Eighth Blackbird
Eighth Blackbird Credit: Luke Ratray

Say you make a business decision that blows up on you—a choice so misguided that the instant it’s announced the world careens a little. Word spreads, Web comments mushroom, and before you know it a global dissection of your blunder is underway. Say also that you run an established cultural institution, and it finally dawns on you that this move runs contrary to everything it stands for. What can you do? The damage is done. The genie can’t be pushed back into the bottle.

Or can it?

Last winter, looking to accomplish a couple of worthy goals, Chicago’s Grammy-winning, internationally acclaimed Eighth Blackbird launched a composition contest. Eighth Blackbird is a classical sextet that mostly performs the work of living composers—21st-century music, so new it’s often just popped from brain to page. Like the Spice Girls, says spokesman and flutist Tim Munro, the ensemble was synthesized: a professor clumped six students together at Oberlin College in the mid-1990s. Consisting now of violinist Matt Albert, cellist Nicholas Photinos, percussionist Matthew Duvall, pianist Lisa Kaplan, clarinetist Michael Maccaferri, and Munro, it’s run by consensus, with artistic and administrative duties split among the members, aided by administrative director Chris Richardson.

In residence—teaching, mentoring, performing—at the universities of Chicago and Richmond, Blackbird spends six months a year on the road giving polished, intense performances of a repertoire that includes just three or four fresh pieces annually. The mission is to introduce new music to an audience beyond the tiny core of devotees it usually attracts. According to Munro, the contest was intended to help the group discover new voices and “give more back to the compositional community than we’re usually able to do.”

Announced in February, with a deadline of May 15, the Eighth Blackbird Composition Competition called for new pieces written expressly for Blackbird’s array of instruments, submitted electronically and accompanied by a $50 fee. The prize was to be $1,000. The lucky winner would’ve also gotten a single-day workshop of the piece and a performance of it by Blackbird at Blackbird’s Ravenswood studio—which can seat 100—plus $500 for trip expenses. Munro says the guidelines were modeled in part on other contests the members had judged. Richardson adds that he also had in mind screenwriting contests, which routinely charge entry fees. With only six people to review what could’ve been a small avalanche of submissions, the thinking was that a fee would keep the number of entries manageable.

On February 12 composer Christian Carey posted a response to their announcement on the music site Sequenza21. “I have the utmost respect for Eighth Blackbird,” Carey wrote before characterizing the competition as “a process that feels exploitative” and “a handy way to self-fund the commission of a new work for the ensemble.” Carey invited comments, and over the next two weeks he got more than a hundred, some defending Blackbird but others complaining that the application fee was too high, the cash prize “appallingly” low, the deadline too early, the workshop too short, and the performance venue too obscure. The requirement that entrants submit a completed piece, and for Blackbird’s particular configuration of instruments, moreover, carried with it all the bad baggage of crowdsourcing—the practice of putting out a call for, say, a complete corporate logo design to get dozens or even hundreds of submitters vying on spec for a cut-rate fee.

Responses from some composers opened a window on a painfully inequitable relationship with established performing groups. “The composer is the least powerful and most exploited of the new nonpop world,” wrote Dennis Báthory-Kitsz. “I am stunned by the number of groups that are demanding handouts from the very people they profess to support.” Stanley Moon noted that “the losers are paying for the winner’s commission,” and David Laganella suggested parallels to Bernie Madoff and AIG.

The Blackbird members were shocked. “It was not something we saw coming,” Munro says. “We were blindsided by it. We had a lot of discussions, wondering what to do.” And “the level of vitriol actually ramped up” after Richardson posted a defense on Sequenza21. “There was some shock and awe. We were a little naive. We hadn’t done as much research as we could’ve, and we weren’t used to taking the flak.”

As the first submissions started trickling in, the players debated their response. “We went back and forth on it,” Munro recalls. “For a while it was the majority opinion that we should keep the competition going.” But in the end, they looked at the comments and at some specific suggestions that had emerged and came to an unanimous decision. A month after the contest had started, Richardson posted an announcement on Blackbird’s site calling a halt to it and explaining that it would be retooled and reopened by June. “I think this counts as a Swallowing Our Pride moment,” he wrote. Entry fees and compositions—which could be resubmitted—were returned.

On June 23 they launched what’s now called the Finale National Composition Contest.

Picking up on suggestions made on Sequenza21, Blackbird added MakeMusic—manufacturer of the Finale line of composition software—and the American Composers Forum as partners who’ll provide financial and administrative support. The entry fee is gone, and the requirement stipulating which instruments can be used has been dropped. Composers are simply asked to submit up to three works written within the last five years. Three finalists will be chosen based on those samples and given five months to write an eight-to-ten-minute sextet for Blackbird, for which each will get $1,000, $500 in travel expenses, a weekend workshop culminating in a performance at Blackbird’s studio, and an archival recording. One of the three will then be declared the winner, receiving an additional $2,000 prize and a higher-profile public premiere of the work by Blackbird at a location to be named. The new entry deadline is September 15.

“They’ve really done the right thing,” says Christian Carey. “They’re going to get a wider and better pool than they would if they were charging $50 per entry, and three composers are going to have a chance to workshop their pieces, expenses paid, with a top ensemble. For an emerging composer, this is a wonderful opportunity.”

The ensemble feel they’re back on track. “When we first decided to postpone the competition there was a lot of negative feeling in the group,” Munro says. “We felt like we hadn’t done as well [as we should have], and there was some feeling of resentment towards some of the vitriol we’d received. But what’s great is something positive has come out of it. We all feel that this competition is something we can really get behind.”