A Horse Race Might Be What We Need

On Monday, Frank J. Oteri mused about the limited (to say the least) cultural impact of the Grawemeyer Award. In his column, Frank describes the lay of the land as far as awards comparable to the Grawemeyer (the Pulitzer, Nemmers, and Polar music prizes) and looks at the judging process, including the methodology behind the selection of winners. He also considers the effectiveness of panels that include “amateurs,” as well as the potential of crowd-sourced judging mechanisms. He concludes:

So, ironically, even though the Grawemeyer Award might be more reflective of what the greater community believes to be the strongest piece of new music, the result of this award will have a harder time reaching people who are not connected to new music in some way. And until the music awarded these kinds of accolades can reach a greater percentage of the population, it won’t really be culturally relevant.

Oh, where to begin…

If we’re really going to think about why the Grawemeyer does not have much recognition outside of the new music community, there are several questions that need to be raised. First off, why is the Grawemeyer so coveted? Why should anyone care who wins this award? Frank’s opening paragraphs subtly point to the possible answer—$100,000 (down from $200,000). It’s impossible to discuss the importance of the Grawemeyer (as well as the Nemmers and Polar) without mentioning the size of the purse. While it does not rise to the level of the Nobel Prize’s $1.2 million stipend or the $500,000 MacArthur Foundation “Genius” grants, the fact that a single artist can be given such a windfall is enough to capture the attention of at least those within our own industry.

So why does the Pulitzer Prize, with its $10,000 award, garner such attention from the media while awards like the Grawemeyer are barely recognized by those within the classical music community as a whole? I would suggest that the answer lies not with the award itself, but with the notoriety of the other recipients of the award. Both the Pulitzer and the Grawemeyer are given to individuals outside of music, but while the other Grawemeyers are given to worthy individuals in the fields of religion, psychology, world order, and education, the Pulitzer winners include journalists, columnists, photographers, and cartoonists, as well as authors, poets, playwrights, historians, and biographers. As notable as the scholars in religion, psychology, and education are within their fields, one would be hard pressed to find any who have a more direct connection with the broader public than journalists, photographers, and cartoonists who work for major newspapers or magazines or authors and writers whose works are readily accessible. Music actually still sticks out among the Pulitzers because of its mystery—often the winning work has not been recorded and distributed, so while the articles, columns, books, plays, and poems can be readily consumed before and after the awards are announced, the public basically has to take the word of the Pulitzer judges that the music winner was good.

Speaking of judges, let’s take a look at those judging panels Frank mentioned. Both the Grawemeyer and the Pulitzer employ variations on the same theme: a small number of “expert” judges are brought together to cull a small number of deserving works from a large field of submissions, whereby another panel of “non-expert” individuals take the responsibility for selecting the winner. This model is supposed to represent a democratic concept, balancing the experienced opinions of the experts with the natural sensibilities of the untrained amateurs—how well that model works can be and has been debated.

I say, if you’re going to feign a democratic process for a major award and intend for it to get noticed outside of our own community, make it a truly expansive democratic process. The individuals vying for the Academy Awards, for example, are nominated by the various branches of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and then voted on by the entire membership—one that numbers close to 6,000. It would not be impossible to form a similar organization, encompassing composers and performers from a wide swath of the community, that celebrates outstanding works from year to year selected by its large-scale voting membership. That’s the difference—practically any new music or composition award out there is ultimately decided upon by a few individuals, all of whom are both experienced and, by the very nature of their numbers, representative of only a small slice of the entirety of the industry.

Imagine a process where works are made available in an easily accessible format, in both score and recorded form, to a large number of professionals in the industry. Somehow a small group of nominees would be chosen and those works would be analyzed and digested by a large number of composers, performers, conductors, critics, and others before the winners were decided. Suddenly you really do have a horse race—several works being looked at over a sizable period of time and debated between various factions and groups in public—and since the judging model is neither a small number of experts nor a popularity contest for an “audience favorite,” the resultant significance of the final decision would be, well, significant.

I’m glad Frank brought this up, because it shines a spotlight on several aspects of our own industry/community that deserve wider discussion. I’ve argued before that our society in many ways does not know living composers even exist, save for a few exceptions, and with exercises such as awards that do bring attention to who we are and what we do, that situation can be changed over time. We should be celebrating Michel’s massive achievement—but we can use that celebration to reevaluate our own place in the world as well.

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