Every year on the third Wednesday of May beginning at three o’clock in the afternoon, a group of prominent authors, visual artists, and composers gather together for several long hours to bestow numerous awards in their various disciplines. Afterward, there is an outdoor reception, usually held under a canopy amidst pouring rain. It is, nevertheless, one of the year’s most enjoyable schmoozefests. The format of the Ceremonial, the official name for this annual event held at the headquarters of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (located in a series of historic Audubon Terrace buildings in Northern Manhattan’s Washington Heights) is akin to a religious ritual and is pretty much exactly the same every year.
The script runs basically as follows: Right before the event officially begins, a photographer takes a seemingly interminable series of photos of the assembled Academy members and some of the year’s privileged awardees, who sit in rows on the stage (their names and positions on stage printed in a diagram handed to attendees with the program of the event). The presiding President of the Academy (a title which rotates between composers, writers, and artists every three years) commences the Ceremonial with a series of opening remarks. Then new members are inducted. (There are always 250 members who are inducted for life; someone has to die in order for someone new to be accepted in.) A slew of awards are doled out by various Academy members. (In years past, an award citation was read for each of the awardees which made the Ceremonial last nearly three hours; for the past several years most of these citations, which are all printed in the program distributed to attendees, are left unread—sometimes an award presenter forgets and reads the citation.) Toward the end of the proceedings, one of the members gives an extremely long speech (called the Blashfield Address, or as painter Chuck Close—this year’s speaker—called it, the “dreaded Blashfield Address”). A few additional higher profile awards are given, the final ones reserved for Academy inductees, before attendees are asked to reconvene at the reception.
For seasoned observers of this event, however, the 2012 edition had a few notable variations. It started more than 35 minutes later than usual. Pete Seeger (recipient of the 2012 Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts) carried a guitar and banjo onto the stage and used them both in his acceptance speech, getting people in the audience as well as many of the folks assembled on stage to sing along with him. (Among the combinations I noticed on stage were Tobias Picker sitting next to Salmon Rushdie, and Steve Reich sitting next to Gunther Schuller, although from where I was seated I couldn’t tell if any of them were singing.) It didn’t rain.
(NOTE: Apologies for the less than stellar video from the back row, but I think the audio more than makes up for it. I’m still floored by the sound quality of the audio on the late lamented FlipCam.)
As always, for new Academy inductees as well as the award winners, it is extremely thrilling to share the stage with so many artistic luminaries. This year’s new composer inductees were Stephen Jaffe and Tobias Picker (replacing Milton Babbitt and Peter Lieberson). In addition, the Academy inducted two honorary members from our field: Japanese composer Jo Kondo and American soprano Leontyne Price. (Honorary Members are inducted in order to honor distinguished either practitioners of writing, painting, sculpture, architecture, and musical composition not based in the United States or Americans whose accomplishments fall outside of the Academy’s acknowledged artistic categories. Current American honorary members include choreographers, film makers, and performers; the actress Meryl Streep, the only American honorary member in attendance at the 2012 Ceremonial, presented one of the awards.) During the reception, Academician Stephen Hartke waxed poetically about what it means to be a member of the august group.
For recipients of the Academy’s numerous awards, the honor is far more than monetary, although the financial element is substantial. This year the Academy awarded a total of $940,000, with $190,000 of that going to composers. On these pages we have previously reported all of the 2012 Academy music awards, so there is no need to enumerate every one of them here again. However, a few do merit some further commentary, since they demonstrate how these awards tie their winners to a long, illustrious history.
James Matheson is the latest recipient of the coveted Charles Ives Living Award. This award for an American composer, funded from royalties of the music of Charles Ives, frees its recipient from the need to devote time to any employment other than music composition; the sum is considerable. It currently is $100,000 a year for two years. But perhaps more significant than the large dollar amount affixed to it is the fact that this award, established in 1998, has only previously been given four times (to Martin Bresnick, Chen Yi, Stephen Hartke, and George Tsontakis). Also, it is a particularly poignant accolade considering that Ives’s day job in the insurance business prevented him from composing full time and that ultimately a breakdown resulting from his work as both a composer and businessman resulted in his near silence as a composer for the last thirty years of his life. Given that history, it would be difficult for a composer not to feel an enormous duty and commitment to the act of composing.
The royalties from Ives’s music, which were bequeathed to the Academy by Ives’s widow Harmony Ives, also fund various other awards including two Charles Ives Fellowships (of $15,000 each)—this year awarded to Haralabos Stafylakis and Xi Wang—and six Charles Ives Scholarships (each $7,500); the 2012 recipients of these are Niccolo Athens, Sean Friar, David Hertzberg, Takuma Itoh, Wang Jie, and Chris Rogerson. Wang Jie spoke of how these awards bearing Charles Ives’s name carry the weight of his legacy.
On the other hand, Haralabos Stafylakis, whose music is influenced by heavy metal, saw his winning the award as a victory for all metalheads, a musical demographic not normally acknowledged by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Other recipients this year are seasoned veterans of award winning. Steve Reich has honored with the Academy’s Gold Medal, its highest honor, which is given in turn to outstanding practitioners in all of the disciplines that the Academy acknowledges. But of course, Reich has already been honored with numerous accolades—from the Grammy to the Pulitzer, as well as the Polar Prize, which is the closest thing to a Nobel that a composer could aspire to. Still, Reich mused upon receiving the Gold Medal for Music that he is deeply honored to be not only in the company of previous music medalists such as Stravinsky and Copland, but also those in other disciplines which include his heroes Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, and William Carlos Williams, whose poetry Reich set in his large scale composition, The Desert Music. Two other 2012 award-winning composers, Frank Ticheli and Paul Moravec, joked about how they both always win awards from the Academy at the same time.
A composer as successful as John Kander, whose credits include the blockbuster Broadway musicals Cabaret and Chicago, most likely doesn’t need the $5,000 he was given by the Academy as the 2012 recipient of its Marc Blitzstein Award. Yet the Academy’s acknowledgement of Kander’s accomplishments has been long overdue and it is appropriate to connect his provocative, socially conscious theatre scores to the legacy of the award’s namesake, whose legendary The Cradle Will Rock remains a humbling role model for anyone who strives to use art to respond to the injustices in our society. Although Chuck Close, in his often improvisatory-seeming address during the Ceremonial, perhaps had the best advice for aspiring artists: “Problem creation is much more interesting than problem solving.”
Close’s words certainly resonated deeply with me, despite my inevitably conflicted feelings about the Ceremonial. Like many others, I wish that the Academy acknowledged a broader range of creators than it currently does. At the same time, the Academy remains one of the few institutions in this country where writers, visual artists, and composers can share the limelight and for that I remain not only extremely grateful, but willing to attend the ritual year after year, rain or shine.