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Pulitzer Problems

Mat Maneri, Joe Maneri and Barre Phillips -- Prize-worthy.
On June 1, 2004, the Pulitzer Prize Board released a statement outlining new criterion for awarding the annual Pulitzer Prize in Music. Previously, the prize was limited to works by concert composers, who had to submit a notated score of a work premiered in the previous year, augmented by a recording of that performance -- no more. In a bid for greater inclusiveness, the Prize Board has decided to no longer make it mandatory that a notated score be included with an entry, merely that it is "strongly urged". Also, a work need not receive a public performance; studio recordings can now be considered for the Pulitzer. In addition, the Board struck a key phrase in their guidelines for submission; nominated works will no longer have to be "of significant dimension" in order to be considered for the Pulitzer.

What does this all mean? Well, in the past, there has been controversy surrounding the Pulitzer on a number of grounds, some of which the board is trying to ameliorate by changing the guidelines for awarding the prize. Chiefly, there has been criticism leveled at the Pulitzer prize's exclusivity, with frequent suggestion that jazz and musical theater composers should be eligible for the prize while it has instead often gone to academic composers of modern concert music. Special awards have been given over the years to Scott Joplin, Duke Ellington and George Gershwin (all posthumous), but it wasn't until 1997 that a composition by a significant jazz figure, Wynton Marsalis's Blood on the Fields, was recognized with a Pulitzer Prize proper. It should be noted that the Marsalis work did have a score, and thus was eligible under the previous guidelines. However, there was some controversy surrounding its eligibility in terms of its date of composition, as it was written well before the period of eligibility for that year's award.

As the guidelines stand now, both improvised jazz music and musical theater will be eligible for consideration for the Pulitzer Prize. What's more, the membership of the jury deciding the prize will be opened up to include more than just music critics and composers, allowing conductors, presenters of musical programs, performers and "other knowledgeable members of the musical world" to take part. The Board stated that it "believes that the Music Prize, in its own annual competition, should encompass the nation's array of distinguished music and hopes that the refinements in the Prize's definition, guidelines and jury membership will serve that end."

According to an article published the same day in the New York Times by Anthony Tommasini, it was the 2002 Pulitzer prize winner, composer John Adams, who played a large role in instigating this change. After winning the Pulitzer, he sent out a scathing email critiquing the standards by which prize-winners were selected, pointing out that many creative composers were overlooked, "often in favor of academy composers who have won a disproportionate number of prizes." He also argued that a greater variety of American music be recognized by the Pulitzer Board. It appears that his comments had considerable effect on them, as the changes cited in the June 1st announcement seem to make an attempt to address his critique of the process by which the Pulitzer is awarded.

Ironically, Adams was a member of the prize jury this past year, which awarded the 2004 Pulitzer to Adelphi University professor Paul Moravec, who beat out finalists Steve Reich and perennial nominee Peter Lieberson, whose compositions have made the finals three times (dating back to 1984) without ever receiving the award. You have to feel for Moravec, as the ink was hardly dry on his award certificate and $10,000 check before this announcement was made, essentially besmirching the process by which he was selected and the style in which he composes.

While I agree with a number of the points that Adams made in his assessment of the various Pulitzer problems, I think that the Pulitzer Board may have gone too far in their revision of the submission guidelines. True, the prize's recent history has been inconsistent, with many fine composers of concert music repeatedly snubbed for the award while mediocre figures have received it. However, there have also been some interesting and shrewd choices by Pulitzer juries. I was quite pleased when the 2003 Prize went, long overdue, to the imaginative spatialist composer Henry Brant, whose music deserves greater recognition. My own subjective list of concert music composers who deserve a Pulitzer (but have not yet received one) would at the very least include Lukas Foss, Steve Reich (a two-time finalist), David Rakowski (a two-time finalist), Stephen Stucky (a finalist in 1989), Stephen Jaffe, Augusta Thomas, Louis Karchin, Charles Fussell (a finalist in 1991), Milton Babbitt (who has received a special citation, but not the Prize) and poor Peter Lieberson, a fine composer who seems to be the Susan Lucci of the Pulitzer Prize.

I am concerned that the Board's decision to widen the Pulitzer playing field may mean that some of the aforementioned composers might never receive their due. I mean no slight against jazz and musical theater; both are substantive genres that deserve recognition as integral parts of American music. But there are a number of other awards recognizing both: Grammys, Tonys, et cetera, while modern concert music has far fewer venues for public recognition in the United States. It is easy to snipe at the "disproportionate number of academic composers" who have won the Pulitzer, but some fine works have received the award and benefitted from the recognition they gained as a result: Copland's Appalachian Spring, Ives's Third Symphony, Elliott Carter's Second and Third String Quartets, Barber's Piano Concerto, Wuorinen's Time's Encomium and Rands's Canti del Sole, to name just a few. In addition, the elimination of a notated score as an entry requirement is doubly troubling. Once the Pulitzer Board starts down this path, it is only a matter of time before rock bands apply for and receive the Pulitzer Prize, pushing all works of substance and all sense of musical erudition out of the running. Much as I feel that the members of Tortoise and Sonic Youth are talented composers in their own right, I don't think that what they do is on the same level as an hour-long piano concerto or a three-act opera.

Since change appears to be upon us, I do have some suggestions. Let's say, for argument's sake, that the Pulitzer is probably going to go to a jazz musician next year, given that these brand new guidelines have just taken effect and there has been all of this bad press about "evil academic composers". Rather than award next year's prize to another conservative jazz musician like Wynton Marsalis, why not consider someone creating vital music of substance and expanding the language of the genre? Below are some avant-jazz artists who, in my estimation, are certainly "Pulitzer-worthy".

Cecil Taylor -- Algonquin (Bridge)

A live performance of a work composed by Taylor for himself and violinist Mat Maneri to fulfil a commission from the Library of Congress. This duo concert is a fearsomely formidable meeting of avant-jazz's most creative improvisers. Cast in four movements, the Algonquin suite transcends stylistic parameters, combining elements of contemporary concert music with jazz, both free and traditional, creating an exciting hybrid form of modern chamber music.

Although you might expect Maneri to take on the "young lion" role in this setting, the violinist favors lyrical and mournful passages, shaded with his famous microtones and extended techniques, over raw pyrotechnics. Taylor has lost none of his verve or inventiveness at the keyboard. Some of his most beautiful flourishes, however, are in otherwise ruminative passages, such "Part Two", where he brings out a multitude of harmonic colors and even mixes in some post-bop ballad changes along the way.

One potential pitfall that might derail nominating Algonquin for a Pulitzer is its date of composition and premiere -- 1999 -- but a similar span of time between composition and nomination didn't stop a Pulitzer jury from awarding Marsalis's Blood on the Fields the 1997 prize. The whole issue of CDs that are released years after they have been recorded will, I suspect, remain a controversial aspect of the new Pulitzer eligibility guidelines. Nevertheless, Taylor has made enormous contributions to the world of free jazz; he is a towering figure who still creates formidable music. I hope that he is one of the first jazz artists awarded a Pulitzer prize.

Henry Kaiser/Wadada Leo Smith -- Sky Garden/Yo Miles (Cuneiform)

Pulitzer juries will have to face the issue of collaboration as they begin to evaluate more popular genres for the music prize. Co-composed works are far more prevalent in jazz and musical theater, never mind pop and rock, than they are in concert music, where there is usually just one creator for a given piece. Here, guitarist Henry Kaiser and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith combine staples from fusion-era Miles Davis along with original compositions to create a musical homage to his great electric groups.

Fortunately for potential Pulitzer jurors, a single composition from this sprawling double-album set could be submitted for consideration. Having to consider just Smith's "Shinjuku" would simplify considerably questions of collaboration, original work vs. reinterpretation and compositional identity, while its varied twenty-two minute duration provides a substantial work with which to grapple. It is also an exceedingly effective piece of music, combining evocative solos from Smith with thrilling ensemble passages laden with heavy rock-style drums, electric guitar riffs and Fender Rhodes textures.

Smith is one of the most exciting trumpeters active today; we are fortunate that he is appearing with greater frequency on recent recordings. He is not only a pleasure to hear on Sky Garden/Yo Miles, but is an integral part of Spring Heel Jack's latest Blue Series collaboration, Sweetness of the Water, one of my favorite albums so far in 2004 (sadly not Pulitzer-eligible, as Coxon and Wales are not, to my knowledge, US citizens). I look forward to Smith's collaboration with Anthony Braxton, Saturn, Conjunct the Grand Canyon, slated for release this coming August on Pi.

Joe Maneri/Barre Phillips/Mat Maneri -- Angles of Repose (ECM)

Clarinetist/pianist/composer Joe Maneri rejoins the musicians with whom he collaborated on 1998's Tales of Rohnlief, one of his most successful and best received albums. Bassist Barre Phillips and his violinist son are terrific foils for the elder Maneri, able to match him microtone for microtone in a chromatic atmosphere of considerable suppleness and intricacy.Angles of Repose is an impressive recording, easily as sonically varied and exotic as Rohlief, while developing the trio's interplay still further.

Joe Maneri is not just a jazz musician, he is also a composer of concert music and a teacher of microtonal theory. It would be an appropriate and overdue acknowledgment of his many talents and contributions to music if he were awarded the Pulitzer. However, it creates an interesting scenario: unlike the aforementioned Taylor album, on which Mat Maneri was playing a composition of Taylor's rather than engaging as a collaborator, the younger Maneri and Phillips are co-credited here. Will the Pulitzer committee be willing to select works that would cause the prize to be split three ways? Only time will tell.
Of course, there are many more jazz musicians who, under these new guidelines, could be considered for the Pulitzer: Ornette Coleman, David S. Ware, Matthew Shipp, Paul Miller (DJ Spooky), William Parker, Matthew Goodheart, Ken Vandermark, Gene Coleman and the list goes on. Only one thing is for certain -- the Pulitzer jury had better expect an exponentially larger pile of entries in coming years!

-- Christian Carey



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