Keep Your Ears on the Prize: A Hyperhistory of American Composition Awards


Adam Silverman
Adam Silverman
Photo by Melissa Richard

I used tell people at parties that I flew helicopters, even though I have never ridden in one and don’t know anything about piloting. But the story would draw people in, and by the time they discovered my lie, they would be primed to disbelieve the truth: that I write classical music. A commonly heard response from these people would be that they didn’t know that classical composers still lived, as if this career had gone the way of obsolete careers like Dodo Trainer or 8-Track Repairman.

But composers do exist, and we have established a community to preserve and celebrate our art. One of the ways that we assert our importance is by decorating each other with prizes, both honorary and monetary. There are a wide variety of honors available to composers, and although most are passed from one musician to the next, a few come from outside and reassure us that we are valued by our greater culture.

The best known of these awards is the Pulitzer Prize, which is given for an outstanding American work receiving its premiere that year. Since the Pulitzer is largely a prize for journalists, it receives great media attention, and places the names of composers before a vast literate public. Like the Pulitzer, the Grawemeyer Award recognizes an outstanding recently premiered composition. The Grawemeyer, however, is an international prize based in America, and it comes with a different kind of prize: $200,000.

Only two awards exceed the Grawemeyer in sum. The MacArthur Fellowship is a five-year salary that can come to a composer in any stage of their career and ranges from $30,000 to $75,000 depending on the recipient’s age. It comes with absolutely no strings attached and, like the Pulitzer, can be received by people in many fields. The Charles Ives Living is a new award established by the American Academy of Arts and Letters to boost under-recognized composers with $225,000 over three years that may be supplemented by commission fees and fellowships but not with a regular salary. The American Academy of Arts and Letters, in addition to the Ives Living Award, gives a great range of composer awards that totaled $170,000 this year. There are AAAL awards for composers in all stages of their careers in concert music and musical theater.

Like the Ives Living, other awards exist to give composers uninterrupted creative time. The most famous of these fellowships is the Rome Prize, which has been a coveted opportunity for composers since 1921. A similar program was begun this year at the American Academy in Berlin, which promises to become another major opportunity for composers to live and work abroad. And, of course, the Guggenheim Fellowship continues to be an important award which is difficult to attain despite the fact that it is available to several composers each year.

For those whose music receives commercial success through recordings, it is possible to win Grammy Awards from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Two awards give $50,000 to recognize a composer’s entire body of work. The Herb Alpert Award from California Institute for the Arts is given annually to early and mid-career composers, and generally represents the more experimental end of the aesthetic spectrum. The William Schuman Award from Columbia University is given irregularly and honors the lifetime achievement of “Uptown” conservatives, all of whom have taught at Juilliard with the special exception of Gunther Schuller.

Many people begin their careers as award-winning students, and there are many competitions in which young composers can begin to establish their name throughout the musical community. Some of these, regrettably, are established by ensembles who charge hefty entrance fees and offer in return a meager performance or small prize to the winning composition. There are two organizations, however, who have long histories of presenting student awards for the sole purpose of encouraging young talent. BMI and ASCAP both have parallel awards programs which have gotten scores of composers off to a good start. ASCAP also has a range of commissions which function as awards and give early-career composers their first performances by classical and jazz orchestras.

Kyle Gann, who has been a longstanding advocate for experimental “downtown” music, addresses the subject of awards in his article “Breaking the Chain Letter: An Essay on Downtown Music“, which astutely reveals the narrow bias of some of these prizes. It is evident that certain composers who share aesthetic preferences are in charge of determining what music is deserving of praise. In most cases, prize winners return as future jurors, and a cycle is established which reinforces certain traditional musical qualities and similarly influences American concert life.

It should be kept in mind, however, that awards rarely make a career. A few heart-warming tales are told about the cascading effects of winning several awards in quick succession, but ultimately a composer must stand on his or her musical talent and performance record. For the most part, these awards offer only money and sometimes temporary support to facilitate the creative process.

Incidental to the awards themselves are the contacts that are made between emerging and established composers. Martin Bresnick, who later would win the Charles Ives Living and the Berlin Prize, began his career as a Rome Prize applicant. At 26 years of age, his application was evaluated by guest panelist Toru Takemitsu, who not only helped convince the panel to send Bresnick to Rome, but also went out of his way to recommend him for a teaching position at Yale. More than 25 years later, Bresnick now heads the department there.

And 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner Aaron Jay Kernis, whose career began by winning many student composer awards, tells a sobering story about his first major orchestra performance. At 23 years of age, he was selected by Jacob Druckman to have his work Dream of the Morning Sky for soprano and orchestra read by the New York Philharmonic. It was a “rehearsed reading,” and an audience of orchestra subscribers attended. Microphones were given both to Kernis and to conductor Zubin Mehta, who communicated throughout the rehearsal about appropriate tempi and uses of the orchestra. Kernis felt that Mehta was “testing” his conception of the work and belittling his work, and at one point when Mehta complained about Kernis having obscured the soprano with the orchestra, Kernis courageously replied “Maestro, you’re just playing it too loud.” The audience spontaneously burst into applause, and many of the orchestra members lauded Kernis afterward for his brave stance.

Members of the press who attended were amused by Kernis’s bravado, and this event became national news: the story of this courageous young composer standing up for what he wrote was reported in articles in Newsweek, Time, High Fidelity/Musical America, and The New York Times.

Kernis felt that success was just around the corner, but over the next few weeks, he received no calls from managers, no calls for orchestras wishing to commission him, and eventually the celebrity of this event subsided. “It taught me how the classical music world works for composers.” He relates. “At the time, I thought this was a great thing… but it was just a piece on an orchestra concert… I had to pick up and keep going.” So although Kernis’s career has been distinguished with many great prizes, commissions and honors, these have come about in a slow, cumulative fashion, through tenacity and devotion to the creative process. “Being a composer is not about what comes from outside,” he says. “It is about the need to create, the need to express.”

So whether one is elated from winning or discouraged by losing, it may help to embrace the sentiment of Suzan-Lori Parks, playwright and 1996 Alpert Award recipient: “What I realize is that, for all the awards I get and all the public and private praise and all the boosts–it always all comes down to the work at hand… The day-to-day sitting in front of the blank page or the blank screen–the day-to-day difficult difficult difficult working out of each moment, each word, each line.”

But for those of you who have been poring over this article seeking clues on how to procure these coveted awards for yourselves, I have discovered simple rules for success…

Write great music and be recognized for it. Or write lousy music and fool jurors. This answer may be disappointing, but certain pieces of common-sense advice may prove helpful to aspiring winners. Perseverance counts for quite a lot. Juries change, styles come in and out of vogue, and your music (hopefully) keeps getting better. Above all, keep writing and making sure that your music is heard. Hold yourself to the highest standards. Remember the example of Conlon Nancarrow, the reclusive composer who, after years of composing unperformable music for player pianos, won a MacArthur Genius Award. Remember Charles Ives, whose music was rarely heard until he was in his late 60′s. Remember Melinda Wagner, who was repeatedly nominated for an American Academy of Arts and Letters award for ten years before finally receiving it.

And if you still don’t win anything, jurors must be jealously fearful of your talent.

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