I’ve read Greg Sandow’s recent series1 of posts on the Pulitzer Prize in Music with a great deal of interest and no small incredulity2, and I am in complete agreement with Greg about one thing: the Prize process as it exists undoubtedly privileges concert music over other kinds of American music. Maybe you don’t care about the Prize at all but maybe you do kind of care about what the bias in the Prize process is and what it means.3
Greg points out how the language in the Prize guidelines reflects how composers and others involved in concert music think, to the exclusion of how people involved in other manifestations of music think about their artifacts. Specifically, the guidelines refer to “performances” and release dates of recordings. Submission of a score in support of a nomination is optional.
I think Greg overstates how the guidelines are biased towards concert music—you could change a word here and there and there would be no bias. I think his larger point, that the structure of the Pulitzer Prize is biased towards concert music, is manifest more in its administration than in its guidelines, in who does the judging. (I think Greg’s nomination of Greil Marcus as a judge would, if it came to pass, make his idea of a ban on Prizes to concert music unnecessary.)
All of this led me to ask my son, who has a couple of degrees in American Studies, what he though of all of this. He answered, without hesitation, that “popular music and classical4 music should be treated as entirely different artforms”. I don’t know that I would completely agree with that, but the more I think about it the more it makes sense. On the issue under immediate discussion, it would be easy to administer separate Pulitzer Prizes in popular music and non-popular music. The guidelines could refer to release dates vs. premiere dates, remove instrumentation and length requirements for popular music, etc.
But what about the bigger issue? Are popular and non-popular/concert music different artforms? They share an aesthetic medium (sound/silence, like fiction and poetry share words) so there’s no brick wall between them. But, as Greg points out, there are significant differences in how they are made and in how they are distributed.
What are some of the implications of thinking of them as different artforms? Can these differences be exploited to the benefit of everybody? I think it's worth talking about.
1. The link is to the last of the series, which includes links to the first two posts.
2. How is making concert music ineligible for the Prize supposed to help it? Maybe we should be even more helpful and ban the performance of concert music for a similar period.
3. I’m pretty sure I don’t care about the Prize beyond noting who wins every year. As to the bias, read on.
4. Hey, it’s concert music, son; read my damn blog!