View From the West: New Hope for the Pulitzer

View From the West: New Hope for the Pulitzer

Dean Suzuki Photo by Ryan Suzuki I recall reading a brief but powerful and insightful article by Kyle Gann titled “Pulitzer Hacks” in the July 30, 1991 issue of The Village Voice. In it, he quite rightly savaged the institution known as the Pulitzer (pronounced, by the way, PULL-it-zer, not PYU-lit-zer) Prize as a “Reward… Read more »

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Dean Suzuki

Dean Suzuki
Photo by Ryan Suzuki

I recall reading a brief but powerful and insightful article by Kyle Gann titled “Pulitzer Hacks” in the July 30, 1991 issue of The Village Voice. In it, he quite rightly savaged the institution known as the Pulitzer (pronounced, by the way, PULL-it-zer, not PYU-lit-zer) Prize as a “Reward for Conformity and a Compensation Prize for Ineffectuality.” He went on to say that the Pulitzer “gives the public the idea that the winners represent the best modern music, and an excuse to conclude that American music sucks.” He also described Pulitzer winners as those who “live the official composer’s life: awards, orchestra residencies, pat-on-the-head reviews, commissions, widespread influence, not on other peoples music, but over their careers. No one listens to [this] type [of] self-serious music with love or enthusiasm, and once he/she dies, it is forgotten.” On the other hand, innovative and influential composers such as John Cage, Morton Feldman, Harry Partch, Pauline Oliveros, Conlon Nancarrow, Lou Harrison, Robert Ashley, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, John Zorn, and a host of others have never been awarded the Pulitzer and most of them have never even been nominated for the prize.

The MacArthur Fellows Program (the so-called “Genius Award”) has a better track record in music than does the Pulitzer for recognizing jazz musicians, iconoclasts, and experimentalists. The list of music fellows includes Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Ali Akbar Khan, Nancarrow, Steve Lacy, George Lewis, and Ken Vandermark.

Perhaps real change is afoot in the Pulitzer music category, first awarded in 1943. You can, as I did, go on the Pulitzer website and find a list of all winners, as well as nominees (the latter for each year dating back only to 1980). And while it has been slow in coming, there is a perceivable transformation that is taking place. Not only has the past few years seen prizes awarded to composers who would not even have been nominated ten years ago, the stylistic range of nominees has expanded. It has been written that Reich lost in 1988 with Different Trains, but according to the Pulitzer website, Reich was not one of the finalists. Still, non-traditional Pulitzer candidates in recent years include Reich (2003), Zorn (2000), John Adams (1998), and winners Henry Brant (2002), John Corigliano (2001), Wynton Marsalis (1997), and, of course, this year’s winner, Adams.

The relatively meager cash award of $7500 pales in comparison to the (perceived) prestige associated with the Pulitzer. While other prizes may offer a larger cash award, none in this country have the esteem and cachet accorded to the Pulitzer, at least in the press, the academy, and the general public.

The Pulitzer is awarded to composers whose works were given their world premiere in the preceding year. The process works this way: A music jury is chosen. It is most often comprised of four composers, though sometimes three, plus one newspaper critic. They look at the scores and listen to the recordings that have been submitted to them and ultimately, the list is narrowed down to three finalists (in some instances only two finalists are agreed upon). The Pulitzer board then reviews the nominations and selects a winner.

As you might surmise, the juries tend to be comprised of former Pulitzer winners and academicians, which leads to inbreeding and a limited scope of compositional styles. Since 1995, no less than two, and most of the time, three members were Pulitzer winning composers (see list of jury members below). Pulitzer winner John Corigliano said, “The Pulitzer was originally intended to be for a work that is going to last, to mean something to the world. It changed into another kind of award completely: by composers for composers. It got lost in a repeating record of the same people [on the jury] year after year.” (From Anne Midgette, “Dissonant Thoughts on the Music Pulitzers,” The New York Times, April 9, 2003)

Quite telling about the values held by some musicologists, composers, theorists, and, it seems, Pulitzer jury and board members is the observation Gann made at an academic music conference. He writes: “At a conference . . . I overheard a professor, who had just delivered a lecture on the structure of an Elliott Carter orchestral work, admit to a colleague that while Carter’s music analyzes beautifully on paper, you can’t hear in the music the nice things you’ve analyzed. His colleague sorrowfully agreed.” (“Pulitzer Hacks.”)

Gann also quotes Feldman who describes two types of composers: the “real tradition of twentieth-century America, a tradition evolving from the empiricism of Ives, Varèse and Cage,” the type of composer almost always ignored by the Pulitzer committees, and what Feldman calls the “professionals,” which he characterizes as “the imitators . . . the greatest enemy of originality. The ‘freedom’ of the artist is boring to him, because in freedom he cannot re-enact the role of the artist.” (“Pulitzer Hacks.”)

As pointed out in “Pulitzer Hacks,” Charles Amirkhanian had the mettle and audacity to ask Shulamit Ran after winning the Pulitzer: “How does it feel to be writing in a style whose other practitioners are men in their sixties and seventies?”

As many readers of this column are well aware, John Adams, himself a critic of the Pulitzer, was awarded the prize this past spring. In “Dissonant Thoughts on the Music Pulitzers,” Adams said, “I am astonished to receive the Pulitzer Prize. Among musicians that I know, the Pulitzer has over the years lost much of the prestige it still carries in other fields like literature and journalism.”

The Pulitzer jury and board can be slow on the uptake. Remember, Charles Ives was finally awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his Third Sympony (ca. 1904) about 43 years after the work was completed and one year after its premiere performance in New York conducted by Lou Harrison.

When surveyi
ng the past nominees, I was struck by the number of composers whose name would likely be unknown to most outside of the academy; indeed, there were several that I did not recognize at all. Whether you like them or not, composers such as Cage, Feldman, Reich, Glass, Harrison, Oliveros, Monk, Anderson, Nancarrow, and the like, have had a documented and undeniable influence of the development of compositional style here in America and around the world. Take a look for yourself and see if many among the Pulitzer winners and finalists are likely to end up in the history books, if their role in the development of American music will be as significant as those just mentioned above, and if their work is likely to find a place in the repertoire (see list of winner and finalists below). Would the Pulitzer juries and boards have awarded a prize to Josef Hauer over Schoenberg, Salieri over Mozart, Diabelli over Beethoven? It would be hard to argue against such a possibility for very long when looking at the list.

Emblematic of the problems revolving around the Pulitzer in music may be the controversy surrounding the 1992 prize. The committee was charged with the duty of recommending three works for consideration. After some deliberation, they unanimously concluded that the best work of the year was Ralph Shapey‘s Concerto Fantastique and nominated no other finalists. The Pulitzer Board rejected their decision and asked that the committee recommend one other work, which they did: The Face of Night by Wayne Peterson which then went on to win the prize.

Here are some other facts: John Zorn was nominated in 2000, but lost to Lewis Spratlan. Since 1999, David Rakowski has been nominated twice and since 1997, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski was also nominated twice, yet nary a nomination for a Cage or a Feldman. There were no nominated finalists for 1982, the year in which compositions such as Triadic Memories by Feldman, Thirty Pieces for Five Orchestras by Cage, numerous works for Javanese gamelan by Lou Harrison, Tashi gomang by Oliveros, Glassworks by Glass, Harmonium by Adams, Tehillim by Reich, Symphony No. 1 (Tonal Plexus) by Glenn Branca, Liquid and Stellar Music by Paul Dresher, Dolmen Music by Meredith Monk, Music Word Fire And I Would Do It Again Coo Coo: The Lessons or The Lessons by Robert Ashley would have been eligible. There were no nominated finalists and no award in 1981, the same year of eligibility as Litany for the Whale by Cage, Trio by Feldman, Simfony in Free Style by Harrison, It’s Cold Outside by Laurie Anderson, The Photographer by Glass, Meredith Monk’s Vessel: An Opera Epic, and Angels and Demons by Oliveros.

In spite of its past record, the Pulitzer in music is clearly moving on a path of change, however slowly, and hopefully, it will regain its integrity and prestige as an award going to the most important and influential American composers whose work will significantly impact the evolution of music and find its way into the repertoire.

The issue of jazz, which I did not address in this column, is another kettle of fish entirely and it is difficult to argue against the notion that a separate Pulitzer category for jazz should be instituted as soon as possible.

Here is a list of the winning compositions and composers, followed by the finalists for each year dating back to 1980:

On the Transmigration of Souls by John Adams
Three Tales by Steve Reich
Camp Songs by Paul Schoenfeld

Ice Field by Henry Brant
Rilke Songs by Peter Lieberson Ten of a Kind (Symphony No.2) by David Rakowski

Symphony No. 2 for String Orchestra by John Corigliano
Tituli by Stephen Hartke
Time After Time by Fred Lerdahl

Life is a Dream, Opera in Three Acts: Act II, Concert Version by Lewis Spratlan
Serenata Concertante by Donald Martino
contes de fees by John Zorn

Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion by Melinda Wagner
Persistent Memory by David Rakowski
Concerto for Orchestra by Stanislav Skrowaczewski

String Quartet No. 2 (musica instrumentalis) by Aaron Jay Kernis
Century Rolls by John Adams
Horntrio by Yehudi Wyner

Blood on the Fields by Wynton Marsalis
Dove Sta Amore by John Musto
Passacaglia Immaginaria by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski

Lilacs, for voice and orchestra by George Walker
Variations for Violin and Piano by Peter Lieberson
Adagio Tenebroso by Elliott Carter

Stringmusic by Morton Gould
Evensong by Donald Erb
Adam, a cantata for mixed chorus with soprano solo and small orchestra by Andrew Imbrie

Of Reminiscences and Reflections by Gunther Schuller
Still Movement with Hymn by Aaron Jay Kernis
Microsymphony by Charles Wuorinen

Trombone Concerto by Christopher Rouse
Music for Cello and Orchestra by Leon Kirchner
Violin Concerto by Joan Tower

The Face of the Night, The Heart of the Dark by Wayne Peterson
Concerto Fantastique by Ralph Shapey

Symphony by Shulamit Ran
Four Movements for Piano by Bright Sheng
Wilde: A Symphony in Three Movements by Charles Fussell

“Duplicates”: A Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra by Mel Powell
Concerto for Cello, Piano and String Orchestra by Ralph Shapey

Whispers Out of Time by Roger Reynolds
H’un (Lacerations): In Memoriam 1966-1976 by Bright Sheng
Concerto for Orchestra by Steven Stucky

12 New Etudes for Piano by William Bolcom
Concerto For String Quartet and Orchestra by Gunther Schuller

The Flight Into Egypt by John Harbison
Flower of the Mountain by Stephen Albert

Wind Quintet IV by George Perle
Symphony No. 5 by George Rochberg

Symphony, RiverRun by Stephen Albert
Songs of Innocence and Experience, a Musical Illumination of the Poems of William Blake by William Bolcom

“Canti del Sole” for Tenor and Orchestra by Bernard Rands
Piano Concerto by Peter Lieberson

Symphony No. I (Three Movements for Orchestra) by Ellen Taaffe Zwilich
Drama for Orchestra by Vivian Fine

Concerto for Orchestra by Roger Sessions
no nominated finalists

No Award
no nominated finalists

In Memory of a Summer Day by David Del Tredici
ts for Orchestra
by Lukas Foss
After the Butterfly by Morton Subotnick


*John Harbison, composer and Institute Professor, MIT (chair)
David Baker, distinguished professor and chair of Jazz Department, Indiana University
*Justin Davidson, music critic, Newsday
Stephen Hartke, professor of music composition, University of Southern California
*Joseph Schwantner, composer and adjunct professor of music, Yale University

*John Harbison, composer and Institute Professor of Music, M.I.T.(Chair)
Peter G. Davis, music critic, New York Magazine
Olly Wilson, composer and professor of music, University of California, Berkeley
Yehudi Wyner, professor of music, Brandeis University
*Ellen Taafe Zwilich, composer, New York City

*Robert Ward, composer, professor emeritus of music, Duke University (Chairman)
David N. Baker, distinguished professor and chair of Jazz Studies Department, University of Indiana
*John Harbison, Institute Professor of Music, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
*Tim Page, culture critic, The Washington Post
*Shulamit Ran, composer and professor of music, University of Chicago

*Gunther Schuller, composer-conductor, Newton Center, Mass. (Chairman)
David Hamilton, doctoral faculty, The Juilliard School
*Wayne Peterson, composer, professor emeritus, San Francisco State University
*Melinda Wagner, composer, Ridgewood, N.J.
Yehudi Wyner, Walter Neumburg Professor of Composition, Brandeis University

*Gunther Schuller, composer/conductor, Newton Center, Mass. (Chairman)
*Leslie Bassett, composer/professor of music, University of Michigan
John Lewis, composer, concert artist, New York, N.Y.
*Tim Page, music critic, The Washington Post
*Wayne Peterson, composer, San Francisco, Calif.

*Joseph Schwantner, composer/professor of composition, Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester (Chairman)
*John Harbison, composer/Institute Professor, M.I.T.
John Lewis, concert artist, New York, N.Y.
Howard Reich, jazz critic, Chicago Tribune

*Robert Ward, composer, Mary Duke Biddle professor of music emeritus, Duke University, Durham, N.C. (Chairman)
*John Harbison, professor of humanities, M.I.T., Cambridge, Mass.
John Lewis, composer, musician, New York, N.Y.
Howard Reich, jazz critic, Chicago Tribune
*Joseph Schwantner, professor of music, Eastman School of Music, Rochester, N.Y.

*Richard Wernick, composer, conductor, Magnin Professor of Humanities, University of Pennsylvania (Chairman)
David Baker, composer, distinguished professor of music, Indiana University
*Leslie Bassett, composer, Distinguished University Professor of Music, University of Michigan
*Mario Davidovsky, composer, Fanny Peabody Mason Professor of Music, Harvard University
David Hamilton, doctoral faculty, The Juilliard School

*Gunther Schuller, composer-conductor, Newton Centre, Mass. (Chairman)
David N. Baker, composer, distinguished professor of music, Indiana University
Chou Wen-Chung, composer, Fritz Reiner Professor Emeritus of Composition, Columbia University
David Hamilton, music critic, The Nation
*Christopher Rouse, composer, professor of composition, Eastman School of Music, Rochester, N.Y.

* = past Pulitzer Prize winner