A Vibe for the Prize: Predicting the Pulitzer

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“No, just your first name is fine,” I was told by Kenneth Jones at the sign-in desk of InVision, a meditation, healing, and clairvoyant training institute in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. Clairvoyants already know my last name? Or are they just that laid back?

I’d gotten a call the day before that InVision was having an open house to demonstrate what they do, and it was all free. I wanted to know who stood a chance at winning this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Music and figured that, with the much-discussed rule changes, the field was wide open and it was best to ask the professionals. I heard that they couldn’t tell what would happen if they were only given names, that they needed objects like scores to read the “energy” from. Having loaded up my bag with CDs by the likes of Steve Reich, Elliott Carter, Dave Douglas, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Augusta Read Thomas, I headed over.

“There are two things we don’t do,” Jones, InVision’s director, explained. “We don’t predict the future and we don’t give advice.” This didn’t sound good. “All we do is read the energy and interpret it, because if I tell you what’s going to happen, I’m taking away your free will, and I don’t want to do that.” This might work after all. Jones said they were really busy that night with the open house, but that I should come back the next day when they were having a one-hour planetary reading class. I availed myself of the open-house’s chance for an energy cleansing and a planetary reading, and then, with my energy field cleansed and aligned with the earth’s core, headed home.

I returned the next day with my CDs and explained what it was I was doing. I covered the new rules of the Pulitzer Prize for the 15 assembled clairvoyants, including Jones, saying that it wasn’t just serious composers who could nominate pieces this year, that it was open to jazz musicians, improvisers, even film composers. I said I’d play a couple of minutes of music by composers who might be nominated this year, and then we could talk about what they saw. “We can look at the committee, too, if you like,” interjected Jones, and I pointed out that the members of the committee aren’t known yet. This didn’t present an obstacle, he said.

I put the Orchestre de Paris’ recording of Reich’s “Different Trains” into the player, having made it clear that the piece wasn’t nominated but another work composed by him could be. I also sketched in some biographical details, noting that he is 70 and has never won, and pushed play. (I figured that the larger string contingent would give them more energy to read than the quartet version.) They sat rapt, with eyes closed and their feet flat on the floor. After three minutes had passed, they started explaining what they had seen. First to respond was Jason Ressler, who said he was “getting this kind of Susan Lucci vibe, like he’s always considered but knows he’s not going to win.” That was seconded by Joan Castro, who said she saw Reich’s attitude as being like, “I’ll go, but I’m not going to win.” Winning would also put too much of a spotlight on him, which he seemed not to want. “He’s building a tall, glass, golden spire, and this piece was completing it; it’s his last word on something,” said Jamie Alford. “He’s thinking, ‘Who cares if I win?’ It’s more about self-expression for him.” But not so fast: “I see a lot of resistance dropping away, resistance to winning,” said Jody Page. Others saw serious infighting among the committee members, with some judges fighting for Reich, and that his “hiding” might actually appeal to them.


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Next I popped in the final movement of Elliott Carter’s Double Concerto for Piano, Harpsichord and Two Chamber Orchestras, assuming that to be as iconic of him as anything. I pointed out that he’s 96 and has already won twice and that the committee might be disposed to give it to him again while there’s still time. “He knows exactly what he can do to get another award,” said Ressler, again leaping in first. Janet Green followed up, “I see him in a kitchen, cooking, knowing exactly what his guests wanted. He’s thinking, ‘I can do this with one hand tied behind my back.'” Alicia Halloran found him “a little condescending,” saying to a panelist or listener who didn’t understand his music, “I wouldn’t expect for you to understand.” Georgine Murray thought the committee was probably tired of Carter, and sees his music like “a brown box that’s dropped off every year. They’ve been expecting the package and aren’t looking forward to it.”

A consensus was arrived at independently by many of them that the committee wants to bring in new composers, but that someone like Carter might win anyway. Ressler had another point to make, that “Reich was on a single plane, using one color on the canvas. But Carter had a lot of different colors, using many instruments in many different ways. He has more depth, even though Steve Reich is more popular.” Hmmmm.

Next was Phil Kline’s Zippo Songs, which actually could be considered since it was first recorded in 2004. We listened to the second song, “Been to Hell,” and did that get a response! Green thought that the committee would do a “lot of looking at it, listening to it, and then listening again.” She saw a lot of discussion among the judges, with a lot of energy-movement. “Some panelists are concerned that it doesn’t have enough complexity. They’re worried that having something like this win could snowball into having rock nominated, or even, horror, hip-hop!” All the clairvoyants and I got a good laugh out of that. Lisa Klobucnar thought that the committee would be bothered by a singer who uses “vibration to be disturbing.” Myan Binder pointed out that the song “meets the requirement of being beyond what’s been considered before.” They “grudgingly say that it fits,” and it could be possible that the work will force the committee to stretch their definition of what belongs.

Since our hour was quickly running out, which even I could foresee, I decided to cut the listening party short and have them look at the Pulitzer committee for a few minutes, then I would pass around a few CDs for energy readings.

According to the assembled clairvoyants, this year’s committee is not going to be a happy one. “The judges are concerned with the competition between them,” said Castro. Klobucnar saw “dueling factions, one of which sees serious music as being about complexity, about structure. For them to agree to give it to someone who’s not really complex, it has to be a small move, incremental, having some of the attributes they like, but maybe not all of them. They like that they can apply some of their criteria to jazz.”

“They can’t communicate at first. It’s hard for them to admit being emotionally touched by a piece of music. But they begin to admit being moved,” mused Natalia Jones. Green had thoughts about the beginning of the meeting, as well, saying that she saw the panelists “playing cards together at a round table, then the table turns into a long table and everyone’s playing solitaire.”

Most perceptive, perhaps, was Karin Mills, who saw the energy of the Pulitzer meeting this year as being “about the future of the award, more than about the music. The piece is being chosen more for what it represents and says about the award than for its own merits.”

We moved on to the CDs then, and I handed out discs by Salonen, Michael Gordon, Augusta Read Thomas, Dave Douglas, and Bright Sheng. It turned out we only had time to see the energy on Gordon and Sheng.

“I pictured Katherine Hepburn when she was dubbed ‘box-office poison,'” said Jones about Michael Gordon. “There’s dismissive energy on him.” Or as Klobucnar put it, “He’s ambitious, but he’s pacing and contained and trying to break out of that. His music has two layers, and the second is kind of deep. He’s going to start making music with more layers.”

Bright Sheng got a slightly more favorable reception from Mills, who saw “a lot of up and coming energy, but he’s still a little too new. There’s a certain amount of interest from the committee, but there’s a factor that’s not quite what they’re looking for. His music is complicated, but they’re looking for more guts than the Asian influences give his music.”

Having got what I needed, I thanked them for their time and insights and walked one block north on Clark Street for a second opinion. I had spotted a sidewalk psychic the night before while looking for InVision with my photographer, Calbee Booth. We’d walked up a narrow staircase and found a wizened Indian woman watching TV with her granddaughter, who asked if we wanted a reading. We’d said we were looking for InVision, determined that this wasn’t it, and had headed back out.

On Saturday, though, a little less skeptical of the clairvoyant arts, we went back to see her for a palm reading. The granddaughter was sitting on the couch watching the Bravo network and fetched Grandma Psychic for us. She offered to do the reading, but it had to be done in a room alone and no pictures were allowed. We decided to pass. “Weren’t you here last night?” she asked as we headed for the door. “No, not us,” I lied. She appeared to buy it. Apparently the past is easier to forget than the future is to read.

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Marc Geelhoed is the classical music writer for Time Out Chicago, which debuts this month. He has a master’s degree in musicology from Indiana University and mixes his skepticism of the supernatural with a newfound respect.