I’m simultaneously ecstatic and somewhat puzzled by the choice of Ornette Coleman’s Sound Grammar as the winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Music, and I am not alone in that reaction. It is important to point out that the award’s citation is for “distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the year”—in this case 2006—and not for “a distinguished musical composition.” Sound Grammar is a recording featuring a total of eight Ornette Coleman compositions, six of which were newly composed.
Almost everyone I know deeply admires Coleman and is overjoyed that his landmark contributions to music have finally been acknowledged through this prestigious accolade. Last night, to celebrate, I listened to two of my favorite Ornette albums. First, I put on The Shape of Jazz to Come, Coleman’s groundbreaking Atlantic Records debut from 1959 featuring his classic quartet with Don Cherry, Charlie Haden, and Billy Higgins. Then, I raced ahead three decades to the mind boggling In All Languages, a 1987 release that juxtaposes performances of the same material both by that quartet and by the progressive fusion group Prime Time. Unfortunately I didn’t have access to Sound Grammar. I’m still an iPod apostate, and my Amazon order should arrive later this week. I had already ordered before spotting a copy at a local Barnes & Noble’s branch; indeed it still is possible to acquire stuff the old-fashioned way, so I should have just waited.
However, being able to access this year’s winner so readily makes the prize much more experiential for anyone who learns about the announcement. Recordings allow everyone to hear what won. Sadly, all too often a Pulitzer award-winning piece has had to wait years to appear on a commercially available recording, and there are some winners that are still impossible to hear—including, shockingly, the very first one (William Schuman’s Secular Cantata – A Free Song). All this has made the Pulitzer Prize in Music seem somewhat removed from the world at large. One might even conjecture that the Pulitzer board changing its guidelines to admit recordings in 2004 might actually bias future jurors and panels toward choosing something that was readily available to everyone. (It should be noted here that Sound Grammar would not have qualified for the Pulitzer on two accounts before the new guidelines were in place: the music on the recording was performed prior to the period under consideration [in 2005] and in a foreign country [Germany]; previously all submissions eligible for consideration had to have been performed live in this country within a specified year-long time frame.)
But there’s potentially a sad part to the new equation, too. If commercially available recordings outweigh live performances (which are submitted for consideration via difficult-to-obtain live recordings, often painstakingly obtained from performing entities), it could put much of the quality music that is being created in America today at a disadvantage. I’ve often hoped that there could be some way to guarantee that every Pulitzer Prize-winning composition would receive a commercially available recording, either as a component of the award or through an alternate source of funding.
Perhaps worrying that recordings will now have the upper hand is premature. Neither of the other finalists for this year’s Pulitzer—Elliot Goldenthal’s opera Grendel and Augusta Read Thomas’s orchestral work Astral Canticle—yet exist in a recorded form that could be transmitted to the general public. And, indeed, it’s hard to imagine a more varied trio of composers than Ornette Coleman, Elliot Goldenthal, and Augusta Read Thomas. Putting all three forward is further testimony to the richness and diversity of American music at this time. Ultimately, though, it also proves the problem with such awards. How is it possible to compare such completely different works? And the purview still does not reflect the full range of music being created in the United States. Might music be better served by the Pulitzer Prizes if there were several award categories for music?
Still, even with one award, it’s thrilling to see Ornette Coleman get it. While he is hardly an emerging composer, he is in fact the first composer ever to win the award whose music is both self-published and self-produced on recording. It literally is an award that is eligible to anyone who submits to it; no gatekeepers are required.