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Tilting at Windmills

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April 19, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

FACT OF THE DAY....You know what? I didn't even know there was such a thing as a Pulitzer Prize for music. Which, I guess, is sort of Fred Kaplan's point....

Kevin Drum 5:33 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (29)

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I knew Sunday in the Park with George got a Pulitzer.

Posted by: Royko on April 19, 2006 at 5:36 PM | PERMALINK

Don't see how a Pulitzer music prize could have missed Cole Porter.

Posted by: Matt on April 19, 2006 at 5:43 PM | PERMALINK

the Pyulissers are just another libril conspearasee

Posted by: cleek on April 19, 2006 at 5:47 PM | PERMALINK

A few years ago somebody (Ebert?) was making the case that there ought to be a Pulitzer for film. I don't see why not. I think movies are the art form of the 20th, and now 21st, century. There an award for drama (except this year), and I think a Pulitzer for artistic achievement in film would be a great way to make the award relevant and reward work that is typically overlooked when other prizes are given out, such as the Oscars, which is about 1/3 art and 2/3 business.

Posted by: JJF on April 19, 2006 at 6:35 PM | PERMALINK

Interesting. I don't think any of Kaplan's fixes will work, because the Pulitzers are about publishing, not performing or recording. The music Pulitzer is simply for the best composition of the past year. And though expanding the view to include Broadway composers like Sondheim might help a little, the fact is that the most important music isn't composed in the classical, or even Tin Pan Alley, way. Hasn't been for probably 50 years (i.e., since the advent of bebop and then rock and roll).

I think the Pulitzer people probably get how irrelevant their music prize is, and the only reason they still give it out is to put off the inevitable "Classical Music: R.I.P." headlines if/when they stop giving a music prize.

Posted by: kth on April 19, 2006 at 6:38 PM | PERMALINK

It's not surprising that the music award is so little known, since only dedicated classical heads have heard any of the work of most of the fifty-odd music Pulitzer winners. The only exceptions would be Aaron Copland, Gian-Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber, and Morton Gould.

In fact, the prize Ellington didn't get probably attracted more attention than any of the actual winners. Wasn't unique, though; two years earlier, the Pulitzer drama panel voted Edward Albee the prize for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," and (as with Ellington) the overall Pulitzer Committee vetoed the choice -- in Albee's case because the play didn't present a "wholesome" view of American life.

Posted by: penalcolony on April 19, 2006 at 7:15 PM | PERMALINK

If you were older, you might have had a vinyl LP of Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring; the liner notes would have mentioned the Pulitzer for music, 1945. And R.I.P.? That music is deathless.

Posted by: Dabodius on April 19, 2006 at 7:18 PM | PERMALINK

It isn't that the Pulitzers don't matter. It's that American poetry, fiction, drama, and ("serious") music doesn't much matter anymore.

There is a reason they called it "the American century." The great age of American culture is nearly over.

Posted by: The Blue Nomad on April 19, 2006 at 7:27 PM | PERMALINK

I agree with Kaplan about the academic bias of the Pulitzer for music, and it's been awarded to some real blowhards that no one outside of the academy has ever heard of over the years. But I disagree with his presumption that any music is as worthy of consideration as any other, or that it should be. The Pulitzer has always been for a particular work of art for that year, not for a body of work, lifetime achievement, a new harmonic trend in jazz, the most popular or best-selling tune, or even just great celebrity in the field. There are Grammys, Kennedy Center honors, and lovely residuals and more for all that.

For example, as mentioned above, Aaron Copland won not for being Aaron Copland, but for Appalachian Spring, a great American work of music. The problem with the award since is the problem with post-1950's classical music generallylittle of it is ever heard outside of the academy, and not much of it deserves to be anyway (in my opinion). Yes, the Pulitzer juries, often consisting purely of academic composers themselves, shamefully passed over some American greats to honor too many academic hacks. But while Monk, Ellington, Gershwin et al produced great American works, many of which would be deserving of the prize in my book, I would be hard pressed to say the same of individual works of say, Bob Dylan, or Jimi Hendrix, or Johnny Cash, despite personal appreciation for them.

Posted by: R.Porrofatto on April 19, 2006 at 7:35 PM | PERMALINK

Jack Smith, the redoubtable LAT writer, used the term "Pullet Surprise."

Posted by: G. Jones on April 19, 2006 at 7:41 PM | PERMALINK

Who knew there was a Pulitzer Prize for fashion commentary??

Posted by: Hedley Lamarr on April 19, 2006 at 7:44 PM | PERMALINK

After being passed over, Ellington, who was 74, said

God didn't want me to famous too young.
Ellington was to have been honored for one of the long allegorical compositions he specialized in later in his career, don't remember which one.

Posted by: Tom Parmenter on April 19, 2006 at 8:16 PM | PERMALINK

. . . don't remember which one.

There wasn't one. The music panel recommended that Ellington be honored for the "vitality and originality of his total productivity."

Posted by: penalcolony on April 19, 2006 at 9:17 PM | PERMALINK

If you want to check out some meaningful classical-only prizewinners, go to the University of Louisville's Grawemeyer Prize list:

Most of these have been recorded, and all of them I know are worth hearing.

Appalachian Spring aside, the Pulitzer has never meant anything special even within the classical realm -- it really was mostly a parade of establishment university atonalists waiting their turn. Anything they want to do to make themselves relevant would be a step in the right direction.

Posted by: jack on April 19, 2006 at 9:32 PM | PERMALINK
the Pulitzer has never meant anything special even within the classical realm jack 9:32 PM
Here are the Pulitzers for music, 1943 - 2006. Some of America's greatest composers are winners although I see that Harry Partch, George Gershwin, Terry Riley and Philip Glass among others haven't won. Contrary to your comment, the prize is highly regarded among classical aficionados, musicians and composers. Posted by: Mike on April 19, 2006 at 11:03 PM | PERMALINK

Scott McClellan has been drinking, babbling and listening to this song over and over again. It's my fault.

Posted by: elmo on April 19, 2006 at 11:18 PM | PERMALINK

liberal conspirasseee?

Yeh them damn musicians is tuff. They will kick your ass and take over the world, you will be forced to listen to mozart for enternity and pick pimples of the nerdy nagat music Kings!

Posted by: one eye buck tooth [X^B on April 19, 2006 at 11:19 PM | PERMALINK

Scott Mclellan is prolly listening to;
"Dont make my Brown Eye Blue"
[Wink Wink]
Kinda gives new meaning to the word 'TurdBlossom'
don't it?

Posted by: one eye buck tooth [X^B on April 19, 2006 at 11:21 PM | PERMALINK


Posted by: elmo on April 19, 2006 at 11:27 PM | PERMALINK

Well, I did. I've even had the pleasure of performing a composition by a Pulizter winner, Karel Husa, who conducted his Music for Prague, 1968 as the invited guest of the Trinity University Wind Symphony in 1985. Powerful stuff, but done in twelve-tone, so not to everyone's taste.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on April 19, 2006 at 11:39 PM | PERMALINK

Well, hey, what do you know. I performed Karel Husa's Music for Prague, too. I was a student at the time, and it was at a summer festival where they brought in a different conductor every week, and he came in for a week.

I had left school at the time because I ran out of money to pay for it, and he wrote a recommendation letter for me to the director of the conservatory to get me some scholarship money.

He spent a lot of time with the students that week. I think he just enjoys being around young people.

Karel Husa is a very nice man.

Posted by: Mornington Crescent on April 20, 2006 at 12:13 AM | PERMALINK

Nice to see the good words for Copland's deathless Appalachian Spring. Mind-boggling harmonization which is as gorgeous as it is astringent ...

And nice to see the MonkMeister winning one for lifetime achievement ...

But aside from that -- the Pulitzer sucks and has sucked for a long time, especially for literature where it isn't taken very seriously. There's a stupid set of objective criteria for it -- like there has to be a baby born at the end of the book to signify life continuing on or some shit ... *Extremely* conservative and fucking irrelevant to more recent trends in literature.

My favorite Pulitzer anectote (and I beg forgiveness of those who've seen this before) involves the unanimous recommendation of the judges for Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow in 1975 -- still my all-time favorite novel which I'm in the process of rereading for something like the 11th time.

The *advisory committee* rejected it for being "turgid ... overwritten ... unreadable ... obscene."

Hey, my kinda book :) It shared the National Book Award with Isaac Bahevis Singer ...

Ironic that Pulitzers in music should be so focused on academic composers in a technique (Serial) that never caught on with the public ...


Posted by: rmck1 on April 20, 2006 at 4:12 AM | PERMALINK

Karel Husa is a very nice man.

That he is. He charmed us all right away as our guest conductor. Whenever he gave an instruction or correction on the music, he ended by saying "Thank you". We all greatly enjoyed playing for him.

True story: The fourth movement of "Music for Prague" has a difficult clarinet cadenza at the beginning of it, which our first-chair player nailed. After our performance, Husa and our regular director went out to hoist a few in celebration. Some time around 2 AM, they decided to phone the clarinetist to tell her what a great job she'd done. Turns out she was out celebrating, too, so they gave their somewhat inebriated kudos to her rather puzzled roommate.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on April 20, 2006 at 9:10 AM | PERMALINK

There really aren't that many serialist works on this list. There are plenty of works that are outside the traditional realm of tonality, but there's also plenty of popular music that isn't tonal in the sense of, say, Mozart. There's a fair bit of unlistenable crap, but the Pulitzer is hardly a prize for the next serialist. A lot of this music is quite good, and doesn't require a degree to appreciate it.

That said, in 1959 we get John La Montaine, Piano Concerto, instead of Miles Davis, Kind of Blue. That's nuts.

Posted by: CrackWilding on April 20, 2006 at 9:22 AM | PERMALINK

the Pulitzer sucks and has sucked for a long time, especially for literature where it isn't taken very seriously

I think William Gass once said that the Pulitzer Prize in fiction had never gone to a good novel. That was an exaggeration when he said it c1980 (The Age of Innocence and The Grapes of Wrath are pretty good books), and now slightly more so (Beloved, The Known World), but it's largely true, and it points to the difficulty of picking one work as "best" out of a whole year's varied and complicated productions. You tend to get a set not of the "bests" but of the "most recents by people who should have won for something really good a while backs."

Music seems to me inherently even more dodgy, because so much of the enduring value of music comes in its reinterpretation by successive conductors and performers. Books are relatively fixed. How is one to predict what musical compositions are going to inspire an interesting future performance tradition? Mix in an inherent bias toward academic composers in the avant-garde wing of classical music, and you have a recipe for irrelevance.

Posted by: Tim Morris on April 20, 2006 at 10:39 AM | PERMALINK

Re Fred Kaplan-- anybody who calls Yehudi Wyner "relatively unknown" has no business opining about classical music and the Pulitzers.

Posted by: gyrfalcon on April 20, 2006 at 11:45 AM | PERMALINK

That said, in 1959 we get John La Montaine, Piano Concerto, instead of Miles Davis, Kind of Blue. That's nuts.

The previous year (1958) Samuel Barber's dull (and largely forgotten) opera "Vanessa" won the award over Bernstein's "West Side Story".

Posted by: "Fair and Balanced" Dave on April 20, 2006 at 2:56 PM | PERMALINK

Gerswhin figured in an earlier scandal. "Porgy and Bess" won for best theater, but Gershwin's name was pointedly left off the award. Many protested at the time, and it seems even sillier 70 years later, when the music of "Porgy and Bess" is pretty much acknowledged as rising well above its book.

Posted by: wally on April 20, 2006 at 6:14 PM | PERMALINK


Don't get me wrong; I'm not plumping for populism in the arts. There's already a prize for the most popular and accessible -- it's called the marketplace -- where Madonna will always best Mozart time after time ...

I should have qualified my remark about Serialism to refer to awards past. Serialism is pretty much a dead letter, replaced by neo- (and post-) tonalism and various postmodern pastiche techniques for several decades now. Schnittke is insufferable in that regard (so's Gorecki), and I think I'd rather get the real stuff from Monteverdi than from Arvo Paart.

So what's a Pulitzer committee to do? I don't blame them for not nominating the immensely popular West Side Story over taking a chance on some academic work. (Bernstein thought his score was derivative -- and it is, although still killer show music). Maybe that academic piece is unjustly forgotten. Shit, Roger Sessions' The Black Maskers is one of my all-time favorite mid-20th century pieces, and who listens to Sessions anymore? I have a bit more issue with Samuel Barber (who was hardly a revolutionary or inaccessible composer) over Kinda Blue -- which is transcendent artwork from first note to last.

It's not even jazz vs classical -- the post-bebop, pre-fusion jazz greats we're honoring today were self-consciously oppositional artists and didn't compete with rock popularity until the post-Bitches Brew era. It's how do you determine which innovations inspire generations of musicians and live on deathlessly? Lennie Tristano was at least as innovative a jazz pianist as Thelonious Monk -- his overdubbing experiments were veritably revolutionary -- but Monk is the artist for the ages. How would you have known that then? And what's the point of winning a Pulitzer posthumously?

Likewise, Monk's harmonic innovations inpsired musicians for generations and changed his artform -- but they also require Bud Powell as an antithesis to flesh the summa of bebop piano. And Powell may have been more directly influential to jazz as it developed than the eccentric one-of-a-kind Monk. Who's more important?

It's even worse in the dodecaphonic era. The music's ... unlistenable. It's dissonant. Well, so was The Rite of Spring. Modernism's supposed to shock, to challenge, to alienate and infuriate -- that's how it approaches the Sublime. Academic essays, inspired by neomarxist historicism, made everything worse by conflating Serial technique with the inevitable dialectical evolution of music history -- since Bach, incorporating ever more notes into the scale until all notes are equal at last. Dodecaphonic democracy. Of course it was pure bunk. But how do you know this at the time? Everybody hated Stravinsky's Russian primitivism, too. But the academics (take that, Adorno) loved Bartok as well -- and Bartok has become one of the undisputed greats.

And if pompous Central European refugee intellectuals weren't bad enough -- there's the quintessentially American Milton Babbitt, coding his beepy-boopy computerized Serial compositions in the Columbia University music lab, with a synthesizer the size of ENIAC. In the mid-50s he writes "Who Cares If You Listen?" an essay which conflates modern composers with cutting edge nuclear physicists. If the average Joe and Jane (Randolph and Philomena?) concertgoer can't understand his output -- well, would you expect them to understand the equations of quantum mechanics?

Given this kind of cultural environment -- and given the inherently sujective nature of asethetic preferences -- you've gotta cut *any* judge of a High Art Prize more than a little slack for their past decisions ...


Posted by: rmck1 on April 20, 2006 at 6:44 PM | PERMALINK



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