For most of the past decade, Josh Newton has written music furiously and sent it off to competitions across the globe.
He won an obscure contest in Romania a few years ago, but not much else.
That changed two weeks ago when Newton, 35, got an unexpected call from the Portland Chamber Music Festival informing him that he won the annual Composers Competition for a piece he wrote for viola, clarinet and piano.
“It’s pretty much the coolest thing that has happened,” said Newton, who lives in Farmingdale with his wife and son. He works as a computer programmer in Portland and graduated from the music program at the University of Southern Maine, earning his bachelor’s degree in 2009 and his master’s in 2013.
His piece is called “Twenty-three Skiddoo,” and he is quick to point out that the title has nothing to do with the music. The phrase is early 20th-century slang for leaving quickly, or making a hasty exit. Newton likes the cadence of the phrase, as well as it connotation.
“It’s just a name,” he said. “It’s just a weird nugget that I found on the internet.”
Musicians will perform the piece Aug. 23 at Newton’s alma mater as part of the summer festival, said Jennifer Elowitch of Portland, the festival’s artistic director. The award also comes with a $1,000 prize.
It’s the first time a Mainer has won the competition, which attracts entries from all over the world.
About 40 people from seven countries entered this year. That’s about 100 fewer entries than in past years. Elowitch attributed the lower total to the fact that the call for entries required a piece written specifically for viola, clarinet and piano, an unusual combination.
A three-judge panel, including Elowitch, juried the competition. Other judges were composer Elliott Schwartz of Brunswick and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Melinda Wagner.
Judges are not aware of the names or residences of the entrants, Elowitch said. Entries come as MP3 files and musical scores, free of all identifying markings.
“We do this as a blind competition, and over the years we’ve gotten stricter about the anonymous thing,” Elowitch said. “I don’t even see a list of people who apply. The three judges do not know who they are listening to. It’s a totally level playing field.”
Although she is a Facebook friend of Newton’s, they have never met.
“I actually had to check a few times” after realizing Newton submitted the winning score, she said. “It’s an international competition, so you don’t expect the person who wins will be from USM. What are the chances?”
Newton began writing the piece in January. The unusual instrumentation might have been a turn-off to some composers, but it was a plus for Newton. Most competitions call for more traditional combinations of instruments, such as a string quartet or a piano trio.
“There was something about the mix that seemed like it was something I could do something with,” Newton said.
The music is rhythmic and angular with hints of tango.
Elowitch described it as “super fun.”
“I don’t think it has world-shaking intentions. I think what it has is charm, fun and a kind of a jazzy spirit,” she said. “It does what it sets out to do in a really convincing and well-crafted way. Everyone was really impressed.”
Newton’s work has been featured at the Back Cove Contemporary Music Festival and the Aspen Composers Conference and performed by the Portland Symphony Orchestra.