Pulitzer prizes

Very interesting — and, I thought, very melancholy — piece by Stephen Hartke on the Pulitzer prizes, linked here yesterday.

Or maybe it’s not the piece itself that’s melancholy, but me, as a result of reading it. Hartke’s subject, of course, was the recent change in the Pulitzer music guidelines. No longer, said the Pulitzer board, will only classical pieces be eligible. According to the new rules, jazz, musicals, and even movie scores — maybe even pop albums — can be nominated.

And that, says Hartke, is a bad idea. Nor is he alone in saying so. Other classical composers, most notably John Harbison, were outraged by the change, and said so with fabulous hyperbole. Just listen to Harbison:

If you were to impose a comparable standard on fiction [comparable, that is, to the standard the Pulitzer board now mandates for music] you would be soliciting entries from the authors of airport novels.

If he’d taken half the risk he takes here — been willing to leap this far out on a limb to make an unmistakable statement — in his Great Gatsby opera, it would have been 10 times a better piece. Still, he’s being ridiculous. Does he really think that great jazz — Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington — is some musical form of beach reading? Does he think Stephen Sondheim writes Top 40 pop songs? Can’t he tell the difference between Celine Dion and Max Roach?

Hartke, as we’ll see in a moment, has more or less the same problem. Because what’s really going on here — if you ask me — is a last-ditch defense of the obsolete and snobbish idea that only classical music can be art. Or, maybe, something even worse. Since just about everybody knows by now that this old idea is totally and completely wrong, I wonder if Hartke, Harbison, and others aren’t (whether they know it or not) simply trying to protect their turf, trying to preserve some distinction, some chance at prestige and momentary fame, that might elude them if the Pulitzer prize were given simply for artistic merit. Which, I’ll quickly say, isn’t to say that they write bad music. Not at all. (Even Gatsby is fine, sometimes terrific music; it’s just — in the best tradition of Haydn’s works for the stage — a terrible opera). But have classical composers created the best and most important American music of the past 50 years? That’s the main question we ought to ask.

And the answer, pretty clearly, is no. Or, to be more careful, that classical composers have created some of the most memorable music, but very far from all of it. Because if we made a list of the most important — and most lasting — American musical creators of the last half-century, who’d be on it? Who made the most unforgettable musical art? Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane. Bob Dylan. Duke Ellington (even if he might have done even more memorable work earlier). Prince. Bruce Springsteen. Sondheim, for sure. Public Enemy. Brian Wilson, of the Beach Boys. Or add your own names. These are people, by and large, whose artistic preeminence not many people dispute. Why, then, shouldn’t they be eligible for the major musical artistic prize?

(And before anybody writes me e-mail disputing any of my names, let me establish one small ground rule: If you tell me one of my names isn’t artistically valid, and you don’t give me good reasons, based on some reasonable knowledge of that person’s work, I won’t even answer you. You don’t think Springsteen is a serious musical artist? Fine, but tell me why. Tell me what’s wrong with specific songs and albums. Too often I’ve gotten complaints from people who don’t like it when I say pop music can be art, and who also, when even mildly questioned on the subject, turn out not to know pop music at all. So they don’t really have a clue what they’re talking about.)

And if major pop, jazz, and Broadway figures are some of our top musical artists, less major ones might qualify for the Pulitzer, too, since in the past the prize has gone to classical composers who aren’t exactly household names.

This, then, is why I get sad reading Hartke. Let me quote him:

On the face of it, the changes instituted are small. The Prize will no longer be for a musical work of “significant dimension,” as the Board seems to feel that such language has tended to prevent composers of shorter pieces from submitting their work. The press release also states that the changes are intended to broaden the types of works available for review to include jazz, musical theater, movie scores “and other forms of musical excellence.” Never mind that such works have actually been eligible since the last overhaul of the Music Prize’s rules, the real problem that I have is how this restated emphasis on broadening the scope of musical works under consideration bespeaks the essential discomfort that the Pulitzer Prize Board has with art music.

Having served on the Music Nominating Panel last year, I had the opportunity to observe the workings of the Pulitzer Prize first hand. It is important to remember that the individual Nominating Panels for each category, from Investigative Reporting to Non-fiction Books to Music, do not pick the final winner, rather they submit three names, generally unranked, and the larger Pulitzer Prize Board reviews the work of all the nominated finalists to select the winners. The Pulitzer Prize Board itself currently comprises 17 members, ten of whom are newspaper editors or administrators, the remaining seven being academics (five administrators and two scholars). Not one of these people is a musician of any description—nor, for that matter, a published poet, playwright or novelist. In the two intensive days I served on the Music Panel, I was able to sit in on an informal meeting with one of the members of the Board to discuss the future of the Music Prize. It was clear that the Board feels uncomfortable in its role judging works of art music, and is genuinely puzzled as to why more ‘popular’ forms of music are not included in the mix. The point was made by one of the musicians that the Poetry Prize often goes to work which is as abstruse and rarified in its treatment of language as the Music Prize winner can be, but that no one has suggested that the Poetry Prize be eliminated or broadened to embrace, for example, songwriting.

Now, this is all sober, responsible, and well informed. And when he goes on to say that the prize has too often gone to East Coast insiders, and that widening the nominating jury to include performers and presenters (instead of just critics and composers), I can’t disagree. His idea of creating separate prizes for jazz, film scores, musicals, and classical music sounds reasonable as well.

But I don’t like it. I don’t like giving classical composers special, protected status. I shudder — sometimes I even get angry — when I see terms like “art music” applied to them, apparently to the exclusion of everyone else. And my feelings here come precisely from my passionate love of art. I get angry in the same way when people talk about “high art.” I think that’s essentially a social category — a sort of class distinction that has no more to do with real quality than a similar social judgment would (as if, let’s say, someone would say that rich people are more serious, more ethical, and smarter than poor people). And I say this when Proust is my favorite writer (as people who’ve read my NewMusicBox column know), and Webern one of my all-time favorite composers, both true “high art” choices. But the same instinct that makes me respond to Proust and Webern makes me recognize Bob Dylan as a great musical artist, and I just refuse to draw quality distinctions based on social categories. (Here, by the way, is a link to NewMusicBox columns I’ve written on Proust and Dylan, if anybody wants more on how I feel about these two.)

And it’s especially bad to draw these distinctions, I think, because new classical music has had such a ghastly track record. Again, I’m not saying that none of it is good. How could I? I write it myself. Not to mention how excited I’ve been by so much of it — Steve Reich and Philip Glass (lots of pieces by both), Berio (hearing his Coro performed by the Cleveland Orchestra years ago was one of the great musical experiences of my life), Boulez, Diamanda Galas, Michael Gordon (his new album Light Is Falling delights me no end), George Crumb (when I first heard Ancient Voices of Children back in the ’60s, I ran out and bought the record), and so many others, most recently Joan Tower’s Tambor, which wowed me no end when I wrote Concert Companion commentary for a performance of it with the Pittsburgh Symphony.

But the ghastly track record is obvious. How many new classical pieces have made any impact on American culture? How many even get noticed? I can think of one major classical premiere, during my professional life in music, that became a serious cultural event for people outside classical music — the American premiere of Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, in New York in 1976. Otherwise most of this music, no matter how good it is, makes almost no impression even on the classical music world. Try naming the top five orchestral premieres of the last five years — you probably can’t, because you haven’t heard most of the candidates, and probably don’t even know what plausible candidates might be. (I know I couldn’t do it, and I’m supposed to be something of a specialist in new music.) New classical pieces just don’t get around, not even inside the classical world, and certainly not outside it.

So, paradoxically, I think new classical music has a better chance if it competes for the Pulitzer with music that more people notice. Or at least with other kinds of music. If the Pulitzer Prize, over the years, had recognized (within the limits of the usual award-show mistakes) the people we now consider the leading creative musical figures of the past 50 years, wouldn’t the classical composers who get the award stand out more, and maybe therefore get more recognition?

Incidentally, Hartke is exactly right when he says the Pulitzer guidelines already changed years ago. They were publicly changed for the 1998 awards, and privately changed the year before that, which led to Wynton Marsalis winning the 1997 music prize, even though nobody knew that jazz could be considered. If this sounds a little irregular, it certainly was, and the irregularity was compounded because the winning Marsalis work — his oratorio Blood on the Fields — was premiered in 1994, and thus shouldn’t have been eligible in 1997. I wrote about all this for the Wall Street Journal, and recapitulated much of it in my NewMusicBox column on the current Pulitzer changes, where I wonder if the mess back then was so embarrassing that the Pulitzer prize people forgot, when they announced the change this year, that they’d made much the same change before.

One last thought. Hartke says it would be hard to judge competing Pulitzer nominees in varying genres: “[A] case could easily arise where the three final nominations included a symphony, a musical, and a jazz set—talk about mixing apples and oranges!”

But I disagree. In the ’80s, I served on panels for the NEA’s Opera-Musical Theater program and for the National Institute of Music Theater, on which I and the other panelists had to give grants to new operas, new musicals, and new works of (for lack of a better term) avant-garde music theater. Thus we could have Dominick Argento, Stephen Sondheim, and Robert Ashley all competing against each other, along with pieces by young composers in comparable styles. It’s true that we didn’t have to pick just one winner, but I never found it hard to balance all these apples, oranges, and plums. Each piece made its own individual impression, and, as I look back on all my experience in this field, I don’t have any trouble saying that Ashley’s Public Lives/Private Parts (just for instance) has meant more to me — both now and when I first heard it — than Nixon in China, or, to be honest, just about any new opera I’ve ever heard, apart from Louis Andriessen’s Rosa.

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