In the world of music composition, trash-talking just doesn’t work.
Here’s Jeremiah Li’s best attempt: “I’m going to write something better than you.”
That’s the best bulletin-board material he could come up with. Maybe smack talk should be confined to sports.
But with a first-ever composer competition coming up this week at Kansas University, who knows what to expect?
Li, a doctoral student, is among those gearing up for the Iron Composer competition, a takeoff of the popular TV series “Iron Chef.”
It works this way: At 8 a.m. Wednesday, eight KU composition students will gather at Murphy Hall. Forrest Pierce, assistant professor of composition, will give the students a “secret ingredient” — some element their compositions must contain.
Then, the students will have 24 hours to write a one-minute piece of music. After those are turned in at 8 a.m. Thursday, an ensemble will learn all the works.
Then, during a concert at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Swarthout Recital Hall, the compositions will meet in a NCAA basketball tournament-style bracket competition. The two composer finalists left standing then must write another piece, using another secret ingredient, in 15 minutes to determine the winner. The champion will receive a yet-to-be-determined prize from the KU Bookstores, a co-sponsor.
Sound crazy? That’s the idea.
“It’s unheard of,” Pierce says. “Twenty-four hours is almost no time at all to create a work of art you’re going to put on stage. We have no idea what’s going to happen, but it’ll be an awful lot of fun.”
Pierce would give no indication what the secret ingredient might be, but possibilities might include an unusual instrument combination or a certain chord progression.
Daniel Goldschmidt, a junior from Minneapolis, Minn., is already thinking about those possibilities to get ahead in the competition.
“I don’t know if I can possibly really cheat on this, but I might get some ideas ahead of time — a melody at least,” he says.
Usually, when Goldschmidt is working on deadline, it’s because he’s put something off until the last minute.
“There are always deadlines with real composition, but usually you have a deadline of months or weeks, versus 24 hours,” he says. “I’ve done stuff the night before, but never the full product that’s a written score in a marathon session.”
Li, who is from Singapore and is in his first year of the doctoral program, is convinced that his experience will help him with the competition.
“Good composition doesn’t come from inspiration,” he says. “It comes from technique.”
Still, if he makes it to the final round, he’s not sure he can write something in 15 minutes.
“If I don’t hit something in the first minute, I’m probably dead,” he says. “It’s not so much a competition as it is a competition against yourself, to see if I can do it.”
Pierce, the faculty member, says there is some practical application for being able to write quickly. Often, a colleague in academia will approach a professor/composer with a request that requires a quick turnaround time. The Iron Composer competition will help prepare students for that situation, he says.
“I don’t know they’ll stay up all night or not,” Pierce says, “but if I were them, I would.”
There are about 20 students — divided evenly between undergraduate and graduate students — who are studying composition at KU, Pierce says. Unlike some other university programs that specialize in particular types of composition — for instance, electronica, movies or symphonic — KU trains students to pursue whatever their compositional interests are.
“We’re an unusual school in that we are extremely ecumenical in terms of what a career in composing entails,” Pierce says. “We don’t focus on academic composing or film. We’re here to help a student hone an interest they feel passionate about.”
Goldschmidt is hoping the composition can open up some avenues for his composing career — even if it just involves bragging rights. But he’s not sweating it too much.
“It’s such a ridiculous thing,” he says. “This isn’t the Olympics. They’re not going to make any movies about composer competitions.”