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Hildegard National Sawdust

Feedback Loop

By Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone

Musicians from the Refugee Orchestra project perform works by Hildegard Competition winners. Photo by Jill Steinberg

National Sawdust inaugurates a new competition where mentorship--by and for women, trans,and non-binary composers--is central.

Brooklyn-based presenter National Sawdust put itself on the map with adventurous programming and a commitment to providing a nurturing home for composers. Earlier this year, it doubled down on its mission, inaugurating the Hildegard Competition for women, trans, and non-binary composers. Though a competition in name, Hildegard also offers mentorship, a chance to compose, record, and perform, and a place to build community for emerging artists. It also makes a sharply radical swerve away from comparable programs, simply by acknowledging that gender non-binary and trans people are part of the musical community.

National Sawdust co-founder and artistic director Paola Prestini invited Pulitzer Prize-winner Du Yun and multi-award winning composer Angélica Negrón to join her as mentors and competition judges. She was particularly interested in a panel that reflected a wide range of musical interests, accomplishments, and professional pathways. As it so happened, that criteria led to the formation of a racially diverse panel of artists, whose teaching ventures keep them involved with young composers and exposed to fresh ideas.

The Hildegard Competition does bestow a prize on its winners (seven thousand dollars, and a chance to perform and record at National Sawdust). But according to its judges, the mentorship aspect is far more important—and the program has consciously abolished at least one typical barrier to entry. “An initial desire was to reframe the rules of competition,” says Prestini. “You don’t need a letter of reference for this, and you’ll come out with a really good recording.” By eliminating the need for endorsement, Prestini hopes to reach composers who might be disheartened by their lack of name-brand education or other perceived disqualifiers.

Prestini also plans to change the competition’s judges each year, in an effort to broaden the panel’s aesthetic and technical perspectives. “Curation is elitist,” she says. “If the curators don’t change, then the same kinds of stories are told.” That entrenched gate-keeping has racial and gender-based implications for programming. (National Sawdust recently announced three new judges for 2019: soprano Jessye Norman, synthesist Gavin Rayna Russom, and composer Tania León.)

In choosing her fellow mentors and judges, Prestini felt that Negrón and Du Yun would share a sense of openness and excitement about new compositions. “The definition of composition has finally exploded outward,” Prestini says. “It was important to invite composers onto the panel who would have those values embedded in their own music-making and curation.” Both artists graciously accepted, and Negrón believes that fighting for recognition as a composer, as all three competition judges have done in their own careers, has made them more open to a wider variety of voices and ideas.


Photo by Jill Steinberg

“Curation is elitist. If the curators don't change, then the same kinds of stories are told.”

Since its founding in 2015, Prestini has envisioned National Sawdust as a bridge between emerging and professional life. “The Hildegard Competition is a laserfocused version of that,” she says. “It’s personal to me because, as a young composer, I felt the lack of emphasis on mentorship.” When she attended Juilliard, Prestini was grateful for the strong sense of artistic community. But as she took her first steps into a professional career, she received little guidance

“Meeting mentors like John Zorn changed my life,” she says. “The generation I studied under was more old-school. There was a sense of earning, rather than sharing.” Prestini hopes to address that bias by codifying an artists’ mentorship network, demonstrating that earning and sharing are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, Negrón says she met new artists through her mentee, and now the two are part of a small group of composers who support each other and share music. “These meaningful connections grow like a tree,” she says. “Eventually, our mentees will do the same for others.”

Du Yun points out that practicing artists sometimes forget they are inherently public figures, whose ideas are shared by the wider community. “Young people seek role models who look like them, so they know it’s okay to break the rules, so to speak,” she says. “My mentee, X. Lee, applied to be a composer in China and was discouraged by professors at the Central Conservatory of Music. Those professors said the same thing to me. It’s important to be a mentor in this context, to show that success as a composer can be measured in many ways.” Negrón agrees that lack of representation and a shortage of committed mentors can halt young composers before they even begin. “Mentorship and trust are ways to silence self-doubt,” she says. “People will underestimate you and they’ll pigeon-hole you. But a mentor will help you learn to own your strengths.”

After a remote mentorship process, the judges and winners came together in New York for performances and recording. “We were able to sit in on rehearsals, and watch each other work out issues and editing in real time,” says Kayla Cashetta, one of the competition winners, and Prestini’s mentee. Like Du Yun, Kashetta says that the impact of the Hildegard Competition is competitive in name only. “There was a real sense of camaraderie,” she says. “I’ve made lasting bonds with the mentors and other composers. That personal connection is the most rewarding, and I feel like I have more support now than I did before.”

A competition with identity-based parameters will naturally take on a political bent, since certain identities experience greater marginalization than others. By seeking to address gender inequities, the Hildegard Competition is calling out their existence, and persistence, in the first place. All three mentors agree that targeted programing is essential, but they also believe it’s just the first step. “At least the conversation is happening,” Prestini says. “But we have a lot of time to make up for.” The competition was fully embraced by National Sawdust’s board, and Prestini doesn’t recall any backlash for initiating an identity-based program. “Though,” she muses, “I might have avoided that by staying off social media.”


Photo by Jill Steinberg.

Now that the programming element is established, Negrón is eager to address the systemic barriers that make the Hildegard Competition necessary in the first place. Gender equity doesn’t start and stop with a diverse lineup of composers, nor does a diverse panel of judges make up for missed opportunities to support artists. “It’s about inclusion,” Negrón says. “It’s about not having to check boxes.” Rather than slapping together a group based on optics, Negrón hopes to see competition judges, educators, and curators genuinely consider the potential of previously dismissed artists. When competitions, schools, and performance institutions actively seek and promote a variety of artists, they signal that a multiplicity of voices deserve to be heard. With that assurance, Negrón says, artists can be vulnerable enough to take creative risks. Anything less is tokenism.

“Meaningful connections grow like a tree. Eventually our mentees will do the same for others”

To initiate a similar program, one that values connections over competition and seeks to address inequities, Prestini advises listening to the needs of your community. “At the beginning, the Hildegard Competition was just for women,” she says. “But we had an applicant who, at the time, was transitioning. It became an opportunity to include non-binary voices.” As the program grows, Prestini hopes to add more one-onone time between mentors and mentees. Ideally, those relationships and conversations will provide a model for larger discussions about careers in music. “There’s not really a formal space to talk about it,” she says.

Even with her programmatic goals in mind, Prestini cautions against trying to do too much at once. The needs of young composers may seem simple—often just a platform and a little encouragement— but the demand is incredibly high. One organization can’t do it all. “For us, less is more, so we can really do a good job,” Prestini says. She views New York’s music scene as generally collaborative and welcoming, with many organizations trying to do the right thing. “We’re a piece of the pie,” she says.

Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone is a writer, choreographer, and curator living in Brooklyn, NY

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