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

It may be hard to believe that so much good has been brought to the arts by the composer of “Spanish Flea,” but Herb Alpert (founder of Tijuana Brass and the “A” from A&M Records) has provided one of the largest annual awards given to an American composer. At $50,000, these awards are funded by a non-profit, private foundation established by Alpert to support a range of programs in education and the arts.

Established and first given in 1995 at The California Institute of the Arts, the Alpert Award is one of the newest awards for composition and is designed to recognize the work of artists who are “particularly responsive to the complex, challenging and fertile role of the artist in society.” In practice, this means that the award goes especially to composers who work outside the mainstream. Those who deal with improvisation, digital media, and performance art are more likely to win this award. The first recipient was saxophonist/composer James Carter, who was only 26 years old at the time. Since then Alpert Award winners have included composer/harpist Anne LeBaron, Chinese/American composer Chen Yi, and Pamela Z, who combines voice, motion and electronics in her live performances.

Like the awards given by The American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Alpert Foundation does not accept unsolicited proposals. Instead, the Alpert Awards have established a selection process in which The Alpert Foundation makes special efforts to give marginalized artists a chance by drawing judges and nominators from a diverse pool that balances geography, gender, and artistic style. The primary criterion for selecting these panelists is that all must be open to “the new.” Once chosen, they are instructed to choose a composer with a significant body of work, a vital voice, an impressive record and future promise. They are also asked to consider how the applicant’s art influences and reflects contemporary culture.

Each year, ten people serve as anonymous nominators. None of these people is affiliated with Cal Arts or with the foundation, but is chosen to represent diverse fields within art music; critics, presenters, teachers, and composers generally comprise this panel, and few are ever chosen to nominate again. Each of these ten nominators selects three composers, and these thirty are invited to apply for the award. Each composer receives $100 to cover the cost of preparing application materials and work samples.

The final panel is made up of three people who are considered to be specialists in contemporary art music. While this panel is typically composer-heavy (past judges include Martin Bresnick, Leroy Jenkins, and Julia Wolfe), it generally includes performers with exceptional devotion to contemporary music (pianist Ursula Oppens, Kronos Quartet violinist David Harrington), and composers with performing backgrounds (conductor/composer John Adams, accordionist/ composer Pauline Oliveros). Ben Johnston, who participated in the 1999 panel, lauds the process, saying that “this was the most objective decision group in which I have yet participated, and I must compliment the Alpert Foundation upon its aims and policies.”

Although the Cal Arts community is not involved in the selection of award recipients, they reap the benefits of this program through residencies with winning composers. These have included classes, presentations, performances, and more depending on the recipient.

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