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.