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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

2009 Pulitzer in Music

Stephen Michael Reich has been lauded as "our greatest living composer" (NY Times), "America’s greatest living composer" (Village VOICE), “...the most original musical thinker of our time” (New Yorker), and “...among the great composers of the century” (NY Times).

Now at the age of 73, he can add the distinction of "Pulitzer" to his list of accomplishments. While he has been a Pulitzer finalist three times, his Double Sextet (premiered March 26, 2008 in Richmond, VA) finally won him the award.

That should lend some encouragement to composers like David Rakowski and Peter Lieberson who are also multiple-year runner-up Pulitzer finalists. In this business, persistence helps.

Perhaps there is a silver lining here. Now that composers of vernacular, minimalist, and experimental music are winning the Pulitzer for music composition left and right, we no longer have to listen to the whining complaints of composers such as John Adams who have in the past taken issue over the narrow definition of the award. They have often made news and touted the so called fact that minimalists aren't taken seriously by the staid and conservative musical establishment. In their view, this systemic institutional myopia was embodied by the makeup and collective bias of the Pulitzer selection committee. The long-standing institution of the Pulitzer has been the ultimate proverbial glass ceiling for a collection of fringe, avant garde, and experimental composers. Perhaps they viewed it as a last great obstacle to wide-scale acceptance, and a distinction that would make their work more legitimate. They had already won the support of the general public, but it was the lack of respect from the brainy academic establishment - such a Columbia University which administers the Pulitzer Prize award - that seemed irk them to no end.

Things got really ugly in 1992 when the Pulitzer music jury comprised of distinguished composers George Perle, Roger Reynolds, and Harvey Sollberger chose Ralph Shapey's Concerto Fantastique for the award. Their choice was outright rejected by the Pulitzer Board, which up until that point had routinely accepted the professional jury's recommendation without question. However, the non-musicians of the Pulitzer Board overrode the jury's recommendation and choose their second selection instead: a much more conservative work by Wayne Peterson.

Dissed from having been overridden the music jury, flabbergasted and ignored, issued a public statement stating that they had not been consulted in the decision and added that the Pulitzer Board was not professionally qualified to make decisions in these matters. In the end the Pulitzer Board did not rescind their decision, and Wayne Patterson remained the official winner. Shapey, who is viewed by many professionals in the field as a neglected and talented composer, died in 2002 never having another shot at winning the Pulitzer.

Since 1992 many people feel that populism and politics have played a major role in the Pulitzer selection process in the category of music composition. From my perspective, this seems to be the case. For example, my late teacher Donald Martino completed two extraordinary pieces in the year before his abrupt death from complications of diabetes in 2005. Both of his final works were performed at Harvard in February of 2006 by my new music group the Lumen Contemporary Music Ensemble. His music publisher, Dantalian, submitted the both pieces (along with the requisite $50 application fee for each work) to the Pulitzer committee for consideration for the 2007 award.

Since these works were premiered in 2006, Martino was eligible for the Pulitzer posthumously. Unfortunately, neither of his works made it to the list of top three finalists, and the 2007 Pulitzer was ultimately awarded to a well-known jazz musician for a recording. The submission rules had just been modified to be much more inclusive. A broader definition of the term "composition" was expanded to include recordings of improvised music and electronics. Notated musical scores are no longer required, and commercial works such as Broadway musicals became eligible. The applicant pool of possible prize recipients became much broader overnight.

To make things even more complicated, it turns out that that jazz artist who won in 2007 did not directly apply for the Pulitzer, and from what I've read didn't go through the normal process of submitting the application, meeting the deadline, or paying the required $50 processing fee.

I was rather disappointed and disillusioned by the outcome. The two new works by Martino (in my humble opinion) are among his finest, and have had a legacy of continued success well after the Lumen premiere at Harvard. And it seems to me that it is not simply a matter of "information overflow" or that the works got lost in the stack of hundreds of applications on the judges' plate. I happened to notice that two of the five judges on the Pulitzer music jury in 2007 were in attendance at the Lumen concert, and were present to hear Martino's amazing new pieces. By all accounts, these individuals seemed to be very enthusiastic about Martino's new works.

All awards and prizes in the arts are lighting rods for controversy and aesthetic conflict. But I've stopped paying much attention to the results of the Pulitzer prize in music, since it seems to me that it has more to do with politics, populism, and political correctness than the quality and originality of the music itself.

Yet we should offer our congratulations to Steve Reich with the understanding that in many ways he was a "safe" choice. Few will take issue with his musical integrity and life-time commitment to composing and innovation. Of course, winning the Pulitzer would probably have aided his career more had it happened 40 years ago. But back then, winning the Pulitzer was seen as "un-cool" for a downtown or left-coast alternative composer, even if the prize money (currently a whopping $10 K) had helped him or her to pay the rent. This year the Pulitzer jury dodged controversy, and found a deserving composer who just about everyone can respect.

But in my book, the Pulitzer Prize in music is no longer the Big Kahuna that it once was.