The Centre for New Music at Sheffield and Sheffield University runs a competition for young composers that offers them the chance to have their music workshopped and recorded by the Ligeti Quartet. 

That’s a potentially interesting project, even if the heart sinks at the prospect of yet more “workshops”. I’m never sure what that word means, especially when turned into a verb. Presumably the Ligeti workshops are quite different from those run by the dim functionaries of the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales at their festivals of hand-wringing. Let’s just agree that it’s a piece of multi-purpose Lefty jargon that describes countless exercises in “virtue-signalling” (which I suppose is multi-purpose Right-wing jargon, but at least easier to understand). 

The difference between good and bad art is a matter of opinion. When those opinions coalesce, we can say that a critical consensus has emerged, though we’re free to ignore it.

Anyway, that’s not the real problem with the Sheffield competition. Philip Sharp, who writes a “classical liberal” blog about music and culture, has noticed this paragraph in the competition’s rules: 

“A ‘two ticks’ policy will be in place for female composers, composers who identify as BME, transgender or non-binary, or having a disability, to automatically go through to the second stage of the selection process.”

This is a preposterous policy for so many reasons that it’s hard to know from which angle to criticise it. Also, such criticism is probably a waste of effort, since the people who devise these idiot rules are impervious to criticism. 

But let me make one fundamental point. The difference between good and bad art is a matter of opinion. When those opinions coalesce, we can say that a critical consensus has emerged, though we’re free to ignore it. 

The Sheffield two-ticks policy suppresses opinions. In an attempt to remove obstacles to artistic flourishing, it restricts freedom of judgment – in a competition, of all things. And pointlessly so, since we can be pretty certain that the Sheffield judges are not inclined to discriminate against minority candidates.

What we’re really talking about is almost as old as music itself: the exploitation of artists by bullies and bureaucrats.

The irony is that this narrowing of choice is no more likely to produce a critical consensus about good and bad music than the restriction of choice imposed by aristocratic patrons of the past. The history of, say, 18th-century music is one of missed opportunities: composers later judged to be greatly talented (or even geniuses) pushed aside by mediocre court favourites benefiting from their employers’ own two-ticks policies based on family allegiance or whatever. 

The Sheffield criteria are of course risible: they guarantee that a piano quintet written by a bloke who dresses in a cocktail frock will reach the second round irrespective of its merits. 

This could only happen in the 21st century (though it’s just possible, I suppose, that Wagner’s patron King Ludwig of Bavaria shared his taste for wearing women’s silk underwear). But what we’re really talking about is almost as old as music itself: the exploitation of artists by bullies and bureaucrats.