Pullet Surprise – New Horizons in Mediocrity

As detailed by Anthony Tommasini in an article in today’s Times, the Pultizer board was appropriately stung by John Adams’s criticism of the Pulitzer for music when he won in 2003. “Among musicians that I know,” Adams said in a comment much publicized at the time, “the Pulitzer has over the years lost much of the prestige it still carries in other fields like literature and journalism.” As Tommasini accurately notes,

Anyone perusing the list of winners, he continued, cannot help noticing the absence of most of America’s greatest musical minds, from mavericks like John Cage, Morton Feldman and Harry Partch, to composer-performers like Steve Reich, Laurie Anderson, Thelonious Monk and Meredith Monk. These creative spirits, he wrote, had been passed over year after year, “often in favor of academy composers who have won a disproportionate number of prizes.”

Very true, and well said. So far, so good. It would be wonderful to have the Pulitzer board acknowledge that the Pulitzer has concentrated on a stylistically narrow range of composers, specifically avoiding the more accessible composers whose music has the most public impact. I’d love it if Downtown composers like Steve Reich, William Duckworth, Janice Giteck, Glenn Branca had a crack at the Pulitzer along with the usual academic crowd.

So what’s the Pulitzer board’s beneficent response? They’re broadening the music category to also include music theater, film scores, and jazz, including even possibly jam sessions.

Anything, ANYTHING, rather than admit that Downtown music exists.

Pardon the unintended qualitative implications, but this is a little like telling someone their dinners are all meat and that they could stand to include some fruits and vegetables, and them responding, “OK, I’ll throw in candy bars and chewing gum. NOW are you satisfied?” The response completely misses the point of the complaint. First of all, musical theater has always been eligible for the drama award anyway, and Tommasini lists musicals that have won a drama Pulitzer: Rent, Sunday in the Park with George, South Pacific.

Secondly, it could make perfect sense to institute a separate Pulitzer prize for jazz, a Pulitzer prize for pop recordings or songs, even a Pulitzer for film scores. Those genres deserve to have excellence recognized. But to have a prize for best music in which one has to comparatively evaluate film scores along with notated concert pieces, and jazz performances, and musicals, will put the committee in the position of having to decide to pick the best apple this year, the best orange next year, and the best pomegranate the year after that. Say the committee includes a composer, a film scorer, and a jazz soloist: the composer will presumably want to give it to a concert piece, the film person to a film score, etc., and how will they form any intelligent opinion regarding each others’ categories? How do you weigh a great jazz performance of a particular night against a fine chamber orchestra piece against an excellent score for a good or bad film? It’s meaningless. And this “broadening” will water down an already meaningless prize until it is meaninglesser than ever.

What takes my breath away, though, is the arrogance (I suppose one could more charitably say ignorance) with which they deliberately sidestep the explicit intention of John Adams’s criticism. “Hell no, we’re not going to give our precious music Pulitzer to any of those damn Downtown composers. Before we do that, we’ll open it up to jazz and film scores and Broadway music, just so they’ll quit bugging us about our damn elitism!”