Stucky: Finding Meaning in the Prize

name
Steven Stucky


LISTEN to an excerpt of
Second Concerto for Orchestra

Commissioned for the inaugural season of Walt Disney Concert Hall and premiered by the Los Angeles Philharmonic under the direction of Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen.


At some time, most of us have cast a jaundiced eye on the Pulitzer Prize in music, muttering in one April or another (if only to ourselves) that the jury must have been crazy, that it’s all “politics” anyway (meaning, I guess, that human beings are involved), and that, anyway, you can’t compare works of art as if they were heifers at the county fair. So what to think if, suddenly, you win?

Like all reviews, if you didn’t believe the bad ones then you can’t believe the good ones either. Still, I can’t pretend that I’m not pleased that this year my number came up. It’s not that I think that objectively my piece was the “best” one, of course, but a committee of respected peers found the piece worth discussing in the company of some of the other terrific pieces American composers gave us over the past year. That’s enough to encourage a composer to think he hasn’t been wasting his time, and to inspire him to keep trying to do his best. And it’s hard to be cynical about seeing your name inked in on the junior end of a list that contains your boyhood heroes (Aaron Copland! Charles Ives!).

I never expected to be singled out this year, not after various controversies surrounding the music prize in recent years, and not so soon after the criteria were broadened to reach beyond what we used to call “classical” music (a move that I seconded in principle, even while wondering how it might work in practice). Like many others, I thought that Pulitzer juries would feel compelled over the next few years to test the new boundaries. (And perhaps they will.)

You can’t really be prepared for the avalanche of attention that descends the minute the prizes are announced. There is a nice irony, though, in the fact that—since the Pulitzers are really about journalism and thus obsessively covered by journalists—the glare of the media machine alights once every spring on exotica like contemporary music and contemporary poetry. It may be a sort of accident that we composers get swept into the limelight once a year along with the journalists, but it sure can’t hurt the cause we all believe in.