Wednesday, April 18, 2007


This year's list of Pulitzers has come out, and the most interesting factoids on the list, to me, were that the three finalists for criticism came from L.A., which is the cultural equivalent of a switch in the earth's magnetic polarity, and that the winner among the three was the L.A. Weekly's Jonathan Gold, who has been a pioneer in covering the extraordinary diversity of food culture in Los Angeles. (As far as food is concerned, L.A. is the center of the Universe).

As for the Pulitzer in Music, giving it to Ornette Coleman was probably as good as selection as is possible within the present, reformed, phase of the award.

A composer whose work I very much treasure used to quip "Pulitzer Prize... passport to oblivion!", and, in fact, the list of Pulitzer-Prize-winning compositions (PPWCs) includes a number of works that have long secured their places in said oblivion. I actually had some contact as a teenager with the composer Gail Kubik, whose own PPWC (1952's Symphony Concertante) had long faded from the collective memory, but the combination of his being a Pulitzer Laureate and his score for Gerald McBoing-Boing added up to something approximating status in our small world. I'm probably not alone in thinking that the PPWC list reached its apogee in 1947 with Ives' Third Symphony, but that was not Ives at his best and the awards had already made a decisive turn towards recognizing lifetime achievement as often as specific pieces: Congratulations, a bunch of the guys have gathered around in Jack Beeson's office at Columbia and decided that you, too, have joined the club.

(There are, some very good pieces in the PPWC list: Copland's Appalachian Spring, of course, and Thomson's score to Louisiana Story, and maybe Albert's Symphony: RiverRun, a piece that John Cage praised strongly).

Some people really worry about the PPWCs -- Morton Feldman taught a course surveying them, and I'd guess that he would have been happy to have had a piece win; composer Paul Reale has his own survey with comments here. The Pulitzer organizers have worried about the PPWCs too, concerned with the both the process in which works were selected and the character and status of the works selected over the years. The process has been opened up a bit, and the form that that opening has taken has been to allow, at intervals, work representing one tradition in addition to that of the more or less academic East Coasters, Jazz.

This is clearly a compromise in a politically delicate area -- significant work in the Jazz tradition should have been recognized long ago, and one solution would have been to create a separate prize for Jazz. But that would not have been satisfactory to many. Unless the Pulitzers had the will and resources to keep opening up new categories (as have the Grammys), it would have been a form of highly selective segregation, it would have raised serious questions about defining the category, and there has always been a small faction who insist that Jazz was "America's Classical Music". But the present compromise is equally problematic. Those who identify with the East Coast academic tradition have now had one of the rare places in which their work is recognized by non-professional become somewhat less secure, if not devalued, and the annexation of music outside of that tradition may be perceived as an aesthetic challenge.

I figured out quickly that I shouldn't worry about PPWCs -- I came from the wrong coast* and had all the wrong ideas about what music might do, and PPWCs, if anything, were all about reinforcing a particular tradition about what music might do. But observing the musical politics of the process of selecting a PPWC is unavoidably fascinating. The jury this year included a significant number of members with interests in what might be called Jazz (I won't get into the politics of that label, nor will I get into questions about the status of recordings and improvisation) and the jury selected a composer who can be identified with that repertoire. Although the alternative works on the short list could hardly be any different, it's hard to escape the notion that the jury was selected precisely because it might respond favorably to a Jazz selection, and that's troublesome because there's no mechanism for deciding whether a given year is more likely to be a better one for Jazz. The least that can be said is that Jazz now has a relatively good chance to produce as many oblivion-bound PPWCs as the standard academic offerings.

I don't see any satisfactory solution to any of this, let alone an easy one.

* If anyone has any doubts about this, there is the example of the BMI competition. The only composer of roughly my own generation from the west coast and/or experimental traditions to have won a BMI is Larry Polansky, a fine composer by any measure. But it can hardly be a coincidence that the year he won was the only year that Lou Harrison sat on the jury. So I learned first not to worry about BMIs, then not about PPWCs, Guggenheims, or Fulbrights, and I'll certainly never have to worry about polishing my chair at the American Academy. But, and it's a great consolation, I can instead worry about the decline of bee colonies and my brother tells me that I have an uncle who met Merv Griffin once. Isn't life grand?

1 comment:

docker said...

We tell ourselves here in SoCal that we're the most multi-ethnic urban area in the world. Our restaurants and grocery stores are exceptionally wonderful. It's nice to read that we're the "center of the Universe" of something besides porno films.

As for the music Pulitzers, I have an immodest proposal.

I think the clear problem is who is on the committee. Committee members always seem to have agendas. Put a few jazz people in the group and a jazz composer wins. Put someone like Gunther Schuller on and NEC student wins. It's a sad joke.

So, before all newspapers go out of business and the Pulitzers disappear, why not adopt the American Idol model.

Put all the nominated pieces online. Let anyone vote provided they have listened to 30 seconds of each piece (I heard a story that this is pretty much what goes on in the present system now.) Allow write-in votes.

The top vote getters become finalists. Another round of voting and you'll have a winner. A better winner every time.

What? You say it's not elitist enough. Then ask yourself whether you want to be part of the problem or part of the solution.