509 Grant Applications, 5 Jurors, 5 Days

The New York Foundation on the Arts has just announced their Award Fellows in the category of music/sound as well as in the categories of architecture, choreography, fiction, painting, photography, playwriting and video. You can see a complete list of the Fellows here.

I was a juror on this year’s panel to select grants in the music/sound category, and I thought it might be interesting to share what the award process was like for a juror, as well as some tips if you’re sending in a grant application in the future. Here’s Part 1. We’ll publish Part 2 tomorrow.

The New York State Foundation on the Arts (NYFA) awards grants of $7,000 to artists who live and work in the state of New York. There are 16 separate grant categories, with applications accepted in eight artistic disciplines each year. The Fellowships are unrestricted cash grants that can be used by the recipient as they find necessary to continue their work.

Now in its 25th year, NYFA has awarded more than $26 million to 4,197 artists. This year, grants totaling $805,000 were awarded to 115 Award Fellows who are selected by peer panels made up of representatives from each artistic discipline.

Late in 2009, I received an email from NYFA telling me that I’d been recommended as a panelist and asking if I’d be willing to come to New York to help select the 2010 Fellowship Awards in the music/sound category. Here was a chance to sit in a room for five days listening to music samples from musicians passionate enough (and confident enough) to take the time to apply for statewide grant. Dream vacation or busman’s holiday? I wasn’t sure which it would be, but I was intrigued enough to say yes.

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So back in February, I took the train to New York late on a Sunday afternoon and got settled in my room at the Incentra Village House (a really nice guest house if you’re looking for a place to say in the West Village). The next morning I managed to find the NYFA offices in Brooklyn and met David Terry, the senior awards administrator, as well as the other four jurors on the panel. We introduced ourselves, and I learned that 1) my fellow jurors have exceedingly varied backgrounds and 2) they were as excited to be there as I was.

David gave us a short overview on how the judging would proceed and what to expect. Then we were off and listening, although not without a little trepidation: we had five days to winnow 509 grant applications down to 11 Fellowship awards. It seemed doubtful that I would possibly make it home by Friday night.

In the first round of judging, no talking is allowed except for our fearless leader, David, who announced each applicant’s name, the title of each work (most applicants submitted two music samples), the length of each entire piece and the year it was created. After listening for a few minutes, we clicked little buttons on our computer screens: Yes, No or Maybe. Our job in this first round was to pare down the entries into a smaller group that we would want to go back to hear again and discuss.

My first observation: It’s really fun, as I knew it would be. A folk song here, a Chinese opera there, some jazz fusion sequeing into a noise symphony followed up by a classical string quartet and some Cuban-inspired disco. Musical whiplash, in the very best sense.

My second observation: It’s astonishing how exhausting it is. There have been so many days in my life when I’ve listened to music for no less than 24 hours in a row, but never with the concentration and analysis that I thought this mission deserved. After an hour, I felt myself getting ear-bleary, and thankfully we took a short break. So it would follow throughout the just of the week: a listening session of about an hour or so, followed by an exhalation by everyone when we would take a break for even a moment. We averaged, I think, about 20 entries each hour, but then every once in a while there would be a CD that wouldn’t play or a selection that needed to be cued to a point 20 minutes into the piece, and we’d all be sitting around, nervously waiting to go on.

They made another pot of coffee, brought in a tray of bagels and we kept going…

For the most part, we all tried to keep our best poker faces on, trying not to influence each other even by making eye contact or smiling too much while listening to the samples. Early on, I peeked at the way the judge next to me was grading each entry and saw that we were pretty much cancelling each other out. Everything I liked, they didn’t and vice-versa. With 500 entries yet to go, this was just too depressing, so I stopped peeking after a while.

Rarely, there was an Oh-Please-By-All-That’s-Holy-Make-It-Stop sound sample, but this happened a lot less than you might think. I’m also pretty sure that these were different for each of the panelists. For me, even while my teeth were grinding together, I found myself wondering about the composer. Is there something here I’m missing? Is this their life’s work? Is this just music whose nuances I can’t appreciate? Is it just badly played? Or is it just music that I don’t hear as very good?

And then every once in while there was a wow! WOW! sample and you could feel the electricity around the room. Interestingly, this was not limited by genre; I’m fairly well aware of my own musical preferences and prejudices, and I suspect the other judges were as well, yet when a great piece of music suddenly appeared, it transcended categories, styles and labels. Everyone sat up a little straighter and felt a new surge of energy and optimism.

They bribed us with more carbs mid-afternoon and we kept at it, although it felt like we were barely making a dent. They passed out printed lists of all 509 grant applicants. There were people I know on the list. There were people whose work I’ve admired for years. Even a few Pretty Big Names.

There weren’t any really horrible sounding entries, although there were some that could have sounded better. A few pieces rattled the speakers with too much bottom end, some sounded as if they were recorded inside a tin can, and some average-sounding submissions just had the bad luck to follow a really sparkling, excellent recording. I kept reminding myself that we were there to judge the music, not the recording quality.

I was also surprised by a few of the selections submitted by people whose work I already knew and respected, but the judging takes place solely on the musical works submitted, so an artist’s accomplishments and back catalog are not taken into consideration. I was disappointed when a couple of my idols submitted works that weren’t very interesting.

At a little before 5pm, we were dismissed for the day and I found my way back to my room. I had big plans to do a bit of shopping and walking around, but I was just too tired; instead, I grabbed some take-out, settled down to do some work for Nippertown and reveled in the silence.

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