I had a vested interest in the announcement of this year’s Guggenheim fellows since I was among the roughly 3,000 who applied. Believe me, the submission process isn’t easy given the fact you need to rally up four letters of recommendation. But given the fact that there is no submission fee—I don’t buy into those scams—I thought, hey, why not give it a shot? You can’t win if you’re not in. So for the first time, I decided to get in there. After brief fantasies about actually being able to make student loan payments, the rejection letter finally arrived. Eh, I’m used to it by now. But I was eager to learn who would be receiving funding.
Finally, after sifting through that mountain of CDs, scores, applications, and letters of recommendations, and who knows whatever else, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation announced the 187 artists, scholars, and scientists who received awards totaling $7.5 million. And on that recipient list we find nine composers—down one from last year’s list of ten—along with a sound artist winning outside the category of music composition. Okay, everything balances out perfectly then. Here’s the list:
Jazz, Latin, electroacoustic, improvised, multimedia, neo-romantic, post-minimal, experimental, folk, opera, choral, microtonal, rock-inspired, instrument builder, site-specific—these are but a few of the endless well of descriptives which can be applied to the work of the composers listed above.
Actually, the recipient list resembles one of those weird plastic food displays you sometimes stumble upon outside a Japanese restaurant. It looks extremely fussed over. Maybe more than just a little feng shui was involved to finesse the exhibition, using little bits of everything on the menu in order to attract a wide range of appetites. Of course this is an encouraging strategy for the Guggenheim Foundation to take, proving that they are willing to support everything from steamed rice and edamame to blowfish, as well as everything in between. But is this list of nine recipients really just a simple cross section, or is it more of a conceptual cornucopia, an idealized hypothesis concerning the lay of the land, a map detailing the many facets of music circa 2006?
Stylistically speaking, diversity seems to have been the main thrust behind which composers were selected to receive support. The same can be said about the awardees’ gender, ethnicity, and race. On the other hand, not surprisingly, most of the winners have those magic three letters following their names which separate the doctors from the common man. A few recipients—Anthony Davis, Paul Dresher, and Scott Johnson—don’t mention doctoral degrees in their bios. I scoured the web for references concerning higher degrees vis-à-vis composer/fiddler Dan Trueman, but like some stealthy cat burglar, it seems he too crept into this Guggenheim pack without a Ph.D. in evidence. But wait, can you teach at Princeton these days without a pedigreed sheepskin? Really Dan, this isn’t a rhetorical question. Let us know, okay?
With Trueman as the youngest fellow, this year’s batch does show homogeny as far as age is concerned. Trueman excluded, almost everyone seems to hover around their mid-fifties, and one third of the pack was born in the same year: 1951. Although nobody sticks out here as being really old or really young, one name on the list managed to pique my interest: Janis Mattox. (Admittedly, this was after a little bit of research following my first reaction to this list…Who are half of these people?) Now, I haven’t heard any of Mattox’s music (someone please send us some!), but given the fact that she’s collaborated with performance artist-cum-feminist and new age spiritual guru Linda Montano speaks volumes to her entrenchment inside the experimental tradition forged in this country. No one can claim that this vein of musical expression is being treated like some kind of sideshow freak when, really, almost every composer on the list is exploring something counter to everyone else. Overall more safe than out-on-a-limb, this list of insiders and outsiders appears to be a fair attempt at encouraging a number of creative branches. Although I didn’t make the cut, all things considered, I’m not discouraged to apply again next year.