The Pulitzer Prize in music, already one of the most peculiar honors in our field, has just become even stranger and, probably, much less meaningful. On June 1, the Pulitzer Prize Board issued a press release with a title worthy of the Bush administration press office: “It’s time to alter and affirm,” which, like Bush environmental policies such as “Clear Skies” and “Healthy Forests,” masks a war of attrition in saccharine “feel good” language.
On the face of it, the changes instituted are small. The Prize will no longer be for a musical work of “significant dimension,” as the Board seems to feel that such language has tended to prevent composers of shorter pieces from submitting their work. The press release also states that the changes are intended to broaden the types of works available for review to include jazz, musical theater, movie scores “and other forms of musical excellence.” Never mind that such works have actually been eligible since the last overhaul of the Music Prize’s rules, the real problem that I have is how this restated emphasis on broadening the scope of musical works under consideration bespeaks the essential discomfort that the Pulitzer Prize Board has with art music.
Having served on the Music Nominating Panel last year, I had the opportunity to observe the workings of the Pulitzer Prize first hand. It is important to remember that the individual Nominating Panels for each category, from Investigative Reporting to Non-fiction Books to Music, do not pick the final winner, rather they submit three names, generally unranked, and the larger Pulitzer Prize Board reviews the work of all the nominated finalists to select the winners. The Pulitzer Prize Board itself currently comprises 17 members, ten of whom are newspaper editors or administrators, the remaining seven being academics (five administrators and two scholars). Not one of these people is a musician of any description—nor, for that matter, a published poet, playwright or novelist. In the two intensive days I served on the Music Panel, I was able to sit in on an informal meeting with one of the members of the Board to discuss the future of the Music Prize. It was clear that the Board feels uncomfortable in its role judging works of art music, and is genuinely puzzled as to why more ‘popular’ forms of music are not included in the mix. The point was made by one of the musicians that the Poetry Prize often goes to work which is as abstruse and rarified in its treatment of language as the Music Prize winner can be, but that no one has suggested that the Poetry Prize be eliminated or broadened to embrace, for example, songwriting.
Admittedly, in the past, many of the final choices for the Pulitzer in music have been head-scratchers, not just for the general public, but for members of the new music community as well—still, it is the most prominent award given in this country to art music, and so it seems to me highly misguided for the Board to broaden the category rather than to create new categories that would allow for the recognition of a greater variety of types of musical creation. It’s hard to imagine how this newly announced alteration will make the task easier for the Board, since a case could easily arise where the three final nominations included a symphony, a musical, and a jazz set—talk about mixing apples and oranges!
The one change I do think the Board got right was to enlarge the Music Panel to include performers and music presenters. It’s the dirty little secret of the new music world that the Pulitzer has been far too politicized, with a disproportionate amount of influence falling to various stylistic camps at different points in its history. It also has tended to be rather parochial, with a clear East-Coast bias. Bringing in conductors and performers won’t entirely eliminate the political aspect, but it will surely widen the perspective of the Panel, and for that reason, I think that this change in itself was all the Board really needed to institute. Then it should consider adding categories for Jazz, Musical Theater, and Film Music (as if the film community needs another award!), with appropriately constituted panels for each. After all, there are six separate categories for newspaper reporting, and two for non-fiction, so why shouldn’t there be three or four in music? That is what would represent the diversity of musical creation in America! And lastly, I think that the Board should allow the arts panels to pick their winners, the way they did prior to the mid-80s, and not leave it to a Board of what can only be described as amateurs when it comes to music of any sort.
Los Angeles-based composer Stephen Hartke was one of the three finalists for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize, and served on the Music Nominating Panel for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize.