Wednesday 19/06/2019 - 07:51 am

Canada asks composers to work for a song in 150th celebration competition

2017.01.21 06:18

 Canadian composers are angry: As Canada launches its sesquicentennial celebrations, they feel they have been slighted by the federal government. The hurt lies in what should have been a pleasant little competition to compose a piece of celebratory music to be played on Ottawa’s Peace Tower carillon – and, right in the middle of awards season, the ensuing fuss offers a strong lesson in the delicate protocols of recognizing talent.

The idea was that composers from across the country would submit new and original five-minute works to play on the carillon – the set of 53 bells that not only chimes the hour but can also play O Canada, classical pieces and any contemporary music you care to compose for its 4-1/2 octave range. A winner would be chosen by a jury and the piece would be played during Canada Day celebrations on Parliament Hill by Andrea McCrady, who carries the quaint title of Dominion Carillonneur.
The problem is how the office of the Speaker of the House of Commons (which oversees this kind of non-partisan activity) chose to run the contest, with a paltry $800 award for the winner: Canada’s composers are being asked to work for a song.
It takes professional expertise and hours of work to compose a few minutes of compelling music. Jingle writers are routinely paid thousands for the job and the minimum payment set by the Canadian League of Composers is $425 a minute for one instrument and $790 for a full orchestra. So a five-minute original composition for the carillon should be worth at least $2,125.
Heather Bradley, director of communications in the Speaker’s office, defended the award as an honorarium, in keeping with what the institution offers for essay-writing contests or speaking engagements; she stressed that the contest was never intended as a commission. (She expects the winner will be announced in the spring.)
Still, the contest produces a piece of music that the House of Commons can play in the Peace Tower in perpetuity, and creating music is what composers do for a living. They are not comparable to amateurs competing in a civics contest nor professionals contributing a few hours one day out of a sense of public duty. Instead, they are professionals who are being asked, in this instance, to contribute a significant product of their labour.
In an era when artists in general, and musicians in particular, are battling to get public understanding for their right to be paid, it is disheartening to learn that even the House of Commons just doesn’t get it.
“Why on earth do people expect artists to do this kind of thing?” asks Montreal composer Simon Bertrand, who has organized an online petition requesting the award be raised. “When Parliament hires a plumber, do they tell the guy, come and work for free and then we’ll see what we think?”
Bertrand spent several months corresponding with Speaker Geoff Regan and did succeed in getting the contest rules changed so that at least the winning composer retains the copyright to the composition. But Regan would not budge on the issue of the $800, so Bertrand finally organized his petition, which has drawn about 900 signatures to date.
The Speaker’s office has suggested that the honour is the winner’s recompense, but it’s presumptuous to ask professional artists to create new work for the mere honour of public performance. That is something that amateurs do – all those talent shows and short-story contests. Meanwhile, professionals get public honours for work they have already created – all those annual awards shows, including the Junos.
And sometimes there is a great deal more than honour to offer. The top arts prizes award very significant compensation for a single work – often in hopes the prize money will then fund future work. The big prize in Canadian music is the $50,000 Polaris Prize for a full-length album, and while there are many prizes with much smaller pots, awards vie with each other for the publicity attached to a big number. The top Canadian arts prizes are $100,000 affairs: the Siminovitch Prize for a theatre career, the Scotiabank Giller Prize for a best novel or short-story collection and the Rogers Best Canadian Film Award handed out by the Toronto Film Critics Association (of which I am a member).
The awards recognize singular achievements, but organizers certainly hope that they are also helping further professional careers, that author Madeleine Thien (the 2016 Giller winner) will be freed to concentrate on her next book or that documentarian Hugh Gibson (who touchingly shared last week’s film award with his two fellow nominees) will get a leg up on his next project.
Meanwhile, if you want to directly create a piece of art, you commission it; the federal Department of Canadian Heritage is handing out $200-million in grants to artists and community groups for specific Canada 150 projects.
That is what so offends the composers: While the government does have a budget to pay real money for proper arts commissions, the House of Commons seems to think it can organize a little talent contest and hand out coloured ribbons.
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