Elizabeth Jaxon: As competition director, what has your role in the preparation for the 2012 festival been?
Marit Eisses: I’ve coordinated the competition, basically from the beginning. My job currently involves processing the applications, and I am also responsible for all the communication with the contestants. In the [board] meetings, I am the person who represents the competition. When there’s a conflict between the festival interests and the competition, I’m the one who defends the competition’s interests. I look at the whole event from the competitors’ point of view, whereas the business director, for instance, would take the financial approach to things and perhaps argue points by saying, “We would really have to look at our budget.” I would be the one to say, “No, we have to think of our contestants.”
All the board members are doing multiple things, actually. I’m the competition director, but I’m also the head of the secretariat, so I’m receiving all incoming communication, coordinating the meetings, doing all the translations and editing, and basically everything having to do with written texts.
EJ: As your regular day-job, I understood you work with costumes. So then, how did you get involved in organizing a harp festival?
ME: Yes, I’m a dress historian, actually. I work at the fashion and costume department of the Gemeentemuseum [Municipal Museum of The Hague]. I first met Remy back when I was younger, we come from the same town. We kind of lost touch, but two years ago we found each other again, and I offered to help him with the organization of the Dutch Harp Festival. For the first edition of the festival, I was involved as an assistant to the PR department, to the secretariat also, and I was the competition jury secretary. For this second edition, most of the people who were on the board last time had left, but apparently some of them had recommended me to take over one of the positions, so I was asked to join the board. True, I’m not very much involved with the harp, but I do very much enjoy it.
This festival is certainly a change from what I usually do. It’s a big contrast to be, on the one hand, competition director for the Dutch Harp Festival, and on the other hand, just a department assistant at the museum. Along with the other board members of the DHF, I’m on top of everything, I get to make the decisions, and I have a lot of influence over how things will happen.
EJ: As we’re having this conversation [Nov 15, 2011], the submission deadline for the tape round of the Harp Competition is just about to arrive. Can you explain how the judging for this round will take place?
ME: We’re collecting all the application documents right now. The first thing that will happen is we will review all the documents to see if everything is in order. The artistic committee will check whether the program is okay: whether it’s within the time limit and whether they agree with it artistically. When everything is in order and the quality of the audio recordings are checked, then there will be a jury sitting. We have invited three jury members to judge all the audio recordings. We’ll make the recordings anonymous, so the jury members will not know who is playing what. Once we have the results, we’ll have to wait until we have everyone’s confirmation and everyone has paid the registration fee and promises to come to Holland, then we can announce the names of the contestants and do everything to prepare for the live competition.
EJ: You said there are three jury members, but they are anonymous, right?
ME: Yes, we can’t announce their identities, because otherwise they could technically speaking make contact with the contestants, or the contestants could make contact with them and send them their audio recordings so they could perhaps recognize it when judging… Not that we do not trust our jury, but of course we don’t want that to be possible, we really want to guarantee the anonymity of the audio recordings. That’s why there are really strict procedures. I’m the only person who knows the identity of the candidates and which recordings they sent in, so I don’t get to be present at some of the jury sittings, for example when they decide where the cut-off point is established for how many contestants will go through. Nobody else can hear the audio recordings before the jury sitting as well; I’m the only one who has access to them. It’s a rigorous procedure. If you want to organize a competition with a high level of transparency and not allow for any corruption, you have to be quite strict. Otherwise, there are too many loopholes. I just want to be able to tell everyone it was really honest, and you can check that we didn’t do anything debatable or didn’t influence anything ourselves. The results came directly from the jury and weren’t anything that we could have affected.
EJ: Are there any other things about the
procedure of this competition that makes this one unique?
ME: The basic one is this issue of anonymity: the fact that two of the rounds take place behind a screen, or at least without the identities of the contestants being revealed. Therefore, initially, it’s entirely about the music and not about other things that may consciously or unconsciously influence a jury’s judgment, such as how someone looks, or whether they know this person, or what their nationality is. The first judgment is
really just the music.
Also, the jury is approached not as a collective team who together have to evaluate and judge the performance of the contestant, but the jury members are invited as individual musicians who individually must decide which candidates they prefer. There shouldn’t be any influence from the other jury members within the evaluation; they can’t discuss the candidates. And they don’t give any grades as part of the voting procedure. With a lot of other competitions, they have to give you a number on the scale of 1 to 10 how well you perform, and usually you have these very extreme grades which significantly affect the average grade, by which one jury member can sometimes exert a lot of influence over the outcome. In every round of the Dutch Harp Competition, the jury members just have to answer the question, “Do I want to hear this contestant again? Yes or no.” And for the final round they just have to make an order of ranks, “Who do you think should receive 1st, 2nd, and 3rd prize?” They don’t get to add further subjectivity to it. But, of course, everything has its advantages and disadvantages. As is the case with these blind auditions, you can’t always tell the difference between young contestants and those who are older and who have therefore just had more experience and more time to learn. Behind the screen, you can’t see if someone is just very young and still has a lot of development to go through. You can’t give them credit for being a brilliant harpist at 14 years old but just not as good as someone who already has an established career.
EJ: But that’s often an issue in competitions, because people are impressed when the young ones can play well. It’s kind of a handicap to be older, in a way.
ME: Yes, it must be true that you’re often at a disadvantage to be older.
EJ: But behind a screen, you can use your experience to your advantage.
ME: There’s one other element by which we really try to create an honest judging procedure. We’re taking care how we establish who will be on the juries for the preliminary round and the competition in March, because we want to create a very balanced jury, in most ways. We want jury members from different nationalities and also an equal number of men and women (or at least not all men and one woman). We want to have older musicians as well as younger ones and also more non-harpists than harpists. This way, you get a lot of different influences combined. It’s sometimes said about competitions which take place in a specific country, that harpists from that country always win. I think part of that phenomenon is the national allegiances of the jury members and the competitors, but it’s also just the style of playing that people have learned to appreciate within their own country. We really want to let that go and make sure the Dutch style doesn’t necessarily get preference, that different tastes and different musical traditions are represented in the jury.
Marit and some of her favourite reform dresses, currently on display at the Gemeentemuseum. Photograph taken by Astrid Hulsmann.