Pulitzer Follies


Greg Sandow

It’ll be old news by the time you read this, but it’s worth revisiting: The Pulitzer Prize for Music has changed its guidelines. This was all over the press when it happened back in May, because from now on film scores, musical theater pieces, and jazz works will be eligible for Pulitzers. Nominees won’t have to submit scores of the music being nominated; recordings will now be acceptable, so that partly or completely improvised pieces can be considered.

And while for many people, me included, these changes are more than welcome-necessary, in fact-there were also screeches of protest, especially from John Harbison, who in a piece by Richard Dyer, classical music critic of The Boston Globe, was quoted spouting some fabulous nonsense:

If you were to impose a comparable standard on fiction [comparable, that is, to the standard the Pulitzer board now mandates for music] you would be soliciting entries from the authors of airport novels. There is an award on television every night for every category of popular culture you can think of, except for those demanding artistic enterprise, and the Pulitzer was one of the few places where such cultural enterprise could be recognized.

I’d love to hear Harbison explain to Ornette Coleman why Free Jazz—and, of course, everything Coleman did after that—is pop-culture junk, demanding no “artistic enterprise.” I’d love to hear Coleman’s answer, or see the expression on his face. I’d love to hear Harbison try to play Coleman’s music.

I take it just a little more seriously when Lewis Spratlan, quoted in the same Boston Globe piece, says:

The Pulitzer is one of the very few prizes that award artistic distinction in front-edge, risk-taking music. To dilute this objective by inviting the likes of musicals and movie scores, no matter how excellent, is to undermine the distinctiveness and capability for artistic advancement.

Here, at least, we have something approaching a statement of artistic purpose. Or at least an idea of why a piece of new classical music is better than a new musical. It takes risks. But does it really? Yes, Spratlan has written an opera that hasn’t been performed, even though part of it won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000. So in that sense, all of us who write new classical pieces take risks; we might spend more money on our art than we make and simply getting our music heard might be a struggle.

But think of people who write new musicals. Getting a new classical piece performed can be hard, but getting a new musical produced is even harder (especially if you’re aiming for Broadway or a top regional theater). And there’s a far greater risk of failure. Your show can flop; your music can be blamed; you can fall on your butt, in other words, with the whole world watching. There’s no comparable risk in writing any classical piece, especially if you’re an established composer. If you have any reputation in new music at all, your work will be politely greeted. Even if you write an utter piece of crap, hardly anyone will say so; no one, I’m sure, will say so to your face. Critics, on the whole, will be polite; your colleagues will be polite; the classical music world will support your effort on principle, even if, this time out, your music sucked. (Or, in some cases, even if all your music sucks.) We’re all protected, if the truth be told, because we don’t have any real audience…but I’m digressing from the Pulitzers, about which I want to say two things.

First: all this has happened before!

In 1997, Wynton Marsalis won the music Pulitzer for his jazz oratorio, Blood on the Fields, parts of which were improvised. Seymour Topping, then the administrator of the prizes, said at a press conference that the 1998 guidelines had been rewritten, to allow improvised music. So why are they saying they rewrote the guidelines this year? I’m not saying the wording is the same as it used to be, but the principle behind what they’ve done is exactly what it was six years ago. Why have they—and, apparently, the rest of the world—forgotten that?

But actually what happened back then was a disgraceful mess, which maybe is why they don’t talk about it now. Reread the start of my last paragraph: “In 1997, Wynton Marsalis won the music Pulitzer for his jazz oratorio, Blood on the Fields, parts of which were improvised. Seymour Topping, then the administrator of the prizes, said at a press conference that the 1998 guidelines had been rewritten, to allow improvised music.” How could Wynton Marsalis win in 1997 under guidelines that weren’t in force until 1998?

I wrote a piece about this for The Wall Street Journal on September 17, 1997, after my then editor, Raymond Sokolov, assigned me to do it, suggesting that something might be very wrong. And he was right. When I researched the piece, Seymour Topping told me that the 1997 music jury-the group that nominates prospective music winners to the Pulitzer board, which then makes the final choice-had been asked to look at the suggested changes in the guidelines. And the jury had been expanded, from three people to five, with two of the five being jazz specialists, which gave jazz more representation than it had ever had before.

Thus the jury was given all sorts of signs that they could give the prize to jazz, and when Marsalis happened to apply-(people can nominate themselves for Pulitzers, though that isn’t as widely known as it should be)-he ended up winning. Which is dirty pool, because nobody in the jazz world knew that jazz might be eligible. The Pulitzers, in other words, privately changed their guidelines in 1997, without telling anyone, thus giving any jazz composers who happened to apply an unfair advantage. Oh, I know they didn’t change the guidelines officially, but-by putting more jazz people on the music jury and asking the jury to look at new language-they changed them de facto. Certainly the jury acted as if the guidelines had changed. How many jazz pieces might have been nominated, if the jazz world had known in advance that jazz would be eligible?

And that wasn’t the only problem with the Marsalis Pulitzer: Blood on the Fields wasn’t even eligible to win! Let me quote from my Journal piece:

As material from Mr. Marsalis’s publicist plainly says, [Blood on the Fields] had its premiere on April 1, 1994. But it won the 1997 prize, awarded, as Mr. Topping spelled out for me, for music premiered no earlier than March 1996. How’d that happen? Even the recording, released this year on Columbia, is dated 1995.

Here’s the story. Mr. Marsalis made a few changes in the piece and took it on an international tour this year, starting in January. His management then submitted the 1997 version for this year’s prize, saying that the revisions in effect made it a new work. (Anyone can submit a composition for the Pulitzer, including the composer.)

What were those revisions? Mr. Marsalis’s publicist gave me a list. At one point, Mr. Marsalis rewrote a saxophone part and moved a chorus to a higher key. He cut a passage in another section and added music for percussion and bass clarinet. All told, there are seven changes like these, all of them tiny.

Mr. Topping wouldn’t comment on these alterations, referring me to the chairman of the music jury, Robert Ward, a composer and a Pulitzer winner himself in 1962, for his much-performed opera “The Crucible.” I asked Mr. Ward what changes might make a revised work eligible. “Not a cut here and there,” he answered, “or a slight revision” of parts of the music, but rather something that changed “the whole conception of the piece.” I read him the list of changes in “Blood on the Fields.” Would those qualify? No, he gently answered, adding that “the list you had here was not available to us, and we did not discuss it.”

I went a little further, actually, and asked Bob Ward what he would have done if he’d had this list. Would he have thought Blood on the Fields should have won? “I don’t know,” he answered, sounding a little lost. Howard Reich, jazz critic for the Chicago Tribune, was also on the jury, and had a much more revealing answer. Yes, Blood on the Fields was written in 1994, he told me, but “most of the planet had not heard it” then, because it was performed only in New York in Alice Tully Hall. In 1997, Marsalis took it on tour, and more people heard it. Therefore, Reich reasoned, the piece was in effect new in 1997, and “no way in the world is it not eligible,” no matter what the printed guidelines might have said. I hope the Pulitzer board was embarrassed when I printed that.

In a comic postscript, Marsalis’s publicist, Marilyn Laverty, wrote an angry letter to the Journal. I was wrong, she screamed, because Blood on the Fields had in fact been substantially revised. As proof, she enclosed the same list of changes I’d read to Robert Ward, the same list that made him think the revisions were minor-a list, I might add, that only existed because I’d asked for it. You couldn’t make this up. This was really a mess. The 1997 award was (or should have been) a scandal, quite apart from any question of whether Blood on the Fields deserved on its merits to win. And also quite apart from my very strong feeling that, by giving the prize to jazz, the Pulitzers did a wonderful thing for the music world. Except that then they went back to their old ways, and, as I’ve said, announced the new guidelines this year as if they’d never changed the guidelines before. What’s wrong with them?

And now I want to ask whether the new guidelines will make any difference. In one way, I’m skeptical. I’m afraid I think of the Pulitzer prizes as an award show, like the Oscars or the Grammys, though of course much more high-church. Do award shows ever make much sense? Do they always make the right choices? Of course not. So why should the Pulitzers be any wiser?

Of course, the music Pulitzers are special in one way. They’re not voted on by the public (like the American Music Awards), or by some subset of the press (like the Golden Globes and the Tonys), or by members of a professional association in the field being honored (the Oscars and the Grammys). Instead, they’re chosen by a strangely bewildering process, involving first a very narrow group of music professionals, and then a larger board most of whose members don’t know much about music.

But since it’s the narrow group of professionals-the music jury-whose opinion counts most, some people will surely say that the Pulitzers are more artistic than the Grammys, because they’re chosen by people who really know their stuff and because they’re fairly well protected from trends, one-hit wonders, and shallow popular success. And yet I’d suggest that this is also a weakness. If the Pulitzers, up to now, haven’t given any prizes to the musical equivalent of John Grisham (and, despite John Harbison’s fright, doubtlessly won’t in the future), they’re biased in the opposite direction. Because winners are recommended (as it works out in practice) by members of an in-group, the prizes can easily go to people with an inflated reputation inside the music biz.

And beyond that, the Pulitzers are also limited by the nomination process; the jury can’t survey a year’s worth of premieres, and pick the piece that seems most worthy. Of course, there’s a good side to this, because pieces can win even if they didn’t get much attention, thus giving a chance to wonderful music that isn’t widely publicized. But then the prize can seem arbitrary, something that in fact has been noticed many times before. Composers win for works that aren’t their best, and certainly aren’t pieces that set the world on fire (Carter, for instance, won for his second and third string quartets, not his first; George Crumb won for Echoes of Time and the River, not for Ancient Voices of Children; John Corigliano won for his second symphony, not his first). The music prize, in other words, can easily be given without any attention to how important a piece of music is-what kind of impression it made, how many people heard it, whether it changed the world in any way.

And that, I’d suggest, isn’t good. It can condemn the music Pulitzer to a kind of irrelevance we don’t see in the Pulitzer journalism awards, where the larger meaning of the winning entries-how important the news they cover is-becomes a major part of why they win. The music prizes, by contrast, reek of meaningless prestige; they’ve honored, at various times, composers nobody much cares about, or music nobody much noticed. So they fall on their face. I could even argue that-taken as a whole-they hurt composers more than they help them, because they don’t draw attention to new music in any way that really makes any difference. They’re America’s most important music prize, but somehow they don’t seem very important. When Paul Moravec won this year—and of course I’m writing this without meaning any disrespect to Paul or his music—did the media flock to find out who he is and what his music is like? (John Harbison probably thinks it’s a good thing that they didn’t. Proves that the award has quality.)

And it gets worse. Did even the music field—orchestras, chamber music groups, presenters—come running to Paul, eager to learn about his music and to program it? Of course he got some attention (I certainly hope he did), but as far as I can see, the music Pulitzers don’t make many waves even inside the music biz. We’re all eager to find out who wins, and we all talk about it, but I don’t see orchestras, let’s say, telling their subscribers all about the winner in their newsletters; I don’t see orchestras, as a general rule, rushing to program the winner’s music. So how much do the Pulitzers mean, even inside our profession?

But here’s where the change in the guidelines might do some good, depending, of course, on how the prizes are awarded. If the Pulitzer in the next few years keeps going to classical composers, even for the best of reasons-because classical pieces really were the best ones nominated, then the change in the guidelines won’t mean very much (or its impact, at least, will be delayed).

But whenever the prize starts going to non-classical music, we’ll have one more proof that the old classical ways are dying out, and that classical music has some chance to survive. I hope that paradox registers as strongly as it should: If it wants to survive, classical music has to give up some of its privileges. It has to stop pretending it’s the only form of musical art, and give up everything that comes with that pretence, including the exclusive right to win art-music prizes. (So John Harbison will do better, in the long run, if the Pulitzer Prize stops going exclusively to composers like him. If only he understood that!)

Because the larger problem isn’t who wins the Pulitzer Prize. It’s who we think the leading creative musicians are and how they’re recognized. Look at the list of composers who’ve won Pulitzers since 1943, the year the music prize was first awarded:

William Schuman
Howard Hanson
Copland
Leo Sowerby
Ives
Walter Piston (twice)
Virgil Thomson
Menotti (twice)
Douglas Moore
Gail Kubik
Quincy Porter
Ernst Toch
Norman Dello Joio
Barber (twice)
John LaMontaine
Carter (twice)
Robert Ward
Leslie Bassett
Leon Kirchner
George Crumb
Karel Husa
Charles Wuorinen
Mario Davidovsky
Jacob Druckman
Donald Martino
Dominick Argento
Ned Rorem
Richard Wernick
Michael Colgrass
Joseph Schwantner
David Del Tredici
Roger Sessions
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich
Bernard Rands
Stephen Albert
George Perle
John Harbison
William Bolcom
Roger Reynolds
Mel Powell
Shulamit Ran
Wayne Peterson
Christopher Rouse
Gunther Schuller
Morton Gould
George Walker
Wynton Marsalis
Aaron Jay Kernis
Melinda Wagner
Lewis Spratlan
John Corigliano
Henry Brant
John Adams
Paul Moravec

Plus special citations to Sessions, William Schuman, Milton Babbitt, and Scott Joplin. This is obviously not an undistinguished list, especially if we remember that some winners without much resonance now (Douglas Moore, for instance) had big reputations in the years they won.

But this is certainly not a list of the most important creative musicians from 1943 to now-not, of course, that I’m the first person to say that. John Adams, as I’m sure we all know, said it very strongly in a famous, and (as the British would say) spot-on rant last year, when he was the winner. Where are—just off the top of my head—Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Charlie Mingus, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Louis Armstrong, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Meredith Monk, Conlon Nancarrow, Lou Harrison, Stephen Sondheim, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Bob Dylan, Neil Young (if he ever became an American citizen, since American citizenship is a requirement for the award), Bruce Springsteen, Phil Spector, James Brown, Johnny Cash, and Brian Wilson? Not to mention many other names, some of them obvious, I’m sure, even if they don’t occur to me just now. (The Pulitzer board, I should note, gave Ellington a special citation in 1999, after refusing to grant him one in 1965, when he was still alive, and the Pulitzer music jury had wanted to honor him.) If Public Enemy‘s music doesn’t qualify for the Pulitzer Prize, then the prize doesn’t mean a thing. Joni Mitchell would qualify in a heartbeat, if she ever became an American.

And if Quincy Porter was any kind of reasonable choice, then how about Sly Stone, George Clinton, Sun Ra, Pete Seeger, Frank Loesser, Leonard Bernstein, R.E.M., Chuck Berry, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, Lou Reed, Prince, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, Henry Threadgill, and so many more? In making these lists, I’m not even remotely trying to be provocative. I’m just naming the people whose music gets to me-and (John Harbison please note) I’m observing some kind of distinction between music that strikes me as deeply artistic and music I just get a kick out of. If the Pulitzer Prize is supposed to go to the best artistic music of any given year, then in 1963 it should have gone to The Jaynetts‘ “Sally Go ‘Round the Roses” (one of the strangest, most haunting, most unexpected pieces of music I’ve ever heard, a marvelous use of pop conventions to create something that really isn’t pop at all), instead of Samuel Barber’s Piano Concerto.

In my heart, mind, and ears, I can’t make any distinction—any distinction of quality, anyway—among musical genres. I just don’t hear or feel music that way, and neither, it ought to be clear, do most smart people in the world at large. The music Pulitzers are supposed to reflect distinguished creative achievement in music, but in fact they don’t do that-what they show us, instead, is how fixedly classical music stares at its own navel. And, sad to say (with no criticism implied of any composer who won), how the mainstream contemporary classical music world stares at its navel even more.

And here I get optimistic. The new (or renewed) change in the Pulitzer guidelines is a chance to open things up, a chance to start finding winners who really speak for American music. A few months ago, at a conference on the future of professional music education, an associate dean at a major music school said that classical music right now is like East Germany, just before the Wall came down. The change in the Pulitzers is one small step in dismantling the classical music Wall, and a vision of what the prize might be like in the future-or could have been like in the past-is one small peek at what art music might be like in the post-Wall years.

But the Pulitzer people had better make up for lost time—they’d better give special citations out by the carload, to all the fabulous non-classical creative musical artists they’ve missed up to now.