Ending the bias

Finally, about the flagrant pro-classical bias in the music Pulitizer prizes…(go here and here for my previous posts on this)…

There really is a problem — and I believe the powers in charge of the Pulitzers would agree — because the top nonclassical artists aren’t nominated for the music prize.

What would change this? Beyond, of course, the absolutely essential, long-overdue change in the guidelines that I called for in my last post.

Well, I’d support affirmitive action. For the next three years only give the prize to nonclassical music, and only consider nominations for nonclassical artists. I’m sure many people in the classical world will hate this, and maybe get violently angry with me.

But what could be more convincing to nonclassical musicians — what could more strongly make them believe that they had a shot at a Pulitzer prize — than seeing nonclassical music repeatedly win it?

Failing that, I’d suggest putting people on the Pulitzer jury  who don’t know anything about classical music. I’m serious. There have been plenty of people on the jury who don’t know much, or don’t know anything, about pop. And who may believe it’s simplistic, non-artistic music, unworthy of the prize.

So let’s balance that. Yes, the Pulitzer people have tried, in recent years, to find jurors (like John Rockwell, well known as both a rock critic and a classical critic) who know both pop and classical music.

But that’s not enough. I think they should also choose some deeply cultured rock critics who don’t know classical music at all. Greil Marcus would be a perfect example. How would he judge the classical nominations? That’s up to him, just as it’s up to the pure-bred classical jurors how they judge nonclassical work.

Besides, wouldn’t it be fascinating to see what kind of appeal new classical pieces might have to someone with a finely honed musical sensibility, who’d be coming to them fresh?

Or do we think — and let’s be honest about this — that classical music is more difficult than nonclassical stuff, that it requires special knowledge and long experience, and that therefore a classical musician can judge a pop nomination without knowing anything about pop, while a rock critic could never, never, never judge a classical piece.

I think that’s bigoted, myself. But I think some people in the classical music world — and, maybe, some people involved with the Pulitzer Prize — in fact think that way. They don’t mean any harm, and hold this view with great sincerity. But still it’s at the very least ignorant — proof, of which, i fear, you can find in the astoundingly ignorant things that some of my critics say about pop music right here in the comments on this blog.

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  1. Kyle says

    I feel that there are a few separate issues knotted in your argument . Yes, the Pulitzer Prize is a committee of western cultural hegemonists, conservative serious-culture supremacists, etc. This isn’t really a big surprise; I’m sure you’re familiar with Flynt’s campaigning and writings against Stockhausen and all of that business. So, of course the committee thinks that classical music is admirably “difficult”, that it effectively ostracizes lowbrow audiences, and quite frankly (my own opinion), select jazz figures like Coleman too fall into that esteemed highbrow notch.

    The problem is not “classical” music so much as it is bourgeois-supported superficially difficult music. I was just listening to “From Etudes to Cataclysms” last night… certainly more intellectually stimulating and more of an artistic achievement than, (again a blunt opinion), David Lang’s 2008 piece, but an avant-classical figure like CP is just as unlikely to receive a prize as Lucinda Williams

    If artistic/intellectual merit is what should earn an award, it might not be such a big deal that classical music is favored over pop. Isn’t the bulk of rock and pop, excluding of course select political groups, almost entirely recreational and derivative? Such music deserves merit, but perhaps at the Grammys and not the Pulitzer Prize

    “Isn’t the bulk of rock and pop, excluding of course select political groups, almost entirely recreational and derivative?” Not so, though it’s a common misconception among arts people who don’t know pop. Good points, otherwise.

  2. Greil Marcus says

    Dear Greg,

    I accept.

    Where are you?


    Visions of an alt-Pulitzer Prize dancing in my head…with Greil as one of the judges…maybe I really will organize this.

  3. Jennifer says

    Are you *serious*?

    Let me explain: I am a twenty-year-old American who grew up on alt rock bands like Styx, Rush, Blessid Union of Souls and Queen as well as classical masterpieces. (My favorite composers? Sibelius and Wagner.) I deeply appreciate and enjoy both kinds of music, even though they are very different from one another.

    Still, I am incredulous at the content of your post. You say:

    “Or do we think — and let’s be honest about this — that classical music is more difficult than nonclassical stuff, that it requires special knowledge and long experience, and that therefore a classical musician can judge a pop nomination without knowing anything about pop, while a rock critic could never, never, never judge a classical piece.”

    That first part–up to “special knowledge and long experience”–is absolutely what I think. To think otherwise would be to undermine (literally!) the depth and complexity of classical music. I myself took clarinet lessons for four years, and though I was never particularly brilliant at playing it, I kept at it. I still play four or five times a week, for both enjoyment and the stimulating emotional and mental exercise that comes with playing an instrument–any instrument. Few pop musicians are capable of playing an actual instrument with anything like proficiency.

    I’ve always been lukewarm to pop, but I do genuinely like alternative rock, especially that produced by the bands I mentioned above, because (especially in the cases of Blessid Union of Souls and Queen) these artists were often great innovators, and some had a little classical training as well, or were deeply influenced by classical music and opera. (You have heard “Bohemian Rhapsody,” haven’t you?)

    You seem to forget that pop, rock and especially country, folk music and jazz are absolutely indebted to classical music. If it did nothing else, classical music laid the groundwork-rhythms, keys, tonality and atonality, melody, harmony, pitch–for everything we think of as “music” today. Even if pop/rock musicians don’t realize it (and a lot of the good ones do), classical music is a sort of foundational place from which most other music is derived. (Classical music evolved over time, too, but I don’t want to get into that here.)

    You also suggest that the Pulitzer committee choose judges with no classical training. I think that would amount to picking someone with no *musical* training, and would be counterproductive–they’re handing out a music award, after all. The award doesn’t go to the person who makes the most noise or puts on the best show. It goes to the person who makes the best music. You say, “I think they should also choose some deeply cultured rock critics who don’t know classical music at all. Greil Marcus would be a perfect example. How would he judge the classical nominations? That’s up to him, just as it’s up to the pure-bred classical jurors how they judge nonclassical work.”

    I’m not too familiar with Greil Marcus, but a quick overview of his critical works shows that he has explored jazz and country as well as plainsong and chant, and so has–gasp!–a shred or two of music training beyond the pop/rock genres. I would not be averse to having him on a musical committee, since he seems to have delved deeply into his own field. But I only say that because I respect his education (yes) and his experience with music of various kinds. I think if you approached him about judging classical works, he might turn you down–in my experience, musicians and critics stay in their niches whenever they can help it. There’s a reason they like the music that they do, and a reason why they avoid what bores them, or what they dislike.

    Whether classical music has a strong future remains to be seen, but I know it will always have *some* future. If a girl like me, growing up with a mother who loved alternative rock and a father who listened to the Smashing Pumpkins ad infinitum could find and love classical music, then so can anyone. I don’t think crossover is the answer. Exposure (beyond commercials) would be a better start. And I think that storming the Pulitzer committee (which is notoriously highfalutin) and decreeing that they should relax their standards because the world is changing is fairly wrong-headed. It’s their prize, and needs to meet their criteria. It’s really that simple. Pop and rock are judged in a largely public realm; classical musicians, with few exceptions, spend their careers shrouded in shadows. Will you steal their one possible chance at getting a moment in the sun?

    Hi, Jennifer. I really respect what you’ve written here, even if I disagree with some of it. Unlike many people, you think for yourself, and you don’t think in stereotypes. You’re talking about your own experience, and when you don’t know about something — Greil Marcus, for instance — you find out what it is before commenting on it.

    As you’ll see from his comment, Greil accepted. Not that the Pulitzer people ever asked him!

    Current pop music has a lot of antecendents. One of them is the entire western musical tradition, as exemplified by classical music. Another one is African music. And then pop, in the rock era (which means for the past 60 years, approximately), has developed all kinds of traits of its own. So just because one of its sources might be classical music, that doesn’t mean — at least not to me — that classical music knowledge is needed to understand it. In fact, I’ve found that many people in the classical music world can’t understand what’s going on in pop at all, no matter how much they know about classical music.

    As for a moment in the sun, I fear that what happens is that classical composers have a short career boost from the Pulitzer Prize, but no one outside classical music pays much attention. Just think what would happen if the prize were given even-handedly, and nonclassical music often won. When a classical composer won, the world might sit up and pay much more attention than it does now.

  4. Pablo Romero says

    Sir, you are a post-modernist hack. It’s nice to see you have shown your true colors-or lack thereof.

    Pablo, I hate to disappoint you, but I think everyone knows this already. I showed my true colors long ago.

  5. mclaren says

    Well, wouldn’t you say it’s not just a “pro-classical bias” in the Pulitzers that puts everyone off their feed…but a “pro-Davidovsky bias”?

    I mean, this guy so dominated the major grants and awards committees in Manhattan that he got nicknamed “The Generalissimo.” And what the ole Generalissimo demanded was absolute fealty to grim High Modernist mussolinismo. Diatonicism? Outa there, no Pulitzer for you. Perceptible rhythmic pulse? Toast. Functional harmony? Fuhgeddaboudit. Audible musical organization? Taser that composer and drag him away with gaffing hooks.

    Between Gunther Schuller and Mario Davidovsky, the major grants and awards committees in New York got pretty much locked up for hard-core high modernist musical apparatchiks for many, many years. What’s really shocking about the crappy roster of composer who got awarded Pulitzers and Guggenheims is how clearly and how obviously none of the composers that everyone today cites as big inspirations, the great names of the 50s and 60s and 70s, ever got those awards.

    Reich? No way. Glass? Hah! Tod Dockstader? Please. Conlon Nancarrow? Don’t even think about it. Ussachevksy & Luening? Not likely. John Chowning? Don’t make me laugh. Otto and Bebe Barron? Pfft! Lou Harrison? Yeah, right. Harry Partch? Puh-lease.

    Take a look at the list of Pulitzer prize winners from 1943 to 2001. After 1948 it falls off a cliff — from 43-48, you get the expected names, the really good composers of the period: William Schuman, Howard Hanon, Charles Ives, Aaron Copland and Walter Piston. These are the composers who kicked ass and took names during the 30s and 40s — the only great American name missing in that period is David Diamond.

    Then after 1950, total collapse. A desert. The only composers worth spit who got a Pulitzer between 1950 and the late 90s were William Bolcom, Christopher Rouse, George Crumb, Ellen Zwilich, Ned Rorem and Samuel Barber. That’s 6 out of 47 awards. The rest of the 41 Pulitzer prize winners between 1950 and 1997 are total non-entities, do-nothing know-nothing no-talents like Elliott Carter and Mario Davidovsky and Roger Reynolds. These people couldn’t write a piece of music if they gargled india ink and puked on manuscript paper, and everyone knows it.

    Just take a look at the infamous years in which the Pulitzer committee lists “no award.” Ask yourself what the hell these clowns were thinking? 1953: “Not awarded.” Holy crap. 1953 was the year Ussachevsky & Luening gave their groundbreaking first concert of tape music containing classics like “Low Speed.” Not awarded??? 1953 was the year Harry Partch recorded Plectra and Percussion Dances in Sausalito, California. But according to the Pulitzer prize committee, these great pieces of music don’t exist. They weren’t created in 1953. And now ask yourself — which is more influential today? Ussachevsky & Luening’s tape music…or Gail Kubik’s Symphony Concertante?

    1964: “Not awarded.” Apparently nothing worthwhile went on in American music in 1964. Yeah, nothing much happened in that year, Harry Partch just recorded And On the Seventh Day, Petals Fell In Petaluma… and Tod Dockstader finished up Quartermass and Two Moons of Quatermass and James Tenney left Bell Labs after having composed Noise Study and various other amazing computer pieces and Terry Riley composed In C and Steve Reich created his tape piece Music for Three Pianos or Piano and Tape. But those compositions are apparently an auditory hallucination. They don’t exist. Because the Pulitzer committee assures us nothing worthwhile was going on in American music that year.

    And you go on like that, year after year. It’s like wading through sewage. All the great music gets systematically ignored, all the shlock bubbles to the top like scum on a cistern and receives hosannahs and genuflections.

    So by no means is it convincing to cast the blame on “classical music.” It’s a particular kind of classical music, a specific narrow brand-name of modernist schlockmusik that gets consistently promoted and awarded while the stuff everyone today agrees was the best music of the period got completely ignored by the Pulitzer committee and the rest of the awards and grants committees.

    Around 1997 when Wynton Marsalis gets the Pulitzer you get a sudden outbreak of sanity. It’s a real shock. Long overdue, sure, but what about the other people who today obviously and clearly deserve Pulitzers and don’t have a chance in hell of getting ’em?

    Where are the Pulitzers for Zoe Keating or William Schottstaedt or Richard Karpen or Michael Gordon or Julia Wolfe or Cindy McTee or Joan Tower or D’arcy James Argue or Pamela Z or Johnny Reinhard or Richard Behrman or Larry Polansky or Jon Appleton or Jonathan Glasier or Tom Nunn or Mikel Rouse or John Luther Adams or Kyle Gann or Susan Rawcliffe or Philip Glass or Charles Dodge or Paul Lansky or Evan Ziporyn or Tom Johnson or “Blue” Gene Tyranny or Pauline Oliveros or Robert Ashley or Annie Gosfield?

    Each one of these people has done major work deserving of a Pultizer. And none of ’em will ever get one. Ever. Maybe that’s the problem, not supposed overemphasis on “classical music.”

  6. Philo says

    mclaren wrote:

    “Where are the Pulitzers for….?”

    Check out the Herb Alpert award winners, and then consider this: the Pulitzer pulls in a piddling ten thousand dollars while the Herb Alpert gets you fifty thousand. Arguing about the Arts Pulitzers is much ado about next to nothing; if they represent achievement in a narrow stylistic niche, okay, then let ’em have the niche, and others can set up their own prizes.