The Rare and Underappreciated Administrator

I forgot to mention last week that I would be on Jon Schaefer’s “Critic’s Corner” program on WNYC last Wednesday afternoon. Sorry. (Honest, I get the chance to compose full-time and I go into a complete fog. Right now, for instance, it’s 3:30 in the afternoon and I’m still in yesterday’s clothes.) I’m always astonished at how little one can say in 20, 30 minutes of radio time. So I’ll expand here on what I started to say there.

Which was about the Pulitzer Prize. As you know, the Pulitzer board is planning to expand the music prize beyond classical music to include jazz, film scores, bluegrass, commercial jingles, etc. (Well, not bluegrass or commercial jingles just yet. Question: do you think they’d give you a Pulitzer for bluegrass if your doctorate is in grunge guitar?) Those of us who write Downtown, Cage-influenced music can’t really mourn anyway – we were always excluded from the prize, and in fact the Pulitzer has been notoriously bad as a predictor of composers whose work will still be influential in the future. Ever heard of Leo Sowerby, Gail Kubik, Leslie Bassett? You get the idea. Actually, New Music Box has a Pulitzer Prize page on which you can listen to all the Prize-winning pieces that there are available recordings for (I say that, but I just checked it and it doesn’t seem to be working). And what really stands out, listening to them all in a row, is how utterly typical all the pieces are of their decade. The 1950s pieces have every 1950s cliche, and so on. The obvious problem with the Pulitzer, one the board chose not to address, has always been the very narrow stylistic range of the judges. As with most such prizes, previous winners sit on subsequent award panels, and so they replicate more of the same aesthetic continuity year after year.

But what I started to touch on on WNYC is the problem of composers giving awards to composers. In fact, I think one of the great ills of new music is that almost everything is administrated by composers. Composers serve as the judges on almost every grants and awards panel. (Sometimes there’s a token critic, as on the Grawemeyer.) We have composer administrators and curators (Bernadette Speach and Ben Neill formerly of the Kitchen and the Bang on a Can trio), composer new-music radio figures (Charles Amirkhanian, Carl Stone, David Garland), composer critics (Tom Johnson, Greg Sandow, myself), composers who run record labels (Joseph Celli, Jim Fox, or in some cases it’s composer’s wives), composer music publishers (Larry Polansky, Stuart Smith), as well as composers running the new-music programs of every college and university in the country. Now, of course this makes a lot of sense. Composers know the new-music field better than anyone. They’re the experts.

But that’s the sad fact in itself. We also need new-music experts who are not composers. All of these composers do fine jobs at what they do, but when everything is run by composers, there’s ultimately never any sense of objectivity. That’s what happened to the Pulitzer – same people judging, year after year, same kinds of pieces, same narrow stylistic disposition turned into the law of the land. Replace those academic-music judges with me and some of my new-music friends, and you’d get a different style of winner year after year. Of course, one strategy for achieving objectivity is to make up a panel from composers from diverse aesthetics, say, Milton Babbitt, Anthony Braxton, and John Adams – but as anyone who’s ever sat on such a mixed-bag panel can tell you, the winner in such situations is often the lowest common denominator, not the most original but the person whose music was bland enough not to offend anyone.

The problem, most basically, is that new music, contemporary music, avant-garde music, postclassical music, whatever you call it, is no longer an attractive enough field to draw in people who are not practitioners of it. There are a handful. Jon Schaefer is one – he knows the new-music field inside and out, and he’s not a composer, so he doesn’t care who’s on top this week, who’s on bottom, whose career is doing well or badly. He doesn’t worry about whether the style of music that gets attention this week is the kind he writes, or what impact such choices will have on his own career. Jon Schaefer should be deciding the Pulitzer Prize, and I told him so. Another is Joseph Franklin, who used to run the Relache Ensemble in Philadelphia – a brilliant administrator, a visionary, and an ex-composer who has no stylistic axe to grind. There’s Foster Reed, who’s run the New Albion label with an elegant sense of consistent aesthetic. But overall, new music is suffering from a paucity of objective minds in its support structure. And perhaps that’s because we haven’t sufficiently appreciated or courted the talents of born administrators.

I’m not saying that composers shouldn’t be involved, or that I’m hanging up my critic’s hat anytime soon. We need a mixture, composers who know the field from the inside and connoisseurs who bring an objective, comprehensive vision. As it is, good composers are a dime a dozen these days, while visionary arts administrators who love new music are rarer than weeping willows in the Sahara.

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