Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes Modest Mussorgsky: Complete Songs

You Know It When You Hear It

For 35 years – from 1984 until 2019 – I was part of a composers’ collective called “Composers, Inc.” As originally construed, we were six San Francisco Bay Area composers that banded together to produce concerts of new American music, concert that would – obviously – include our own, under-performed and under-appreciated works as well. Over the years, we staged hundreds of world and West Coast premieres and contributed mightily, or so we all continue to believe, to the American new music scene.

Self-congratulations can be unseemly but, in this case, they are deserved.

Composers, Inc. in April 1987; left-to-right, Robert Greenberg; Ron McFarland; Elinor Armer; Frank LaRocca; Mark Miller; Martin Rokeach
Composers, Inc. in April 1987; left-to-right, yours truly; Ron McFarland; Elinor Armer; Frank LaRocca; Mark Miller; Martin Rokeach

Fairly early in the organization’s life, Composers, Inc. instituted a composition contest, which came to be known as the “Suzanne and Lee Ettelson Composition Competition.” Composers from across the United States were invited to submit chamber works to Composers, Inc. An administrator logged the entries and removed any names and identifying marks from the scores and recordings. Those scores and recordings (usually between 300 and 400) were then divided into six groups/batches. Each of the six composers that made up the “Artistic Board” of Composers, Inc. (the photo above) then listened to two batches of music. (This way, every entry was heard by two different composer jurors.) Finally, having (hopefully) isolated a few potential winners, we convened as a group, usually at my house, to listen and argue and eat and choose our two winners. (Early on we gave a first and second prize, but that was idiotically arbitrary, so we just started giving two equal prizes.) Those prizes were $1000 cash and a performance on the following season’s program.

In listening to two batches of compositions each, each of us had to listen to over 100 pieces of new music in the course of a judging. This might sound like a terrible, even tortuous chore. A chore it was but tortuous it was not. That’s because most of the works were submitted by well-meaning amateurs, who believed that their scrawled “magnum opuses” was going to take the world by storm and make them famous. As such, each of us developed our own methods of triage, by which we could get through our pieces as painlessly and in as timely a manner as possible. Here was mine.

First, I’d simply look at the score. If the score was notated in such a way as to indicate its “composer” clearly didn’t know what they were doing, or was illegible, or was written in crayon (I kid you not), etc., I did not bother listening to the accompanying recording at all. Bye-bye.

If the score looked promising, I’d start listening. I stopped listening after the first ten seconds roughly 50% of the time. That’s all the time it took to know if someone had something to say. (Harsh, you think? Not at all. A coach can tell instantly if someone is athletic. A dance master can tell instantly whether someone can dance. An attorney can tell instantly if someone has the intelligence to grasp the big picture. A writer can tell instantly if someone can write, and so on.)

If I kept listening after ten seconds, I would listen far enough to ask myself “Is this a potential prize winner?” If the answer was no, I’d stop listening after a couple of minutes. If the answer was yes – if I was intrigued – I’d listen to the end. In a double batch of 100-plus pieces, I’d listen to – maybe – five of them from beginning to end. Of those five, I’d bring perhaps two or three to the attention of the other composers during our judging. Far more often than not, the best pieces were singled out by both of the “jurors” that listened to them.

So you see, the judging was a chore but not a terrible one, as the vast majority of the works could be dismissed within seconds.

The opposite holds as well: a sympathetic listener knows, to the core of their being, knows when they are in the presence of greatness.…

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