Competitions, as Bartok Said, Are for Horses

A young composer friend took me greatly to task for being so hard on Jennifer Higdon for listing nothing but her hundreds of prizes and awards on her web site biography. I agree that it was unfair to single her out. I was preprogrammed to explode at the seventh dry, pompous, unmusical, grant-organization-acronym-filled composer’s web site I saw, and it just happened to be hers. It must seem out of left field to chastise her for making her bio look like that of every other colleague she has. I had a particularly hard time finding information about John Corigliano, a much older and better established composer. After scouring the usual reference works (which are always several years out of date) I went to 40 or 50 web pages before finding anything about him that wasn’t the usual list of awards and prizes and grants, usually lifted verbatim from his official web page. For all I know, Ms. Higdon’s web site may have been designed by her manager, not herself. And, for all I know, that kind of award resumé might be exactly the kind that’s most effective – tailored as it obviously is to presenters and potential patrons, not to music lovers deeply affected by your music. It seems to assume that the latter will not exist.

And yet, when you research European composers, how different, how much grainier and more thought-provoking the results are. I recently wrote about Arvo Pärt (roughly equivalent in fame to Corigliano) and Erkki-Sven Tüür (roughly as well-known as Higdon), and everywhere you go, there are quotes, interviews, insightful musical descriptions. Pärt and Tüür talk about what’s musically important to them, how they write pieces, their relation to the culture they came from, why they ended up writing music the way they do. They refer to individual pieces as turning points, talk about musical architecture, aesthetics, even religion. “I am very interested in a combination of opposites,” says Tüür – “tonality versus atonality, regular repetitive rhythms versus irregular complex rhythms, tranquil meditativeness versus explosive theatricality – and especially in the way they gradually change from one to another.” “I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played,” Pärt explains. “This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements – with one voice, two voices.” Have Pärt and Tüür ever won any prizes or awards for their music? I have no idea. They don’t say.

This level of talking about what they want from music and why is scrupulously avoided by the American orchestra-composer crowd – as though admitting what they’re trying to achieve would make them vulnerable somehow, or scare off the next potential patron. Of all the ones I’ve researched, only John Adams (who started out pretty much as a Downtowner anyway) likes to talk about how he composes, what musical effect he’s trying to create. Of course, 20 years ago, composers gave all kinds of technical detail about their music, and it was very forbidding. The kind of dense program notes we had then (“the inversion of the row enters in the clarinet at the golden section of the exposition”) justifiably got a very bad name, and is no longer done. But in an important way, the listing of one’s awards and prizes has replaced it. Both attempt to overwhelm the listener by invoking the authority supporting one’s music. It used to be, “You may not like this piece, but I can prove it’s great because it has all kinds of technical devices that you don’t understand.” Now it’s “You may not like this piece, but I can prove it’s great because this panel of experts gave it a prize, and this panel, and this panel, and this panel.” Both kinds of program note render the composer invulerable, by denying the listener any right to come to an independent conclusion.

After all, we all know that neither Schoenberg nor Varèse ever succeeded in winning a Guggenheim – every composer knows and repeats those anecdotes. Hundreds of French composers won the Prix de Rome whose names are now lost even to the large music reference works. The music Pulitzer list is famously brimming with duds. Everyone knows or at least intuits, composers and laymen alike, that the great original composers don’t win prizes, that lots of prize-winning artists fall by the wayside, and that any correlation between prizes and quality is pretty much accidental. I say nothing against prizes and awards and commissions per se, because, however inefficiently they’re distributed, they allow a certain number of composers to make a living, or part of one, by writing music. But while awards facilitate the writing of music, they do not validate the music made. Only listeners can do that. Awards are not an end but merely a means, and it is clear that a young composer who has racked up more than a hundred of them has made collecting them an explicit career goal. The tail is wagging the dog. There is a kind of piece composers write to win prizes – hyperactive, tonal but not too tonal, resplendent with instrumental color and brass climaxes – and the most successful composers I’ve known have been the first to admit it. Some of Higdon’s pieces fit this mold.

No prize, no hundred prizes, can prove that a piece of music will be of lasting value. But we have a musical upper crust in America who have been completely seduced into forgetting that, and who live in a mad whirl of prize- and honor-collecting: oblivious to audiences, oblivious to the social role of their music, but completely focused on their fellow professionals in a system in which one proves one’s worth by the accumulation of awards. One passes a certain critical mass and it becomes easy. There’s a well-known phenomenon in prize-giving called the “St. Matthew effect,” by which those who receive awards become more likely to receive even more. (It’s from Matthew 25:29: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.”) If Charles Wuorinen gets famous for a Pulitzer, then another organization increases its own prestige by adding him to their list of honorees. But when you read about these people, and find them unable to say anything for themselves except list their awards, save for the occasional effusive compliment for some conductor who conducted their music and might do so again – you get the impression that they’ve forgotten what their music was originally about before they started trading it in for prizes.

UPDATE: I found an interview with Jennifer Higdon on Andante, and as I had heard, she seems very nice and personable. From the point of view of someone curious about her music, her web site does not represent her well.