Pulitzer follies

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.

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  1. says

    Greg, I agree completely with your beefs about the New Pulitzer (cf. New Coke). For the record, though, those solicitations aren’t pegged to the new guidelines. They’ve been mailing those out for years; they must’ve just added you to the list.

    Maybe they added me after I slagged them at some public function. Or am I giving both them and me too much credit?

  2. says

    Another problem in artistic competitions that involve both “popular” and “classical” music (besides the obvious ones about competition not being good for art) is in the very different distribution systems for the different kinds of music.

    We can make a credible judgment of the best popular music of a given year by the end of that year, whereas we can’t even make a credible list of the new concert music of a given year by that year’s end.

    Good point, Steve. It’s something I’ve said a lot. Ask serious classical music listeners or even classical music professionals what the five best new works of the past year were, and nobody could do it, except maybe artistic administrators of orchestras, or people who work for music publishers. This stuff just doesn’t circulate; even news reports about it might not; and there usually aren’t recordings.

    But I wouldn’t minimize the extent to which this can also happen in pop. There’s a lot of fragmentation in pop, a lot of the currently fashionable “long tail effect,” a lot of people in alternative rock circles who make a fetish of obscure music. So you’ll find a lot of albums without all that much buzz, and people even so saying that they’re among the best of the year. But this is a footnote. Certainly you’d get agreement on a lot of releases (just look at the annual Pazz and Jop poll at the Village Voice).

    The Pulitzers do avoid this. In theory, at least, the prize is given for a nominated work, meaning for the work itself, as the judges assess it from submitted materials, and not for the composer’s reputation or the work’s success. We all know that this is a theory that doesn’t always work out in practice, but still, sometimes it does work as advertised. Certainly when Lewis Spratlan and Paul Moravec won the Pulitzer, that was because the judges liked the nominated pieces. Neither composer yet had (and I don’t mean this with any disrespect; it’s certainly no comment on their ability) a Pulitzer-sized reputation.

  3. Gene Barnes says

    Well, now you completely lost me, Greg. If you don’t feel classical music deserves some kind of protected status, then why on earth are you worried about “the future of classical music”? What muddle-headed thinking! Jeez.

    I have a large collection of jazz and an appreciation for (though I don’t collect) alternative rock, as my son’s in a band, so I have no beef with other musical formats getting recognition. But the Pulitzers have always been about classical music, and to make them co-equal with the other forms of music for the prize doesn’t diminish the prize in any way, but it certainly changes it. For one thing, why not just let the marketplace decide what’s good, through pure popularity metrics? Isn’t awarding Green Day’s “American Idiot” redundant? It already won the prize of lots of sales.

    First, you say you’d rather watch a movie than go to most classical music concerts, and then you tout this dopey stuff.

    Honestly, I’d hate to depend on you and this blog to solve the attendance problems at classical music concerts. You don’t even seem to favor any kind of special treatment or segregation of classical music. So what’s the point?

    Oh, and you really pissed me off with your gratuitous swipe on Haydn’s operas (in the Hartke article). It’s obvious you don’t know jack about ’em.

    But I guess if I asked you to stick to talking about things that you know about, there wouldn’t be this blog, would there?


  4. Alfred says

    Really? Bob Dylan? Even after all of the albums that have been released this year

    Thanks for the Wikipedia link. After I jumped from it to the entry for the Dylan album, I found this, from my long-ago editor at the Village Voice, Bob Christgau:

    “Modern Times,” he says, radiates “the observant calm of old masters who have seen enough life to be ready for anything.”
    That’s exactly why I like it. Plus no end of musical subtleties, which take more than one or two hearings to understand.

  5. says

    The chief idiocy of the system is that you have to pay $50 or $75 or some such sum to submit a nomination (I’ve stopped looking, and just throw away the envelope unopened). If they got rid of the fee, they’d get a wider swath of nominations, and the competition would get more interesting.

    Hi,, Alex, and what a good point. I imagine they want to weed out applications they might think are frivolous or unsuitable .But they could just as well do that with a prescreening panel.

    At least they’ve done us one service. We now know what a presumption of seriousness costs.

  6. richard says

    I think Groucho Marx had it right when he said that he would never want to join an organization that would have him as a member. When looking at past winners, I have but one question/remark: “Leo Sowerby?” And he won it before Ives did!

    Awards shows often get it wrong. If we think of the Pulitzer prizes as a highbrow awards show, we’ll be less disappointed.

  7. says

    In the 1960s many musicians began to entertain the idea that pop music could be art. One of the grandest, and most artistically successful manifestations of this impulse was finally brought forth a couple years ago: Brian Wilson’s [b]Smile[/b]. I can imagine the Pulitzer people had this work specifically in mind when they made the proposed rule changes. Certainly it deserves some kind of prize, Pulitzer or not.

    If I thought that extending the Pulitzer eligibility to rock albums would encourage the creation of more works of the same kind and quality, I would heartily endorse the idea. But [b]Smile[/b] was the product of a unique time and set of circumstances that a mere prize is not going to be able to bring back. As has been said elsewhere in this discussion, pop music has financial success as its prize.

    Greg, you yourself, in your reply to Steve Hicken, have articulated many of the reasons I believe that the opening up of Pulitzer eligibility is going to be a futile exercise. Ultimately it will only increase by many orders of magnitude the number of political balance issues (do we give it this year to a grand old man or to a newcomer? to a tonal work or an atonal one?…) which already exist.

    “Pop music has financial success as its prize.” All of it? All of it equally?

    Actually, I think it ranges all over the map. Some of it is made dishonestly to make money, some of it is made honestly — meaning that the people involved really love the music they make — and makes a lot of money. Some of it contents itself with making less money. What do you think Neil Young’s financial calculations are? Or Robyn Hitchcock’s? Or my favorite pop musician last month, Clark, an electronica guy on the Warp label, who sells no more than 5000 copies of each album he makes?

    Pop is a huge, complex world. I don’t think it can be reduced to simple generalizations.

    And financial success isn’t a prize in classical music? The leading conductors, for instance, get paid millions of dollars each year. Not much, maybe, compared to the top pop stars, but I bet Robyn Hitchcock would take it.

    I do agree that it would be hard for the Pulitzer prizes to judge music fairly. The political judgments, just as you say, would be overwhelming. And yet…if they wanted to do it, they’d do it. And we’d all squeal with annoyance when they announced their choices, just as we do at every other awards show. But they really could do it, if they really wanted to.