Clear case of bias, round two

Here’s where this started, with some thoughts on the Pulitzer Prize in music, and how, though theoretically it’s open to nonclassical music, in practice almost all the awards (and all of the runners-up, who almost got the awards) are classical.

One measure of how bad this is: If you look at the winners and runnersup during the past decade, many classical composers who normally wouldn’t be ranked in the top tier of their field show up on the list. While almost none of the top names in rock, jazz, and other nonclassical genres are there. Clearly the music Pulitizers look biased.

Which wouldn’t be an issue if the Pulitzer directors themselves hadn’t said the prize was open — ever since 1997 — to nonclassical music! But since they did say this, the radical slant in favor of classical composers becomes a serious issue.

So why do the prizes lean so far toward the classical side?

To understand that, we have to understand how someone gets to be considered for the Pulitzer prize. You have to be nominated. Which means that the music jury, sitting down to its deliberations, can’t decide that Lucinda Williams had a terrific album this year, and ought to be considered. Only if someone nominates her would she be eligible.

Though of course you can nominate yourself, which makes the process more favorable to you. Or to Lucinda Williams, if she decides she’s interested.

Are the leading names in nonclassical music being nominated, by themselves or others? From what I hear, they aren’t. So there we have the first big problem. People outside classical music aren’t oriented toward the Pulitzer Prize. And it’s hard to blame them. If they look at the list of recent winners. they’ll see what we see. Which might make them skeptical, make them think they have a chance for the prize in theory, but that they’re not likely to get it. So why bother?

Adding to this are some phrases in the official music guidelines. First, they keep talking about “works” and “premieres.” That’s how classical composers talk. But not people outside classical music. They’ll record albums, which don’t have premieres. Instead, we say they’re released. So while the guidelines do mention that a work submitted for the prize might in fact be a recording — as it would be for pop or jazz nominees — the language of the guidelines keeps reverting to classical usage, as if all nominees composed “works” which would then get “premiered.”

And how about this? All submissions must include “a note indicating the length and instrumentation of the work.” Again that’s classical talk. If Paul Simon submits an album, who cares how long it is? And he’d never talk about the “instrumentation” of music he made. Instead he might list — as CD notes for pop albums often do — the musicians playing on each track.

“Instrumentation” is a classical concept. I write a piece, and I can say which instruments it’s for. It’s a string quartet, or it’s written for an ensemble of flute, glockenspiel, contrabassoon, and tuba. Whatever. In pop, you go into the studio and see what works out. Maybe you add a horn section or a Hammond organ late in the production process, instruments you originally hadn’t thought of using. The Pulitzer guidelines don’t seem to have been written by anyone with any knowledge of how nonclassical music is made.

And finally this. “A score of the work is strongly urged [to be submitted with your nomination], but not required.” Classical pieces have scores. Nonclassical pieces don’t. A few details of a  pop album might be jotted down — go to the Hard Rock Café or the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and smile at the lyrics for famous songs, scribbled on napkins — but the details of the music (and often enough the lyrics, too) are worked out in the studio.

Again the person who wrote the Pulitzer guidelines doesn’t seem to know how nonclassical music is made. And again the language suggests a strong bias against nonclassical music. You’re “strongly urged” to submit a score. Could you blame Lucinda Williams if she read these guidelines, and decided the deck was stacked against her?

Recommendation to the people who run the Pulitzer operation: if you really do want the top nonclassical names to be nominated for the music prize, change the guidelines. Do it today!

Or else I, for one, simply won’t believe you’re serious.

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  1. John says

    Most importantly, you’ve been influential in persuading me of the value of non-classical music. I was raised in a household that only listened to classical music and was taught from a very young age to turn my nose up at other musical genres. Only in the last few years have I started to really explore and appreciate other musical genres.

    I do have a few quibbles with your proposals for the Pulitzer Prize guidelines, however.

    I’m confused by your claim that non-classical music cannot comply with a request to list instrumentation (although I acknowledge that it isn’t a term used very often in that world) and that length is of no consequence. Despite differences in the creative process, all non-classical pieces are performed by a group of musicians that can be separated by instrument. Whether each performer is included on every track of an album is of as little importance as how many movements a bassoonist plays during a symphony. I’m also unclear on why the length of a symphony is of any more or less relevant than that of an album.

    This same argument would apply to the committee’s request for a score. Although the creative process is completely different, the end result of a non-classical work could be recorded on paper and provided to the jury as a tool for them to evaluate the music more completely.

    If on one hand classical musicians need to adjust their outlooks to respect music outside of their own field, then non-classical musicians need to start analyzing their own product in a more complete and more academic way (as some already do!) to be considered for a prize as rigorous as the Pulitzer.

  2. says

    Come on Greg, if we want the Pulitzer to be unbiased, then wouldn’t it be fair to turn that around with respects to, say, a recording industry award?

    Let’s turn that around–since this is what I was getting to in one of my previous response–how open would a Western pop music organization be to a Classical music or non-Western pop music group/styles? I’ve always found it interesting that they Grammys (to take probably one of the worst and best examples) has (for all intents and purposes) one category dedicated to “world music” (with only two categories–though granted Latin and Reggae have their own categories) and one to Classical (with 11 sub-categories).

    How many genres and sub-genres of Western pop music are included in its award categories? Well over a hundred if Wikipedia is accurately listing the currently awarded categories.

    I haven’t bothered to even count but was interesting, when I was looking up the category Ray Price (whom I occasionally tour with) won his award with Willie Nelson in ’08. In country music alone there were over half a dozen categories.

    And then I go back to play in my little world music ensemble, covering [non-western] pop music in several dozens of genres and languages–none of which ever see the light of day in industry awards in the West.

    Couple that with how often the big pop sensations of various countries can only “make it big” if they start singing in English and start playing music that’s more idiomatically “Western pop”–Shakira (Columbia), Tarkan (Turkey), and Jorane (Canada) immediately come to mind–and maybe we can get a better picture of how elitist and exclusive so-called “pop” music as an industry and community is.

    Sure, we can argue that just maybe all this non-Western pop music just isn’t that popular (i.e. isn’t as good as Western pop) or that it just doesn’t have enough commercial appeal (though thinking about the India filmi playback industry I would guess that stars there record far more music than any Western pop artist has–and India alone is a huge market with a population that’s roughly twice that of Europe and North American combined) but those reasons belie the underlying *ahem* bias (in this case I would be more inclined to use colonialism) that is the model of music-that’s-purportedly-connected-to-today’s-audiences viewpoint.

    If we want the Pulitzer to be more inclusive should we not ask the same of the Grammys? Or is this just another display of acceptable asymmetry? Not that I really care [or expect] that either becomes more inclusive. But if we’re going to take to task the exclusiveness of the Classical music world, I would want to Western Pop music world to be held to the same lofty standards rather than make the assumption that one is ‘superior’ to the other because of its practices when it seems obvious to me both could do with a little makeover in how they are relevant! 😉

    Well, of course.

    Though from my point of view, at least, I’d distinguish two things. One is the criticism awards shows (among which I include the Pulitzers) need and deserve. And the second is internal consistency, once an award show sets out on whatever course it adopts.

    From that point of view, the Grammys, whatever one thinks of them culturally, reflect the pop world in all its commercial glory. The top-selling genres are highlighted. While the Pulitzers entered a limbo of internal contradiction once they decided to include nonclassical music, because they do recognize (if we count the finalists) a good cross-section of classical composers, but — given the number of potential winners — are making what amounts to random choices among nonclassical people.

  3. says

    Hi Greg,

    Thanks — interesting, as usual! Two thoughts: 1) for the totally naive and/or head-in-sand classicals who read your blog: how could we (I) come up with a reasonable short list to sample and learn about? It’s a pretty big forest of pop music out there; I’m ignorant, don’t have a ton of free time, but would sincerely like to hear last year’s best. How can I discover what that is? [E.g., should I really trust the Grammys?]

    2) More of a concern: is a recording of music really the same as music performed live? We don’t have Photoshop beauty contests. A recording is often heavily edited digitally, so for an album, aren’t I just hearing the equivalent of a Photoshopped version of the musician(s)? Is that “really the real musician”? Maybe, but I think it’s worth talking about.

    Coincidentally, Arved Ashby has a new book, “Absolute Music: Mechanical Reproduction,” that claims (from the blurb) to talk a bit more deeply about the issue of recordings vs. live. I need to read it. (California Press.)

    Thanks again for starting the conversation!

    Bob Judd

    (American Musicological Society, BUT not writing w/ my hat on!)

    Hi, Bob. Terrific questions. To start with the second, one aesthetic challenge pop music holds out to the classical world is the concept of music created for recording. So the text of the piece is the recording, and the recording can’t be thought of as a dimmed echo (hmm — mixed metaphor?) of a live performance. Of course classical composers could work this way, too, though I’m only aware of one who’s done it, Michael Gordon, on his Nonesuch album “Light is Calling.” I’m sure there are more, including some I’ve known of, and can’t recall just now. (Those who do recall, please enlighten me!)

    Your first question — no, don’t go to the Grammys. And no need to start with last year. Just as there’s no need to start learning about classical music from this year’s Pulitzer finalists.

    So, two approaches. There’s a large literature about pop, critical and academic. In fact, you could ask AMS members for suggestions, since many of them write about pop. Robert Fink, Rob Walser — there are two names I’m sure you know, but there are many more. I might recommend four books: Nick Hornby’s “Songbook,” Rob Walser’s “Running with the Devil: Power, Gender, and Madness in Heavy Metal Music” (in part to show how much there is to talk about even in a disreputable pop genre), and two books by Greil Marcus, “Mystery Train” and “Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads.” Books will be very helpful for you, I think, because the aesthetic worlds of pop and classical music are so different (and pop, of course, contains many aesthetic worlds). Knowing how highly intelligent and in many cases even scholarly people talk about the music may help you orient yourself, and understand better what you hear.

    That said, I’ll risk recommending a few songs, knowing that my choice is in many ways arbitrary. Other songs could do the job just as well. And I’m certainly not suggesting that these are the best pop songs ever. I chose them because I love them all, and because I think they make a good segue, in their different ways, from classical music into pop.

    Here’s the list. Lucinda Williams, “Ventura”; Otis Redding, “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now)”; Paul Simon, “Graceland”; Bruce Springsteen, “Incident on 57th Street.”

    And also, for something current, and more electronic than anything I’ve mentioned, Imogen Heap, “First Train Home.” And, moving further into purely rock territory, Bob Dylan, “Like a Rolling Stone” (which among other things offers the near-chaos of its instrumental playing as a positive musical value); The Rolling Stones, “Rocks Off” (insanely creative use of just three chords, until close to the end); and Guns N’ Roses, “Welcome to the Jungle” (which might sound at first like a total assault on art and aesthetics, but, again, that’s a positive value, and a musicologist should appreciate the rather complex musical structure).

    Hope this helps! I’d be happy to keep the conversation going in email.

  4. says

    You’re right, Greg. You’re absolutely right.

    But until the Pulitzer people come to their senses and start to make awards on merit regardless of genre, I think you personally ought to take advantage of the current situation. I think you ought to submit one of your own classical works. It may be too late for any of the pieces on your most current works list at

    But aren’t you working on a set of piano variations on a tune by Mahler with an alt-classical kick? That would be perfect. Finish it, get it premiered and recorded (or did that happen already?) and submit it now! Before you’re forced to compete with Lucinda Williams! Do it!

    Behind your irony lies a point I’ve seen made before — that if classical composers had to compete with nonclassical artists, they’d rarely win the Pulitzer Prize. So I’m delighted to, Steve, to see you highlight the sheer opportunism of that position, even if it amuses you to think I’d like to benefit from it. Normally the people who say these things get up on their artistic high horse, and ignore the current of opportunism — understandable, but let’s call it what it is — that runs through their thinking.

  5. Joe Shelby says

    Robert Fripp describes King Crimson albums as writing the score of King Crimson music, which is then meant to be performed by King Crimson on stage. He’s one of the few that look at Rock that way.

    In spite of the drop in sales of recorded music in general, the classical world needs to look closer to the Rock world on the topic of premieres. It is often the case that a work premieres in some place (usually the place it was commissioned for), maybe is performed by one or two other curious orchestras, and disappears. *Maybe* Naxos might record a later rendition of it, but again that usually requires some other commission to help pay for the performance.

    The contemporary classical world needs to take a hint from the pop world (and the minimalist world, particularly Steve Reich and Terry Riley) and stop thinking of black marks on lines on a piece of paper as the be-all product of their efforts.

    Concert hall live recording has reached a point of quality where it can substitute for the studio without most listeners noticing. If the audience noise is a potential problem, then record at what would otherwise be an on stage rehearsal setting in the afternoon as well, and then get that record out. People do buy orchestral music that they hear and like (look at film score sales, which are still strong relative to overall sales). If the classical world treated their modern works like the pop world did, where within a month of a premiere you could purchase a record of that music, it would go a LONG way to improving the perception of it.

    Today, a premiere happens and a work is forgotten. I’ve heard many good modern works on radio shows for orchestras (New York Phil, Baltimore Symphony, etc), but with no other way to get them after hearing it other than hoping someone has put the show up illegally (and 2nd generation at that), the work is forgotten.

    I’d rather not forget what I like. I’d rather like being able to go out and get a copy of it.

  6. Bill Brice says

    You are right that the Pulitzer committee is inherently “score-centric” in its consideration of music awards. But isn’t this a natural enough predisposition for an organization whose original purpose was to honor excellence in print journalism?

    I don’t think Pulitzers are awarded for such non-print activities as, say, broadcast journalism (maybe I’m wrong here), that could be roughly comparable to music that’s produced in a studio, as opposed to written into a score.

    It was the Pulitzer board’s idea to extend the prize to nonclassical music. Once they do that, they have to play by nonclassical rules, as well as classical rules, whatever their predisposition might be.