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

Best known as the “MacArthur Genius Award,” the MacArthur Fellowship Program offers fellows an income over five years. This salary currently ranges from $40,000 to $75,000 per year, and is determined by the individual’s age. In some years, the five-year stipend can be as much as $500,000. Comprehensive health insurance is also included in this award, a consideration that is not given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters in their Charles Ives Living Award. The MacArthur Foundation describes this award as being “enough money for the recipient and family to live on, but not necessarily in luxury. It represents a kind of seed money or venture capital for intellectual, social, and artistic endeavors.”

Not only given in music, this award regularly honors scientists, historians, poets and novelists, artists and composers, and people working in public service. Many composers have been honored alongside those in other fields, and part of this award’s distinction is that fellows are recognized as making outstanding contributions to society as a whole.

Composers who have received this elite honor include Meredith Monk (1995), Ornette Coleman (1994), Ali Akbar Khan (1991), John Harbison (1989), Ran Blake (1988) and Conlon Nancarrow (1982).

MacArthur Fellows are chosen by a group of more than 100 anonymous nominators across the country in a range of academic and professional fields. They are asked to propose extraordinarily creative and promising individuals who are at points in their careers when a fellowship could make a marked difference, and they are asked to consider “the likely benefits of the award for the good of society.” The program operates under no fixed schedule, and it typically selects between 20 and 40 fellows each year. There are no requirements associated with the award, and recipients need not report their creative work to the MacArthur Foundation.

When a fellow is notified of their selection as a MacArthur Fellow, it is often a complete surprise. Since the foundation has a staff that collects all necessary material, the process is completely independent of the candidate. The MacArthur Foundation considers it best for individuals to remain unaware of their nomination status since there is nothing they can do to enhance their prospects.

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