National Sawdust, the renowned Brooklyn music incubator and performing arts venue, has announced the winners of its second Hildegard Competition for emerging female, trans, and nonbinary composers: inti figgis-vizueta of the USA, Niloufar Nourbakhsh of Iran, and Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir of Iceland. All young professionals at the start of their careers, the three winners will be honored in concert on June 4 at National Sawdust, where their newly commissioned works will be premiered by the National Sawdust Ensemble, anchored by cellist Jeffrey Zeigler and making its formal debut under the baton of Lidiya Yankovskaya. By creating new opportunities for female, trans, and nonbinary composers, and by exploring the myriad mechanisms by which gender impacts the ways music is perceived, the competition illustrates National Sawdust’s extraordinary commitment to amplifying voices underrepresented in the world of new music.
The inauguration of the Hildegard Competition sought to redress a serious imbalance. As The Guardian reports, of 1,445 concerts presented at major venues around the world last year, only 76 featured compositions by women. Similarly, Bachtrack found that just 13% of the contemporary orchestral works performed worldwide last year were written by women. Since the award’s founding in 1943, only 14 out of 138 finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for Music have been female, and only seven women have won. As for trans and nonbinary composers, comparable figures are hard to come by, presumably because they have yet to be formally tracked. As the Los Angeles Review of Books put it, “As we take action to rectify the disturbing gender disparity in the music industry, let’s also include trans and non-binary musicians who deserve equal access and opportunity alongside cisgender women and men.”
Last season, by explicitly soliciting submissions from nonbinary composers and assembling an all-female team of composers to judge the competition and provide follow-up mentorship, National Sawdust succeeded in creating a singularly safe and nurturing environment for composers typically failed by the system. For its second season, the mandate of the competition was expanded still further. The 2018-19 edition cast an even broader, more inclusive net, expressly inviting submissions from trans composers. To reflect this increased diversity, and better enable the judges to serve meaningfully as both mentors and role models, this year’s team has been expanded from three to five members, comprising trans female composer Gavin Rayna Russom as well as cis female composers Angélica Negrón, Tania León, Pulitzer Prize-winner Du Yun, and National Sawdust Co-founder and Artistic Director Paola Prestini.
The three 2018-19 Hildegard Competition winners were drawn from a substantial pool. After announcing the competition in October, National Sawdust received no fewer than 142 submissions from emerging composers in Argentina, Australia, Canada, England, Estonia, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Mexico, Scotland, Serbia, Turkey, Uruguay, Wales, and 24 of the United States. To demonstrate their career progress, all applicants certified that they met two of the following three criteria: that they had received no commissions of $5,000 or more, that there were no commercially released recordings of their work, and that there had been no performances of their work by a professional ensemble (except within a university setting). The applicants were then judged on their past compositions and on their curriculum vitae, personal statement, and description of the work they would compose if they won. In an attempt to remove the barriers traditionally faced by composers, neither letters of recommendation nor application fees were required.
Winning composers inti figgis-vizueta, Niloufar Nourbakhsh, and Bergrún Snæbjörnsdóttir will now each be commissioned to write a new work for performance and professional recording at the June 4 concert, and subsequent release on in-house label National Sawdust Tracks. As well as composing for chamber ensemble and electronics, as stipulated last season, they now have the option of submitting a vocal composition. They will also receive coaching and mentorship from the five judges, and will each receive a $7,000 cash prize.
Runners-up Bahar Royaee, Yaz Lancaster, Meara O’Reilly, Nina Shekhar, Angela Slater, and Sugar Vendil will also have works premiered by the National Sawdust Ensemble at the June 4 concert. An art installation of graphic scores by runner-up Monica Demarco will accompany the performance.
About National Sawdust’s goals in founding and expanding the Hildegard Competition, Composer, Co-founder, Artistic Director of National Sawdust, and judge Paola Prestini said: “This year we were really excited to expand the competition to represent female, trans, and nonbinary applicants, in the belief that if you don’t articulate who opportunities are for, you miss potential applicants who need this specific platform. Seeing the talent in this pool thrilled me, and I look forward to seeing these works come to life!”
Judge Gavin Rayna Russom added: “The Hildegard Competition is unlike anything else I’ve been involved with. I felt instantly connected to the other judges and enlivened by the submissions.”
Judge Angélica Negrón commented: “This year’s Hildegard winners showcase an impressive level of artistry while also providing unique and vital perspectives that we’re often missing in the new music world. I’m positive these artists will greatly benefit from this terrific opportunity, which provides an incredibly valuable space for establishing and nurturing creative collaborations and relationships that will transcend far beyond these new pieces.”
Of the experience she gained at last year’s inaugural Hildegard Competition, 2017-18 laureate Emma O’Halloran said: “Having a diverse range of composers, compositional styles and aesthetics is so important, as it lets people know that there’s room for their artistry, and that they can be themselves.”
2017-18 laureate X. Lee agreed: “It was a validating space, amazing array of talented individuals, and the expansive diversity in musical styles and approach was inspiring.”
2017-18 laureate Kayla Cashetta confirmed: “Everyone at National Sawdust was very warm and professional every step of the way, which made the entire process smooth, enjoyable and comfortable.”