From the Spring, 2004 issue

Feedback

by AL BENNER

As if there aren't enough controversies to deal with these days, a new one has arisen in our own special world of academic music conferences. This one concerns the question of whether and, if so, how feedback should be given to composers who submit their compositions for possible performance at conference events. Should those who receive "rejection slips" be advised of the reason or reasons for the rejection? The topic has received enough attention through an e-mail Listserv of late that I though I might weigh in with my own thoughts (and experiences) with regard to it.

At first blush, the question seems to be a no brainer. Of course, composers are entitled to know why their compositions haven't passed muster. That can only lead to improvement in both the compositions themselves and in the programs that feature them. Who could argue with that?

Well, after reading most of the e-mail comments and being fairly fortified by some direct personal experience, I find that I'm one who can argue with that. Here goes...

As with so many things, the problem is not so much whether something should be done as with whether it can be done effectively in actual practice. To begin with, is the reason for a composition's acceptance or rejection ever really clear? It is, after all, a value judgment dependent as much on the evaluator's mindset as on the work itself. Can such things ever be communicated with clarity and objectivity? That leads on to further questions. Is the individual making the judgment qualified to do so? Does he or she have enough time to properly evaluate the numerous submissions? How about the politics of the matter? If the composition is too difficult to be performed by the available artist or artists, can that be told to the composer? Those are only a few of the questions that spring to mind almost without thought. And when they do, the answers often come back as either ambiguous "no's" or with sufficient cautionary hesitation to make one wonder.

I am one composer whose recent rejection was accompanied by a form purporting to offer useful feedback. Instead, it forced evaluation of my composition into a rigid framework that simply didn't work. In trying to accommodate to the form, the evaluator made comments that suggested that he or she hadn't spend enough time with the work to understand its structure; or if he or she did, the comments raised questions as to his or her qualifications to judge my composition in the first place.

I'll have to admit that I was at first angered by this. But after thought, I realized that it could hardly have been otherwise for most of the rejected compositions. All of us who are at all familiar with conference arrangements know that submissions must go through a winnowing screen of considerations that have nothing to do with their quality. Are there artists to perform them? Do they fit the program structure? Are their submitters owed anything because of past relationships? Are there geographical considerations? You readers can expand the list without difficulty. And the answers to many of them are not the type that the conference organizers could give and still remain pc.

What I come to in the end is the conclusion that submission feedback is one of those good ideas that would work in a very small proportion of cases, be useless in the large majority, and actually do mischief in a small, but not inconsequential, share. Let's give a hearty round of applause to those conference hosts that have tried it, then relegate the idea to the ever growing heap of good intentions that have been tried and found wanting.