Lewis Spratlan: Beyond the Pulitzer Prize

Other Pulitzer Winners



Lewis Spratlan
Interview Excerpt #8


FRANK J. OTERI: Ultimately, the Pulitzer is uptown recognition. After all, it’s administered by Columbia University

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Has a downtown piece ever won the Pulitzer?

FRANK J. OTERI: No.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: No?

FRANK J. OTERI: No. Never. And, you know, I was compiling a list of composers who, you know, are significant in our history who have never won the Pulitzer. We came up with an interesting list.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: It’s a glorious list, I imagine.

FRANK J. OTERI: Cowell, Roy Harris, Cage, Feldman

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Cage never won? Wow.

FRANK J. OTERI: Ruggles. Lou Harrison never won. Reich, Adams, Glass, Rochberg, never won. But Babbitt also never won, although he received a special commendation at some point, which I think is interesting, too. And another major twelve-tone composer Andrew Imbrie, who is not based on the East coast, never won. Luening and Ussachevsky, neither of them ever won…

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Davidovsky?

FRANK J. OTERI: He won.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: He did win?

FRANK J. OTERI: Yes. ’71.

HAROLD MELTZER:Star next to his name – Ralph Shapey never won.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Yeah, I know that story… That’s an astonishing list.

FRANK J. OTERI: And, but by the same token, you know, some of the composers who did win, we don’t really think much about anymore. John La Montaine, Gail Kubik, Quincy Porter, who was actually one of the founders of the American Music Center and a major force at Yale for decades, you know, won, but his music isn’t done very much these days; yet, it’s so weird, there are also these works that are really part and parcel of what we think about in terms of American music: Appalachian Spring, 2 of the Carter quartets, Ives3rd, Barber‘s Vanessa, I mean, these are pieces that are all part of our musical identity as a nation…

LEWIS SPRATLAN: In the canon, really.

FRANK J. OTERI: In the canon. So it’s a weird…

LEWIS SPRATLAN: …contradictory mix.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s an odd mix. And so I guess, to bring this conversation full circle, for you, I thought we’d speculate on how you fit in the trajectory of winners of Pulitzers. This is loaded, I know…

LEWIS SPRATLAN: What could I possibly say? I don’t know. I love a lot of the winners on your list, I mean, their music is tremendously important to me. I also love a lot of the losers – I mean, the non-winners.

FRANK J. OTERI: Right. [laughs]

LEWIS SPRATLAN: But trajectory? God. I must say I’ve never given any thought to that. I’ve never thought of the curve of the Pulitzer Prize. I don’t know. I’m still very much in the flush of it. Look, it’s probably going to get this opera put on. I’m in a very selfish mode of thinking about it right now.

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, but that’s probably the first time anybody who’s won the Pulitzer has ever thought that it’s going to get a performance of the piece!

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Yeah! As far as I know, it’s never been awarded for a fragment of a piece, well, this is a major fragment, I wouldn’t exactly call it a fragment, but it happens to be, you know, it’s at the heart of the matter, too, it’s not just a little corner of the piece. But what’s most extraordinary, I’d be surprised if there’s any other Prize that’s been awarded for just a part of a piece like this. Which actually flatters me quite a lot, that this beat out whole pieces. My little part of a piece beat out a whole piece… I think that what that must mean on some level is that, from this act, they are able to extrapolate that it’s probably a good opera, although they were very careful to award it for the second act, concert version. I mean, they did not say for the opera itself. But that is sort of an interesting twist to things…

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, “Perform my opera. The second act of it won a Pulitzer Prize!”

LEWIS SPRATLAN: It is very strange.

JAMES MARANISS:Another thing that might be said, although it might sound absurd, you should, with regard to the Pulitzer Prize, you should take into account that Calderón is in the equation. Calderón is this great playwright of the 17th Century whom the German Romantics thought was even better than Shakespeare, and who, at least can be spoken of in the same breath as Shakespeare. Perfectly realized by Lew’s music, and insofar as somebody, a great writer can find his realization musically with a composer that elevates a composer to a range of consideration beyond the ordinary.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Very well said. Part of what is compelling about this piece has nothing to do with me, at all, in a certain sense, and that’s the greatness of the drama itself. The flip side of that is that there have been many horrible operas written on great, great literature. I happened to see one, well, I’ve seen several, but I’ve only seen one I think was on great literature, a great source work, Medea, it was by… I can’t even remember the composer’s name, but it was the piece that beat this out in a competition that the New England Conservatory mounted just around 1980, or so. I won second prize in the New England Conservatory – Rockefeller Opera Competition around 1980, and I went over to Boston for the premiere of the prize-winning piece, which was Medea, and it was…[Everyone laughs]

FRANK J. OTERI: But based on a play by Euripides, an equally important playwright.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: An equivalent playwright to Calderón. So, I mean, true enough, JI sound caviling when I say this, but it is, you’re completely right, it’s the greatness of the work, of the Calderón, obviously the piece couldn’t exist without it. But your projection of the truth of that piece and your libretto, and my ability to understand both your libretto and the source, all were involved in making this happen, for sure.

FRANK J. OTERI: I think, for all of us out there, your winning the Pulitzer Prize was thrilling. I must confess, I did not know who you were until you won the Pulitzer Prize.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Did you know who Melinda Wagner was before she won it?

FRANK J. OTERI: No.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Well.

FRANK J. OTERI: This is thrilling, because I think it says to all of us out there that it isn’t necessarily about just the people who you think are going to get it, who are always getting the performances or who are in the inner circle, and it gave me an opportunity to learn about a new composer, so it is very exciting on that level.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: You know, it was terrific for me, apart from the individual pleasure, alongside that, it was hey, you know, somebody like me can win the Pulitzer. Not just that I won it, but that somebody like me, that nobody’s ever heard of…

FRANK J. OTERI: And I think that’s really important…

LEWIS SPRATLAN: It’s not true, by the way, that nobody’s ever heard of me. I mean, there are a lot of people in New York, people on the West Coast, people in Chicago, blah, blah, blah, blah. You know, I’m not any kind of household name, amongst even sort of people, you know, the general run of new music listeners.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, your music has been recorded on Gasparo. And, as Harold pointed out, I’d actually heard a piece of music of yours on one of his Sequitur concerts the year before.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Oh, the Vocalise with Duck?

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah, and then it clicked.

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