Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Law of the Letter

I was once fond of saying that one of the earliest symptoms that you are making it as a composer is when you write more recommendation letters than you ask for.

Of course I was fond of saying it. It had just happened to me. People wanted my opinion about other composers! In academic offices all over America, people were asking, "who the hell is this Ma... Ma... Makowski guy?"

So when I'm writing, oh, let's say, fifty or sixty times more letters than I ask for, then I'm fifty or sixty times as important as I was then, right? Uh, well, as anyone who follows the "recommendation and professional letter" tally on my website knows, I already write about that many. And according to the latest figures, I'm only 1.4398 times as important as I was then. It's true.

Due to the structure of the merit system (don't get me started), once you've gotten to a certain level — you're faculty, you have a reputation, you've taught at a conference or festival — this is where the real glamour of being a composer kicks in.

Writing letters for students, former students, and other composers is a necessary evil — though you could dispute both of those words. So much stuff that is important for a composer building a career requires, um, independent verification. Call me an Independent Verifier. IV for short, or 4.

And there sure are a lot of things I have to Verify Independently (VI, or 6). There are internal academic letters, fellowships and grants, grad school applications, and outside evaluator letters. I would subclassify them thus:

Internal letters (within the academy)
  • Stipend and scholarship renewals
  • Travel grants, summer fellowships
  • Award nominations (TA awards, awards for papers written)
  • File letters to go with job applications and their corollary: letters crafted specifically for a particular job (as some job announcements now stipulate that letters must be tailor-made for their job)

External fellowships
  • Guggenheim, Rome Prize applications (every November)
  • Fromm Foundation commissions (every May)
  • Summer fellowships -- Tanglewood, Norfolk Festival, BoaC Summer program, et al
  • Artist colonies -- most commonly MacDowell, Yaddo, VCCA

Graduate program applications -- on paper and online (every December)

Outside evaluator letters
Academic promotions, of two stripes
 1) comes with a large package of a candidate's life's work that takes days to get through
 2) no package, but you are asked to answer general questions about a composer's stature in the field
Evaluations of proposed new or altered academic programs

The outside evaluator letters are the most time consuming, since in crafting an evaluation you have to read through a full academic promotion package, which includes a full (often poorly organized) CV, you have to answer general questions about teaching and service and how they might hew to a group of specific standards to which you are not privy (though often the cover letters that come with these include a long quote from the institution's own internal documents that has conveniently been centered and italicized for you). You also have to listen through a pile of music by a composer whose work may be new to you. I jump up and down in childlike glee when the included music is as few as 3 or 4 pieces. Some institutions think that as many as 15 pieces are needed for a full evaluation of a composer's work, and here I remember George Bernard Shaw: "you don't have to eat the whole egg to know it's rotten". Almost invariably there is a Personal Statement -- a document so important it gets initial caps -- that, having been written by a composer, is more often than not unreadable. And of course by design it is self-serving. This last part more often than not makes me dizzy from all the eye-rolling.

Recently I reencountered, on my computer, the Personal Statement that went to outside evaluators with my tenure package. It is unreadable.

As to the external fellowships, I am never sure if my superbly crafted letters are even going to read by the evaluators. Having served on a few panels myself, I'd say it's a 50-50 shot that the letters will not be read at all. Why are they required, then -- if the work is what is being judged, why would my letter change anyone's opinion of it? The most cynical answer to that is that requiring letters is an additional stumbling block that cuts down the application pool. Maybe that's true, maybe it isn't. In the case of residency fellowships, though, I suppose it's important to know that a composer doesn't like to play with matches or knives or yell opinions at the top of his or her lungs while wearing Che Guevera pajamas and smoking thin black cigarettes.

Graduate program applications are a special breed. They are almost all done online now, and that involves the evaluator getting a special ID and password to use one of several for-profit sites, every one of them with a completely different structure. Often there is a quantitative section -- where does so-and-so fit in in terms of ... ability to communicate ideas? creativity? is a team player? love of trampolines? ... top 5%? top 10%? top 25%? How many others are you comparing the candidate to? Your actual evaluation letter can either be typed live, or put into a file that you upload. Back in the day when grad applications were done on paper, I always crossed out the entire quantitative page, and wrote in, "as a matter of principle I do not respond to quantitative requests." Now in the online era I can't do that. If I leave a field blank, I am not allowed to go to the next page, and thus I can't finish. I would be a big fan of "N/A" if I weren't concerned that entering that a lot would hurt the candidate's chances -- that is, if there is actually anyone who looks at those numbers.

Brandeis requires the quantitative thingie for our graduate applications. I have never, ever, looked at even one of them.

The internal letters -- I know for a fact that they do get read. After all, it is academics doing the evaluating, and academics who aren't composers or painters like to read.

Of all those different kinds of applications, I suppose the most important one is the job letter. Once a composer has been through our program and is on the market, I want to put him/her in as positive light as possible, while also being forthright and not creating too many expections that could come back and burn them. Thus, if someone has shown a reticence for public speaking, or an aversion to electroacoustic music, it is good for that to be said up front. And if the same person has special qualities to set him/her apart -- not being a failed trombonist, having great computer music chops, is active as a performer -- I want to mention that, too.

Confidentiality is an issue with these letters. I much prefer to write letters for a composer who has waived the right to see the letter, because then I feel like I can get into more detail. Composers who don't waive the right get a pretty generic letter. "Him good. Give him job, please."

It turns out, though, that confidential letters aren't necessarily confidential. There are probably a lot of mechanisms in place to keep them secret; but I have three anecdotes about such letters that weren't confidential after all.

Applicant pools for academic jobs are unbelievably large -- in composition usually in excess of 200. The work of filing and classifying all the material that comes in -- especially since recommendation letters always come separately from the actual applications -- is done often by interns and volunteers for whom the notion of confidentiality is not a big deal. To that end, a composer friend once got her application materials back from a job for which she was an unsuccessful candidate. The package included all of her confidential letters. It was a bonanza in terms of knowing what people were saying about her. On the other hand, she now knew what people were saying about her.

A composer at Columbia for whom I had written a credentials letter went to the the credentials office to deliver another letter for his file, and he was told that his file already had the maximum number of letters. In order for him to decide whose existing letter would be deleted in favor of the new one, he was given all the letters to read. Including mine. Luckily, I said good things, and mostly in complete sentences.

A composer whom I recommended for the Rome Prize asked me to mail him his letter — their requirement at the time was that the recommendation letters had to be included inside the application in a sealed envelope. I said okay, and to be on the lookout for a Brandeis envelope in snail mail. Later he sheepishly e-mailed to say he needed another one, since his wife took in the mail when the letter arrived, and opened my confidential letter. What could I do? I e-mailed the American Academy and gave them a piece of my mind. They wouldn't give it back.

Because of the confidentiality issue, and probably moreso since the Freedom of Information Act, I have heard of composers who will only write "call me" on a piece of academic stationery. Thus ramping up the deniability factor on anything that might get said. For me it means every letter I write is almost entirely positive. Those who get my letters should probably know my life's work writing such letters to get subtle distinctions from one letter to the next.

I do what I can to make my letters distinctive — different from the others that will accumulate in the big pile. To that end, I usually write a new letter for each person for each application — I don't like boilerplate, and I don't like reading boilerplate in other peoples' letters. Before so much of this stuff was done online, I handwrote letters whenever possible — this way they presumably stood out from the many done on computers in Times-Roman 12. This meant that in mid-November the Guggenheim letters always took a full afternoon and evening, including a lot of pauses to blurt out "ow! My hand!" I don't know how much of a difference the extra effort made. But at least it made me feel like I was doing my job.

And that is what it is. A job. As much as I kvetch about how much time writing letters takes away from other more fun pursuits like thinking about trampolines, I am happy to write them. And unlike my Princeton teacher who wrote his job letter for me 4 years after I asked him for it, I write the letters right away, usually within 1.4398 days. I am ecstatic whenever someone for whom I've written gets the grant, or award — and not just because it means they won't be hitting me up for a letter for the same award next year.

When I was given an endowed chair in late 2005, I got 1000 sheets of sexy personal stationery to go with it. Guess how many sheets I have left.