I came across an interesting quote by Charles Ives the other day. In speaking on composition contests and prizes he says, “They’re the badges of mediocrity.” Which I could not agree with more. How many times have there been prestigious awards given out to pieces that display technique such as orchestration, but lack any artistic vision or statement. This is not to comment on any composers’ styles (or lack there of), but every style has an artistic vision and to be successful, the piece should communicate that with the audience. Whether the audience picks up on it or not is their perception, but to not challenge yourself as a composer or challenge your audience to grasp something bigger than the both of you is a complete waste of time. Why write a piece just to write one?
There’s also the question of the judging panel. Panels are comprised of several different judges usually theorists, musicologists, and a few composers. This fact in itself can ensure mediocrity within contest situations. Pleasing theorists, musicologists, and composers is not an easy task. Many theorists and musicologists still do not like Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg, so how can we expect them to enjoy pieces by today’s composers? The answer is that they enjoy the styles and techniques of composers that remind them of Beethoven, Mozart, etc. We all as composers have learned a great deal from these composers of the past, but we have transformed these concepts throughout history so that they are no longer recognized as related. Now, this is getting into styles of composers because prizes should be awarded to the innovators of today. Europe does a fairly decent job in this, but the United States has some catching up to do. Some of today’s most performed American orchestral composers embody the term “mediocre.”
This watered down composing that is prevalent today is quickly rewarded because it is not a challenge for anyone. The pulse is steady, there is a clear melody and motivic development, and a transparent form. Being acquainted with forms of the past is valuable, but we no longer need to adhere so strictly to them.
In summary, it is appalling that about 80 years ago in Charles Ives’s day, that his statement against prize awarding still holds true. To avoid any confusion, I am not saying that only “atonal” or dissonant works should be awarded and are the only innovations. For example, George Rochberg was a well respected serial composer, but after his son died, he felt he couldn’t express his loss using this technique. Therefore, he started writing tonal music, but maintained his own personal aesthetic within the language. All too often it seems that the system or means of deriving material become the piece itself, rather than a vehicle to arrive at an end. And it appears that the means are rewarded far more than the ends, which allows for these one-dimensional pieces to be recognized over and over again.
There is hope, however, and this hope lies within the contemporary music groups that are comprised of young performers and composers seeking to promote innovative voices of today. These groups are the defenders against mediocrity and actively commission and reward the original voices of the present world.