For the second year in a row, I’ve been asked — along of course with many other people in the music business — to nominate candidates for the Pulitzer Prize in music. Let me quickly note that this isn’t any great distinction. Anyone can nominate somebody for the Pulitzer Prize. We can all even nominate ourselves, and why not? But for the past two years, they’ve been actively looking for nominations, and I think that’s linked to the expansion of eligibility rules that they announced a couple of years ago. And that expansion irks me no end.
The idea, as they explain in the material they sent, is to make sure that not just classical music will be eligible to win, but also “jazz, opera, choral, musical theater, movie scores and other forms of musical excellence.” Presumably even pop albums are eligible — they certainly should be — because now “public release of a recording is accepted as the equivalent of a premiere performance of a work.” Or in other words, a work doesn’t have to be performed; it could simply be recorded, an innovation underlined by another change in the guidelines, which now say that scores don’t have to be submitted for nominated works. Or — again to put this more clearly than I just put it, and also more clearly than the Pulitzer people do — a nominated work doesn’t have to be notated.
But the whole thing, not to mince words here, is half-assed.
They say, for instance, that “we will ‘strongly urge’ but no longer require the submission of a score.” That sends a pretty clear message to people whose music isn’t notated (which could include important jazz musicians, who are precisely — or so it seems — the people the Pulitzer organization most strongly wants to encourage). Scores aren’t required, but we like it better if you submit one. Translation: classical works with notated scores are still our first priority. If that wasn’t true, why didn’t they simply word the guidelines more or less like this?
The submission of a score is no longer required. Thus, works without notated scores are eligible. If a work does have a notated score, then we strongly urge that the score be submitted. [Or they could even require it to be submitted, which would certainly make sense.]
Any jazz or pop musician reading that would know that they’d get equal consideration. And the apparent bias is evident elsewhere in the materials they sent me. For instance, there’s a note to music critics. The nomination form asks for a lot of mildly specialized information, including the date and place of the entrant’s birth, and the entrant’s biography. To encourage music critics to nominate music they like, the special note to critics says that some of these requirements can be waived, and that
“the following [information] will suffice”:
1) Title of work and composer
2) Date and place of first performance in the United States
3) Name of the work’s publisher, if known
There’s nothing here about recordings being eligible. And the stress on the publisher seems to imply that there’s going to be a notated score. (Yes, I know that pop songs have publishers, but the function they serve isn’t remotely like the function of a classical publisher, and — especially since each pop musician forms his or her own publishing company — nobody considering a pop song for an award would ever need to ask who published it.)
So there goes the back-to-classical reflex: The Pulitzer people mean to expand their guidelines, but keep snapping back toward language that reflects the old ones. They need to get their act together, which means that they should (1) adopt guidelines that aren’t biased toward any one kind of music, and (2) make sure they use consistently unbiased language in all materials that they release.
A footnote. If I were going to nominate anything this year, it’d probably be Bob Dylan’s album, Modern Times. But — especially after an exchange with Stephen Hartke some years ago about the Pulitzers — I’m painfully aware that opening the prize to nonclassical music is a double-edged change. On one hand, the former all-classical Pulitzers couldn’t claim to recognize the best American music. They didn’t come close. So if the prize been open all these years to nonclassical music — and if people like Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman and Duke Ellington and Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and Captain Beefheart (why not?) and Patti Smith and John Coltrane and Stephen Sondheim had won — any award to a classical composer would really mean something. It would really draw attention. It might make people who don’t listen to classical music think the winning classical piece was worth something. In the long run, that would be really good for classical music.
But in the shorter run, the old all-classical arrangement was better for classical composers. Sure, nobody outside classical music was going to pay much attention if you won, but inside classical music your career could well have taken off. So I’d have been better off as a composer when the Pulitzer was only for classical works, even though I’m urging that it shouldn’t be. (Look how much faith I have, despite my criticisms — I’m using the past tense, even though nobody knows whether the new guidelines will lead to any surge of non-classical winners.)
I don’t have any record of my exchange with Hartke, but here’s my blog entry that set it off, in which you can read more of my Pulitzer opinions.