continually changing and diversifying the review panel. For each call for scores, we utilize a different panel of three composers for round one. These reviewers look at every score that’s submitted. The panel varies each time in terms of demographic, stylistic, and experiential diversity, and we’re continually expanding the pool of score reviewers for this process. There are two more rounds of review, and those panels always involve a different combination of administrators, artistic planners, conductors, and orchestra musicians. By diversifying and rotating the reviewers, we can mitigate some of the unconscious (and conscious) biases that inevitably affect the review process.
Another tool to mitigate the unconscious biases of the reviewers is to unblind the submissions. When the reviewers know more about the composer and the submitted work, they can be aware of how their unconscious biases affect their reception of the work and adjust their judgement accordingly.
When we began our partnership with the Aguascalientes Symphony Orchestra in our 2019-2020 season, we created a Spanish language version of the application. Once we did this, we realized that we should have had a bilingual application all along. We currently have a single application with English and Spanish instructions side by side.
Self-Identifying Gender, Race/Ethnicity and Additional Identities
Another expansion we’ve implemented revolves around the demographic sections on our application. Each demographic section has a write-in option, labeled “Additional” rather than “Other.” Checking “Other” is an alienating experience, and further reenforces the idea that there’s a majority (“normal”) demographic and an “other.” Each section is also created in such a way that you’re encouraged to choose all that apply, rather than just one.
Here are the options we’ve provided for the following categories:
Gender: Female, Male, Intersex, Transgender, Nonbinary, Agender
Race/Ethnicity: Arab/Middle Eastern, Asian, Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, Jewish, Latina/e/o, Pacific Islander, South Asian, White
Additional Demographics: Chronically Ill, Disabled, English as a New Language, Neurodivergent, Veteran
As we’ve implemented these changes, we’ve seen a shift in our EarShot composers who participate in the readings. Over the past 3 years, BIPOC participants have increased from 39% to 69%, and gender-marginalized composer participants have increased from 33% to 57%.
If you’re a composer, what requirements on an application keep you from applying – and what kinds of invitations would make you excited to participate? If you’re an administrator, how have you been changing your applications to invite diversified participation? What have you learned from your applicants or from other fields that could be applied here? We’d love to hear your thoughts on the strategies we’ve outlined above, and other modifications you’ve found to be helpful.
LauraMay 25, 2021 at 3:38 pm
This post is such a great resource. I recently submitted an application for a BIPOC composer to a commissioning grant opportunity. The granting organization prides themselves on having a blind review process, and emphasized that recordings of the composer’s previous work must be of the highest quality to advance. They also said they would like to prioritize commissioning a diverse group of composers. There is a such a disconnect, as BIPOC composers they are supposedly seeking out may have significantly less opportunity to have their works professionally recorded.
Aiden FeltkampMay 27, 2021 at 9:07 pm
Thank you for your feedback! I know the blind/unblind submissions and auditions are a point of some debate, but I’m firmly on the side of unblinding everything and carefully deciding who’s on the review panel.
I’d also love to find ways to provide more recordings to composers. If you have ideas on that, definitely let me know!
RobertComposerMay 25, 2021 at 3:40 pm
Aiden FeltkampMay 27, 2021 at 9:03 pm
This is definitely a concern we’ve been looking to wrangle. What are ways you’ve seen others be successful at combatting this? Does the term ’emerging’ make it uninviting to you?
Rain WorthingtonMay 28, 2021 at 12:45 am
Yes, chiming in agreement with RobertComposer’s one word comment “Ageism?”
Absolutely, the term “emerging” eliminates application possibilities. Ageism is rampant in the field of contemporary concert music, as the elephant in the room that no one wants to acknowledge. Everyone knows discovery of the hottest new composer is a marketing asset, commissioning and fundraising draw. And while it’s great that there are so many opps for up-and-coming young composers, it’s also a shame that many who have been plugging away through times when opportunities weren’t so abundant are now excluded because of age.
Alonso del ArteMay 25, 2021 at 7:59 pm
I think the main problem is that these national reading sessions are just too important, and not in a good way. I’ve been repeatedly rejected from these and gotten sarcastic, inactionable feedback that insults my intelligence, and that’s it, my orchestral music is trapped in my head, no way to get it out.
If there was some kind of local initiative where local orchestras would play the music of local composers, then readings like the Underwood wouldn’t be such a damn do-or-die proposition, in which some composers narrowly miss the cutoff in some poorly explained metric.
And who the hell determines what the top 15% of scores are? A weak-willed committee with an arbitrary rubric? Vagn Holmboe is acknowledged now as one of Denmark’s greatest composers. His Symphony No. 2 was rejected first round in a contest. The conductor Egisto Tango was dissatisfied with all the first round picks and asked to see the rejects. The rest is history. I don’t think I’m gonna find my Egisto Tango in a highly bureaucratized system like what we’ve got here.
Denmark is roughly the size of two Massachusetts. If each of the fifty states had a local reading program, Underwood wouldn’t be such a do-or-die thing. I think you should stop worrying about the whole world and just concentrate on the local composers in New York. With only local contests, you’d have fewer scores, but you’d be able to read more of them and give the rest honest, thoughtful and actionable feedback.
The best feedback is hearing your music played by an actual orchestra. Some of the local composers will be satisfied to hear their music just once, and then move on to other endeavors.
Instead, you antagonize composers. They scrutinize the winning scores and are completely puzzled as to what is so good about those scores and so bad about their own. High trumpet entrances, double basses divisi, that’s what won? Who do I have to bribe?
Lower the stakes for composers in New York. Don’t worry about anywhere else.
Aiden FeltkampMay 27, 2021 at 9:01 pm
Thank you for taking time to give us feedback. I’ve emailed you with Melissa Ngan’s number. She’s happy to speak with you about this.
ErnestoMay 25, 2021 at 8:16 pm
This “emerging” description has confused me. What is this, some kind of backhanded ageism? At 67, I’m trying to get a first-ever playing, that’s all. I find myself asking administrators “am I too old?”… “no” is always the answer, but it is hard to believe that my work is being looked at. My youtube submission link for the Minnesota Reading did not register a single view, (yes, it will tell you, and how long a work is listened to as well), and some of them are private videos set up for the purpose of tracking.
The elephant in the room is……………….. style… “composers of all styles of music are invited to apply…” but everything that seems to get played sounds more or less in what seems to be “contemporary academese”– extended techniques, vague textures, inscrutable structure, should I even mention melody? I am not saying your picks are not good, but they do not reflect the musical diversity that is happening. That being said, the ACO is a light of hope for composers.
Aiden FeltkampMay 27, 2021 at 8:58 pm
Thank you for taking the time to write to us. The “emerging” word is definitely loaded. I agree with you that it alienates those who are older. With American culture’s obsession with ‘the young prodigy,’ I’m sure that you are often left out of opportunities designed for composers who haven’t had their work read by orchestra.
Is there another word or term that you’d suggest instead? Would something like “early career” be better, worse, or just the same?
Thank you again for your thoughtful feedback!
Aiden FeltkampMay 27, 2021 at 9:01 pm
Ah, I realize I didn’t address your comment about style. This is something that I’ve noticed as well, and have been working to try and change by making sure that our review panels have a diverse team on them. Is there something else you’d suggest?
Joao MacdowellMay 26, 2021 at 6:52 pm
We need cultural alternatives to the pipeline. The pipeline has been contaminated by a virus of 20th Century European pessimism. This disease has contaminated composers from all backgrounds. Original voices are bound to lose their power by the time the composer acquires the necessary “professional skills”. The consequences are empty halls and a profusion of irrelevant music that is either boring, academic, or both. This is no secret. We all know that the few exciting composers in the orchestral scene have become relevant despite the pipeline. We need not a mere course correction. We need to engage in full reverse gear and actively seek composition talent hidden in unexpected places. We need to train a new school of composers with the tools of orchestral writing without the stigma of the decadent Euro-Centric obsolete practice. IBOC has been doing that for the last 8 years in NY. AOC still has a long way to go.
Aiden FeltkampMay 27, 2021 at 8:56 pm
This is a great point! I agree that cultural alternatives into orchestral writing and readings are crucial to the future of the art form. Too much of orchestral concert music in the United States is homogenous, stemming from the Western European tradition and not much else.
I’d love your thoughts on finding talent in unexpected places. Things that I’ve tried so far include reaching out to HBCUs, community colleges, and state colleges to build relationships with those composition departments. We’ve also sought to foster relationships with music schools that teach genres outside the Western Classical tradition and reached out in online forums with more diverse community members, since not every composer goes through music school. What did you have in mind? What else would help in identifying talent outside the conservatories and music schools?
Yes, I agree that ACO still has work to do. Thank you for taking the time to write to us — it’s appreciated!
Toure G ThompsonMay 30, 2021 at 4:04 am
Aiden Feltkamp, you and I had an interesting exchange back in January 2019 when you informed me that an EarShot/Underwood submission that I had made (a string orchestra piece, screened out due to not being a piece for full orchestra) was not selected, and I appreciate the encouragement you gave me in that online written conversation. Here, I repeat a response I made to you to indicate that the situation that I was in remains ongoing. Do you remember?
“I am the test-case for the amateur composer who has few musical connections for getting readings and performances. And the music of such amateurs just keeps piling up — unseen, unheard, unread, unperformed. That is why it is important for forums like the one you represent to enforce a level playing field such that the works of the amateur, but skilled, artist can be taken as seriously as the work of more formally trained artists.”
Since our previous exchange, I have upgraded my score-writer devices and improved my skills in online transfer of score and sound files , but I still need to upgrade again to have full power to produce orchestra scores. I also completed the four-movement string piece that I was composing when I sent the performable fragment that was rejected. Not only do I think the piece is good, but I think it is my best work to date. I have not been lucky to get a forum to take on any part of this piece yet, but I’ll keep trying. When the time and circumstances are right, I may try again with EarShot. I’ll just keep composing, keep getting better at it.
I admit, however, that I still feel a certain “imposter syndrome” due to my minimal formal training and lack of connections. Even as an amateur composer, I wish to be taken seriously and have my music evaluated on its own merits; I do not wish to be dismissed as a mere self-trained “hack”. I earn my living as a natural science professor; the scientific world (especially in the astronomy realm) has had a long history of appreciation for the contributions of the hobbyist “citizen scientist” and readily invites him/her to professional forums, perhaps even allowing him/her opportunities to give presentations that will be scrutinized for quality just as the work of professional scientists would be. I lament that I don’t get that sense of amateur appreciation in the realm of musical composition. Why is that?
I agree with previous comments on ageism on the world of new music. I do take some offense to calls for scores that have a young age-restriction on eligible applicants. Unless a score call is specifically targeted to young applicants, I see no sense in age-restrictions. I also agree with a previous commenter that “new music” carries as much baggage as the term “emerging composer”, in that it implies harsh, angular, dissonant, unrhythmic music devoid of anything approaching a melody or a tune, appreciated almost exclusively by musical academics. Does the world of new music have room anymore for melodies, thematic development, and regular structures like sonata form? I will admit that, even though I might find new music intellectually interesting, much of it leaves me emotionally cold, feeling nothing (which, I understand, is exactly the response that some modern composers want).
The term “emerging composer” can be loaded in multiple ways, but the implication that a composer is young (say, less than thirty years old) is reasonably presumed. We want to discover the next Wunderkind. But I think the world of musical composition should be big enough (and humble enough) to recognize the potential in persons who are older and/or not as formally trained. And if it continues to make room for non-white and female composers, then that is all the better. There may be better descriptors than “emerging composer”, but I can’t think of any right now. If the compositional community is truly serious about taking steps to maximize demographic (e. g., age, sex, nationality, etc.), facilitative (e. g., professional/amateur, formally trained/self-taught, scores written by electronic scorewriter/by hand), and stylistic (e. g., tonal/atonal, with/without extended techniques, melodic/non-melodic, etc.) inclusivity, then the issue of charged implications associated with the expression “emerging composer” would no longer exist.
May this discussion continue indefinitely, as I am certain that a number of interesting ideas and views will arise from it. Thanks for addressing this issue, Aiden.